Saturday, September 25, 2010

Decision at Nürnberg

It looks like our unbroken string of sunny days ends today, the first overcast/cloudy day since Venezia. It's a good morning to reflect upon what we have seen and experienced over the past four days. Most of our preconceived notions about Germany were wrong. We have eaten very well (expecting the worst) and the people we've met have been very friendly, not standoffish at all. Society here acknowledges the past and by being so open about it seem to ask forgiveness. This frankness (particularly about their fairly recent past) has surprised us. We were touched and will remember always the quiet conversation we had with our traveling companions on the Dresden to Berlin train. The totalitarian government under which they lived provided an environment where they were able to lead "normal lives" feeling safe and secure. In fact their country allowed them to travel to a country that our government forbids us to visit (Cuba). Who had/has more freedom? That really struck a chord with me. Generally the people are boisterous (particularly out at restaurants), laugh a lot and loudly, and have absolutely beautiful children. Good for them.

Saturday - September 25, 2010

It looked like a good day to travel. Our little meadow hotel is really quite charming, with a nice backyard where I was able to enjoy a peaceful cigar and coffee. I was captivated by the small white marble like flowers that bloomed on the surrounding bushes (see above). Across the street I noticed a set of stone monoliths marked "Berliner Balkon" with what looked like measurements of some sort inscribed on them. No matter how I asked our receptionist, we couldn't find enough common words to explain their meaning or significance. Did I mention that she speaks NO English and no doubt has had very few American guests?Like Stonehenge, it will remain a mystery I guess.

We had a 13:55 Berlin Airways flight to Munich so we had the entire morning to make our way to Tegel Airport. Getting there seemed simple enough; an S-bahn to the main train station, then a transfer to the TXL bus direct to the airport. We had bought 3 day train passes, so not only would it be easy, it would be relatively cheap. Even with our backpacks and little suitcases it was a pleasant walk back to the station, and if not for the longer than usual commute to the city center (45 minutes - our timing on the trains was not ideal) we would highly recommend this hotel.

Saturday at the Hauptbanhof was nothing like our weekday experiences. Everyone was there, and upon exiting the metro car we became part of a quickly moving mass of humanity. It seemed everyone else knew where they were going. We stumbled our way out to the bus stop in the back (front?), and queued up at the TXL stop, not realizing that unlike the Orlybus in Paris (for example), the TXL bus is just another regular city bus with Tegel Airport one of it's stops. So you have to know in which direction you are going. We didn't, and almost ended up going the wrong way, heading back into the city. A few more signs would be helpful, people (my first criticism). As we exited the bus at the airport a fellow asked me if he could have our bus tickets. Sure, why not? His eyes lit up as he saw there was still a day and on half unused, and he quickly made his way from the arriving bus line to the departing bus line asking for takers. As I said, capitalism works.

Tegel handles a lot of flights and was very busy (we thought Schönefeld was the number one airport, not so). With time to kill, we had a quick breakfast at the wonderful little airport pastry shop (and thought of our granddaughter Emily - she would have loved this place), where I had my first Berliner remembering Kennedy's famous line "Ich bin ein Berliner", which was erroneously thought to translate as "I am a jelly doughnut." I don't know why that crossed my mind, but it did. The check-in was quick and precise, and the security check-in was slow, thorough, and also precise (We were stuck behind an enormously over made-up Elizabeth Taylor wannabee who was a real drama queen. She might have slowed the line down a bit.) Exactly on time we scooted down the runway and were airborne heading south on our one hour trip to München.

We have found that renting a car in Europe can be a real pain in the butt if there is nothing special with the rental, but in this case we were renting a one-way (pickup in Munich and drop off in Venice) and we expected the worse at the counter. There was a line and we, and most everyone else, patiently queued up behind the yellow line. Just as it was our turn to proceed, a couple of young fellows (mid twenties would be my guess), casually cut the line and headed for the counter. We must have looked like easy marks. I gave them the benefit of the doubt (I was used to this sort of activity from my years in the middle east), and accompanied them to the counter. Now there were eight eyes looking expectantly at the clerk. The Europcar man (Mr. Azevedo - bless his heart), ignored the interlopers and began processing our paperwork. With a quick sideways glance he told them to get back in line, rolled his eyes, and smiled up at us. After a brief discussion about our common heritage (he must not see many Portuguese in Munich), did some magic on his computer, and told us that since we were being so kind to return an Italian car back to Italy he was going to waive most of the drop off charge (saving us 200 Euros, almost $300). Fate had dealt us a pretty good hand. As I said, bless him.

When planning this trip, we figured this would be a travel day, and if we had time would go into Nürnberg for some evening sightseeing and dinner at "The Goldenes Posthorn", a Rick Steves recommended restaurant. The driving was fast and easy, not unlike driving around central Virginia. It was just getting dark as we pulled into our Ramada Inn outside the city center. We had no idea how far outside the city center, but can now record that it requires a local bus ride to the metro station, followed by a ten minute wait for a 15 minute ride to the train station. It was a short (10 minute?) U-bahn ride to the central train station. We felt like we were back in the meadows of Berlin.

It was dark and rainy (really rainy), we were tired, and hungry, and welcomed the snug comfort of the Golden Horn. We were content to stare out the window at the St. Sebald church next door which was being pelted by raindrops. The food was delicious. Kat finally had bratwurst - a tray of the famous Nuremburgers (small sausages that looked similar to breakfast fare in America) served with a pretzel while I comforted myself with a hearty white fish with scalloped potatoes and a good local brew. They have this beer thing down to a science in this country. We didn't see much of the city but a large beautifully lit gilded fountain caught our eye, surrounded by a lot of interesting buildings. That would have to wait for the morrow. With our travel day behind us, we reversed our course and settled into the Ramada (a real hotel - there was a fancy reception going on in the lobby, nothing like an American Ramada) for a cozy, good night's sleep.

Sunday - September 26, 2010 (Part 1)

Now to our decision and I want to apologize to anyone who stumbled upon this web page thinking they were going to read about Goring and the boys. I was just trying to be cute with the title. Nürnberg is a large city of almost one half million people with a medieval walled old town (just the kind of place we like), and a rich Nazi past. We agonized over whether to concentrate on either, or both, and decided that since Rothenburg ob der Tauber, was on our agenda, we would continue our WWII history lessons and spend most of the day at the historical Nazi sites.

This time we drove from the Ramada to the metro station (where there was a nice large free parking lot - why didn't we think of that last night?) and took the U-bahn to the train station. The rain of the night before had left the cute little old-town section freshly laundered. It has a nice feel to it, and some amazing architecture. The second most damaged city (after Dresden) during the war, the restoration work is remarkable. We marveled at the Holy Ghost hospital (built over the river) and the old grannery. Everywhere we looked there were signs of the compromises made when it was decided whether to raze a building or reconstruct it. We found the beautiful gilded fountain near the market that we had seen the previous evening. There is a picture waiting to be taken around every corner.

Kat had studied Albrecht Dürer (probably the most famous German painter, ever) during school and this was his hometown so we really wanted to go by his old homestead.

The building look pretty darned good for it's age, (he lived from 1471 - 1528) and we couldn't tell if the top portion had escaped injury during the war, or been restored. They surely knew how to build stuff back then. There is an old city wall that still encircles most of the town, and we were so tempted to linger and explore, but our decision had been made and we reluctantly headed by tram out to the Nazi playground while we mentally fast forwarded a few centuries.

In the 16th century Nürnberg was the center of the German Renaissance or rebirth. For that symbolic reason (and unfortunately for that very reason) Hitler picked this beautiful city to be the center point of his vision for a different kind of rebirth. This town of the First Reich (that would be the Holy Roman Empire)would be the rallying point for his Third Reich. What he needed was a a central city where a vast congress hall and rally grounds could be built to bring the masses together and do some serious bonding. He told his architect Albert Speer (who wrote a fascinating and highly recommended autobiography "Inside the Third Reich" and was tried right here in Nürnberg) to get busy on it. The vast compound a few miles from the old city center is the result. Part of the huge congress building is now the Documentation Center and that is where we headed.

We paid our 5 Euros each, and picked up the English audioguides (we would have been lost without them). There are 20 large rooms where exhibits and artifacts (many with videos including a fascinating segment of Leni Riefenstahl's epic film "Triumph of the Will" shot on site) take you back in time to the end of WWI, and explain what was happening in the society and how the Nazi movement took hold. There are no excuses offered, just the facts. It is powerful, enlightening and extremely well done. If you have an interest in WWII and its origins, this is the one museum that will explain what was going on at the time; a great place to start.

We could have spent more hours in the center, but for only the second time on our trip we had a firm scheduled event (the Rothenburg night tour - 8:00 pm), so had to limit our visit. Walking out the main entrance we headed to the right and walked around the lake to the rally grounds. From 1933 to 1938 Hitler would hold his yearly congress and then with great pageantry parade everyone out to Zeppelin field where he could stand on his altar and bask in his twisted glory. On this site hundreds of thousands of people would attend the spectacles (Think of a Patriots game times four). It looked smaller than we imagined it would. We climbed the stairs to the viewing/speaking platform, and even though the place is now used for sports and recreation a chill ran down our spines as we stood in the Fuhrer's footsteps and mentally recreated the scenes we had just viewed in the Congress building. It was just plain creepy. Looking up over our shoulders we could see the spot where the enormous (50 feet wide) Nazi swastika had been blown to bits by the US Army in the spring of 1945 and imagined the satisfaction the soldiers must have felt when the plunger was pushed.

We finished our circuit of the lake and thought of the terrible injustice that had been perpetrated on such good people in such a beautiful place. It was a sobering experience for a beautiful late Sunday afternoon. It was eerily quiet on the tram as we made our way back to the center of the town.

Walking back through the little old town of Nürnberg with all the patched up centuries old buildings, it was clear who's will really did triumph and it felt good. No one is forgetting, but life is going on. With style.

It was time to put the ugliness of the Nazis behind us and head toward what we hoped would be an enjoyable evening rambling about one of the most perfectly kept medieval towns in Europe with an old watchman. We were heading for Rothenburg.

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