Sunday, December 11, 2011

Esslingen am Neckar II

The banks of the Neckar river near Stuttgart are devoted heavily to wine production, a custom supposedly dating to Roman times when the legions stationed in Germania were reluctant to go without their daily ration of booze, necessitating some local production.

They missed some
To tie in to the previous post, wine is a major industry especially in Esslingen, both historically and in the modern day. A company claiming to be Germany's oldest manufacturer of Sekt (sparkling wine) is even based there.
Cherub sitting on wine casket with glass of wine in one hand and hitting himself on the head with a hammer held in the other: 19th century representation of a hangover? 
The vines are cultivated on steep slopes, which have been terraced to mitigate erosion

Weinberg. The reddish tinge is from dead leaves, and also the weathering of the underlying Triassic redbeds that make up the soil
The terraces have been modified to make a series of footpaths, which run for enormous distances parallel to the river. There are beautiful views, and it's also good exercise because you have to climb up there first. There are little signs saying what type of grapes are being grown, and which label owns the holdings so it's even somewhat educational.

Nothing to do with what I was talking about but the sky actually looks blue in this one
 I can only imagine how nice it would be in the spring time, but I would just like to point out that it's not really winter here yet. And that there are at least two kinds of shrub that think December is a good time to flower . . . . because there are so many pollinators? That's okay, I don't mind if winter doesn't ever arrive.

Take that, Berlin

Esslingen am Neckar I

I realized that for months now I haven't done anything but enjoy my routine at home on weekends, so I decided to do a day trip. I chose the city of Esslingen, in the Stuttgart metropolitan region.
 There were two reasons Esslingen was the choice even though I went there last year: firstly, it has a famous Medieval market/Christmas market, and secondly the city museum was having a special exhibition on Celtic gold. Coincidentally, there was also an ichthyosaur there . . . . at least I find my obsession enjoyable.

The Christmas market was mostly just horribly crowded, which I should have guessed from past experience
Ye Aulde Weihnachtsmarkt, and Esslingen city hall
the city museum was pretty ordinary, with the exception of this gorgeous piece - guess what it is?

Possibly the most unique item in the Esslingen city museum
At first I thought it was a medieval style of toilet, but then, after having read the caption, it became clear that in the medieval period, it was a popular way to give birth (I didn't notice the stirrups at first).  And now it's immortalized for all time.

The big draw of Esslingen is is both really really pretty and close to Stuttgart.

Half-timbered madness
It is also a wine city having a nice series of southwest facing slopes along the Neckar river; more on this in the next post.

I love the pedway connecting the steeples

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Schloss Sanssouci

Potsdam is a city in the province of Brandenburg, a short S-Bahn ride from my house. Realistically, it's all one big city, except that since Potsdam is technically in a different province the city centre ticket just won't cut it. Potsdam has more than its fair share of palaces, being the former seat of the Prussian emperors, and is supposed to be a big tourist attraction. Also, I have become somewhat of a connoisseur of German palaces, and have had excellent luck with the guided visits, so when an out of town guest showed up, a palace in Potsdam was high on my list of sights to see. According to the guidebook and internet references, Schloss Sanssouci was the best bet.

View of Sanssouci from the gardens
Sanssouci was the summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, and is open to the public with "guided" tour. The tour was extremely pricey by palace tour standards, but given the hype, I didn't mind. However I minded a lot after going on the tour - it was not in fact guided (rather, world's most uninformative audio tour), covered only 10 rooms and lasted a mere 30 minutes. Gah. I fell into a tourist trap. Very embarrassing; my guest was shocked I could make such an amateurish mistake.

After the massive failure of the main attraction, we were a bit leery of the subsidiary palaces and outbuildings, so didn't pay for the tours. We walked around the gardens though - they were free, but not worth the trip to Potsdam.

One of the few parts of the Neues Palais not under construction
View of fake classical ruins and modern scaffolding from Sanssouci

Maybe Schloss Charlottenburg is better? Now at least I know I have to go by myself first before dragging friends along . . .

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Another weekend, another day trip to the former East Germany - this time to the Spreewald.  The Spreewald should be easy to get to, but isn't because trains don't run there from Berlin at the moment so there is a transfer to a "replacement service" (i.e. bus). It becomes almost a 2-hr trip. The Spreewald is essentially a network of canals and tributaries to the Spree river (the river that runs through Berlin) that has been turned into a Biosphere Reserve. As with the national park, it is dotted with villages and is quite developed.

Memorial to the Soviet soldier . . . in the forest

A rare beam of sunlight

The activity of the day was canoeing (canoe = Kanadier in German. The same word also means someone from Canada). We rented boats near tourist information, and set out. There was a route through the canal system that we could have done, but we headed up the Spree instead (which, in retrospect, was probably a slightly more challenging paddling experience, but the Spree is a very sluggish river).

So peaceful
 Then we went to the pub for a late lunch. Traditional foods were sampled, and were found to be acquired tastes (look up Grützwurst on Wikipedia, and it will become obvious why). A pleasant way to spend a chilly Saturday.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Müritz National Park

Northern Germany is a soggy land, peppered with small lakes and ponds. To maintain all this standing water, it rains a lot. On the plus side, the soil is incredibly sandy and there are a lot of lake beaches. I have been loathe to commit to any major trips, and so have been going to beaches in the Berlin area, which are conveniently accessible by S-Bahn, on the rare warm sunny weekends this summer. However, the lakes immediately around Berlin tend to be crowded and are also unpleasantly swamp-like, with opaque greenish water.

I was looking for something a little more pristine, so last weekend, I packed a lunch (for the first time in almost a year) and day-tripped up to Müritz National Park, in Mecklenburg. It lies in the former East Germany, northwest of Berlin and took almost two hours by train to reach. We rented bicycles in the neighbouring town of Waren (another rarity for me) and went on a cycle trip around the park. Let it be said that Müritz National Park is not very similar to Canadian parks. It reminded me a lot of the area where I grew up – low hills, very green, lots of fields and forests and rural communities.

Church of Speck - one of the small villages in the park
It didn't feel like the city, but also didn't feel like remote wilderness.

A beer garden never more than a stone's throw away – this is Germany, after all.
I did get to go swimming in the end, and the lake was beautiful, and crystal clear. Worth all the bike riding I had to do.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Berlin Monuments

I love Berlin. I don't love the architecture or the neighbourhoods so much, or even that the city's history is so close to the surface. I don't even particularly like the urban parks. The weather is iffy, the public transportation is expensive and frequently out of service, and the cyclists are hazardous. In spite of all this, though, there's just something about the city that adds up to complete awesomeness and I'm having a great time. Berlin is cosmopolitan, affordable, fun to live in, and easy to escape from. Most days I have to work though, so this post is about all the tourism I can do during the short distance from my apartment to my office.

First stop, of course, is Potsdamer Platz.
Potsdamer Platz Berlin wall panels. These are extraordinarily popular with the tourists, for reasons unknown. There are much more impressive wall panels nearby. Also note that everyone is dressed for late fall in July
Holocaust memorial. It's artsy.

Then on to Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg gate. Also extremely popular with the tourists. The hotel where the Michael Jackson baby dangling incident occurred is also right here.

Brandenburg gate from Pariser Platz. An iconic view.
The Spree river runs through Berlin, and has also been diverted into a series of canals that crisscross the city. Boat tours are popular. I went on one, but unfortunately did not get to listen to the guide or go up on deck for the first part because the tour was doubling as a reception. My funding organization feeds me very well.

The glass dome is the Reichstag, the German parliament building

After this point the walk goes down hill into some less photogenic neighbourhoods and construction sites. Post on the museum to come sometime in the future.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I must be getting old or something, because I was never interested in the history of science and now I actually find it fairly compelling.  Possibly because at first the characters were presented as distinguished intellectuals, and it's only recently that I have discovered that they were all quite insane.

So, with that, I present Linnaeus. An 18th century botanist who lived and worked in Uppsala (Sweden), where I found myself on yet another collections visit.

Wax statue of Linnaeus, Riksmuseet Stockholm.
 I know the picture's blurry, but he's holding a torso-sized pipe

 In undergrad, I learned that Linnaeus was the man behind the Latin binomial system for naming living things. Uppsala is all about Linnaeus. He even gets credited for the work of Celsius (also working in Uppsala)- silly Celsius! He had water boiling at 0 degrees and freezing at 100! Linnaeus had to correct his work, of course.

Although like any good nobleman in the 1700s Linnaeus owned several homes and estates, it was his townhouse in Uppsala that I went to visit.

Linnaeus held the 18th C equivalent of labs in his garden. The house is in the far left.
The structures on poles that look like birdhouses were actually to house his monkeys.
Linnaeus had 'disciples' (grad students) whom he sent on expeditions all over the world to disseminate his naming system, and more importantly, to collect specimens to ship back to Uppsala for him to name and describe. In addition to not getting credit for their work, the mortality rate among the disciples was fairly elevated. After his death, Linnaeus' collections and illustrations were sold at auction to an English buyer . . . which is how the Linnaean Society came to be located in London and not in Sweden.
'Lake Garden', Linnaeus house. Now with newts.
In spite of loving monkeys, Linnaeus hated salamanders and was of the opinion that they were vermin. To exterminate them, he prescribed dumping salt in lakes, ponds and streams. In poetic justice, his garden is now home to a thriving population of crested newts.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Long Drive

If a goal of mine was to drive really fast on the Autobahn in a BMW, then I have crossed it off the bucket list. Sadly, after about 15 minutes of being excited about the realization that unlike my last car, this one could accelerate within the allotted space, I realized that Stuttgart - Berlin is a really boring drive. Also, traffic in Berlin is terrible. Also, moving in during a thunder storm adds a little adrenalin rush that gets the job done. In spite of all this drama, however, I did not crash the car, and finally got the apartment clean and everything unpacked. Now I live in Berlin near Potsdamer Platz, the most touristy spot ever. As far as I can tell, the only legitimate attraction is several chunks of Berlin wall, but maybe the semi-permanent flea market selling DDR kitsch draws people too. The tourists got annoying faster than I anticipated. The good news? My sub-par linguistic abilities are not as big a deal here, and I live across the street from the most excellent and cheap Thai/Chinese/Sushi take-away restaurant.

Potsdamer Platz - English billboards? The world's largest Canadian flag? Architecturally bland condos? Am I lying and actually living in Toronto?

Stuttgart - the last days

Before heading north I did one last installment of paleo-tourism in Baden-Württemburg. The first site was fairly typical of the region - the cement quarry in Dotternhausen (nothing says tourism like a cement quarry). The company that owns the quarry sponsors a small museum. My favourite part was the mural modified from Henry de la Beche's Duria Antiquior - but I don't remember the plesiosaur in the original looking quite so much like a duck.

Dotternhausen mural - awesome in so many ways
The second trip was to the Bärenhöhle, a large cave system in the Schwäbische Alb. It is famous for the large number of cave bear skeletons (Pleistocene) that have been excavated from it. Sorry closet Clan of the Cave Bear fans, no human remains found at this site.
Mounted cave bear skeleton - Bärenhöhle

It's now a protected site, because the popular thing to do back in the day was grind the bones up for fertilizer. I'm a bit mystified as to why the bears liked to live there, since it's a pretty deep cave and therefore quite chilly (and the bear bones are a long way from the entrance), but not being an ice age mammal I guess I can't really relate. Onwards, to Berlin!

Cenotaph of ammonites, Schloss Lichtenstein

Thursday, April 21, 2011


From Zürich, I just kept heading south. This is partly because I felt the need to escape from the German language for a short time, but mostly because both Milan and Zürich have copious collections of Triassic marine fossils from quarries along the Italian-Swiss border (now a UNESCO world heritage site: I had never been to Italy before, so I had no intention of spending all my time hanging out in the museum basement.

Milan is an enormous city. Unlike Zürich, it is also extremely flat, which makes walking easy, but like Zürich it isn't a budget-friendly destination. Best known for fashion and design, the shopping is amazingly abundant, everything from modern designers to flea markets.
Old and new
 There is also a cathedral, which has a fairly stunning interior (a white and blood-red marble inlaid floor really sets it apart from the grey-on-grey German churches). I'm not an art historian, otherwise I might have more interesting things to say.

The Duomo (cathedral) in the centre of the city
There is also an enormous castle (Sforza), former home of the Duke of Milan but it looks a lot more like a maximum security prison. It has a garden supplied with many cats, which puzzled me until I noticed the many rats. I left quickly after that.
Sforza castle's good side

Friday, April 15, 2011

Zürich Part II

I didn't expect Zürich to be such a gorgeous city. Because the name really isn't melodic-sounding and because all I knew about Zürich were economic factoids, I thought it would be more utilitarian, like Stuttgart. In reality Zürich has a lot going for it, but being on a budget makes eating and sleeping  a challenge. Swiss-accented German? Also a challenge.
My first view of the Alps
There was even a double rainbow
Old city, with cathedral
Unusual statue on the cathedral: He sees you when you're sleeping . . .
The museum basement was obviously not the best venue for sightseeing, so I guess I'll just have to come back another time and see the rest of the city. Yay!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Zürich - Part I

Sometimes I am a very bad tourist. The kind most people disparagingly mock. The kind who shows up in a country just assuming that the power outlets are the same shape as the country next door. FYI, they aren't. Now I have my computer plugged into a daisy chain of adapters - North America - Germany - Switzerland, no direct conversion was possible. Zürich is a lovely city (pics next post). Not just for banks and expensive chocolate - the Swiss people are very unique.

It turns out I showed up on some kind of civic holiday, when the medieval guilds kick off the summer season. I didn't think anyone belonged to a guild anymore, but I could not have been more mistaken. Yesterday was the children's parade - essentially a multicultural festival where kids dress up in traditional costumes, but randomness abounded.
This small contingent of Roman legionaries was not actually part of the parade, and actually cut off the Armenian children by storming the parade route
As I later leaned, the children's parade was only the opener to the adult parade the next day. In the grown-up version, the male guild members walk along the route in guild costumes. There are also a lot of brass bands - Switzerland is next-door to Germany, after all. The finale of the grownup parade is - wait for it - the lighting on fire of a giant snowman effigy stuffed with explosives. Bet you didn't see that one coming. If he explodes fast, summer will be warm and dry. If it takes a while, it'll be a rainy year.

The man of the hour being towed along the parade route

You would think nothing would have distracted me from burning shrapnel flying from the giant exploding snowman on the other side of the street. That's when the men of the fisher's guild started pelting the crowd with whole raw fish (you know, like in normal parades when the marchers toss candy into the crowd?), and the burning debris became an afterthought. Nothing about this seemed like a good idea, until I learned that when the inferno had burned down a bit, people barbecued over Frosty's remains. Maybe then a raw fish becomes something more desirable to have on hand? After the main route, all the guilds split up and marched separately to the guild houses where riotous partying ensued. This is clearly one of those festivals which I can say with a high degree of confidence would never work in North America.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Eichstätt - a small town in Bavaria, famous in palaeontology circles for the lithographic limestone that is quarried in the region and has produced spectacular fossils, including Archaeopteryx.

Lithographic plates (of city maps)  made of polished limestone. The idea is that the mirror image of the item to be printed is etched in the polished rock, then inked, and transferred to paper.

Archaeopteryx and other beautiful finds are displayed in das Jura-Museum, overlooking the town.

View of the town from the Bishop's Palace, now das Jura-Museum
Eichstätt is far from normal. This is turning out to be a bit of a theme with the more remote locations in Germany. Our accommodations were in a Catholic seminary, where the conference attendees enjoyed a delightful breakfast every morning with the candidates for priesthood. The city jail is located directly across from the train station, less than 200 m from the city centre, presumably so the escapees will leave quickly. Eichstätt is also famous for the witch trials in the Middle Ages, that resulted in a spectacularly high loss of life - in this small city, close to 300 people were burned at the stake.

Market square: where the witches were executed. The pink building is the Rathaus (city hall)
See how sunny it was? Sadly, the seminary was cold and dark like a gigantic limestone cave, and this is where all the presentations took place.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


The last topic of my intense week of end-February tourism will be . . . . France. I've been fantasizing about it ever since I found out it was a mere 150 km due west from Stuttgart. The land of tasty coffee and a language I can understand. The coffee was just as tasty as I remembered, but my ability to speak French has been somewhat compromised by learning German. I still understood, but whenever I tried to answer the words were a bit of a German-French hash.

The closest French city to Stuttgart is Strasbourg. It is extremely quaint, with a very large old city centre. It is also flat as a pancake (hence the bicycles).
In terms of tourism, Strasbourg is most well-known for its cathedral. This is pretty standard, except for the truly enormous astrological clock which has only a weak link to any kind of Christian imagery. Not sure how it ended up in the cathedral.
Cathedral entrance, with crazy-intricate carvings
We also went to eat flamm, a specialty of the Alsace region that I got hooked on while living in Montreal. So tasty . . . 
Unfortunately the escape from Baden-Württemberg was just a bit too short. The novelty of eating Maultaschen has sadly not yet returned. I need to make more of an effort with the cooking.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Der Schwarzwald

So the impromptu visit of family provided some motivation to leave Stuttgart city limits, and what better way to spend a sick day than writing a blog post?

One of the more famous tourist attractions in Baden-Württemberg is the Black Forest (Schwarzwald). This region also has a delicious cake named after it, which obviously just makes it better. When I was initially planning the trip, I was immediately confronted with the problem that there was not too much to do in the Black Forest - it just seemed like something to drive through. I selected the "northern black forest" route, as per the guidebook, for logistical reasons as much as anything else. This route is a big circle from Stuttgart down to Freudenstadt, and up through the forest to Baden Baden. I don't know what I expected from the Black Forest, but it is really extremely hilly. Also there was far more snow than in Stuttgart, and the weather was also worse.

See the hills? I swear they're there, hiding in the clouds.
The hills and rivers and coniferous trees were vaguely reminiscent of Northern Alberta, only on an endearingly smaller scale. The highlight was the ruined abbey of Allerheiligen, a very Gothic spot at the bottom of a deep valley in the middle of nowhere. The monks, trying to exert some control over the natural environment, went to the trouble of paving the river bed in the immediate vicinity of the abbey. Apparently paved rivers were trendy in the region in days of yore: Baden Baden has one too, including paved waterfalls.

Allerheiligen: a waterfall. Unpaved.
Crocus lawn in Baden Baden - a dramatic contrast to the Black Forest just to the south
All in all, the Black Forest was better than expected. The whole region is full of hiking trails, and in the summer I'm sure it's a delightful escape from the city. As for the forest itself, it wasn't that special, but next time I'll take the valley route instead of the ridge road, and maybe get a better feeling for how this region managed to generate so many terrifying fairy tales.

Monday, February 28, 2011


I have been to Berlin before, but needed another visit - it is very different from Stuttgart, in a good way, in spite of being much colder. The theme of this visit was Archaeology. Berlin has several museums devoted to the topic, all localized in an overwhelming complex on an island (Museum Insel). The two I went to were the Pergamon Museum and the Neues Museum. Organization in German museums is not very logical - displays are not ordered following any kind of geographical or temporal context, leading to confusion as to what kind of system was used (Why is a stone-age sarcophagus from Northern Europe in the Egyptian section? Why was there nothing about Odin or looted artifacts in the so-named room? Why was the headless garden gnome from the 1920s in the gallery between the "Sudan and Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs" sections?). The Pergamon Museum seems to specialize in big things, and the Neues Museum in small-mid sized things, but there is a lot of overlap.

Ishtar Gate (Babylonian), Pergamon Museum
The Pergamon is unreasonably proud of the spectacularly ugly statues from the Neolithic culture of Tell Halaf (Syria). It's cracked because the warehouse it was being stored in caught fire during WWII, so the firemen sprayed it with ice cold water and the overheated stone cracked. Then the whole mess was left over a winters worth of freeze/thaw cycles. The museum has only now succeeded in gluing it back together.
The Neues Museum has a large number of papyri from the Egyptian book of the dead on display, which is pretty cool, and the Bust of Nefertiti, which is very beautiful. Even though you can buy a cheaper ticket to see both museums in one day (what I did), I don't recommend it: you have to have a superhuman attention span for that much museum viewing, or else just breeze through both looking only at the highlights.

View from the Neues Museum, Museum Insel, Berlin. The black specks are crows flocking around the tower.