Europe called early this year – still in May. My son Marcus even had to miss the last three days of school, which he accepted with less joy than one might expect from an 11-year-old school kid. The reason: It ruined his perfect attendance record reaching back to 3rd grade. Yes, despite all our traveling around we had always managed to have him in school somehow. Well, I think he got over it eventually.
The reason for the early start was financial – airfare increased the next day. And so May 26th saw us leaving for San Francisco airport to board a plane to Düsseldorf. The day literally began with a bang: A large, rain-soaked oak branch had broken off in the wind and hit the roof of our house, leaving a visible dent and shaking us all awake. Time to leave then.
In San Francisco we saw Air Force One take off to the skies. President Obama had visited for a speech at a solar panel plant. We paid for the privileged sighting with an air traffic jam at SFX as the air space had been closed for the president’s security. Our plane, too, left late, but it was a quiet flight and we almost made up the lost time. As to our first time flying Air Berlin, well, the leg room seemed even less. Who knows perhaps we are still growing, and not just sideways.
We stumbled out of the plane and right into the ICE train to take Aaron and the boys to Leipzig and me to Magdeburg. Only to realize that Marcus had left his little backpack next to the railway information counter. Containing all the books he wanted to read over the next weeks, his indispensable joke calendar and Lux, the stuffed toy lynx traveling with us for the last five years. I jumped off at the next stop, Düsseldorf’s main station, and took a local train back to the airport. Alas, too late, the backpack was gone and no time to try Lost & Found if we did not want to miss the next ICE train also. So Lux and the bag stayed behind but, to give a happy ending away, were retrieved on the eve of our return flight from Lost & Found. Marcus found other things to read in the meantime (Richard Hawkins, Herodot no less) but if Lux should wonder what she missed (and ever learns to read), here is an account of our European summer month.
The family’s ways separated in Magdeburg. While Aaron and the boys rolled on to Leipzig, I had relatives to visit and my 30-year high-school class reunion to attend. I arrived tired from jet lag and train delays and the task of pulling my Chinese-made bag with a very short handle over the cobblestones of Biederitz, where I was staying with our friend Thomas. Dinner at a Greek restaurant and news that the apartment in Leipzig looked fine cheered me up.
I spent the next day visiting my mom in the nursing home, dad at the cemetery, and my cousin and her family at home. And the evening in “Moll’s Laden”, the same inviting pub where the last class reunion ended five years ago at dawn. Olaf, one of my former classmates, plays in a band. Which is at the moment almost defunct but he had managed to organize a gig for the night. Too bad only one other school friend made it. I guess partying two days in a row isn't everybody's thing anymore now. O well, it was a fun night nevertheless. I had a song dedicated to me and danced and talked to a mildly crazy old Kazakh woman while waiting for the night bus to Biederitz. Who wanted to go to Ulm but seemed to have no idea where to find it. Coming from Potsdam near Berlin, she had been turned around at the Polish border – entirely the wrong direction - and somehow ended up in Magdeburg for the night. With admirable fatalism she decided that the next morning might bring better insights and went to sleep right there at the station.
Then followed the big reunion day. Which I had organized to a good part, so I was happy that 16 of the still alive 24 showed up. Before, I had visited my mom once more. This time with an outing in her big wheelchair since the weather had improved. She enjoyed it a lot, was talkative and high-spirited – only to ask me at the end who I was. O well, it was a happy morning for her even though it will have slipped through the sieve of her memory in a day.
There was time left till the get-together, not much to do, which inevitably led to some shopping. Sensible things, though – leggings in case the evening would get too cold and a new carry-on bag with 4 wheels and a very long and smoothly extracting handle. Yeah, traveling in style.
The afternoon’s program started with a guided city tour by Ingo. OK, I am in Magdeburg often enough and just went to have more time to spend with old friends. But Ingo knows a lot about Magdeburg’s churches and city history, so I did learn some new facts. For instance, I had never realized that the romantic half-buried ruins I liked to explore as young teen were remains from the city’s time as Prussian fortress. From the small group of five who cared (or had time), we soon expanded to the full round at the “Petriförder” restaurant, located at the Elbe river.
Class reunions are only interesting for insiders – and not even that is always true. So all I want to say is that it was a long – till 3 a.m. – and surprisingly warm and heart-felt meeting. With deeper insights into the live of the others than the last one had provided, many hugs and kisses in the end, and vague promises not to wait five years again. Ah nostalgia – must be a sign that we have entered middle age. Where has the cynicism of our youth gone?
I spent a few morning hours as guest at Ines’ apartment, even getting some sleep, but rising very disciplined at 8 a.m. to catch a late-morning train to Leipzig. When I arrived at the apartment past noon, everybody was still asleep. So much for discipline. There was work to be done for the rest of the day – apartment cleaning and laundry and repacking to get ready to leave again for Prague the very next morning. Not much time to get a feel for Leipzig. But I don't need much time – I felt at home in my old hometown and glad to be back almost immediately, a sentiment helped by a visit from Conny, my oldest childhood friend, in the evening.
And off we were again, to Golden Prague, favored destination of many Americans over the last decade. My excitement was restrained – I have been there, done that since I was 9. Still, as with all great old cities, there is always enough new to discover or just its atmosphere to draw you in. Aaron had found us a very cheap way to get four people to Prague for no more than $50: Traveling on the Bohemia-Saxony ticket and a local Czech train for the last leg. The only catch is that, like with other regional tickets, one is only allowed to use the slower regional trains. So our journey to Prague took four trains with switches in Dresden, Bad Schandau, Dečin and Usti nad Labem. Most curious was the train between Bad Schandau and Dečin, the smallest I have ever traveled in. It was just a single, diesel-powered wagon, looking much more like a bus than a train except that it ran on train tracks, of course. We had about an hour to spend in Dečin and used it to get Czech crowns and stroll around the small but well-kempt downtown. Once we were in Prague, it took two more metros and a tram to Vysehrad where we located our apartment at the "Emma" hostel easily enough. Quite a good deal - 40 Euros a night bought us a complete apartment with bedroom, large kitchen/dining room combination, shower room and toilet, furnished with the international uniform of cheap vacation apartments – bright and modern IKEA furniture. Vačlav, our friendly landlord, left us with keys, maps and recommendations to settle in. We followed one of his recommendations for dinner later on, after walking around the pleasant late 19th century neighborhood, the “Přavek”, a stone-age themed restaurant made to look like a cave and ornamented with fake mammoth teeth. Fortunately, the food was much more up-to-date, and if it was leaning towards big meat portions, well, that’s pretty typical for Czech cuisine anyway. They served the same beer, “Granat”, then in the Magdeburg “Petriförder” restaurant, small world of Central Europe. Aaron and I concluded the evening with a very long walk. Up to the Vysehrad metro station on the actual “hrad” (mountain, hill) that the neighborhood is named after with great views, across a long highly raised bridge, all the way to Wenceslas Square, Charles Bridge and back along the river. Which was still the Elbe, just like in Magdeburg. Tourists were crammed into the old town but mostly absent everywhere else. The Prague castle shone in the night, the river glowed with reflections. New for me was the Gehry House, also known as the Dancing House, a 1996, very organic and fluid building people either love or hate. I approve of it.
A new morning, a new month. June 1, International Children’s Day. A calendar mark unknown to Marcus but still observed in the Czech Republic. At least there was a party in downtown with a very colorful clown.
For Aaron, the first full day in Prague meant making his way to the National Archive and starting on his research. I accompanied him on his way to the metro and then walked to downtown by myself, admired the community house – with Alfons Muchta decorations - and Powder Tower at the Place of the Republic. Muchta was my destination this morning, more precisely his museum near Wenceslas Square. It is not all that large but I spent two hours nevertheless, spending time with each of his pictures and viewing the film on Muchta’s life. I left with a calendar full of his beautiful art deco illustrations for the Leipzig apartments and little bookmark souvenirs for friends and family. Then I marched back in a hurry, worrying the boys might get restless. No such thing – they were actually still asleep. After I had them suitably awake, they decided they wanted to see the old town. So back the way I had just walked twice, good exercise. We did the tourist loop – Wenceslas Square, Starometska Namesti, the famous astronomical clock at city hall, Tyn church, cathedral, the former Jewish quarter of Josefov with its synagogues. It was duly appreciated, but Micah admired the fancy stores on Parizska more, especially the Rolex store. Well, one of us needs to move to a different income bracket first for that. But while he had to be content with window shopping, I bought a little silver necklace with yellow amber pendant in art deco style on the way to Charles Bridge. Customary jewelry purchase out of the way, I took the kids across the Charles Bridge and then back to Wenceslas Square and home by tram. Micah bought some cannabis vodka, which turned out to taste terrible, and I some absinth, which is still unopened and waiting for the right occasion.
Aaron arrived shortly after us, we fed our children Chinese takeaway food (a bit more bland than the American version), and then left for Pivovarna Klub, a microbrewery cum restaurant with excellent traditional Czech food (meat and knedliky, sauerkraut, strudel and pancakes) and great beer, of course. Afterwards I felt so full, I had the need to walk back to the city center one more time. After which I was sure I must have walked off an inch of my legs.
The evening ended with detective work at the internet: Aaron was trying to find out where his Petik grandfather had come from in Bohemia. A tricky quest, made more complicated by transcription errors that had turned his home village from Křičen in Bohemia to Bricon in Austria by the time he got to South Dakota. But he found the village in the end, not far from Pardubice, leading to the idea of renting a car on the last day and paying a visit.
The next day we split up in similar ways. Aaron to work, me to culture in the morning while the boys were still resting. This time I had picked St. Agnes monastery, which houses the medieval art collection of the National Museum. And a very extensive one, too. So many Marys and saints… I took the tram this time, as the threatening gray clouds of the last two days had finally started to release all that rain. The monastery is centered around a Romanic-early Gothic church of simple beauty. The many, many paintings and statues differed in style more than topic. My favorite was a small statue of a highly pregnant Mary, not too different from all the old fertility goddesses.
When I emerged from the middle ages, it was raining so hard, I actually regretted my usual aversion to umbrellas, especially since I was determined to walk back. Before I could get even close to being soaked, a friendly fate sent me an umbrella left behind leaning against the river railing. It said “Four Seasons Resort” on it, but the “Four Seasons” was nowhere in sight and no unshielded people either. So it was mine and served us well over the next couple of days.
The weather did not improve this day and Micah did not feel like facing it. But Marcus was ready for an afternoon outing up to the castle. Like before I enjoyed the streets of Malastrana below the castle more than the old town across the river. We trudged through the soaked gardens of Wallenstein Palace, now the seat of the Czech senate. When we reached the castle yard, the rain was so relentless that Marcus agreed to the palace tour just to get into a dry place. So we saw the old royal palace, the Rosenberg palace and the St. George Basilica. One of the highlights was the place of the second Prague defenestration. Curiously, all 3 Habsburg officials who were thrown out the window survived the steep drop, a fact immediately celebrated by the house of Habsburg and the Catholic church as a miracle. We finished off the round with a look inside the huge St. Veit’s Cathedral, where somebody happened to play the organ expressively and I even found the Muchta-designed stained-glass windows. I rewarded Marcus’ endurance with pizza, and the evening ended apartment-bound with home cooking.
The last full day in Prague saw a little change in the routine – this time I took Micah along in the morning to the Kafka Museum. It had not yet been open the last time I was in Prague. It is set up as a kind of psychoanalysis of Kafka illustrated by his life stations, letters, quotes from his works, photos, introduction of his family and friends, again and again the father as central conflict figure. Nevertheless, Kafka remains a bit of a stranger to me, his sensitivities seem overheated. My down-to-earth instincts kept whispering: What was he really complaining about all the time? No matter, he wrote some pretty good books out of all that inner turmoil and mess. When we emerged, the rain had finally stopped. So Marcus and I dared the long trek to the Prague zoo in the afternoon. It is situated at the edge of the city, in an area called Troja, which is very green, villas interspersed with parks and vineyards. Providing the zoo with plenty of space to grow. It is at least twice as large as the one in Leipzig, its natural hills well used, with some fantastic new structures like the Indonesian jungle building or the Africa house. We were fascinated by the free-flying fruit bats that zipped by our heads in the twilight and the great number of giant tortoises and Komodo dragons, by the aardvarks and the baby gorilla, and the little mountain goats practicing their climbing skills. Four hours had passed fast, and we had not even seen everything.
Back at “Emma”, Aaron soon arrived with the rental car, a small Mercedes. Our last dinner in Prague was enjoyed at “Pod Slevicem”, a neighborhood pub + restaurant where the food was even cheaper and the meat portions more generous than in the previous places. And the Czech beer good as always. Not exactly diet food in the long run, but then, we had to say goodbye the next day.
And a long goodbye it turned into. We steered our budget Mercedes out of Prague early in the morning. The car smelled strangely like vinegar and cheap plastics, no idea why Mercedes tarnishes its nice reputation with something like this. O well, it’s not like we wanted to buy it, just get us around Bohemia for a day. Our first stop was the old mining town of Kutna Hora. We strolled through its pretty town center, took in St. James Cathedral and great views and then walked over to mighty St. Barbara Cathedral and the Jesuit College next to it. The town is geared to tourist crowds, but aside from a few busloads full of Japanese, we saw mainly Czech school classes. At last we visited the “bone church”, a church decorated by Cistercian monks from the 16th century to the 1870s with bones – bone garlands, sculptures, candelabra, coats of arms, mountains of skulls. The most active in the somewhat macabre art had been a monk named Santini in the 18th century, unfolding true Baroque splendor in human bones. The reason for the strange decoration was an oversupply of human remains. The local cemetery was regarded as particularly holy after a returning monk had sprinkled it with water from the Holy Land. Add some wars and plagues, and the burial grounds kept overflowing, so the old skeletons were exhumed and recycled for decorative purposes. Marcus and I sneaked in with a travel group and saved the entrance fee and I got some good photos.
Next we made a brief detour to Milovice, where Aaron took pictures of a Russian military cemetery from the First World War. We couldn’t help noticing that the neighboring Italian military burial ground was much better taken care of and signed out. Sticking with the cemetery theme, the next one we visited was in Křičen, Aaron’s ancestral home village. Though we found no long-buried Petiks there. Aaron also talked to two teenage girls from the village and came away with the impression that there is none of the family left. The village itself is too small for a church of its own, rather idyllic, remote, and surrounded by wheat fields and forest.
Now we turned the car north toward Usti where we had to drop it off by 4 p.m. and catch our succession of small trains back home. Since there seemed plenty of time left, we stopped by in Terezin, the former German “model” concentration camp, the place shown to Red Cross visitors to impress them by the wonderful treatment of the Jews there – with self-government and schools, even a riding hall and a theater. Of course, they were not told that most of the lucky actors only stayed for half a year or so before being shipped on to places like Auschwitz and that even in Terezin many died of hunger and disease. I thought it might be valuable for our sons to see one of these places. Not such a good decision. OK, Aaron got some nice photos of the local Russian war memorials – for WWI and WWII, facing each other. The Austrians had a military prisoner camp here in the first war. But there was no time left to see the ghetto museum, and without the historic background, modern Terezin looks like a very pleasant little Czech town, not like the monstrosity it once was at all. There is no obvious horror like in Auschwitz, no barracks and crematoriums, just a Prussian fortress around a pretty town long ago resettled by Czech people. Micah and Marcus were more bored, hot and bothered than intrigued. And now we had to hurry because we had overlooked that the highway has not yet been built all the way to Usti. The last stretch is the old winding road along the Elbe river, scenic but not exactly fast to navigate, stuck behind and between endless trucks. And then we needed to fill up the gas tank before returning the car. Of course all the gas stations were on the left where Aaron did not want to turn for fear of never being able to return to the endless stream of traffic. But the river was on the right and it seemed unlikely that somebody would build a gas station so close to it. Aaron was optimistic something would come up – and then we were suddenly in the city center, half-lost, then drove by the hotel were we needed to drop of the car. But still no gas and time running out. After a couple more kilometers finally a station on the right. Perhaps, with fast drop-off service at the hotel, we could still catch the train. Aaron jumped out to fill up the car – and couldn’t get the tank cover open. We all ended up searching – no button, lever or anything else to press to open up the tank access. Defeated we drove back to the hotel. And while Aaron looked for the car rental manager, Marcus and I more or less accidentally solved the puzzle: No button whatsoever, one just had to press at the tank cover itself at one specific corner and it would spring open. With an owner’s manual in the car, we could have looked it open, but, of course, there was none. The rental guy probably thought we were pretty inept and we felt foolish enough. Aaron raced back to the gas station, filled up, dropped off the car – and we had 7 minutes left to make it to the train. We tried but it took us 13. And just like that, the faster and better connection was gone. With waiting time in Usti and then in Dečin, we spent our last crowns on food and more comforting Czech beer, then had to sprint to very tight connections in Bad Schandau and Meißen before arriving in Leipzig around midnight. The last train was extra leisurely – with a stop-on-demand button for every tiny village. But we had it all for ourselves after a while and slept most of the time anyway, dreaming some last Czech dreams.
Five days remained before our real vacation within the vacation – a week in Spain. Time to unwind, unpack, take care of mail and photos and shopping and errands. To see Andrea and go to Leipzig’s city festival with Conny and enjoy some good music – Kai Niemann, a young Goth band named “Down Below” that we both liked best and the highlight of the day, Peter Schilling, whom I remembered from the days of Neue Deutsche Welle in the 80s. Everybody else did, too, so people were singing along in a loud chorus.
Five days without train rides apparently were too much, so we squeezed in a day visit in Berlin to meet Maureen and my mother. I was so anxious not to oversleep that I accidentally got up an hour too early and only noticed my error after the morning shower. Maureen was getting ready for her move back to the USA and to discard most of her possessions. Which meant we returned with way more books and CDs than planned, and I couldn’t pass by the onion-pattern porcelain from Thuringia either. Which is now practically a family heirloom: My grandmother had given it to my mother in the 70s – a popular present to send from the East to the West then -, who had passed it on to Maureen.
Maureen had matured over the last few months, looking slimmer, wearing better-fitting clothes, sporting no longer chewed down fingernails for the first time since she was three and a professional haircut. And just coming across as more focused and adult. Well, she would turn 24 soon, my age when I gave birth to her. Strange thought. When we said goodbye this evening, it was with the knowledge that we would meet again in Spain in just a couple of days, making us feel like a very international and well-traveled bunch indeed.
Why Spain, you might ask? Well, the Iberian peninsula was the one big white area left on my European travel map. And our finances called for a vacation week under 300 Euro per person. Which left the Turkish Riviera and various places in Spain. The one we settled on, Isla de Canela, was Aaron’s find. A small resort right next to the Portuguese border, at the Costa de la Luz, much less overrun than the Costa de la Sol or Mallorca. The hotel was new, and the available reviews seemed to indicate that only Spanish tourists went there. Sounded enticing. We had studied the travel guide and an art history book of Andalusia to get into the spirit of the place, of which I had otherwise very little preformed concepts to be confirmed or disappointed.
Our first vacation day was, as so often, mainly a travel day. We took an early train from Leipzig to Bremen to be at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Only we had planned without the German railway system. The train, up to that point only mildly late, stopped in Nienburg, about 70 km from Bremen. Nothing happened for about 45 minutes, at which point an announcement was made about a “people-involving accident” at the tracks. In Bahn jargon, this seems to be the term when somebody has been run over by a train, whether accidentally or as a suicide. The conductor informed us that nothing would move for the next 2-3 hours. An alternative connection would get us to Bremen at 3:41 p.m. – 10 minutes after the departure of our plane. What to do? We made a quick exit from the train to the taxi stop in front of the station. Only one passenger had been faster as we, so we got the second taxi. Driven by the owner of the local taxi company himself. Who proceeded to call all his drivers and send them to the station while driving us towards Bremen. A happy profitable day for his enterprise, as he charged 90 Euro for the ride. Painful for us and not made easier by the old guy going on and on about the more than 40 times he has been on the Canary Islands, his latest South Africa trip, his 3500000 Euro RV (which they don’t use very often so his wife will get a break from having to make the beds and cook during vacation), about the three months vacation he can take every year, his participation in the Steuben Parade in the USA, etc. In contrast to that, we are a family of paupers but, hey, we are pretty happy, too.
As small comfort, a nice sales woman at the Bremen airport sold Micah his döner for employee discount after I told her of our inauspicious start into the holiday week.
The 3 ½ hours flight was on time and typical Ryanair – nothing is free, no pre-assigned seats, advertisement everywhere. In fact, after pointing out that this was a non-smoking flight, the flight attendants immediately started to hawk smokeless electronic cigarettes for those who could not stand the nicotine withdrawal. Most of the flight path was hidden under clouds, but the skies cleared in time to let us enjoy the approach to Faro along the Spanish and Algarve coast. Long sand beaches, rivers and estuaries, it looked promising. We picked up our rental car, a little black Renault and found Hotel Playamarina in Isla de Canela without problems thanks to our Tom-Tom and after about an hour’s drive through a rather Californian-looking landscape.
The hotel is part of a vacation resort, hotels, timeshares, restaurants and stores. All very new and rather empty, apparently a victim of the Spanish version of the real-estate bubble. The wide promenades had the feeling of a ghost town in the evening. What tourists there were seemed to prefer the old fishing village at Punta Moral across the river. Our hotel apartment might have been intended as a timeshare, too. It was spacious enough and well-equipped. A living and dining room with couch bed for the boys, a kitchen, bathroom and a bedroom for Aaron and me. It even had a washing machine. The window looked out to the pool and the ocean beyond it.
After settling in, we followed everybody else’s lead and explored the fishing village where a village festival had just started up. We ate in one of the many little restaurants. Local seafood, except for Marcus who played it safe and ordered hamburger. To his disappointment, it was more akin to a spam burger, an experience repeated elsewhere. Spain is not a burger nation. But the fish is great, the wine cheap, and we even had musicians going around playing some flamenco tunes on accordion and guitar. I finished the evening with a solitary walk at the very dark beach, cut short by a rain shower. The forecast for the next couple days promised more of that and rather cool temperature. Even in Andalusia, summer had not yet arrived.
Eager to explore the new country, I was up and around way before anybody else seemed overly willing. The hotel complex included a small grocery store where we got some breakfast supplies. Spanish pastry has interesting similarities to Mexican – only slightly sweetened, rich in egg and fat and filling. I had chosen the day’s route, a tour to several (relatively) close towns and to the Doñana National Park. We passed by Huelva, which, while being a very old place, going back to Phoenician times, has little preserved of this illustrious past and is mainly a modern industrial center. Instead we visited the smaller and picture-pretty Moguer. White-washed houses with iron balconies in narrow streets, ceramic tile decorations on many walls. Very white and clean and freshly painted, quite a different impression than the romantic sandstone crumble of Southern Italy or Malta. It was quieter, too, though that might have been due to the fact that this was no tourist destination, just a little Spanish town known mainly for the fact that Columbus prayed a night away at the local monastery (St. Clara) and his captain Pinzon is buried here. As already during the drives from Faro and to Huelva, we marveled at the many stork nests everywhere, including on the towers of the monastery.
We stayed on the Columbus trail and next went to Palos de la Frontera, hometown of two of Columbus’ captains and half his crew and where the ships were built also. The great discoverers from small-town Andalusia. And another Columbus location followed: Monasterio de la Rabido. A dejected Columbus stayed here for some time after the Portuguese king had rejected his crazy plans to sail west. A local priest provided comfort and encouragement until the discoverer was ready to try his luck with the Spanish royals instead. There are Columbus monuments at all three places. La Rabido seems well visited by school classes and tourist groups and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and an international university campus. We harvested what we thought were limes from the trees for our drinking water. Later we discovered that these were rather unripe oranges but it still worked as refreshment.
Now we followed the coast, with the Atlantic mostly hidden behind high dunes, till Matalascañas. Another new and smallish resort with an inviting beach. There we rested and became acquainted with the Atlantic waters, mostly just jumping around in the waves, only I took off swimming for a bit. Then walked along the beach in search for pretty rocks and shells. I came away with the basis for a practical joke to be played repeatedly over the next couple of days: A rock that looked amazingly like a pile of dog poop. We managed to trick Maureen with it later on to everybody’s admittedly infantile joy. Micah used my walk time to eat at a fish restaurant and to stub his toe bloody on a rock hidden in the sand.
When the clouds became darker again, we moved on to the visitor center of the national park. 580 square kilometers of roadless wilderness, mostly marshland and dunes and pine forests, the largest roadless area in Western Europe. Doñana has its own Big 5: flamingo, fallow deer, wild boar, imperial eagle and Iberian lynx. Of course, we saw only a tiny piece of the park and rather discovered the small 4 than the big 5: dung beetles, ants, giant flies and small lizards. But the lagoons were also full of herons, coots, ducks and even a turtle (not a native species and frowned upon by the rangers). A couple of companies offer trips by boat, jeep or minibus into the wilderness, which promise more exciting sightings but were outside our budget. So we made due with a 1-hour hike and then drove on to Rocio. Outside the town, I got to see the flamingos I had missed at the national park. There they were in a great flock standing in a lagoon, and next to them were beautiful horses wading through the water. What a picture. Even being attacked by a small aggressive dog - the bitch apparently had puppies in the nearby bushes – did not make me miss the photo opportunity.
Rocio is a small town that comes to life once a year to play host to more than a million people. They come to participate in the procession of the extra holy local picture of the Virgin Mary at Pentecost. According to legend, some peasant found the picture hanging in a tree, loaded it up to take it home. But when he woke after a rest stop, the icon was gone and had returned to the tree. Reason enough to build a sanctuary and eventually a town around it. Brotherhoods – hermanidads – from all over the country own big houses in Rocio to house the pilgrims. They stand empty the rest of the year. The town has streets three times as wide as would be fitting and proportionate but unpaved. Probably because the pilgrims traditionally come on horses and in carriages, not in modern vehicles. Outside the big annual event, the place looks strangely oversized, empty and dust-blown, like a very Spanish version of a Wild West ghost town.
Our last stop of the day, in the evening light, was Niebla, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Andalusia, surrounded by an intact Moorish wall with five gates. There is also a 15th century castillo with an extensive torture museum, which we did not subject ourselves to. And again storks everywhere – on towers and gates but also almost all the power poles in the surrounding. Often with half-grown young ones, 4 or even 5 storks to a nest. I have never seen them in such a concentration and read later that many of these storks used to be part of the annual migration to Africa but have now become year-round residents in increasingly warming Andalusia. A side effect of global warming that is pretty to look upon at least.
We ended the day with Spanish treats from an Ayamonte supermarket – Ayamonte is the town next to Isla de Canela – Spanish cheeses and jamon, olives and sherry produced in nearby Jerez, the place that gave it its name.
The next day was to bring a family reunion – we were going to meet Maureen in Seville, where she had flown three days earlier, and take her back to a hostel in Ayamonte. What we had already suspected the day before turned into solid proof: Andalusia is bigger than it seemed on the map, Seville not just an hour away but two. So we were a bit late for our meeting at the huge cathedral. But Maureen had been sufficiently entertained by street musicians in the meantime. Seville’s cathedral is the largest of the gothic type in the world and third-largest overall. A building from Seville’s times of incredible wealth when the city profited from having the trade monopoly with the new American territories. A happy time that came to an end when the river got more and more silted and trade eventually moved to Cadiz.
Marcus and I joined the line to get into the cathedral while the others brought Maureen’s luggage back to the car. One of the magnets inside is Columbus’ tomb, even though it seems to be controversial whether his remains are actually inside. Further a huge altar with more than 1000 carved and gilded figures, many chapels full of art and relics, and an exhibition of church treasures. Climbing up to the Giralda tower next to the church was included in the tour and well worth it. The tower used to be a minaret for the mosque that filled the square before the cathedral. 98 m high after the Christian remodel, with the top not being reached by climbing hundreds of stairs but ascending a ramp wide enough that a rider could make it up there. I wonder who did. The muezzin? Great views of Seville from all sides from the top, of course.
When we finally made it down and out through the orange courtyard (full of orange trees), the others were waiting and we now wandered a bit through the narrow old streets of Santa Cruz, once the Jewish quarters of the town. We enjoyed our seats at the Café de Indias on Avenida de la Constitucion, across from the cathedral square. Less so the lunch, the service was slow, the orders not all filled correctly. Micah’s sandwich never came – they had run out of chicken but not bothered to try and tell us. At least I learned that a tortilla in Spain is a different beast altogether from what is means in Mexico: a kind of egg-and-potato omelet, quite good. We could not even punish the place by withholding tips since they were already included in the bill, with 20%.
Now I was really ready to see the Alcazar, the complex of first Moorish than royal Spanish palaces and the sight I had looked forward to most in Seville. Rightfully so, I would say. I went by myself since Maureen had already been there and the male family members are just not enough into royalty. While they munched on ice cream and fish and visited the bull-fighting ring, I was transported into centuries past and scenes from Arabian fairy tales. While I have seen my share of palaces, this is the one I would choose if I had to live in one. (And the Spanish royal family still maintains living quarters there.) Especially its oldest, Moorish parts with all the filigree masonry and decorations. And the inviting and intimate courtyards and gardens between. The crown jewel is the palace built by Moorish artisans for King Pedro. Who left a sly mark of their own: Above Pedro’s boastful entrance inscription proclaiming himself a great conqueror, they had set in ornamental Arabic the sentence: Only Allah is conqueror. I bet Pedro never knew.
The palaces are adjoined by extensive gardens, which seem even larger by the use of offset axes, a far cry from Europe’s huge formal garden alleys a la Sanssouci or Versailles. Water fountains and doves everywhere, a well-guarded paradise.
I rejoined the family at the Plaza de Trionfo but then left them once more for a brisk walk through some more downtown and along the Guadalquivir river to get at least a glimpse (and photos) of famous towers like the Torre del Oro, Torre de la Plata, the Triana neighborhood across the river, birthplace of flamenco, of the bridges, bull-fighting ring, theater and the 17th century Hospital de la Caridad. To round off the visit, Maureen led us all to Plaza España, dominated by a huge palace full of bright ceramic tile decoration – one tile mosaic for each Spanish city. Not a very old structure – it was built for the Ibero-American exhibition of 1929. Our guidebook rips it as ultimate kitsch, but I admit to liking it.
On the way to the car we encountered a public aseo - Spanish for toilet - and ended up giggling helplessly while trying to beat its automatic door into admitting 2 or 3 at once for the price of one coin. It was not easily fooled.
Maureen checked in at her hotel, fairly luxurious room for 24.95 Euro a night, then came with us to our apartment where she and Micah proceeded to prepare a tapas dinner, late, but that would be normal for Spain, and full of interesting treats. I had paid some serious money for jamon iberico, the regional ham specialty that comes from happy pigs who roam the forest and eat a diet of acorns. It is darker and very intense in flavor, if a bit fatty. Something to be eaten or added in small quantities.
The evening petered out in complicated negotiations about the plans for the remaining days. As we had discovered that the distances were greater than expected, Cordoba, Cadiz, Gibraltar, Lagos in Portugal and Tangier in Morocco seemed impossible to cram into four days. The boys cared most about Morocco and Gibraltar. Marcus also about Cadiz because of its Phoenician past. I would have given up Cordoba as the most remote destination but it was No. 1 on Maureen’s and Aaron’s list. Maureen had just discovered that her German passport had expired in January and she did not have her American one along. Now traveling within the EU just with her German identity card was no problem but going to Morocco without a valid passport not advisable. In the end a somewhat irritated stalemate ensued, and we decided to make the next day our local beach day and give it all some more thought.
So Sunday, June 13, was our day of rest. Or what counts as such among the Cohens. Aaron and I picked up Maureen after breakfast and I used the occasion to climb on the local watchtower from 1756, part of a chain of such structures to guard the coast. Then we all did some more planning and dropped Morocco as a result since the ferry would have cost us 240 Euro for a 4-hour stay. We promised Africa that we would come next year for sure. This finally resolved and with the temperatures somewhat improved to the upper 70s, we visited the hotel pool. Where we had to learn that its nicer part with water slide and whirlpool is for the guests staying at hotel rooms only, not for the apartment guests. Maureen and Marcus had picked the right and more modest pool but where the only ones in there. The water was prohibitingly cold. So we switched to the ocean, which wasn’t warmer either but at least had waves and a pretty sand beach. Marcus and I had enough inner heat for a short swim and then warmed up on the beach for a while.
Later in the day, we went back to Ayamonte for a little walk through the town and along its waterfront. The hotel grocery store supplied us with more tapas material for the evening as well as sangria. Before I felt ready for this feast, I went on a solitary hike through the marshlands near Isla Canela, observed multitudes of birds and very loud frogs. The village festival in Punta Moral must have reached its pinnacle that day, for I was startled by gun salutes and firecrackers on my return. With the three-hour early-morning drive to Cordoba in mind for the next day, we passed on the opportunity to partake in the fiesta and called it an evening early on.
And why did it have to be an early-morning drive? Well, the mezquita, the famous medieval mosque that lured us most to Cordoba can be visited for free if you show up there before 10 a.m. Also, there are no groups allowed in before that time. An enticing enough prospect to make us leave at 6 a.m. in the dark. In the dark? Sure, it was early, but should it be dark at 6 in the morning in June at this latitude? Surely not. It is a quirk of how the world is carved up into time zones. Spain is in the same zone as Germany but neighboring Portugal shares England’s timing, i.e. Greenwich Time. Thus, if you live in Ayamonte, it is an hour earlier across the river. And the Portuguese clock seemed to fit the actual stand of the sun much better in this little border corner. Thus we had to stumble through the dark to the car where everybody but driver Aaron soon settled back to sleep. We would have been there at 9:15 a.m. – if the parking structure selected from the map did not happen to undergo renovations along with all the street sections around. So we got lost for a few minutes, had to park farther away and then almost jogged through the still mostly empty streets of Cordoba. Our efforts were rewarded, though; we made it in time and had the huge mezquita structure almost to ourselves for the first 20 minutes. Abrupt switch from sun-baked heat and haste to contemplative twilight in the huge room of the mosque. A magnificent building, started in the 8th century with the idea of recreating the desert praying experience: The floor was red sand and clay mixed, the many columns symbolized the palm trees of an oasis. Beautifully decorated carved wooden ceilings, filigree stonework and mosaics. Also an example of early recycling – many of the columns came from Roman excavations and a previous church, making them all different in color, size and shape and the overall impression somewhat more organic. Very different from anything I have seen so far. Later on, the Catholic church remodeled the middle of the building into a cathedral in Renaissance to Baroque style. By itself, it would have been impressive, but taking apart part of the mosque for it seems like a grave injury and deformation. Of course, you can argue – and a church brochure did – that the Muslims tore down a 6th century Visigothic basilica first to make room for their mosque. At least, they paid for it and did not just confiscate it. I guess sentiments of historical conservations are fairly young. We stayed a long time, admired and enjoyed the atmosphere. A mass was underway in the cathedral part, and the choir singing sounded truly heavenly. Got to give that to the Catholics.
We exited into the orange-tree filled courtyard with ex-minaret and then went for a stroll through old Cordoba. Especially picturesque again the little streets of the Juderia, white-washed, flower pots everywhere and brief glimpses into verdant and idyllic patios. The 13th century synagogue was closed. I bought a star-shaped ceramic tile at an art co-op.
Next we ventured just outside Cordoba to Madinat Al-Zahra, the ruins of the former palace complex of a caliph. Impressive size but both the excavation area and the exhibition hall were also closed. Then the reason dawned on me: It was Monday, traditionally the day when museums close. A bit of poor planning here. I shared this insight only hesitantly since the other big highlight of the day was supposed to be Italica, first and best preserved Roman settlement in Spain, birthplace of emperor Trajan and possibly Hadrian. Born optimists that we are, we drove by anyway. At least we could see it through the fence like the caliph’s palace. Well, not exactly, most of Italica remained hidden from view in the distance and behind walls. At least we agreed that it cannot be as big or impressive as Ostia or Pompeii, trying to convince ourselves that we had not missed out on too much. Besides the drive along small country roads was a welcome break from the highway.
We recovered at a cafeteria in Ayamonte with beer/sangria/cola/water, then let frugality win out and bought our dinner at the supermarket again. At least it allowed me to give in to my craving for chorizo. Of which there are many kinds in Spain. The type I chose turned out to be very similar to a certain Hungarian paprika sausage I still remember well, an unexpected find.
For the next day we had plans to cross over to Portugal. Aaron had a reservation for a day-long surfing class in Lagos, and I for three hours kayaking along the rugged coast full of sea caves and grottos. The time zone difference allowed us a somewhat later start in the morning, after all, it was still an hour earlier over there. Maureen and Marcus came along to explore Lagos, Micah stayed behind for a quiet day. While the drive to Cordoba had made me think of the Central Valley more than once – flat and intensely agricultural -, the landscape on the way to Lagos reminded me more of Southern California. Even the weather had turned to Californian summer just in time for a day near the water. There were subtle differences between the two countries. Portugal seems just a little bit more unkempt and laid back. It probably reflects greater poverty, too, but it felt invitingly relaxed. We reached Villa Offshore, seat of the Algarve Extreme company, somewhat ahead of time. Especially since we were dealing with surfer dudes here, for whom a start time of 10 a.m. was more a guideline than something written in stone. By and by, they packed their gear. At which point one of them remembered to tell me that I had to go to the beach to catch my kayaking group. Which was about due to leave at that moment. I rushed down to the remains of the old harbor fortress and found my group just ready to embark, life vests on and paddles in hand. Phew, that was close. A small group and all in their early 20s except for me. Two German couples from Zwickau (of course, Saxons…) and five Australians, four hung-over guys – Lagos has a reputation as party town – and a young woman, Joelle from Melbourne, who became my partner in the double sit-on-top. She had never kayaked before but was athletic and fit and picked it up fast. We were pretty much the fastest boat. Our guide, in a single, was a German who had emigrated to New Zealand years ago and then somehow landed in Lagos. The 25 Euros for the 3-hour tour were definitely well spent. The coast a succession of yellow sandy beaches and rugged sandstone formations, rocks, tunnels, and arches with evocative names like the camel, the elephant, the Titanic. And many caves and grottos that we visited. Wonderful photo motives, exciting but not overly challenging surf, sunshine and a pleasant breeze. Perhaps my favorite morning of all. On the way back, we stopped for half an hour at a beach for some swimming and snorkeling. Actually, everybody else decided the water was too cold, so it was only me swimming out there with snorkel and glasses. I saw some pretty striped fish as reward but returned with my legs scraped up from the sharp rocks and one knee bleeding rather dramatically. Well, it made for a good photo.
Right before we turned back to our launch site, I discovered Maureen and Marcus in the waves at a neighboring beach. They saw me, too, and waved back. Nevertheless, I had difficulties finding the correct beach afterwards and it took some searching and cell phone calls before we were reunited. Since Aaron had some surf hours left, we strolled through pretty Lagos. Lots of English and also German ex-pats have made this town their home, English is widely spoken, and we even found a very authentic German bakery and pastry shop. As to historic sights, there was the former slave market (the kayak guide had already pointed out the bay where the ships full of African slaves left for America), the mostly intact city wall, a number of pretty churches and a small fortress. The streets narrow but bright and full of holiday crowds, the whole pace has the atmosphere of a friendly spa resort. We snacked on ice cream and port wine and watched some of Portugal’s world cup efforts against Ivory Coast with the crowds. And finally waited the last hour at Villa Offshore for Aaron and his surfer group. Aaron was happy with the day in the surf. He had managed to stand up on the board a few times and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Only his knee hurt for days afterwards, so his new surfboard at home might remain a body board in the end. On the minus side, he had lost his wedding ring to the ocean. Everybody helped searching for a while but a ring in the ocean has probably even worse odds than a needle in a haystack. Hm, so I had sacrificed blood and Aaron gold to Poseidon that day. We decided to have my ring and some other gold melted at home and then two new rings forged from that. In the meantime, I should regard myself free and unbound as one of the girls from the group told me. Better not…
We saw a bit more of Portugal in the evening by driving to Sagres, the western-most point of Portugal, once thought to be the end of the world. King Henrique V stood there on the fortress walls, famously stroked his beard wondering what was out there and decreed to found a school of navigation. Who in time proceeded to chart and circumnavigate the world. We found something more prosaic – an excellent and affordable restaurant, O Dromedario, before heading back to Spain.
Our last full vacation day, June 16, was also the longest, taking us to Gibraltar, Baelo Claudia and Cadiz. The drive to Gibraltar is about 4 hours and thus the farthest distance we ventured to cover in one day. It led us past the now already familiar stretch to Seville, along a toll road for a short distance, then through the cork oak woods of the Parque Natural de Alcornocales. Here now it looked a bit like in the familiar Californian foothills, live oak replaced by the cork variety.
From Algeciras and La Linea, Gibraltar towers over the ocean. Abrupt, massive, steep and higher than I had expected. A mighty rock with a medium-sized town at its foot, covered in vegetation. We joined the border queue, which moved fairly speedily along, given that both the Spanish and the UK/Gibraltar side check every passport. Right before the Gibraltar border is an undeveloped stretch with military barracks. Reminder of the years when Franco blockaded Gibraltar after a referendum among its inhabitants on joining Spain had resulted in just 44 yeahs, but about 13000 nays.
We drove straight up to Europe Point, from where the African coastline is clearly visible. So close, and yet out of reach for this time. The sea crashing at the rocks below suddenly had this beautiful azure color. O right – this was the Mediterranean, no longer the Atlantic. Still my favorite sea, though I did not get around to swim in it this time. Instead we briefly admired the modern Al-Ibrahim Mosque next to Europe Point and financed by the Saudis, then drove on to the National Park Reserve of Gibraltar in search of the famous Barbary apes. Of which we found plenty. They are by no means shy but like to hang around the tourist stops, such as St. Michael’s Cave in hope of food. And if you obey the signs and refuse to feed them, they sometimes just take what they want. We observed a female with a cute newborn dangling from her breast ripping an ice cream bar right off a little boy’s hand. Others will climb on people’s shoulders for photos – but definitely expect a treat in return. The apes’ antics were so comical to watch, they were an absolute highlight for the entire family. But the reserve had more to offer. An atmospheric stalactite cave, used for concerts today, as hospital during the war, picnic and dueling ground in Victorian times and, with bone and skull findings as proof, apparently already popular in Neanderthal times. We also visited the old Moorish fortress towering over the town, with a huge British flag on top and – of course – apes monkeying around.
Then we wandered through the town of Gibraltar for a while, which is truly an outpost of the old British empire. Red English phone booths and a mix of English and more Mediterranean architecture. Fish and chips shops everywhere, Marks & Spencer, English pubs. Its 40000 inhabitants enjoy a large degree of autonomy today, though they are officially part of the UK. They speak English, Spanish and a local version of Spanglish hard to follow for outsiders. Spain still would like to have the rock back, Great Britain to keep it, and the Gibraltans, apparently, to be left alone. There is a trilateral commission in place to discuss the issue but apparently without great hurry or pressure.
Leaving Gibraltar, we turned to the coastal road, enjoying more glances of Africa, a tempting view of Tarife – no time, no time – and then stopped again at Baelo Claudia, Roman settlement from the 2nd century BC and the second-best Spain has to offer after Italica. Not quite as large or well-preserved, but it makes up for that with its wonderful location right at the ocean and along long white sand beaches. Besides there was still plenty left of it to see. Baelo Claudia had been a place to catch and process tuna since very ancient, that is Phoenician, times. Aside from fish, its main product was garum, a spicy fish sauce tremendously popular all over the Roman Empire. Marcus, who had lost patience with ruins quickly in previous years, was intrigued by this one, so we took our time exploring. Which left less time for our final destination of the day, Cadiz, but still enough to make it to the Casa Obispo before it closed at 8 p.m. This archeological museum is basically the excavation of the foundations of one single building. An archbishop’s palace in more modern times, a building has existed at the spot since pre-Phoenician times, and careful excavation has revealed layer upon layer. 3000 years of settlement history in one big basement, with glass walks to cross from Phoenician retaining wall to Roman cistern to medieval storage room. No spectacular statues really but Marcus, who had pressed for this stop, was impressed anyway. Just to know that this room or that wall had been around for thousands of years, to contemplate all the changes the city had lived through. Cadiz is assumed to be Europe’s oldest still occupied city.
We had enough daylight left to get a good impression of today’s Cadiz or at least its center. Since it is cramped on a narrow peninsula, people have built on top of old structures forever, the current center is mostly 18th to 19th century. The overall impression is Baroque, underlined by the huge Baroque cathedral, and somehow more Malta or Southern Italy than Seville or Cordoba. More yellow hues and sandstone than white, not quite as clean, and with more people in the streets, though this might have been due to the evening hour. I sampled fresh fried seafood from a paper bag, delicious, and we all had dinner at a small street café served by the owner who did not speak a word of English and served some pretty good tapas and cheap local wine.
The sun was drowning in the sea when we left, for the most spectacular Spanish sunset of the week. Stopping only one more time to allow Maureen to take photos of a sunflower field in the sunset light, we were back at our hotel past midnight. First we had dropped off Maureen and said good-bye since she was to leave by bus to Seville and plane from there the next morning.
And now there was just the departure day left. Though the plane only left in the afternoon, leaving us with enough time to pack quite leisurely in the morning and then spent a few last hours at Faro’s city beach, Praio de Faro. This turned into the warmest day yet, in the mid 80s, perfect for playing in the surf and some actual sunbathing. We also had a look at Faro, unpretentious and friendly. Again, there were storks everywhere, even the lamp posts. We ate lunch in a café run by an elderly woman with a Vietnamese parrot. She did not speak English, but fluently French. I wonder whether she had been in Vietnam in her youth, in the old colonial days.
Finally, it was time to turn in the car and fly back to Bremen. Since we arrived late in the evening, we spent the night at the Eureka Bed and Breakfast – surrounded by young participants of the Special Olympics. More reliable trains sped us back to our Leipzig home the next morning, while Micah traveled on to a chess tournament in Berlin. The separation from the Southern sun and beaches was eased by the fact that it was actually hotter in Germany. And by the port wine and Portuguese “chocolate salami” and the many photos we brought back as mementos.
Another 13 days remained before our return to America. Aaron managed to see another country – he spent a week in Belgrade, Serbia, researching old articles in the national archives. I was envious and a bit sad I could not go along. But in the end, this turned into such a full week for me that I am no longer sure who got the better deal. There was the street festival at Georg-Schwarz-Straße just a day after our return. I went with Andrea who has lived all her life in the neighborhood and seemed to know half its population. The most interesting part was a 24-hour art exhibit that had been set up in an uninhabited 4-story apartment building. A wide variety of artwork combined under the loose thematic umbrella of “Copy and Reality”. Some really funny pieces like bread rolls that looked more or less vaguely like the Venus of Willenbach, a can of Campbell tomato soup opened and splashed over a canvas as answer to Andy Warhol, pretty moving light structures projected at a ceiling that were caused by wriggling maggots. A water fountain installation made of toilet bowls. A chicken on a fork next to a speared dove with the title “Eating comes before morality”. My favorite was a somewhat surrealist painting called “Moon Robber”, a girl who had caught the moon in her balloon. I even called the artist the next day and inquired about it. 300 Euros, and it would probably have been negotiable. But we really did not have the money left, so a photo of it had to do. There was also music on a stage and in some backyards, with more to come at night.
In the evening, I went with Conny to the nightclub “Telegraph” for some dancing, where we met Andrea again also. And with Andrea I finally returned to the street fest and a concert inside the apartment of some guy where we danced the night away till 4 a.m., to a certain degree of displeasure by our respective husbands. Aaron had to leave at 8 a.m., so at least I made myself get up and have breakfast with him, then collapsed back to bed.
The next morning Marcus and I were off to Berlin. Where we met Micah, who had come away from the bughouse chess tournament pleased and with a cup and certificate for being B-finals team winner, handed over the apartment keys and saw him off back to Leipzig while we stayed to help Maureen moving out, spend some more time with my mother, and, in my case, meet two more classmates. Especially Kerstin who had been unable to make it to Magdeburg since she is confined to a wheelchair, making traveling difficult. I had not seen her since we were 18, so there was a lot to talk about sitting in a ship restaurant at the Spree river.
After an intense cleaning effort in Maureen’s place, I said good-bye to her the next afternoon and took Marcus along to Potsdam to meet my friend Thomas. We went on a long hike through the beautiful parks of Sanssouci until Marcus felt he couldn’t walk another step. At which point we switched to walking through downtime Potsdam, sweetening the deal by throwing in a nice döner dinner. Then in Thomas’ camper bus along the lakes surrounding Potsdam in search of a campground. We ended up pitching our tent at a private camping club, Flottstelle Schwielowsee, invited by friendly club members. The lake right next to the tent looked inviting, and so we ventured out in Thomas’ huge Russian folding kayak, a three-seater. Plenty of bats flattered around us, fish jumped out of the water, herons flew to their roosting spots. The sun set in front of us while a huge almost full moon rose up in the back. Perfect.
More kayaking followed in the morning, to Werder and back, with fish-eating stop in Werder. Smoked eel, hadn’t had that in quite a few years. Then it was time to break camp and for Marcus and me to get to the train and back to Leipzig. Heavily loaded since we brought back Maureen’s computer for Conny who picked us up at the railway station and later helped me cheer the German team in the soccer world cup on TV.
There was one unspoken-for evening left, Thursday night. But luckily, Andrea called just in time to invite me to come along to see a documentary about the Doors, “When You Are Strange” in the courtyard of my favorite clothing store, Ms. Hippie. I had caught a summer virus from Maureen and was a bit feverish but certainly still in a more sober mindset than Jim Morrison ever was.
The next day I met another friend, Monika, for lunch, and in the end we agreed to go to “Klassik Airleben”, an open-air concert by the famous Gewandhausorchester and the Leipzig Opera the same evening. They performed a concert version of “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat), a popular operetta by Johann Strauß. Some real bats showed up, too, as well as a large happy picnic crowd all over the big Rosental meadow.
The last German weekend saw me at the railroad station again, but this time only to pick up a friend from Magdeburg, Ines, who had not been in Leipzig since her early teens. I was proud to show off my beloved hometown. City center for sure, then the southern part along Karl-Liebknecht-Straße. Might as well stop by the neighborhood where I grew up, then loop back to downtown and from there to our apartment in Gohlis for a snack and rest. Not too long because I still wanted to show the zoo window and the shopping mal at the railway station. And since there was an hour left, why not swing by the student club Moritzbastei… At which point Ines shyly mentioned her hurting feet. Guess I got carried away there a bit. But I think she liked it anyway.
My feet did not yet hurt, but my vocal chords had suffered from the virus and the constant talking. Nevertheless, I was up for a party at Andreas’ huge garden in Rückmarsdorf. Conny came along and drove us there. Marcus came too. But no Aaron – he had missed his connecting flight and had to spend the night in Munich. The party was such a success that we stayed till dawn. A bunch of middle-aged and some younger adults, all singing songs in English around a campfire all night long. Marcus was between irritation and amusement and managed to stay awake all night with us. His first all-nighter and at a younger age than I tried that.
Sunday, June 27, saw me completely voiceless, Aaron returning, but first more guests. My Dresden friends and former college roommates Kerstin and Uta came with their families. Another stroll through downtown until Aaron arrived. Later a visit to a medieval fest at a rural manor in Taucha, a very scenic and authentic setting for such an event. But almost completely deserted by visitors – after all, Germany was scheduled to play soccer in a little over an hour, and the nation was already gathered around their TVs or at public viewing events. We still saw most of it after our return home and celebrated a German victory together.
And then the last day in Leipzig had arrived, finished off in style with an Italian good-bye dinner at “La Locanda”. We climbed onto a train once more, went to Düsseldorf, picked up Marcus patiently waiting backpack at Lost & Found and stayed overnight at another hostel. Did not see much of Düsseldorf. Not a tourist destination anyway, but a very multicultural place, Turkish and Arabic stores and restaurants especially were everywhere. We even came by the Moroccan Cultural Center and thus concluded this year’s vacation with a glimpse of next year’s destination.
Publication Date: 01-19-2012
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