Monday, September 27, 2010

On the Altars of a Christmas Village

We slept the sleep of the dead in our old mill, and were a little shocked when our feet hit the floor and stuck to them like a tongue to a frosty pole. The little travel alarm said the air temperature was 65 degrees. That may be true but this old stone building in this little valley holds the cold rather well. And of course, it being September, way too early to put on the heat. We friskily made our way through our morning routine and were dressed, packed and in the car by 8:15 (which has a darned good heater we discovered). We really enjoyed our tour last night. Mr. Baumgartner is a natural and he kept the crowd (which numbered about 100 we think), engaged throughout. You can tell from this picture that everyone was enjoying themselves. Lots of smiles, and that is a really good thing.

Monday - September 27, 2010

Bavaria is a fascinating little corner of the world, and there is so much to see. We purposely limited the amount of time we were going to spend in the area to two days; just enough to get a taste and see if we wanted to come back in the future. Our plan included a return to Rothenburg in the morning, then a drive south to see Old King Ludwig's digs, stopping on the way either to take a luge ride or see an old church that was built in the Rococo style and was billed as being a little slice of heaven on earth. We decided to let fate decide, fate being the weather in this case, and the blue sky says there's a high speed mountain ride in our near future.

There are a number of parking lots outside the gates of Rothenburg, some of them free - we couldn't find those. The one we did find however was empty and there was just a 3 Euro charge. We entered through a little flowered gate and since it was not yet 9:00 am. we found our little town still empty, and still charming. What better place to start our pilgrimage than at Saint Jakobskirche (St. James Church), a stop on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. We keep stumbling upon these major pilgrimage sites on our travels, and wonder if it's by accident or something divine going on.

The keepers were just unlocking the doors so we had the church to ourselves. The morning light coming in through the beautiful stained glass windows filled the interior with color. It was really something. Our first stop took us up the stairs by the entrance to the Altar of the Holy Blood. Billed as the finest example of woodcarving in Germany (and that's saying a lot), it doesn't disappoint. It's about 35 feet tall and was carved right around 1500. There is so much going on you're not sure what it is that you are seeing, but you can tell you're in the presence of a masterpiece. Right in the center is a rock-crystal capsule that contains the relic: a tiny piece of a communion table cloth with a drop of wine in the shape of a cross circa 1270.

Down below at the main altar there is another type of artistry at work. The high altar, though not ranked number 1, has to be very high on the list of top altarpieces in Germany. We've seen lots of these fold out altars in our travels, but usually they are in a dark, dusty setting and look like they need a good old fashioned cleaning. Not the case here. This beautifully carved altar (1466) is painted and gilded and stands enrobed by the brilliant stained glass backdrop. It sparkled in the morning light. If you really want to see one of these in your lifetime, we would recommend this one. Walking around the back we stopped before the face of Christ on Veronica's veil. We wondered how many pilgrims over the past 5 centuries had stood where we were and marveled at this painting. With people trickling in the spell was broken and we headed out the back and right into a very nice little cafe for breakfast. It was only 9:45 and we had already had a great day.

Back in the center of the town things were just starting to heat up. The Councilor's tavern in market square (the Ratstrinkstube - good name) looked particularly splendid in the morning light against a dark blue sky. Once in a while (check the schedule) the two little doors beside the clock open and the "Meistertrunk" legend is shown to the camera ready crowd below. First show 11:00 - will try to miss it; I've seen enough of that stuff in Disneyworld, didn't enjoy it there, and not a real big fan of cuckoo clocks either. What I could enjoy was sitting in the square with a good cigar while Kat did what EVERY other person who comes to Rothenburg does - visit the Käthe Wohlfahrt store. It is nothing short of amazing to me that I could have lived all these 63 years completely ignorant of the existence of this edifice. I know so little. World famous (certainly more famous than the altars we had just witnessed) it is a modern pilgrimage site, whose flow of tourist bus delivered visitors is dwarfed only by the hajii at Mecca. There was a line waiting to get in. A store. And it's in a perfect Christmas village setting. What could be better? For me sitting in the square having a cigar contemplating life, and enjoying the beautiful day, fountain, half-timbered buildings, and people watching. By a wide margin.

Kat is the atypical shopper and one of the many reasons I adore her. She is usually in and out of a store in record time, and we typically avoid places on our travels where the lure is "a shoppers paradise." We don't have much but it's everything we need or want. It takes about 45 minutes to have a cigar, and I was a little surprised that I had finished before her return; lost maybe? I wandered around the square then went to check out the cool cast iron bars mounted on the outside of the old town hall (which in case you're looking for it is right across the street from "The Store"). Back in the day Germany was a federation of about 300 little country-states, and each had their own measuring standards. The rod, the shoe and the ell were standard measures and here is where you could check to see if you were getting gypped.

I finally summoned enough courage to stick my head into the doorway of KW (which prior to this always meant big mean trucks) and saw Kat about 5th in line at the cashier. Total spend: 20.15 Euros for a refrigerator magnet, some chocolates for Mom, and a couple of tree ornaments. I figure we got off easy. The town was beginning to fill up so it was time for us to make our exit. We climbed up the nearest set of wall stairs and stayed above the fray all the way to the gate which led to our parking lot. It was very picturesque and we were glad to have had this little town to ourselves this morning.

It was just about noon, and our beautiful blue sky was quickly filling with gray-white clouds. No sooner had we started our 266km drive south than a light drizzle began. Fate says we're going to another church and the luge run will have to wait for a future trip. Not crazy about the idea to begin with, there was no way I was going to try speeding down a mountain on a little sled in a concrete gutter filled with water. Not this time. This was our first real experience on the autobahn and it was fine. We averaged 130 km/hr (about 80 mph), with peaks of 175 (about 110), so the trip was pretty quick. We couldn't help but think that Adam and Edward would love this. Our destination was Wieskirche (Vice-ker-kah),home to the much adored little church in the meadow.Tooling down the little country roads, we couldn't find the meadow, never mind the little church. After a couple of false starts (and Kat's sign language discussion with a bus driver, we pulled into the parking lot.

I've got to set the stage a little bit. Most of Germany was Catholic until Martin Luther started the protest movement in the north, and posted his 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (didn't think they could be bought) on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. While a lot of the people in the north converted the southern part of Germany, known as Bavaria remained heavily Catholic. This little church is a testament to their faith and adoration. A statue that is said to have wept began to draw crowds, and before you know it, the Zimmermann brothers (famous Rococo architects at the time) designed this church and it became a major pilgrimage site. People who are ill come from around the world to pray here. For all the crutches and walkers we saw there is sparse handicapped parking. Very simple and beautiful from the outside the inside takes your breath away. If you are into this style there are five or six that can rival this church, but this is the best, and you will love it. Feeling pretty healthy, we spent about 15 minutes here and had it been sunny we might have been breaking our legs on a luge run.

About one half hour down the road (a scant 23 kms.), we approached the twin of Sleeping Beauty's Disneyworld castle - old Mad King Ludwig's "Neuschwanstein" (Noy-shvahn-stien). You get the same feeling driving toward it as you do on the approach to Mont. Ste. Michel in France. All of a sudden it's there in the distance, just beyond the cow fields. It sits atop a hill all majestic, and beautiful surrounded at the base by a village of souvenir shops and very nice hotels. We found a parking lot, grabbed our umbrellas (it was raining pretty hard) and headed to the bus stop to decide if wanted to take the 15 minute ride up for the tour. We were not as interested in seeing the inside as we were admiring the setting and determination it must have taken to build this castle on this hill. The long, slow bus line made the decision for us. We really had seen what we came here to see.

Comfortable in our decision we dodged the puddles (and the major horse droppings from the bus alternative), and parked ourselves in the Hotel Müller for a traditional German lunch. The place was packed (with a lot of Americans) and the while the service suffered a little and we were quite hungry, we savored this quiet time in this beautiful location. I had the vegetarian crepes and a salad with a König Ludwig Dunkel beer, while Kat (I am SO proud of her) blindly ordered the Weißwurst (Bavarian white sausages) and a side order of Käs' Spatzen (a cheese and spaetzle casserole), topped off with a Coke. The entire meal was delicious and I couldn't keep myself from ordering a Bayrisch Creme for desert.

While waiting for the dessert to arrive, the wife of an American couple at the next table excused herself for the restroom, and her husband immediately got up from his table and sat himself down at ours (we were at a table for 4 by the window). He couldn't wait to tell us about their trip and their attendance (with at least a thousand other people) at the once per decade presentation of the world famous Oberammergau Passion Play (We had read about it and had absolutely NO interest in going). His wife, upon returning from the restroom, grabbed their stuff from their table and moved it to ours at the same time she was ordering their post dinner coffee. We declined. We are not anti-social (even saying that makes it sound like we are), but prefer a more subtle approach. We (they) chatted for about a half hour and taking advantage of a lull in the conversation I suggested to Kat that if we were going to go up the hill, we better go. Now. We took pictures of each other (nice of them) and headed outside. The rain had stopped and the bus schedule announced that the last bus of the day was to leave in 3 minutes. Still undecided about going up, we figured we would leave it to fate. If the bus was still there when I walked to the car and back (I had forgotten to bring a cigar) we would take it. It was, and we did.

What a great ride. Up we went in an almost empty bus to the little parking lot just above the castle. With still no desire to tour the inside, rather than walk down to it, we hiked up to Mary's bridge. This is the spot where just about everyone takes the exact same picture of the castle. Swapping cameras we ritualistically took other people's picture and they took ours. Even on a cloudy day it is magical. To get back down there are a couple of options. You can take the bus (if it was still running), a horse carriage, or walk. We opted to walk, and taking the road less traveled followed the signs to the Pöllat gorge (above which Mary built the aforementioned bridge). Not taking anything away from the castle, it was the best part of our visit. It was green and quiet (except for the rushing water), and smelled just like you would hope a Bavarian forest would smell. At the bottom we came across a plateau in the stream bed where many before us had stacked stones, just to say that they had been there. We made our little monument, temporary as we knew it would be, and dedicated it to our families, past and present, wishing they were there to share this moment with us. Fate had dealt kindly with us today.

It took about 45 minutes from Mary's bridge to the car, and we were so totally relaxed and thankful. We laughed about our dinner guests and all the wonderful things we had seen and done on this trip. With only a couple of days to go, it was time to leave Germany for the night and head into ski country Austria. Our overnight was to be in the little village of Reutte (Roy-tah), and we were looking forward to it.

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