We finally left Champagne on Thursday in very hot sunshine around 11a.m. with temperatures well into the 30s and made our way towards Colmar, near the border with Germany, in the Haut Rhin – otherwise known as Alsace. Our route bypassed Besancon to the south, skirting Monbelliard and Belfort, which, given more time we would have liked to explore. Instead though, we paused at the lovely little town of Baume les Dames, having descended steeply down the side of the limestone cliffs so typical of the beautiful valleys of this area of Eastern France. The site is named after the convent that used to exist here, where the nuns were only accepted if they could prove they were of noble lineage. Today the town was hot, peaceful and nearly deserted with just a few bakers and a mobile rotisserie in the town square. From the first of these we bought bread and blackberry tart for lunch, while the second provided us with half a chicken for our supper. We found time to visit the church which is wide, cool and pleasant with a curious statue to St. Odile who was abandoned as blind by her parents. On being baptised she miraculously found her sight and eventually went on to found convents throughout Alsace.
Beyond Baume les Dames, after considerable difficulty we eventually found a shady spot by a small fishing lake for a picnic lunch of paté, peaches, tart and coffee. Really the weather was too hot for travelling and shade was minimal in the open countryside.
Around 3pm we reached Colmar having travelled through many miles of carefully tended vineyards waiting to be harvested to provide the wonderfully fresh, fruity but dry white wine that has made the Alsace region one of the leading European vineyards. Beyond rose the nearest range of the dark mountains of the Voges. The city is beautiful. We parked in a quiet leafy suburb of large, interesting old houses, slightly reminiscent in style of those to be found around Cabourg in Normandy. From here a short walk beneath the shady trees brought us into the centre of the old town with its little river running through, its thousands of tubs of bright flowers, and most of all, its network of cobbled streets of brightly coloured half-timbered houses many with carved doorways or lintels, the facades beautiful painted and decorated. There are refreshing fountains and many statues in wood, stone or bronze, including one matching that of Manikin Pis in Brussels. Many houses fronted directly onto the river that twisted gently through the town, crossed by little hump-backed foot bridges beneath which low passenger boats drifted gently along, earning for that quarter of the city the sobriquet of Little Venice.
Manikin Pis in Colmar
On the riverside
Typical half-timbered houses
Little Venice in Colmar
Colmar is a city that seems to have great difficulty with its own identity, where the majority of residents appear to have German family names and French forenames. Over the centuries it has successively passed backwards and forwards between France and Germany, the last attempt to annex it to Germany having been made by Hitler in the 1930s. The names on local war memorials show the French resistance members, forced labour victims and civilian casualties, almost without exception had German names.
We found a campsite at Habourg Wihr (typical of the names of the French villages around the area) a few kilometres outside of Colmar on the banks of the river Ill. The site was nearly empty as the season has finished now. We were rather disconcerted when a couple of storks decided to join us for supper. Seen at such close quarters they are huge white creatures with long orange beaks and legs. They eventually flew off above the treetops to the neighbouring village of Vogelsheim (Birdshome) only to reappear in time for breakfast next morning.
Modestine has a visitor!
It rained overnight but already next morning it was hot by 9am as we stood on the bridge crossing the river in the centre of the little town dropping conkers into the water below to watch the large trout rapidly scatter away.
Biesheim lies right beside the German border and just a few kilometres from Colmar. Until recently our young friend Cecile from Caen, was librarian there in her first post. We always promised we would visit her once we retired. Unfortunately for us, but not for her, she was recently appointed to a more prestigious position running a library in one of the Paris suburbs. We were non-the-less curious to visit the little town about which we had heard so much. It proved to be obviously wealthy, beautifully kept, bright and clean in the hot sunshine, with one of everything. It has one letter box, one church, one hotel, one supermarket and one café. However, it struck us as lacking in any real character and, with its proximity to Germany, so very different from the rest of France that an appointment there would be almost like being sent into exile! The library is only open a few hours a week and the customers struck us as more likely to be interested in light fiction than in literature or IT. We were told there was no access to the internet for the public anywhere in the town and when we sat hopefully on the terrace of the only café hoping for refreshment we were told they did not serve coffee, only full meals, and in any case not at 11.30am. The only place that seemed busy was the garage where we joined a queue of German cars that had crossed the border to fill up on petrol which is currently cheaper in French Beisheim than at the German garage further down the road on the other side of the border.
We made our way steadily across Germany throughout the day, arriving in Tubingen around 6pm where we found a very pleasant campsite for the night. Having settled Modestine beside the river we made our way into the nearby University town along an island park in the centre of the river with views up to the main bridge and the castle towering above the beautiful old town. Along the river students were punting, taking summer visitors around the outside of the pedestrianised, cobbled streets of timber-framed, 16th century houses.
We made our way up the steep road to the castle with its huge gateway decorated in Renaissance style and includes the Order of the Garter presented by Queen Elizabeth I to the local ruler. On the way down we became entangled with a political meeting for the “Linken” party. The German elections are due shortly and each party is busy advertising and holding rallies.
Punters on the river
Tubingen from the river
Tubingen Town Hall
The castle gateway
In the castle courtyard
Political meeting near the Town Hall
We arrived in Rohrbach yesterday afternoon having driven fairly directly from Tübingen via Ulm where we had intended to stop for a break and to visit the cathedral which apparently has the highest spire in the world. However, the ceaseless heavy rain, the waterlogged streets, the weekend traffic and one way systems decided us against trying to park. Although only about the same size as Exeter, with a population of around 100,000, it seemed far larger. From a distance we glimpsed the spire as we passed through the town. That had to suffice.
The roads here are far less straight than in France but generally German drivers seem very patient and tolerant. In such wet weather nobody seemed inclined to hassle me on the steep curves and, unlike in France, speed limits seem to be rigorously applied here.
Around lunchtime we stopped at Leipheim, a small town of pleasant houses, pretty gardens and a few local shops. The local Gasthof provided an excellent and substantial lunch of Schweinebraten, Kartoffelsalat and Spätzle. (roast pork, potato salad and noodles.) Very different fare than we have been experiencing in France. Ian also enjoyed a half-litre Pauliner beer with his meal.
Having been advised to arrive in good time as we had been invited to a birthday party, we reached our friends Anne and Ray about 3.30pm without even managing to get lost in the local town of Pfaffenhofen which lies some 40 kms north of Munich. Anne is a friend from Ian’s days at library school in Sheffield, while Ray, although officially retired, is still very involved in astronomy and the European Space Organisation in Munich.
So after a warm welcome and a brief rest, we set off for their friend Hermann’s birthday party which we were reliably informed was “something else”! About 35 of Hermann’s friends were gathered at his home in a neighbouring village and we were plunged immediately into a cheerful, hospitable gathering of Bavarian people, several of whom were members of Anne’s English group and were happy to try out their language skills on Jill, whose German leaves a great deal to be desired. Although she had picked up a certain understanding of the language over the years, Jill is generally rather reliant on Ian to ensure she is fully aware of what is happening. Anne and Ray have lived in Germany for over twenty years and are completely integrated into the local community. As soon as we arrived we were offered slices of Pflaumentorte (plum tart) with cream and coffee and, although we knew nobody, made to feel very welcome indeed.
The plan had been to hold the party in Hermann’s beautiful garden and a marquee had been set up on the lawn with tables and benches. A small local restaurant, justifiably considered to be the best this side of Munich, had undertaken to provide the catering. However, the ceaseless rain had made this impossible and the restaurateurs suggested instead that we all adjourn to their restaurant where we would be warm and dry and catering would be far easier for them anyway. This suggestion was met with great delight by all concerned and we were excitedly informed that we could expect a wonderful evening.
Although the restaurant today is managed by the son of the original proprietor, it is still run very much as it always has been. The owner had not only been a superb cook, but had excelled as an artist. The restaurant is therefore an art gallery of his work in a range of mediums. There are paintings, prints, sketches and watercolours. There are sculptures in wood and stone, castings in bronze and wonderful ceramics.
The food was out of this world! Unless Anne had warned us, we would have assumed the hors d’oeuvre course was the birthday party! Apart from tomato soup with cream, there were several beautifully decorated tables of salads, melon, olives, artichokes, rolled herrings, crayfish, prawns and ham. Just to sample everything would have left no room for the main course. This was an entire leg of veal with wild mushrooms, braised leeks and a peppery mushroom sauce served with roast potatoes in cream and German noodles. By this time, it wasn’t just the tables that were groaning with food. Most of the guests were as well!
After suitable pauses to allow the courses to settle we progressed to an enormous home-made baked-Alaska filled with various ice creams and fruit in a meringue casing carried flaming to the main table. Then for good measure we finished off with huge salvers of fresh fruit – strawberries, blackberries, papaya, melons, slices of pineapple, grapes and ripe fresh figs. Conversation was animated, including an extended discussion with a young physicist as to why sausage skins always split along the length of the sausage – such basic questions clearly worry Germans! Many guests were still chatting by candlelight, enjoying a final glass of wine when we left around midnight. We spent a really happy time in delightful company where we were made to feel completely welcome. It seemed so strange for us to have moved in such a very brief time, from the heart of a warm French community to the heart of an equally warm but very different German one. We really do feel fortunate that so many wonderful opportunities are presenting themselves to us on our “gap year”. (Actually that alone causes much curiosity. Everyone wants to know what our plans are for the coming year and we have to admit that we don’t actually know, we are just seeing what life brings. So far we are being very fortunate.)
Jill and Anne in Hermann’s garden
Just one of the courses
Animated discussion about sausages
Just when we thought it was all over!
Ray is not an early riser, so after breakfast this morning we left him to sleep on and went with Anne to meet her horse, Hal. He is a British Fell pony she bought four years ago in Cumberland and took back with her to Rohrbach for her retirement. When she is not riding him he lives with a dozen other ponies and horses in a field on the edge of steep woodland above a nearby hop field.
We have learned a great deal today concerning horse management. Having groomed and brushed him we harnessed him up and Anne put him through his paces. Hal knew he was on show for us and seemed to enjoy being the centre of attention. Anne then scared us witless by suggesting we tried riding him! We have declared ourselves ready to try as many new experiences as possible in our retirement so, once we managed to mount Hal, we thoroughly enjoyed walking sedately around the schooling ring. He was extremely gentle and friendly and we felt completely safe. Not only has Ian steered a canal boat, been set loose in a French honey factory, helped clean out rabbit cages and rung church bells, he has now ridden a horse amongst the hop fields of Bavaria!
Jill makes friends with Hal
Ian’s first riding lesson
Anne persuades Hal to do his party piece
Rohrbach is right in the very heart of the German hop-fields. It is from Bavaria that the hops for much of the world’s beer is produced. And this is the last week for gathering in the harvest. Hectares of cables and wires are spread out on the plains with vine-like hop plants twisting four or five metres up and over the framework. They are now heavy with soft green cone-shaped hops and tractors are passing between the rows, cutting the base of the plant which cascades down. They are gathered in large mounds and are taken in trailers to the local farm where they are fed into a huge machine that separates the cones from the rest of the plant. The vines are then chopped up and used as compost on the fields for next year’s crop. Anne is acting as an English-speaking guide in the local hop museum, so we asked a farmer if we could watch the harvesting process. He explained that it is only the yellow, pollen-like substance in each hop flower that is required for beer making and was happy to explain his equipment to us. Once the hops have been gathered they are dried in kilns owned by each farmer – very different from the oast-houses of Kent. When dry they are taken to the cooperative, weighed and the farmer paid for his crop. They are then exported world-wide.
Bavarian hop fields
Are they ready for harvesting?
Close-up of the ripe cones
Delivering the hops to the farm
Loading the hops into the separator
Antiquated machinery used for a few days each year
Monday 12th September 2005, Rohrbach
This morning Anne suggested driving us to Regensburg which she assured us was not a town to be missed. Torrential rain and a thunderstorm delayed our departure but in the event we spent a wonderful day around the city without getting wet as the rain appears to have been localised. Regensburg lies some 50 kms north east of here. It is an old University town on both the Regen and the Danube rivers. Situated at the northernmost point of the Danube it has always been a strategic crossroads ever since the Romans established their encampment there in 179. The Porta Praetoria, still standing from that date, is claimed to be the oldest building in Germany. Approaching from the opposite side of the Danube across the slightly arched, cobbled, medieval footbridge the town presents an unforgettable sight with the brightly coloured facades of the high-roofed buildings, many with stepped gables and tiny roof windows and frequently dating from the 14th century. There is a lovely high clock tower, ancient walls and the delicate twin spires of the high gothic cathedral. The streets are well proportioned with some wonderful squares surrounded by major impressive buildings, frequently used today as restaurants, tea rooms and coffee houses.
The twin towers of Regensburg cathedral
The Porta Praetoria
Medieval bridge into the town
Town viewed from the bridge
For lunch we visited the oldest sausage seller in the world! Bratwürste have been served here to customers on the banks of the Danube since the 1380s! As the major German writer Goethe stayed in the adjacent in on his way to Italy in the 1780s, it is probable he too consumed their sausages! With such credentials it had to be a candidate for yet another frivolity, courtesy of Devon’s local history societies! So we shared long wooded benches and tables with other Bratwurst amateurs where we each managed to consume tall glasses of frothy local beer and six sausages with Sauerkraut, sweet German mustard and dark bread rolls (Brötchen) containing powerfully flavoured caraway seeds!
Ian and Anne enjoy the oldest sausages in Germany!
We continued our exploration of the many beautiful streets, churches, courtyards, fountains, palaces and residences of the city, each sight seeming more stunning than the previous one. Don John of Austria (of Lepanto fame – who was it wrote that poem?) came from here as evidenced by the statues and plaques around the town. Eventually we made our way to the Cathedral. This is mainly gothic – 12th to 15th century. It has a wonderful façade with many sculptured figures, including St. Peter. The two “lacework” spires which dominate the city are a 19th century addition. Inside there are a number of beautiful mediaeval statues and a wealth of 13th and 14th century stained glass windows.
Don John of Austria
Time for another frivolity! Rather extravagant as we are only one month into our travels and frivolities are supposed to be rationed throughout the year but we had become intoxicated with the atmosphere of Regensburg. So Anne guided us to the oldest Konditorei (coffee house/ cake shop) in Germany – established in 1686. Making a choice from the wonderful confections on display took quite a while and several changes of mind, but eventually we opted for Schwarzwälderkirschkuche (Black Forest cake with flaked chocolate, dark cherries and cream) and Abricosenquarktorte (apricot and quark tart topped with crystals of brown sugar) These we enjoyed with individual pots of speciality teas served to us at a low table as we relaxed in huge dark armchairs to the soft accompaniment of classical music in a typically German tearoom of dark wood ceilings, huge wall mirrors and garlands of hops and silk ribbons.
Our coffee shop to the left of the Seat of the Imperial Parliament
Too much sightseeing and culture! Poor us, it’s a hard life! After horse riding yesterday and walking around all day today our joints were beginning to feel stiff as we walked back across the bridge and along beside the river to rejoin Anne’s car and make our way back home.
Tuesday 13th September 2005, Rohrbach
This morning Anne had a breakfast appointment with fellow language teachers so we were left to our own devices for a couple of hours. We decided that, in the interests of getting an unusual picture, we too should have a breakfast appointment - in the nearby village of Rottenegg! Here the baker’s shop was able to supply us with fresh rolls, even if the local eggs were rather less so! We received the odd look of curiosity. Breakfasting in the rain by the roadside is not a regular occurrence and the delightful name of the village has absolutely no significance for the residents.
Ian regards his egg with suspicion
Before Anne returned we found time to explore Rohrbach with its pleasant, modern houses, few essential shops and couple of restaurants. In common with most villages around this area it has its own tall ornamental maypole complete with Bavarian figures and topped with a crown of pine fronds. Window boxes of bright geraniums brighten the facades of the houses and prominent walls are frequently decorated with religious images.
The maypole at Rohrbach
Typical house with decorated facade
In the afternoon the three of us took the train to Munich, where the rain poured down steadily as we made our way through the tram-lined streets and the former botanical gardens to the Alte Pinakothek gallery of fine art, completed in 1836 to house the ducal collections. It is particularly strong on early 16th century German painters, particularly Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Altdorfer. There are excellent collections from Italy, including Leonardo da Vinci, Tintoretto, Titian and Canaletto. From Spain there are works by El Greco, Murillo and Velasquez while from the Dutch and Flemish masters there were works by Rembrandt, Rubens, the Brueghels, Ruysdael and Van Dyck. It was interesting to see Rubens sketches for his final canvases, some of which were also represented in the collections. Altdorfer’s painting of the Battle of Issus teamed with thousands of minutely detailed figures, as did several of the works of the Brueghels. Dürer’s paintings of the four apostles are particularly impressive when seen full size with the swathes of intense colour in their robes. Altogether a most magnificent collection and one of the major European galleries.
Alte Pinakothek, Munich
By the time we left around 5pm the rain had eased. At the main station we met up with Howard, yet another librarian friend currently working at the European Patents Office in Munich. The rest of the evening was spent in Augustinerhof, supposedly established in 1328, an enormous and typically Bavarian restaurant with bare wood floors, dark panelling, huge tables with white cloths, waitresses in local costume carrying huge tankards of beer and waiters balancing heavy trays of Eisbein with potato dumplings and similar hearty Bavarian meals as they squeezed between the tightly packed customers. There were literally hundreds of people eating and drinking and Howard informed us that it is one of Munich’s most favoured restaurants for local dishes.
The class of '67 – mini Sheffield Library School reunion
Anne, Ian and Howard studied librarianship at Sheffield together so there was much reminiscing about where their lives have taken them over the years and swapping news about fellow students from the past – some of whom will be reading this so we hope you enjoy seeing us all again and knowing we were thinking of you.