Western Europe

DestinationsEuropeFoodSwitzerlandWestern Europe

Into a reversal of seasons

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When Schilthorn remained closed for yet another day, I was rather foolish to hope that the continuous snowfall would when we stepped out of the Berner Oberland into Vaud and Fribourg. Our route was fairly complicated, long but very scenic (I spent lots of time convincing myself during lull periods that it really was the journey and not the destination that mattered) and with the number of train/bus combination and changes to make any programmer blush, it finally looked like this: Murren cable car – Stechelberg via Gimmelwald, Stechelberg – Lauterbrunnen – Interlaken Ost – Zweisimmen – Gstaad – Montreux – Lausanne.

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I’m fairly embarrassed to say that I hardly remember very much of Lausanne itself, having arrived when dusk (and rather heavy rain) was falling except for the steep gradients of the town centre and our incredibly lovely restored 19th century-styled accommodation. Run by seasoned travellers themselves, I thoroughly enjoyed the location and the sheer old-world beauty of the place. The only time we had around Lausanne was a hurried turn around the cobbled and hilly streets when looking for a late dinner and emergency baggage. We had been fairly unhinged by the numerous and lengthy train trips as we moved like nomads for the length of 18 days every 1-2 days, where legitimate ponderings about the nature of travel led to some illegitimate questions about life itself – metaphorical hidden spots in the mind that I’d rather shove aside for now.

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What was more indelibly stamped into my memory was the tailor-made sunny weather of the next day on the determined gastronomic excursion into the higher regions of the Fribourg canton into Gruyères town for the cheese making session and then onto the Cailler chocolate factory in Broc village. The route is less complicated than it really is, particularly when there is a major train office with a sour-looking Swiss-French, English-speaking attendant.

Lausanne – Palezieux – Gruyères/ (with the option of going to Broc via Bulle) Broc Fabrique – Bulle – Palezieux/Lausanne

Gently nudged by the gasp-worthy landscape and the gorgeous weather, it was easy to see TC’s grudging but growing affinity with the Swiss countryside that had done nothing but let him down for the past few days.

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We walked the distance between La Maison du Gruyère and Broc-Fabrique in the valley sprinkled with a strange mixture of autumn and spring colours – from the more earthy tradition of cheese-making into the theatrical dramatics of the Cailler chocolate making tradition, trudging thankfully downhill from the medieval town encircled by the magnificent mountains onto the river bank, turning back ever so often to take pictures whenever we could. That, was enough to sustain our flagging legs, at least for that hour or so walk.

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DestinationsEuropeSwitzerlandWestern Europe

Snowed into the Berner Oberland

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We stepped out of the miserable rain on a Monday morning in Luzern into a heavily snowing Berner Oberland via the Golden Pass route (Luzern – Brünigpass – Interlaken – Zweisimmen – Montreux) – it would have been all that was promised, except for the perpetual low cloud cover and the grey, washed-out landscape.

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Mürren, our final destination, was quite mercifully, the pretty and silent ghost town before it throws open its doors to the skiers and the ski season starting this saturday – our crippling disadvantage however, lies in the sheer lack of options in eating and outdoor activities. On our last evening, we stayed close and dined downstairs, and left ourselves to the mercy of a Swiss-German waiter who spoke half in English.

A Spanish couple came in not too much later and ordered only Rosti, which was only listed as a side on the menu.

“I want only rosti,” the man announced loudly to the waiter.

“Rosti, for me also,” said his companion.

“Rosti, mains, ja?”

“No, just rosti!”

“Rosti, sausage, ja?”

“No, only rosti!”

“Nein? Rosti? Hier, ja?” The poor confused waiter pointed to the mains in the menu.

“No, no, no, no, no!”

“No?”

“Just rosti!” It later led him to apologise after the comedy of errors.

“I’m sorry…Felix…your name?” the Spanish man said earnestly, touching the poor man on the arm, “I just want Rosti, because I am Spanish, and I like Rosti very much. It’s my fault, my English is not good.”

“I…aber Englisch auch..”, bumbled the poor man as he walked to the kitchens, later confusing himself further by talking to us peppered with Spanish terms.

Coming this late into the shoulder season does have its advantageous though; streets are empty and the delayed snowfall that had sent many hoteliers and ski operators into a panic, finally came down in abundance on the day we arrived. It was most unfortunate that our hotel was right at the end of town, 15 minutes from the BLM – the definition of hell with luggage that is not a backpack.

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The natural route from Mürren is a 20 min cable car ride up to Schilthorn but the mountain had been closed for 2 days because of strong winds. The next course of action was to head for Jungfraujoch (touted proudly by all the tourist offices around the villages as the top of Europe) but it was quite a long journey up via Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg in slow trains and several changes along the way. It was literally a snow-out: little visibility, 75km/h winds that hurled snow in the face and tons of people who piled themselves into the train.

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I was cautiously optimistic (but secretly apprehensive that Central Switzerland wouldn’t live up to years of expectation) and now, have surprisingly little to say about Berner Oberland, even though mountain towns have been nothing but quaint. Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen have been incredibly touristy and it was hard to get over the shock of the loud-mouthed tourist hordes that you’d think only afflict high season travel periods.

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DestinationsEuropeSwitzerlandWestern Europe

Yodelling through

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Finally visiting Switzerland after decades of near-libidinous desire of wanting to is turning out to be a long-realised dream – and a nightmare where the budgeting suddenly became the last straw that broke the strings of our purses.

I was introduced to the incredible prices when we took a short stop in Basel to get our Swiss half-card, but ended up spending nearly 40 minutes at the SBB Travel Centre with an enthusiastic salesperson (who was possibly showing exemplary behaviour as Teamcoach) who issued us all of our tickets that we were ever going to need in for the rest of our time in Switzerland. If transport – mostly train – prices were staggering, the cost of lunch in a small Confisserie opposite the central station would have been the primary cause of a clogged artery rather than the sheer amount of cheese and pastry in it. It was also one of those days that was sufficient to send TC into a dizzying tumble of pseudo-philosophical thoughts that mostly deal with earning power, the standard-of-living, and the individual’s capacity for really knowing oneself.

The snowy peaks surrounding Luzern slowly meandered into view as the train wound its way inwards, and its environment is sort of close enough to conjure the infantile Heidi’s milk-cow stereotypes that everyone thinks about at least once in their life but is quite afraid to say aloud. having intended to eschew the extra walking with considerably heavier packs and the stress of packing for another “long-distance” trip, we modified the itinerary just 2 days ago to spend more time in Luzern but in different places for each night. As it would typically turn out, the irony lay in the amount we had to walk from the first place of accommodation to the second hotel: one treats the distance between new and the old town with greater respect when lugging heavy bags on the way.

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Navigating our way with the English language is quite effortless, although I’ll always use the chance to dredge up any remnants of foreign words I can remember. Swiss German however, with its rolls of the tongue and sing-song intonation sounds simply like the process of yodelling on a tenor-alto range even though the Swiss think it’s probably has a most wonderfully musical tone.

There wasn’t much to do after checking in at nearly 4pm on a Saturday afternoon – when stores were about to close but to visit the Museum Sammlung Rosengart Luzern before emerging like foolish open-mouthed peasants onto the magnificent waterfront and the Kapellbridge at twilight. The high street shops in the old town of Luzern were already closed for the weekend and one of my first tasks to do was to obtain some excellent chocolate truffles from the Bachmann Confiserie before foolishly deciding to go for dinner at the Old Swiss House (a rushed check on Tripadvisor convinced us) before really checking the prices out. While the food and service and dining atmosphere were excellent, the entire dinner probably cost us our carefully apportioned dough for half our stay here.

An impulsive decision on a quiet sunday morning the next day at the tourist office meant that either Titlis or Mt Rigi were our options since Mt Pilatus was closed because of bad weather conditions.

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Comprising a combination of boat rides and a funicular up the mountain, Mt Rigi and the beautiful surroundings with Lucerne spread before us would have sent me straight into Heidi heaven – but because I’ve already marvelled too much at the wildness of the Icelandic landscape, visiting Switzerland’s pretty environs felt entirely too prepackaged. There wasn’t much light at times; fog descended on the peaks from time to time, and clear just as we got on the boat heading back. I groaned and grabbed my camera to get the best of the fading light.

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DestinationsEuropeFranceWestern Europe

Debauched in the Alsatian vineyards

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The bloody fickle internet connection is perhaps the only failing of Chez Leslie – a quiet pension on a residential street off Colmar’s train station – since we’ve arrived 4 days ago. I’ve been relegated to sitting by the door in a lonesome chair like a errant child being punished just to get 1 small bar of connection. There’s even Fluffy, the house cat for occasional entertainment. Beyond that, Colmar has thus far, defied all expectations.

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Visiting Alsace is like getting an insider’s tip to travelling in France; there are many Europeans here (most are German it seems, and even more from the other parts of France) and I’ve hardly seen anyone with a face resembling mine. Perhaps the unfair complaint that I have is the lack of the sun-dappled fields which have so ensnared me in the brochure in last year’s wine fair, which is in any case, unfounded because I’m here in winter where vines are brown, twiggy and skies are perpetually grey and foggy. But coming into this narrow strip of Northeastern France is nevertheless, like a step back into autumn’s red hues after Iceland’s brutal winter.

We plonked ourselves in Colmar for the next 3 days, a village with a brilliantly medieval core built within a canal system that gives it the name “Petite Venice” – just as many tight-knit villages along La Route des Vins typically are – minus the canals.

After a brief embarrassing incident along Champs du Mars involving TC’s failed attempt on a bike on our first day, we abandoned the thought of visiting Eguisheim and settled for a tamer stroll around the old city centre. Little did we realise that every meal turns into the stuff feasts are made of not just due to the constant presence of the wines (the signature Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Pinot Gris/Blanc varieties that made TC run mad) but also the portions of the Alsatian specialties that are roll-out-of-the-country-worthy.

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We made quick visits to the cute town of Ribeauvillé on line 106 and hiked 5km along bicycle trails through the wines and forests to pretty Riquewihr after a Munster Tarte Flambée and some Onion soup. Passing several aged people slowly making their way down the meandering slope en route like they’ve been doing it all their lives, I wondered how just much these people had just seen or experienced since Alsace had been a highly volatile space in the World Wars.

Kaysersberg was next on the list on Line 145 and like most medieval clusters in this entire stretch of the Haut-Rhin, is just as picturesque and surrounded by miles of hilly vineyards as far as the eye can see. It was, all things considered, incredibly interesting to see how often the tiny towns in Alsace had changed hands over millennia and this is reflected in the hybrid language (and parts still read like Middle German), the hybrid cuisine and quite possibly the hybrid behaviour of its inhabitants.

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Christmas markets abound and they are the draw for most tourists from around the region, but seeing any more of those just now might perhaps be a case of familiarity breeding contempt. But as those storekeepers hawk their wares on the heavily -lit streets, for some strange reason, my mind constantly drifts back to the lit-stillness of Reykjavik; I see on that gentle uphill road the path to the foreboding tip of Reykjavik Hallsgrimkirkja, the empty streets and the constant companion that’s snow and ice.

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DestinationsEuropeFranceWestern Europe

La Petite France

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It seems everyone is captivated by Paris, but I’d fancy a more romantic notion of Strasbourg as a miniature model of France, even though the actual Petite France occupies merely a corner of the old city.

Sitting at the German border and several miles west of the Rhine, metropolitan Strasbourg hums with activity always, combining the whimsical nature of the French and the precision timing of Germany – even the trams glide smoothly on every couple of minutes! Accommodation is near impossible to get when the European Parliament is in session, but even all the more so when an influx of European tourists (many predictably hail from the right side of the border) descend on the alarming clusters of Christmas stands.

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We started the day as late as we could – a hard-won luxury so we rationalised after the gruelling week – and wandered into the Old Town after breakfast with no fixed itinerary but to seize the only day that we had in this place. Strong afternoon sunlight burned through the early morning fog, and it made me happy for no other reason than the pictures would turn out nicer.

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In the end, we trawled through routes and tram stations multiple times, walked along the river to Petite France (a popular corner of  river is divided into a number of canals, and rushes through a small area of half-timbered houses), ate unhealthy food, marvelled at the grand Notre Dame de Strasbourg, took lots of pictures in the wrong places, and embarrassed ourselves mightily at high-end stores. It’s probably what we’ll be doing for the rest of the trip in French-speaking regions and we did did until the sun went down and  the partying began.

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Strasbourg’s streets serve up quite the potent mix of the old and new, but only after sunset did the illumination of the Christmas lights and decorations bathe the paths from Place Broglie to Place Kléber in hues of blues, reds and golds. But even TC’s deflating words (“it’s just cheap lighting!”) weren’t quite enough to spoil the fun.

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DestinationsEuropeFranceIcelandScandinaviaWestern Europe

From the Blue Lagoon to the Alsatian flats

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A 12-hour journey that began at 4am in the morning in Grindavik, Iceland’s Blue Lagoon clinic ended on a whimper (literally) in Strasbourg, a city sitting at the edge of the German border, tiring enough to erase a near-perfect day yesterday spent in the Blue Lagoon and soaking up the silica mud.

We joined busloads of tourists for the 45-minute shuttle from Reykjavik, driving to snow-covered lava moss with the distinct advantage of staying over at the clinic for a night – which simply meant we got free entrance into the Lagoon and more time to dally. Situated 5-10 minutes walk down a winding path from the actual building through flammable (!) moss-covered lava fields, it was quite the adventure trudging through the snow when it turned dark.

Set up so that the changing rooms lead out directly into the lagoon, it proved quite a shock to see women of all ages, sizes and various states of hairiness starkers, as nonchalantly as the day they were born, sauntering, squatting, towelling and gossiping simultaneously. TC and I exchanged our experiences and found that pretty much the same happened in the men’s dressing area.

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I couldn’t help my personal hedonistic streak from surfacing when bathing in Iceland’s sub-Arctic location; its unusual contrast of glaciers and constant volcanic activity meant that we were dipping into geothermally heated water tinted a milky Curaçao blue because of the silica mud – the very same mud that you can dredge up with your foot from the uneven ground and apply onto the face! As the perpetual misty swirls arose from the lagoon, it was like descending a few steps into a cheery, bluish, mild-climate version of Valhalla – only littered with chattering tourists holding up glasses of beer while they waddled slowly around. If that was hell, it had never felt or tasted so good. In that steamy, atmospheric pool, I held up TC’s more portable camera instead, and wandered around with a hand out of the water the entire time clutching it like a trophy.

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That very good thing came to an abrupt end when we needed to depart Iceland in an early morning flight but I had truly underestimated just how tiring the entire day would turn out. TC was suitably impressed by the beauty of the city but I found my own command of French entirely too new and too shaky to make a proper impression (or even getting the locals to understand). It was pure torture navigating our way in the deepening dusk to Les Artistes – our accommodation in the quiet residential area of Elsau in Strasbourg. Dinner at Hippopotamus was an equally stilted affair but hilarious to see snooty french waiters living up to their reputation.

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Main(hatten) Transfer

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The country of precision engineering, verbally-direct people, curry wurst and David Hasselhoff lovin’ came into view from the small oval of a plane window after an interminably long flight that lasted a good 18+ hours. Frankfurt am Main greeted the Travel Companion (TC) and I like a terribly familiar bedfellow (read: a sprawling city) – but the sight of terra firma is always a welcome feel despite its incredible urbanity for those who have been in limbo for too long. The International Airport is a surprisingly short 15 minute ride by S8 or S9 into the main train station and from there, a mere short walk to the Star Inn Frankfurt.

Off we went on a jaunt to the cavernous space of the Schirn Kunsthalle – built like a retrofitted old cinema and conveniently located where the Christmas Market was which is probably why TC was a willing participant – to see Gabríela Friðriksdóttir’s Crepusculum and Edward Kienholz’s The Signs of the Times, all of which I thought were breathtaking installations that we’ve been so lacking thus far.

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In the land of meat and potatoes, the temptations of the Christmas Market went so far as a large Bratwurst and a white Gluhwein before we decided more pressing needs (Knoppers, Teekanne teas and fruit) had to be met in the forms of a Drugstore and a Supermarket along the Zeil, Frankfurt’s swanky shopping street.

Jet-lagged and disoriented, I awoke hungry and thirsty at 5.30am and realised that was that for the Frankfurt stopover. A quick breakfast at the cosy Kamps Backstufe next to the Frankfurt Hbf blissfully watching the rush-hour commuters was the only early morning activity that I could stomach before sleepily moving on to the airport.

In a few hours, we’d be on the damned plane again – this time to the far north – and I can’t wait, despite the glum weather reports.

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DestinationsEuropeFranceGermanyIcelandItineraryPlanningScandinaviaSwitzerlandWestern Europe

Exhausting defiance

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My travel planning process typically runs across 2 veins: juggling foreign, captivating landscapes from which the instinctive need to explore arises (the heady rush is really quite intoxicating) and the harsh reality of cost-cutting after realising that the reckless planning is potentially busting the humble budget.

It’s a common sensibility that probably fits me squarely into the peg called “budget travel” but the penchant for seeking out strange itineraries such as this upcoming one that crosses that oh-so-fine line into “luxury travel”. I’m also quite certain that the travel companion (TC) – who had initially agreed rather enthusiastically to another jaunt in Europe after my sales pitch – is regretting just how much it is going to cost, as I am too.

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So far, it looks like this: Frankfurt – Iceland – Frankfurt – Strasbourg – Colmar – Freiburg – Basel (maybe) – Luzern – Berner Oberland – Montreux/Lausanne/Geneva. Essentially, a flight out to the near-Arctic, back into the Alsace Bas-Rhin region to explore the “La Route du Vins”, followed by a small dip into Germany’s Black Forest and then onto an ambitious alpine route across Switzerland.

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To be accomplished within 2.5 weeks, I’m anticipating that it’ll be quite a trek.

Working out the itinerary across 4 countries is admittedly daunting, but throw the accommodation and the transportation into the mix, and the sheer number of variables capped by a price ceiling is overwhelming; it leads nowhere except a melodramatic soap-opera that ends with TC’s dystopic vision of eating street food costing only a meagre $2 for the next few months to compensate for the massive drain we’re about to incur.

But witness the craziness of this plan, and then consider the nicely packaged tours that are dime-by-a dozen; I’d insist on the former anytime.

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DestinationsEuropeGermanyMusingsWestern Europe

The Road Out

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A fond farewell in the form of sugared strawberries to the host signals that it is time for me to leave Hamburg. But not before I took a ride around the neighbourhood in that bicycle that’s been the most solid thing I’ve ever ridden.

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There is much I am going to miss in this place – the bewildering slower pace of life that I’ve been leading for the past month, the fretful weather (though gorgeous when the air is cold and the skies are blue), the beautiful scenery and its varied suburban areas.

Learning a foreign tongue for so long and for so intensive a period here has momentarily left me bereft of the usually-decent grasp of my very own mother tongue. The pictures have already told part of the story. But let this tribute sum up the rest of the tale, written in the language that I’ve come here to study.

Fast 1 Monat lautete meine Adresse Othmarschen, Uhdeweg in Hamburg. Dank der Gastfreundlichkeit meiner Gastfamilie freundete ich mich innerhalb von kurzer Zeit mit dem Leben in Hamburg an. Nach kurzer Zeit erwiesen sich die Norddeutschen meistens auch als großzügig, hilfsbereit und sympathisch.

Am nächsten Tag nach meiner Ankunft in Hamburg fing schon der Kurs im Goethe-Insitut an. In meiner Gruppe waren 5 andere Teilnehmer, die aus den Niederlanden, den USA und aus Spanien kamen. Der Unterricht war eine große Herausforderung, und die Gruppe arbeiteten intensiv zu unterschiedlichen, und aktuellen (und auch interessanten!) Themen wie “Glück”, “Lüge” und “Heimat und Identität”.

Zu diesen Themen kamen auch die wichtigsten und kompliziertesten grammatischen Teile zur Wiederholung – wie der Konjunktiv II, Verben mit Präpositionen und Präpositionen mit Genitiv. 10 neue Wörter mussten täglich auswendig gelernt werden, und nach jedem Tag verlängerte sich die Liste in unserem gemeinsamen Tagebuch, was wir im Unterricht erfolgreich durchführten.

Im Laufe des Kurses verfassten wir Briefe und Interviews, unterhielten uns viel mit einander, und wir lernten einfach über andere Kulturen und Sprachen. Der Plausch während des Unterrichts ging nach dem Unterricht weiter, und handelte von unseren persönlichen Umständen in unseren eigenen Ländern. Die von den Kursteilnehmern präsentierten kurzen Referate aus den Traditionen ihrer Kulturen, waren für uns alle neu und unbekannt.

Ein typischer Tag fing um 9 Uhr morgens mit dem Unterricht an, und war um 1330 Uhr zu Ende. Anhand des Hamburgers Goethe-Institut Kulturbüro organisierten Freizeitaktivitäten, die nach dem Unterricht stattfanden, besuchte ich in knapp einer Woche fast alles, was sehenswert war.

Am Wochenende konnte ich mit einem von meiner Gastfamilie ausgeliehenen Fahrrad auch kurze Ausflüge nach Övelgönne, Blankenese und Altona machen. Gemeinsam mit den anderen Kursteilnehmern bekam ich auch die Gelegenheit, das traditionsreiche Lübeck zu besuchen und ausführliche Kenntniss über die Hanse zu erwerben.

In der Mitte des Kurses war Deutschland plötzlich im Fußballfieber. Pünktlich zur Fußball-EM war Hamburg schon in Partylaune. Schwarz-rot-gelb bedeckte Fußballfans liefen durch die Straßen und machten eine tolle Stimmung auf dem Heiligenheistfeld. Mit der Deutschen Elf feierten zehntausende und fieberten, als die Mannschaft ihr erstes Spiel gegen Polen siegte und das zweite Spiel verlor.

In Hamburg lief für mich das volle Programm. Die Vielfalt in Hamburg kann ich nur loben, z.B, als ich im Schanzenviertel und St. Georg nach einem Café mit internationaler Küche suchte. Und vergessen darf man also nicht, dass “die sündigste Meile der Welt”, die weltberühmte Reeperbahn, auch in Hamburg ist?

Ich war trotz des wechselhaften Wetters und der gelegentlich heftigen Hausaufgaben einfach sehr froh. Ich bin erst gestern zurückgekehrt, aber träume immer noch von Hamburg.

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Down the Red-Brick Road

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Brugge without the sandy footpaths, Brugge with the cold and volatile weather – that was Lübeck at first glance.

Günter Grass, many turquoise church steeples, the Hanseatic League, extraordinary architecture, Thomas Mann, and…marzipan – if I could only sum up Lübeck with several key words.

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A Schleswig-Holstein Ticket took the 3 of us to Lübeck during the second weekend of the course – the once-mighty fortress and capital of the Hanseatic League of merchants that has been remarkably restored and is now a UNESCO heritage site. Lübeck lost its greatness when the politics of the 16th -17th centuries overran the Hanseatic League’s political and economic influence, but not its shape.

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Characterised by the amazing number of church steeples concentrated in a small area, Lübeck’s old town was immediately recognisable the moment the train pulled slowly into the main train station.

“We are all Japanese tourists for the day,” moaned Jose, as we whipped out our cameras simultaneously as we reached the Holstentor, the cute (but somewhat lopsided) twin towers that were previously part of some medieval fortification that opened up to the Altstadt. It is also one of the 2 remaining gates to the city, the other being Burgtor.

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Having been in Lübeck for a day, I told him that he was pretty much qualified to be our tour-guide, and he agreed that it was easy indeed, to walk around and simply, give us all the wrong information about the historical events.

“Lübeck is…nice…but small. Hamburg is..nicer. Lübeck is still nice, nonetheless,” said Jose.

“How do you know that?”

“The people are more…provincial. They dress differently.” He affirmed after thinking through his reply rather carefully.

How does one respond to that?

“Sometimes, there could really be really worse things than being a photo-taking tourist,” commented Michael.

With that, I suddenly felt justified in (and brave) walking around with my camera in hand. A couple of hours spent in the old town pretty much covered all that I needed to see, and the number of red-bricked crow-stepped gabled town houses that was in the old town was rather staggering.

Who could forget the marzipan shop?

And don’t be deceived – the weather wasn’t that good.

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