An occasional journal of the Life of Reilly

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Rest of Germany

It is a bit embarrassing. We have been home nearly two months. My last entry describes our travels from the beginning of August. Since then we have crossed half of Germany and flew over the ocean all the way back home. Yes, I have excuses, like it was hard to find internet cafes along the way, or that our free time was spent visiting with family instead of blogging, and that once we got home life's distractions pulled me away. Whatever the case, it is high time I finish documenting our trip, and put an end to public display of my procrastinating side.

When we left Radebeul, we were no longer a pair of cyclists, but a party of eight. My cousin, her husband, a couple of teenagers, and another adventuresome couple that are friend's of my cousin joined us to cycle along the Elbe River. Traveling in a larger group had a rhythm much like a Slinky toy: the person in front gets ahead, the ones in back catch up, and then the front surges ahead again.

Our goal was near the geographical center of both Europe and Germany -- the small community of Kleinwansleben, my father's childhood town. When he lived there, it was a rural agricultural town that was dominated by the sugar beet processing factory located in the center of town. The old factory has been since torn down and replaced by a modern facility in the town outskirts, as seen in the photo on the left. The surrounding area is still open fields, often punctuated with wind machines.



As we cycled into town, I immediately recognized the house Dad grew up in from pictures from the family photo album. It has been renovated and now serves as the Rathaus -- city hall. The same stately tree, visible in those old photos, still stands in front.




Thanks to the organizational skills of my cousins, it was planned for weeks ahead of time that our arrival in Kleinwansleben would be a cause for a family reunion. Relatives from my father's side -- cousins, second cousins, my aunt from Nuremberg, their spouses and children -- met us upon our arrival. We posed for a reunion shot in front of the old house.



Now, Kleinwansleben is not a big town -- just a couple thousand people. It has been a town trying to reconnect with it's past ever since the Reunification. So this reunion of the family of my grandfather was significant enough for the Burgermeister to meet us on a Saturday and let us into the old house for a tour. My aunt, the only person there who actually lived in the house, stood in the center of the main room and described the layout of the house as it was when she was a child. I showed pictures of the house later to my father, and he said if he were there, he would have shown everyone where one of the household staff hung herself after the war. Dad's kind of humor.

We later walked down the main street to the building housing the sugar beet research institute offices. Established in Kleinwansleben in the 1920's, it continues to be a resource center for sugar beet growing and processing technologies, as well as a repository of history of the industry. A gentleman from the institute gave a presentation about my grandfather -- he had researched his professional life for a journal article several years ago, and shared his knowledge and obvious respect for the man. The hallways were lined with historical photos, including the one shown on the right of Friedrich Brukner. His life ended tragically at the age of 53-- he was imprisoned after World War II by the Russians who occupied that part of Germany. He died in prison. The sadness of a good man's life that ended too soon for us to know him hung over all of us that day.




Some old buildings from the former factory still stand solid, but abandoned. A stone arch with a sugar beet decoration stands as a monument to the past.






After the reunion, we were on our own again. We took a slight diversion to the west towards the Harz Mountains, seen rising in the distance . My father spent family vacations camping in these mountains and we were craving a bit of topography and pine trees as a break from the flat farmland along the Elbe River.



In the northern foothills we passed through the town of Quedlinburg, a wonderfully preserved medieval town. It's designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is due partly to the concentration of 1,400 half-timbered houses of various sizes and states of repair.




A bird's-eye view of a residential district. Like everywhere in Germany, any open space is made into a sweet place to sit outside on a nice day.





We exited the Harz Mountains at the west end near the town of Bad Gandersheim. We took a regional train north to Kiel, a busy port city on the Baltic Sea. We covered territory that would have taken us a couple of weeks to cover, sheltered from rain that pelted the windows of our train.





From the train station it was an hour's bike ride north to where we would meet my northern Germany cousins. On the way we crossed a bridge over the locks that are a gateway for cruise ships and large commercial ships to enter the harbor.




My cousin has a sailboat docked in the harbor that was the center of the Olympic sailing competition in 1972. We traded the sport of cycling for the sport of sailing for a couple of days, until a wet storm dumped rain for three days. We appreciated the fact that in Germany, they don't mind if you sit all afternoon in a restaurant, even though all you bought was a cup of tea.



When it (finally) stopped raining, we started out in the general direction of Hamburg, swinging southeast to spend a day in Luebeck, another fine UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Holstentor gate is an iconic landmark (right). It used to be on the old 50 Deutsche Mark. And it is on every package of martzipan packaged by J.G. Niederegger GmbH & Co. KG. This is the beloved candy of my childhood, arriving in Christmas care packages from my grandmother.




Maybe it is just good marketing -- the outlet store, the cafe, the museum, the life-size notable figures in Germany history carved out of marzipan (left) -- but I think it is the best marzipan in the world.




Two days later we were in Hamburg, the home city of my dear cousin Baerbel. One of the largest cities in Germany, we easily crossed it from east to west entirely on bike trails that made navigating through the city nothing to fear. The city sits on the north shore of the Elbe River, the same waterway we followed for so many kilometers to the south. One public transportation ticket lets you ride rail car, subway, and ferry, so on our sightseeing day we took a lap along the busy water highway just for fun.





One of our favorite sights in the city included catching the once weekly glockenspiel concert at the St. Nikolai-Kriche...click here for a video.

The Rathaus was also most impressive. Grand from the outside, but more than opulent on the inside.






Like leather wallpaper.








The Chilehaus is an unusual building shaped like an ocean liner.






And like so many times on our trip, it changed from days of rain and overcast weather to warm temperatures and sunshine. We walked around the community of Blankenese, a upscale neighborhood on the west side of the city on the high bluffs overlooking the Elbe River. It had the feel of a beach town -- narrow streets and terraced lots, with the most exclusive homes having a view of the water.


Our last day, with its perfect summer weather, was topped off with a true German grilling session. We opted for the salad, and left the pork belly and wurst for our hosts.

We left Hamburg with a touch of sadness -- we had such a nice time, and I wished so much that Baerbel lived closer and that we could visit more than a few times in a lifetime. But I think my cousin's companion Lothar was sad to see us go, too. Although John spoke no German, and Lothar spoke an equivalent amount of English, they spoke the language of music. Whenever there was a chance, they both were in the basement, John playing bass and Lothar on keyboards, playing hit tunes from the 50's and 60's




South of Hamburg the is countryside is flat and dominated by lovely small towns surrounded by wide agricultural fields, with an occasional windmill...









...and decorated hay bales, like these.






As we headed south, the flatness changed quickly to steep ridges near the city of Hanover.






We arrived at the doorstep of the last relatives on our list to visit -- my cousin Evi and her family. Evi took us on a tour of the city, including the lovely Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen...







...and the Neues Rathaus.






As I write this, we have had time to reflect a bit on our trip. And my best memories is the time we spent in the homes of friends and family, eating way too much home cooked-food, drinking beer, and staying up late talking about our common history. And I think, too, we enjoyed sleeping on a real mattress, much more comfortable than the air mattresses that, by this point on our trip, deflated within a couple of hours into our slumber.




Evi lives in the country, in the village of Bad Munder. One afternoon she and I rode our bikes a couple of kilometers to the stable where she keeps her horse. Lucky for me, my steed was a gentle and patient creature.




Now Evi knows what is going on in town, and she talked to the local paper, and our little journey was thought worthy enough for publication.




Evi rode her bike with us on the day we left Bad Munder. We pedaled together until we were deep in the forest and the trail steepened too much for her to go up with her single-gear bike. So we said our good-byes, and I felt again like I was leaving behind someone that I felt as close to as a sister, even though it was the first time we met.

We now were on the last leg of our journey. With only ten more days until we had to be in Frankfurt for the flight home, our thoughts drifted more and more to the logistics of getting our bikes, gear, and ourselves all back at the same time. Soon John would not be able to smile at the friendly signs on the outskirts of most towns that wish a "Gute Fahrt".





It was our good fortune that the last stretch of our trip was along the Weser River, one of the most popular and beautiful bike trails in Germany.




A layover day was spent in the city of Kassel. Levelled during World War II, the center of the city is all glass and steel. My father lived here for a year after the war when he left East Germany in search of better opportunities.





Spared from the bombing of the war was the Wilhelmshöhe Palace, and we spent a morning wandering in the art museum now housed in the structure. We walked through one floor and saw painting after painting by Rembrandt -- a collection worth millions, I am sure. Surrounding the palace is a park with a fountain emanating from the high point and cascading down to pools at the base. The cascades happen twice a week in the summer months and, lucky for us, we were there on the right day. To see the leading edge of the cascade as it spills over the edge into the pool, click here.



It seemed like it turned from summer to autumn overnight. A big weather system from the north pushed rain followed by cold, cold temperatures and heavy winds. But we were lucky -- the wind was to our backs, and like so many lunch breaks over the past five months, we found benches where we could spread our gear, drenched by overnight condensation, to dry in the sun.





Our last day of cycling was a Sunday. It was a crisp, clear day, and we shared the bike trail along the Main River into Frankfurt with locals -- many on bikes, in family groups, or jogging.





We arrived a few days early, camping south of the city. We took the train into the airport to acquire boxes to pack our bikes and bags and make arrangements so they could be checked as baggage for the flight home. We had time to go shopping in the city and buy last-minute gifts. On the day of departure we took the train one last time, wheeling our fully loaded bikes through the main train station to catch the connection to the airport.



Fourteen hours later we were in San Francisco Airport. John reassembled the bikes so we could take BART to Pleasant Hill, where my sister lives. It was late afternoon, and by the time all the bolts and screws were tightened and we got on the train and traveled the hour to our destination, it was dark. We rode two miles from the station to my sister's house without headlights or the luxury of the German bike trails -- it was the scariest part of our five month journey!

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