Wow, I've just discovered this post in draft format has been unpublished for a few months now. So, without further ado, I bring you the ::cough:: latest from chez uns...
So we’ve been back from our holidays for about ten weeks now, and I really should have posted this before it became too stale in my mind. The thing is, when making a rough draft of it I discovered that there was so much to cover that my rough draft ended up being the length of one of my usual posts. Then I procrastinated about splitting it into smaller posts and… and… and… you get the idea. So here it is, in all of its glorious detail :-)
This was a driving holiday around eastern Germany and some of the Czech republic. We traded Anna’s parents their car for our minding their dog for three weeks while they were in Mongolia and China. We started out with a brief one hundred and forty kilometre quick hop to Regensburg. There we stayed with the Bartas, friends of Anna’s parents from way back. It was just an overnight stay, and we didn’t really do much in Regensburg even though we had planned two days there and a some trips to see the surrounding countryside. We have seen the city a few times before, including one memorable Christmas where I kept asking for Glühwein mit Schuss, not knowing that the mit Schuss meant that they were adding a shot of schnapps to it ;-) Let me tell you, five or six Glühwein with schnapps makes an outside temperature of -13°C feel really warm and fuzzy.
So, after Regensburg we drove straight to Prague. The border between the two countries would have been something really interesting to see back when Czechoslovakia was concerned with such things, but these days it’s almost entirely devoid of life. The only activity was in a little hut where we had to buy the temporary road tax needed to drive in the Czech Republic. Otherwise it’s a ghost town. We got back on the motorway and managed to drive mostly non-stop to Prague. There was a diversion where some road works were going on, but that wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle. Interestingly enough the GPS in our car has this stupid limitation where it can’t actually navigate between different countries. When you get over a border you need to switch the country to the one you are currently in. Stupid system. It also took us to what can only be called a slum close to the river in Prague and told us that we had reached our destination! In reality we still had a couple of kilometres to go before we reached our hotel. It was the fabulous golfYacht Prague, on the Moldau river and I really recommend it if you’re there for a short stay. The cabins are very small but very intelligently laid out. We had a problem there the first night in that the air conditioning had broken down and it was hovering close to 30°C in our cabins at night. Prague is HOT in the summer, and this was the high season so it wasn’t very comfortable that night. Second night however it all fell into place when they got a temporary air conditioning unit hooked up to the hotel and it made us crawl under the covers again.
Prague during the summer is packed with tourists. We’ve been there once before in Winter for a conference I was at for work. Unfortunately I had a nasty cold that trip so I didn’t actually want to see anything. Anna had been out and about and seen the town though, and said it was lovely and that I was missing a really interesting city. This time however, that wasn’t our experience. It was just hot and crowded. We walked quickly through the old town and over the Charles bridge to find a nice restaurant for dinner. There was a lot of meat on the menu, so I had a skewer of different meats and some veg which was. Washed down with a dark beer in the waning sun it was a far better experience than I been expecting an hour before. The next day we went up to the Petrínská rozhledna, on Petrín (lovers) Hill. It is basically a tower that looks a lot like the Eiffel Tower, although a little smaller. The view from the hill over the city is pretty spectacular, and the park on the hill itself is nice too. On the way down we passed through the diplomatic quarter and took the obligatory photos of the German and Irish embassies. We ate lunch in the area in a beautiful but very expensive cafe belonging to the Hotel Aria (just across the road from J.J Murphy’s Irish Pub). The interior was old and frescoed, and they sold delicate little cakes and sandwiches, and it was most pleasant. That night we had dinner on the boat. Anna had pork with parmesan risotto and artichoke hearts which she has since described as “awesome” and “yum, yum”, and I had (again) a steak, though this time with potato and carrot gratin which was done to perfection. Soon afterwards the engineer who had been flown in from somewhere told us that he had fixed the air-conditioning, and the temperature rapidly returned to normal in the cabins.
Next day we left Bohemia and drove through the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) to Malter, which is a suburb of Dippoldeswalde. There we hooked up with Kerstin & Mathias and their son Franz. They are relations of Gaby, but I can’t remember exactly how (I think Mathias is her cousin?) and Anna’s asleep now so I can’t ask her. They are a lovely couple of high-school maths teachers who took us in and fed us enough food for a large family. Great food though – we had a barbeque out the back of the house, with those awesome Thüringer Bratwurst sausages, and a bunch of other meats and salads. I hadn’t had a barbeque quite like it in a long time, maybe even since we lived in Rathfarnham. A little later a steam train pulled into the train station, which lies at the end of their garden. We had a wander over and took a look at it. Apparently it runs twice a day between Malter and somewhere else (should have written this ten weeks ago), and it was pretty stunning to see. I uploaded a video of it to YouTube which is worth taking a few seconds to look at.
In Malter we stayed in a local pension which backed onto a farm. It was pretty much in the countryside, and it was July, so there was a lot of wildlife around. In one ceiling corner of our room (conveniently the one closest to my head when sleeping) there was a large spider who kept hunting the flies that stupidly flew in the window to it’s web. When it caught one, it would do so incredibly fast, and with rather a lot of noise from the web and the insect on the menu. Now, I’m not normally that afraid of spiders anymore, but this thing was something else. It took me a long time to get asleep that night I can tell you, and just as I had reached the point of getting there, the fucker would catch another insect, and I’d hear a scuttling sound again. Damn thing kept me awake for hours. Anyway, next day we did a small through the Erzgebirge, taking in a bunch of small towns and villages and seeing literally hundreds of windmills all over the countyside. I don’t mean the old Dutch type either, we’re talking industrial scale power generators, scattered over any available hill top.
Something else cool we saw around here is what’s known as the Frohnauer Hammer, in Annaberg-Buchholz. It is one of the best examples of a medieval forge remaining today, and absolutely worth a look if you’re ever in the area. Later on that day we drove past a circus in a field beside the road, and they had some animals outside grazing so we stopped and took a good look. Probably the coolest, most surreal and unexpected things was that there were elephants outside grazing without anything keeping us from getting to them. Or vice versa. I took some awesome pictures of this too, which I’ll upload to Flickr in due course. In the mean time, here’s a video of Anna feeding elephants.
We also saw the Greifensteine – a geologic formation similar to the Giant’s Causeway, but with a different shape. In this case, blobs of granite magma formed large pebble shapes on top of each other and remained after the surrounding material had eroded away. The formation is about three hundred million years old, and reaches up to 30m above ground level.
The next stop for us was Dresden. We arrived there a little early and couldn't check into our hotel, so we went on to see Andreas's Aunt Helga in Radebeule and hang out for a bit. Just before visiting her we took a tour through the GDR museum, which is a fascinating look at life in East Germany before the re-unification. Everything from local brands of Cola (had some and it was awful) to the legendary Trabbants were on show there. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who is in Dresden. The hotel we stayed in there wasn't too bad either. Its location is a bit strange in that it is in a residential area a couple of kilometers from the city centre. The rooms are huge though, and it was pretty cheap for a 4 (?) star hotel.
Next day we went on a tour of Dresden itself, including the Frauenkirche which has just been rebuilt after being destroyed in the second world war. I read somewhere that the bombing damage done to Dresden in two consecutive nights during world war two caused a conflagration hot enough that stone melted. Have a think about the destructive energy required to make stones melt for a second. So after that we wandered over to the other side of the river and took a look at the city from the famous view where Canaletto painted his seminal work of the city. There was a great market there where they were selling only local wines and snacks. And then we came to the Kunsthof which is a group of buildings all built in completely different artistic styles. My favourite was the water wall, where they had water flowing down through a very intricate series of pipes and channels on the wall. Again, this is well worth a visit if you find yourself in Dresden. After that we headed back to our hotel, stopping somewhere on the way to look at a shop which was originally painted in the 19th centaury, and is famous for its mural covered walls.
Next day we’re off to Meißen and Morizburg. Meißen has one of the most famous porcelain works in Europe and we took a tour of the factory to see the stages of creation of porcelain pieces. Coming from a town where they had a pottery in which I used to play as a kid I found this fascinating. All their pieces are hand-crafted and painted, and the detail is pretty incredible. The prices are also incredible. We saw a single cup and saucer for €1200 and a soup terrine for €20,000 (reduced from €25,000)! After the tour we had lunch in the cafe attached to the factory and then walked up to the old town and saw the castle and thought about buying a disused prison that we discovered. It would have had the most amazing views over the town. After that we bought some pieces of Meißen porcelain for our parents, and drove on to Moritzburg. This is another famous old town, but in this case for its Baroque castle. It dates back to the mid fifteen hundreds, and is a work of art in itself. It is also built in stunning grounds, with little outbuildings everywhere. Even the outbuildings are pretty amazing, and the Fasanenschlösschen (Little Pheasant Castle) is perhaps the most famous of them. We thought we could get some food there, but the eatery was further on than we expected. Instead of a ten or fifteen minute walk, we took about an hour and a half to get to a restaurant which was ultimately useless. They had only cauliflower soup and beer to eat, so we walked another fifteen minutes on towards a restaurant where we were ultimately sated. Nicely too I should add. I had roast duck, and it was pretty spectacular.
Next day we left Dresden and drove to Pirna for a quick visit. There was a coffee roaster there so we picked up some some of their “Pirnauer Mischung” (Pirna Mix) roasted beans to take with us. I also bought a coffee bean sack from them, which we’re going to have framed and mounted as a piece of artwork in our living room. Anyway, after Pirna, we went to the Bastei. This is a bunch of cliffs overlooking the Elbe. The viewing points at the top are about two hundred meters over the river, so the view is spectacular. I’ll get some pictures published on Flickr soon. Although it is very touristy it is worth seeing. It is comparable to the Cliffs of Moher for the kind of view you get from the top, although it takes longer to get up to as you have to walk the whole way. Or so we thought. We later discovered that the hotel which is at the top of the cliffs is accessible from the rear by car. Oh well, at least the walk was really nice. At one point on the way up, we came across a guy busking in traditional costume. He was standing in the middle of a dell and using the natural acoustics of the place to amplify his voice. The effect was magic. For those of you who watched BSG, it was a bit like the episode where Felix sings after losing his leg. Magical.
That night we stayed in the Alte Geberei in Bautzen. Anna’s dad is from there and we saw the house he was born in. Unfortunately it is now derelict, though still standing. We had an amazing meal in the hotel, another steak if I remember correctly. The next day we took a walk about Bautzen, and circumscribed about half of the old town along the walls. Bautzen is famous for its mustard, so we bought lots of it! Ultimately it’s very small though, so we drove on towards the Spreewald.
The Spreewald is an unusual geographical feature. It is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve which has about 1,300km of natural canals and channels which are navigable primarily by punt. There is a town in the centre of it all, but apparently even the postal service uses boat to deliver mail. We rented a canoe to take us around for the day which turned out to be a lovely idea. The temperature was perfect and there were thousands of large dragonflies on the river. We stopped in the Wotschovska for food and then headed home. On the way we discovered that our map was, well, inadequate. We ended up getting lost probably no more than five hundred meters from our hotel. I still think we would have been faster to get out and carry the boat by road to the hotel, but we made it in the end.
The next day it rained. A lot. It rained so much that after breakfast and the obligatory gherkin purchase (Spreewald is famous throughout Germany for the pickles you can get there), we went bowling. That whole day was a bit of a washout really. I tried to get some work done later, but I seemed to be just on the edge of the cell so couldn’t get a decent enough connection to do anything meaningful. So I bought a UMTS stick there, but I couldn’t get that activated either. The next day I took it back to the shop and had them activate it for me there, and that about covered me for mobile access during the next week. Anyway, after getting the stick fixed, we took a tour of a gherkin cannery, which was far more interesting than it sounds I can tell you.
Next stop on our trip was Torgau, where we came across something really unusual. There was a castle there (of course) and Martin Luther’s first church (every town in Germany is home to the most, the first, the largest, the longest or the oldest something), and it was just outside the castle in what I presume was originally a moat that we came across two brown bears. They had this moat all to themselves, and were playing with some huge truck tires. It sounds surreal to read that, but there you go. This was the town where the US American army met up with the Russian army in world war two. There was a small museum to that, and some of what we read was really grim. There’s a statue in the town which was built during the time of communism by some Soviets which has a plaque on it that reads something like “Here on the banks of the river the Glorious and Illustrious 5th Army of the Soviet Union met some americans”. Anyway, we had some beer and sausage and basked in the sun for a bit before driving on to Leipzig.
In Leipzig we stayed in a “motel”, which was part of a large camping ground. It was there that I saw what must have been the largest camper van you can imagine. It wasn’t articulated, but was about as large as a 40foot container truck. Unfortunately I never got a picture of it, but it was about as big as the image on the right. So Leipzig wasn’t as cool as we were expecting. The city itself is a little ugly, and was built mostly in the sixties, or so it seems. It does have some interesting features though, such as the museum of the “Rund Ecke” (round corner) where they had the Stasi headquarters for many years. There’s a lot of information there about how a people can be made to spy on themselves and the lengths that they will go to in order to survive. It was really interesting, but not all that enjoyable.
After Leipzig we drove on to Teefurt and stayed with more relations of Anna’s. They cooked us some of the local famous sausages (Thuringer Bratwurst) and we drank a few beers and sat out on the veranda with the sound of the waterfall behind them making everything nice. Cara of course discovered the kittens in the next house, and basically went crazy trying to get to them. Next day we toured Weimaar and took a look around the museum there. Goethe and Schiller both lived here and their houses are on the must-see list for what seems like every student in Germany judging by the amount of tourists there.
After Leipzig we moved on to Eisenach. Our reservation there was in a villa overlooking the town but there was a burst water mains nearby and it had flooded, so they had transferred us to a Croatian hotel nearby. That hotel was awful, and we stayed about 20 minutes before checking out. At this point we changed our plans and moved everything up by one day. So we went up to the Wartburg, which is an old castle on a rock near the town. This is the place where Martin Luther holed up and translated the bible to German originally, amongst other actually interesting history that was buried somewhere that we couldn’t see.
After that we went straight on to Nurnberg instead of staying the night. We called the hotel and had our reservations moved up a day, and set off. Along the way we almost ran out of diesel, and had been travelling on a red light and empty tank for about half an hour by the time we found a gas station to fill up. There were a lot of angsty looks getting thrown my way in that half an hour I can tell you. Still, we made it and got into Nurnberg in time to check out the local Potato Restaurant. I kid you not. Anna took one look at the place and made some comments about me having to love it because it was a potato restaurant, and apparently I come from a nation of potato eaters. Anyway, the restaurant was awesome, and was one of the better meals throughout the whole trip IMHO.
Next day we were going to take a look around Nurnberg before heading home but it was pissing rain, cold and grey so we said “Fuck it”, and drove back towards Munich. All in all it was a pretty incredible three weeks, even though I don’t convey that here. I had originally thought that a road trip wasn’t going to be as satisfying as actually going somewhere and doing something, but I was completely wrong.