Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Germany mini-trip - day 5

It’s been a long long time since I traveled alone in a foreign country, but that’s where the plan took me today. As you recall, this little vacation was triggered by Ally’s business trip to Cologne, which commenced today, Tuesday. She left St. Goar at around 6.30 am, which would allow plenty of time to be at her 9 am meeting (the main foreseeable problem would be to make the mental shift). I went to the station with her, saw her off, then went for an hour-long walk, to Das Boot, which I described before (and which looked even more eccentrically desolate at this time of day), and back. I went to breakfast by myself. “Are you alone?” asked the guy with apparent astonishment, as he lit my lonely candle.

I was scheduled to leave St. Goar at 9.21 – astonishingly, the train was late! As I had only five minutes to make a connection at Oberwesel, I then needed to decide whether to get off there regardless of having presumably missed that connection, or whether to stay on the train I was on and work it out later. I got off, and it turned out the connecting train was late as well – all immaculately coordinated I’m sure. The whole check-in/security process took no more than half an hour. The highlight of that was seeing an Ozu-like dog, apparently about to be placed in a crate to embark on a flight, and looking too happy to be aware of what was coming (I don’t anticipate we’d ever put Ozu on a plane – it would only be out of utterly unavoidable necessity).

Then I had three hours or so to wait around at the airport. I don’t mind such waiting around too much, as long as I can use it to read or do things I would have done anyway at other times (i.e. so that the time needn’t in any sense be considered “wasted”) and I had more than enough of a to-do list to meet that criterion for today’s waiting time, for the flight home, and for a big security margin on top of that. I made pretty good progress on this list, largely because of sleeping only minimally. I had an aisle seat, but when I arrived at it I was asked by a couple who’d been separated whether I’d switch and take her middle seat in another row. She was much larger than I was so I made a snap decision that I would contribute to the common good by agreeing to this (usually of course, my own well-being would have been greater by staying on the aisle, but even that might not have held here, sitting next to a possibly disgruntled husband for eight hours). Anyway, no doubt I did the right thing.

The flight was on time, and Canadian immigration took no time at all, but then the bag took an hour to show up (as they always seem to at Toronto Pearson unfortunately) and of course traffic into the city was slow. But I picked up Ozu exactly at 7 as planned. We ran home, and celebrated in our usual buoyant manner, and for me that’s always the official end of the vacation. Meanwhile, Ally did a full day’s work, and when I called her from the airport, she’d had dinner long ago, and had been in her Cologne hotel room for a couple of hours, just winding down the day. We don’t have too many days when our trajectories deviate so dramatically…

Monday, July 11, 2016

Germany mini-trip - day 4

Last night was the Euro soccer final, although I suppose it would have had a more galvanizing impact on St. Goar if Germany had made it to the end. As it was, the Bistro Café Goar was showing the France vs. Portugal game on a TV screen inside. After we’d finished eating and were having drinks, we moved to the terrace, a perfect spot for monitoring both this and the river (the parade of grand industrial barges continuing after dark, like stately elongated whales). When normal time ended without a goal, some of the clientele left, apparently with some mocking from the others for their lack of fortitude. We left around that time too (to no mocking), counting eight or so mostly elderly remainees. And that was the Sunday action in St. Goar.

On Monday we again had breakfast in the hotel (the guy at the next table was surreptitiously assembling sandwiches from the breakfast buffet materials and putting them in his briefcase) before heading off for another seven hour-plus exploration. We climbed up behind town to the top of the gorge and followed a trail for several hours, eventually coming back down at the town of Oberwesel. As I mentioned, this is only really an achievement in climbing if you’ve artificially placed yourself down at the bottom – following the trail, we frequently walked past housing developments or resorts or whatnot, reminding us that’s where the real world is, up there! The highlight of the walk though came during one of its more deeply forested sections, where we came across an old man and woman dragging a (very reluctant) sheep along the path. We should have blocked the way, chanting: Free the Sheep!

Actually, the real highlights were naturally the constant views down into the gorge – every new look-out point gives you a new reason to stop and breathe it in. Oberwesel also looked great from up above, but is rather dull and disappointing close-up, even allowing that Monday seems to be a day off for a lot of small businesses. The biggest comparative limitation may be that St. Goar has hotels and restaurants with almost direct access to the river (excepting the road, which isn’t too busy), but in Oberwesel the railway runs closer to the water, holding back the rest of the town (there’s an old city wall in the way too). I expect it made sense at the time to lay things down that way, but now it makes the place feel constricted. We had trouble even finding a suitable place to eat, but eventually sat down and had a couple of sandwiches, and five separate beverage orders between the two of us. We watched a woman arriving at a nearby hair salon for what was presumably a 2 pm appointment, waiting outside for the hairdresser to return from her break, getting increasingly impatient, trying unsuccessfully to place a phone call, eventually giving up at around 2.20 pm and leaving under a dark cloud. The hairdresser turned up ten minutes after that, with her dog and her shopping bag, beaming happily and without an apparent care in the world. That’s probably how it goes down here in the small towns.

By the way, if you climb all the way up from Oberwesel, someone (apparently an anonymous artist) is carrying out a project of constructing large metal “troll” sculptures – based on the dates, it appears a new one gets added every year. There’s one at the roadside; the others are lurking in the woods. Here is Ally with a representative example.

We then decided that if we walked on a further 6 km or so to the town of Bacharach, we’d arrive in time to catch the hourly train back to St. Goar. This was an easy 6 km by comparison with what we'd already done, all along the river, no climbing. We achieved this with time to spare, enough to wander round Bacharach (which was also mostly closed) to find an ice cream. The scenic highlight of the walk was the town of Kaub on the other side, with its eye-catching white castle on a tiny island in the middle of the river (it is called Pfalzgrafenstein Castle and was built as a station to extract tolls from passing vessels – mundane functions were discharged with so much style in the old days!).

There didn’t seem to be as many cruise ships in the water today – maybe business surges at the weekend; certainly the volume of motor bikes had plummeted. I would have placed a bet that Bacharach would have held at least one prominent tribute to its famous namesake Burt, perhaps a modest statue on the theme of What’s New Pussycat?, but if so we missed it. It’s another very picturesque town though, again with old walls and cobbled streets intact, so that you could shoot a historical film on the back streets with minimal cover-up of contemporary details.

That added up to a lot of walking today, a punishing achievement even if the weather was slightly cooler than yesterday. We picked up another beverage (whenever we’re in Europe we drink bottle after bottle of Fanta – we never buy it at home, and if we do it doesn’t taste the same anyway) and then returned to the hotel. Once again, we did not succeed in seeing Ozu at the pool. Some of the restaurants were closed tonight, again because it’s Monday I suppose – we ate in a quiet place in the middle of town, which also closed as soon as we left, and then ended up drinking beer over the water. It becomes ever more clear that there are fewer functioning businesses here than meets the eye. For instance, there’s a hotel near us that looks open – there are flowers in all the windowboxes – but we’ve never seen any signs of life there, and based on an online search it's not taking reservations. It’s quite sad, the sense that the world is losing its taste for this kind of quiet location. St. Goar does appear to be a regular stopping point for a Contiki tour bus – this is a company catering to 18 to 35 year olds, known for the partying nature of the experience – and this may explain some of the young women we saw wandering around on previous nights. Mostly though, it appears the Contiki groups stay in a hotel on the other side of town, where they create their own self-contained world of fun. Can their world ever overlap with the rest of St. Goar, to spark a new mutually beneficial way forward...?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Germany mini-trip - day 3

The Rheinfels hotel feels largely empty, and almost haunted too, by virtue of the motion-detecting light switches that illuminate the nighttime corridors as you wander down them. But based on the breakfast room this morning, the place might actually be full. It was a very nice buffet, with almost everything you could think of, excepting chanterelles, and overseen very efficiently by a single aging waiter in a bow tie. The tables had white tablecloths and, even at this time of day, burning candles.

The feeling of emptiness and under-utilization is pervasive to the town though. On both this and the other side of the river, we see numerous closed hotels and restaurants, suggesting more prosperous times in the past. Much of the activity now consists of people arriving in tour buses, catching a ferry for a cruise on the Rhine, and then disappearing, to be picked up elsewhere. Today we walked past an old-fashioned caravan park, people reading and drinking beer outside their camper vans, in their little square of river-facing space. There’s absolutely nothing in the vicinity that feels in any way new. Of course, this is the charm of the place, if you’re into it, but it feels like much of the world may be moving on…

Well, at least they have the two of us for now. The ferry to the other side is an impressive operation, carrying over maybe as many as twenty cars on each run, along with sundry bikers, cyclists, walkers and dogs. It goes every twenty minutes, back and forth, until late into the night, loading and unloading with what looks like unceasing efficiency. From where we're staying, you get the impression that the town on the other side, minimally distinguished from St. Goar by calling itself St. Goarshausen, might have more action, but when we crossed over this morning we found out it’s not true. We picked up a drink and some snacks (from the one place that seemed to be open) and set off. In addition to being able to walk along the river in any direction on either side, one can also climb out of the gorge (I keep wanting to refer to them as hills or mountains, but it’s not that they’re so high, it’s that we’re so low) and hike above, again on either side in either direction. We did that today, selecting a trail that should have taken us several hours, winding past several castles. We managed to complete the most difficult stretch, the initial climb, but then found out the rest of the trail was closed, due to a rockslide or something. We wandered around up there as much as we could, but ended up coming back down to where we started. Then we set off in the other direction, taking on another tough initial climb, this time with greater subsequent success. We followed the trail for a couple of hours, much of it along farmers’ fields and vineyards, often clinging to the side of the gorge in a way that looks precarious. Of course, the valley views from there are magnificent, endless compositions of water and sky, and largely tasteful insertions by mankind.

We descended near the castle Maus and into the little village of Wellmich, which doesn’t have too much going on. From there we walked back along the river to St. Goarshausen. This was about five hours since we left the hotel, and it was hot and often exposed throughout, so that was as much applied activity as you could really expect in one day. We sat around in the shade for about an hour, having a toasted sandwich, some ice cream, and lots of beverages. A lot of the activity on the road seemed to belong to motor cyclists; all the bikes highly polished and shining in the sun, all the gear immaculate. Apparently this is regarded as a prime road for motor biking, so maybe we're watching (say) junior accountants from Frankfurt living their dreams for an afternoon. Other aspects of the local culture could appear aligned with the biker culture too, given that we’ve seen ads not only for Deep Purple but also for a Monster Truck show, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and (sic) Thin Lissy, Of course, I’m engaging in wild stereotyping there, as there’s no inherent reason why the bikers couldn’t be down here for (say) a Goethe symposium.

We caught the ferry back to the other side. I mentioned that St. Goar would have seemed to belong to the old rather than the new Germany, but as we arrived back the street was filled, rather mesmerizingly, by an Islamic pilgrimage (or, more likely, a tour group heading for the bus). But eventually they were gone and things went back to normal. While we were in the hotel for our afternoon break, Canadian Milos Raonic lost in the Wimbledon final. For the last few trips, Ozu has been staying in a new location, called “Park 9.” Once a day, the dogs get to use an indoor pool, and Ozu loves it beyond description – he dips his paws into the water, loses his head with excitement, and goes running around the perimeter like a maniac, then repeats the process endlessly. Based on past experience, and given the time difference, I thought we would taking our afternoon break at the optimum time to watch this display on the webcam, but we’ve seen little evidence the pool is ever used at all. Well, I suppose every trip has to contain at least one disappointment.

We were aware that things might close down earlier on a Sunday, and so they did – we sat down outside the Bistro Café Goar just as the kitchen was closing, it seems. It really wasn’t very memorable food though, even allowing for our scaled-down expectations, so there may be little qualitative difference between the kitchen being open and it being closed. An hour or so later, a group of young women walked by, looking dressed up for a visit to a nightclub or suchlike. Based on what we’ve observed of the town, they were definitely misinformed; but on the other hand, they wandered off somewhere and we never saw them again, so maybe it has its secret gathering places…

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Germany mini-trip - day 2

We both slept very solidly, and woke up ready for a whole day of Germany! We spent the morning seeing more of Frankfurt, and by the end of it we’d covered the heart of things quite well, despite the time we lost on the first afternoon (and by the way, we realized today how unlucky we were – if we’d been even a single block further east when we joined the street that caused all our problems, we would have had clear access to the river, would have immediately realized we were turned around, and then the rest would never have happened, although on the other hand then we wouldn’t have our memories of Griesheim). We stopped for breakfast at a bakery (of course every European city has a bakery basically on every block, the inventory never changing too much from one to the next), retraced some of our steps from last evening up to the Euro sign and the main finance district, and then continued on into the main retail streets. It was a busy Saturday morning – the streets were packed. We went into the Galeria Kaufhof department store, now owned by Ally’s employer HBC and linked to the purpose of her visit here (so I suppose you could call it research). It’s very reminiscent actually of HBC stores in Canada – the food hall in the basement is particularly impressive (I’ve never seen such a large and nicely arranged display of water bottles). The store was busy too, although it’s always possible people are merely browsing before heading home to place their orders online.

We walked through an open air market, notable compared to those elsewhere for the volume of beer and wine consumption (based on what we've seen so far, the cliché still holds - Germans love drinking, and don't have too many restrictions on when and where it happens). We walked down to the river, wandering up one side and then down the other. Frankfurt has some more than pleasant views along there: some striking modern buildings contrasting with the older ones (or more accurately in many cases, the reconstructions of the long-destroyed older ones), but needless to say, if it does indeed replace London as the European centre of finance, as has been speculated post-Brexit, it has some catch-up to do in terms of overall scope and dynamism.
We returned to the hotel to pick up our bags and then headed to the station. The journey to St. Goar took about an hour and a half, with a simple change about a third of the way through. We splurged on first class, which meant a nice separate carriage on the first train (although not with working wi-fi, contrary to the legend) and then a barely differentiated space behind a glass partition on the second. The journey became quite lovely in its final stretch, overlooking the Rhine, traveling through a series of small towns, regularly overseen by high castles. We'd read that one can walk along the river for a long way - with regular ferries to the other side and easy access to the railways, it should be hard to get lost or stranded. This is the premise of the next few days anyway.

We instantly found our hotel, the Rheinfels, where the guy at the desk seemed highly amused that I have the same surname as a member of Deep Purple (coincidentally, or not, Deep Purple are actually playing here soon, on the other side of the river, although there’s nothing in sight resembling a performance venue, or even say a large playing field) (actually Ally just looked that up – they're playing in an amphitheatre somewhere among the rocks – might not be such a bad gig!). It’s an older but well-maintained hotel; our room is quite large and has a balcony overlooking the river, directly across from the nearest ferry stop.

One thing we hadn’t considered is that walking along the Rhine isn’t necessarily peaceful in the same way as many of the classic walks we’ve taken – there’s a road that runs right above it, and there's the railway just above that. There’s a cycling track and a walkway, and occasionally the trail dips down closer to the water, but you could never succumb to the illusion of being away from everything. That said, it’s very beautiful here, a completely satisfying spot to spend a few days. St. Goar is really little more than a strip along the road (at its most built up point, there’s a second strip behind that), but the possibilities lead away from you in all directions. This includes the upward direction, where we climbed the hill to an old castle – there’s a hotel up there too. We walked along the river to the west, a steady stream of ferries and afternoon cruise ships and industrial barges passing by (funny though that we didn’t see a single small craft – maybe they’re restricted). We could have kept going indefinitely, but we stopped around the time we reached “Das Boot,” apparently someone’s past brainwave of building a hotel in the shape of the top half of a boat (I’m sure it was fun in its heyday, but now it’s abandoned).

The town has six or seven reasonable-looking places to eat at night, although the menus don’t seem to vary much from one to the next. We chose Hotel am Markt, in the square in front of the town’s largest church (it has two). Most of the clientele seemed pretty elderly, and in some cases that’s putting it mildly. The waiter was initially attentive, but then seemed to lose interest entirely, reappearing only on the two occasions when we gave up waiting and I walked over to the building to look for him. Just as in Frankfurt, the main menu was supplemented by the special seasonal chanterelle menu. It’s amazing though how prices change when you get out of the big cities – our meal and what we drank were much the same as last night, but the bill was over 40% lower (under 60 Euros). The same thing goes for the hotel too. Anyway, I suppose the waiter had a point – there’s no purpose in hurrying; once it gets dark, there’s nowhere else happening around here…

Friday, July 8, 2016

Germany mini-trip - day 1

So it came up that Ally would be going to Cologne for work again, for the fourth time in less than ten months. We’d vaguely discussed I might tag along on one of these trips, and this seemed as good a time as any, so we quickly cobbled together a long weekend plan. In brief: we fly out of Toronto on Thursday evening, arrive in Frankfurt Friday morning, spend a day there before going to St. Goar in the Rhine Valley around lunchtime on Saturday, spend two and a half days there. On Tuesday I return home, and Ally goes on to Cologne to do her work, returning on Friday. It might be seen as a lot of cost and effort for such a short trip, but on the other hand, her flights are already paid for. Anyway, for various logistical reasons we couldn’t add on any more days; it was this or nothing, so we decided to go with this.

It’s been a long time since we had any real problems at airports, and that held again here; both our arrival and departure took place at near-record speed (it helps that we were flying premium economy, which gets you into the business class check-in counter and moves your luggage up in priority, among other things). We took a train to the main station, which of course was as easy as everything train-related in Europe. We’d picked a hotel near there to reduce logistical challenges, and located it easily enough after a few initial wrong turns. As so often, the streets around the station might not be regarded as the best invitation to the city, although it’s just life with all of its waiting and staring and yelling and scurrying. Certainly the streets belong to the new heterogeneous Europe, not to the old guard.

We stayed at the Hotel Bliss, oddly described in the room as an “exhibition and design hotel for the discerning little closer.” The design is of a familiar kind – lots of clean white lines: there are photos of old Hollywood stars throughout, although it’s hard to see how that relates to anything, thematically speaking (we were in the Audrey Hepburn room, at the end of the James Stewart corridor). Our plan for the afternoon was simple enough – walk to the downtown old city, which seemed like it should take half an hour or so, then maybe walk along the Rhine, and return to the hotel for a break having lapped up the main Frankfurt attractions, albeit not in much depth. So we went out, and after stopping at a nearby bakery for a snack, launched into just that.

This ended up as one of the more inexplicable escapades of our many travels together. We’ve often started walking without looking at the map in too much detail – usually it works out fine; when it doesn’t, it’s an experience in itself. Today we wanted to stay more or less on track because of our limited time here, so after initially wandering off track a bit, we consulted the map, adjusted our route and kept going. We were walking directly towards the old city, but we kept walking and it refused to appear. Eventually we came to some older residential streets and thought, this must be the start of it, but then that ended and we were merely walking along a highway. We couldn’t make any sense of it from the map. Then eventually we realized we’d been walking away from the city, the greatest blunder possible. We’ve done this before, but always as a result of being caught up in irregular street layouts where even a subtle shift in your sense of direction extrapolates into overshooting the moon by about half a light-year. On this occasion the streets had seemed largely straight, and straightforward, so it’s especially perplexing. At least we blundered together – it’s not as if one of us had overridden the instincts of the other, thus giving the latter something to bring up for the rest of our days (if we were like that).

Anyway, the residential streets that we'd taken for the old city of Frankfurt actually belonged to the nearby town of Griesheim. We caught a bus to the Griesheim station, and then a train back to Frankfurt (for all of our prolonged efforts, the as-the-crow-flies train journey took an embarrassing four minutes). It was a pretty hot afternoon, so we were tired even if we hadn’t accomplished much. And anyway, it wasn’t a complete failure. Other than having the story itself, we'd had plenty to look at – we were surprised for instance at the volume of industrial activity so close to the heart of a major city (perhaps as a sign of Germany’s status as the engine of Europe), although even that observation tells you maybe we should have realized earlier on that something wasn’t right…

We went back to the hotel for a while, where we napped a bit and tried not to feel too disappointed in ourselves. When we came back out after 7, we diligently followed the map (there's an idea!). The first part of the walk didn’t yield too much of interest – a lot of deserted restaurants winding up for the day. Eventually we reached the business district and the big Euro sign sculpture outside the European Central Bank, and from there the river. It was a warm but not stifling night and the banks were filled with couples and groups hanging out, cyclists, summer activity. We crossed to the other side, walked along for a while, crossed back on another bridge and then into the old town. It’s quite compact, less than a square kilometer, and of course teeming with our kind of people – tourists! (in truth though it is a much more sterile-feeling environment than the area around the hotel, which one might consider a good or a bad thing). Like all European towns, the main square is filled with open-air restaurants, and we ended up at one of those – the Zum Schwarzen Stern. It was emphasizing meals based on chanterelles, as they’re in season, so we both went with that, and the time happily passed. It eventually got dark (maybe half an hour later than at home) and we took a taxi back to the hotel. Then we noticed for the first time a stylish-looking bar across the street, so we went there for a final drink. And so in the end we basically achieved our plans for Frankfurt after all!