Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Deutschland: Part III - Cologne

Deutschland Part III – Cologne

Dom exterior/interior

We arrived at the Cologne train station at 7am on the night train from Munich. When we stepped out of the station we were confronted with Colognes main attraction, the Dom. The Dom took over 600 years to complete (1248-1880) because of several lengthy delays. It also took a beating in WWII, but you can hardly notice.

It’s hard to convey the huge size and immaculate tiny details of this cathedral’s architecture. Each and every time we walked by this area there were hoards of tourists snapping pictures of the Dom, but they could only catch a tiny segment of the building at a time. Here’s Andrea's best attempt at a comprehensive close-up photo using the panorama setting on her iphone:

Here's a shot from the side:

The inside of the Dom was equally stunning. I didn’t recognize most of the statues and stain glass scenes, but those people must have done some great things if anyone would bother to make a statue of them.

We came back for a Sunday service on our last day so I could hear someone play the pipe organ, and I was not disappointed!

Climbing the bell tower

For a small fee, you could climb one of the bell towers, which was a spiral staircase with almost 600 steps! Here's a picture from when we were descending to give you an idea of what it looked like inside:

I was surprised by the amount of graffiti on the walls. We thought the climb would be tough, but living at 5000m above sea level in Fort Collins had kept our legs and lungs in better shape than most, so it wasn't too bad. The view from the top was totally worth it, although Andrea is terrified of heights, so she wouldn't walk over to the edge to see it all.

On our way back down the spiral staircase we were confronted with a decent amount of traffic. Even though walls surrounded us, some people were clinging to the handrail like they were walking on an exposed ledge. There was also an encounter with the most annoying tourist I’ve ever seen. The staircase had windows that lined up in the same direction, so that every dozen steps or so you would be looking at the same view again. The guy in front of us must have had a memory disorder, because he was so amazed with the same view he had just seen, he felt the need to hold up the people behind him and take yet another picture with his huge camera. It probably took about 30 seconds each time he did this.

Eating raw pork

If you know me, you know I’m a “foodie”, but more than that, I like to try “weird” foods. I prefer to think of myself as drawn to culinary and gastronomic adventures (such as live octopus and raw whale). Most of the food in Germany was not what I would consider adventurous, but there was this one exception:

This is the “Cologne Sampler Platter”, which showcased regional sausages. The light pink meat was similar to bologna that you would find in the US. The red sausage in the middle of the plate was made from smoked pig liver, and was the best liver I’ve ever had. The liver had a smooth, not gritty, texture. The dark red meat with white spots at the top of the plate was “black pudding” or blood sausage. This was good, but far from the best blood sausage I’ve ever eaten.

Underneath all this was a pile of raw ground pork! On the menu it was described as “minced pork”, but I wasn’t expecting raw meat. I asked the waiter about this and he assured me that this was the correct preparation. He suggested putting it on a piece of bread with some raw onions and salt. I tried a couple bites of it, and it wasn’t too bad, but eventually the fear of getting sick prevented me from eating anymore. Luckily, I did not get sick.

Chocolate Museum

If you ever find yourself in Cologne, I urge you to check out the chocolate museum. In addition to interesting exhibits about the history and economics of the chocolate industry, the museum houses a fully functioning chocolate factory (with robots!) that takes raw cacao beans and turns them into little chocolate bars. The great thing about this little factory is that you get to peek into every point of the process. There is also a huge chocolate store that we took full advantage of.

Ride on the Rhine

After we checked out most of the other sites in Cologne we decided that we wanted to see more of the countryside, so we took a southbound train to Bingen, and rode a ferry back up the Rhine to Cologne. This section of the Rhine is littered with old castles (see map on the right). Some are just ruins, but others have been well maintained and have people living in them, or have been turned into a hotel.

The weather was a bit gloomy, with mild rain throughout the day. The ferry wasn't very crowded so we got one of the dining rooms all to ourselves. It ended up being a very relaxing day drinking kolsch and taking pictures of the scenery.

We got back to Cologne and walked over one of the main bridges to check out the love locks. If you've never heard of this, the idea is to customize a lock with your names and lock it to the bridge. Then you throw the key off the bridge to symbolize that you're stuck together forever. People usually have some ceremony to go along with it, and sometimes they also do "unlocking" ceremonies, in which they remove the lock with bolt cutters. I'm not sure why you would bother going through an unlocking ceremony if you were breaking up. We thought about putting our own lock on the bridge but we forgot to buy one before the stores closed that day.

K-Town Jam

We spent our last night in Germany back in the barracks at the Sembach army base. We had another jam session that stemmed from an impromptu a cappella session at the local bar with some of the army choir. I was blown away by how good these singers were, but then again, almost anybody can sing better than me! Here's a video of the pre-jam singing session to give you an idea of how awesome these guys were:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Deutschland: Part II - Munich

Our second and favorite stop on our tour across Germany was Munich. Munich is the capitol of the southern state of Bavaria (I didn't even know Germany had states!). Munich is also the third largest city in Germany, but it definitely didn't have the same "big city feel" that we noticed in Berlin.

Munich is most well known for their beer, and specifically for Oktoberfest. Most of the beer we drank came in these large one liter mugs like these:

We also had lots of really large pretzels, like this one:

Generally, we found the food in Germany to be pretty simple, with minimal seasoning. Many things were served with minimal preparation. Restaurant food in the US seems very "dolled up" by comparison, with heaping spoonfuls of salt and sugar. The food in Munich seemed especially hearty. Many dishes consist of meat and some sort of starch, like this one with a potato dumpling:

Here's another example of schnitzel and potato salad:

Another interesting food-related observation was this thing called "steckerlfisch", which is simply a roasted fish on a stick. These were typically sold at little stands in beer gardens. The fish is either trout, mackerel, or fingerling. I was really curious about trying one, but I wasn't sure how to eat it! On the last day of our trip a german girl that we were sitting with at a beer garden bought one and was eating it with a little wooden utensil that resembled a popsicle stick with prongs. She was kind enough to let me try a bite, and it was actually really tasty as long as you don't mind the fish staring back at you while you eat it!

One of the coolest things about Munich is that they have a spot on one of the rivers that has been engineered to have a standing wave that you can surf! There's a nice article about the history of the wave in Munich here: http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/places/noah-lederman/munich-surfing

Being the huge nerd that I am, I had to check out the Deutsches Museum, which is the world's largest science and technology museum. This place was incredible, and it was so big that we couldn't explore it all. I wish we had set aside two days to explore this place. There was an entire hall dedicated to lasers and holograms, but by that point we couldn't take anymore science and had to go do something else.

A large portion of the museum is about various vehicles, such as boats, planes, and spaceships. The life-size exhibits included many odd and interesting prototypes to illustrate the history of how these things have developed over the last few hundred years.

Another part of this amazing museum that caught my eye was the section dedicated to musical instruments. The first section was all about piano-like instruments. I had no idea that there were so many different mechanisms for hitting or plucking a string. There was one great exhibit that showed all these different mechanisms (there must have been over 30 of them), and you could hit a button to activate each one and see how they worked. Many of the pianos were incredibly ornate, and had keys capped with ivory or abalone shell.

The second half of the musical instrument exhibits were all sorts of strange string and wind instruments, like this bowed string instrument that used a horn to amplify the sound:

The last thing I'll say about this spectacular museum, is that they had a clock tower that also showed the wind speed, wind direction, pressure, and relative humidity! I think more towns should have stuff like this for all the aspiring weather nerds out there.

For the first few days in Munich, we just walked around randomly on our own, and didn't really understand what we were looking at. On the last day, we opted for a bike tour of the city, during which we learned the significance of all the stuff we had been casually observing. In the lead up to WWII, Munich was the center of the Nazi movement. This was where Hitler staged the Beer Hall Putsch revolt (which failed), and eventually came to power. We rode by the building where Hitler gave many of his rambling hate speeches, and rode down the streets where he would lead the Nazi rallies. Munich was also home to famous "White Rose" student resistance movement in 1942-1943. The bike tour was a great way to connect all these places and historical events. I also liked that we waited to do the tour at the end of our visit, because we already had a good feel for the layout of the city.

Overall, Munich was our favorite city that we visited. One reason for this was the enormous park known as the "Englischer Garten". We ended up spending a few hours each day in this urban park, to either have a picnic or just stroll through.  All that green space made Munich seem like a nice place to live. Although, I could do without all the old men sun-bathing in the nude.

The last thing we did before hopping on a night train to Cologne, was to find a beer garden to watch the world cup game between the US and Germany. Even though the US got trounced (1-0), it was a fun game to watch. When Germany scored the single goal of the game, the whole placed erupted with a deafening sound! We got heckled by some Germans during the game, and we weren't sure what they were saying, but it definitely wasn't very nice. Luckily, we also made some friends with the germans that were sharing our table.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Deutschland: Part I - Berlin

After a long hiatus, the blog is back in action! This post, and the two following, will be about my recent trip to Germany with my lovely girlfriend, Andrea. Here she is jumping on a trampoline built into the sidewalk in Berlin:

This trip was purely a vacation to celebrate finishing my PhD.  I started planning a trip over seas with my New Year's resolution in 2013, where I decided that I would play as many paying music gigs as possible, and put all the money into a travel fund. Originally I planned to go to South America by myself, but instead I decided to visit my old buddy, Geoff, who is stationed at a US Army base in Western Germany, near Frankfurt. Geoff used to play saxophone with me in a band called "The Nu Classics" a few years ago. Now he plays music for the Army, which is a pretty sweet job! I've been to Germany once before, when I was 14, but it was a very short visit that I barely remember. So, this seemed like a good opportunity to really explore the country with someone who already knew a good deal about what it had to offer. If you don't know Geoff, he is the bald, lanky guy in the middle of this photo at the Frankfurt airport:

For the first few days we explored the area around Frankfurt where Geoff lives. The highlight here was all the castles. It's amazing how castles dot the landscape.  They are so ubiquitous that the locals don't seem to think they are special at all. The ones we saw were pretty impressive structures, and they had some really interesting stories of sieges and whatnot.

Thanks to Geoff's friend who loaned me a solid keyboard setup, I was able to have a sick jam session with Geoff and a drummer friend of his named Dan. My fingers were way out of shape, but it was fun to play all the old tunes.

Luckily, Geoff has a truck (and his gasoline is subsidized by the US government) so we decided to drive on the Autobahn to Dresden and Berlin instead of taking a train. I always imagined the Autobahn to be a place where cars are constantly zooming around at over 100mph, but in reality most of the time the traffic is terrible and you can barely get up to 60mph! There was also a lot of construction on our route, which made the trip much longer than we had anticipated. There were a few stretches where we got our speed up, and I even drove 100mph legally! The crazy thing about going fast on the Autobahn is that there is always someone going much faster. While we were doing a steady 90mph, there would be people passing us going over 110mph! 

We got to the hostel in Dresden around 2am. The next day we walked around the touristy parts of dresden to check out the major sites. Overall, Dresden is a really cool city, with lots of stuff to see. One of the highlights for me was the Museum of Mathematics and Physics, which mainly housed antique instruments used for measuring stuff. There were a lot of really old telescopes, and huge mirrors used for burning stuff. There were also a good amount of meteorological instruments, which are near and dear to me. Below is a picture of the oldest thermometer in the world. It used the expansion and contraction of long metal rods to estimate temperature, but also used a weird unit, called a "Delisle". This Delisle ran backwards so that water freezes at 150 degrees and boils at 0 degrees. I recently heard an interesting and related Radiolab podcast on the history of units of measurements, specifically the kilogram. You can find the podcast at http://www.radiolab.org/story/kg/.

Later that day we headed to Berlin, which turned out to be a relatively short drive. There are so many things to see and do in Berlin, I feel that we just barely scratched the surface. We saw lots of fancy buildings, like the royal palace here:

We also saw lots of cool looking, Greek/Roman style structures, like the Brandenburg Gate:

There were also numerous cathedrals, like everywhere in Europe. Most of them had impressive pipe organs. I'm a huge fan of jazz organ, which uses a "tonewheel" system for generating the sound that is a whole different animal from a pipe organ. Personally, I've never played a pipe organ, and don't have much desire too. However, I do like checking out what crazy structures people come up with when they build these things.

 We also got a chance to hang out with a friend of mine, Alistair. We met at a jazz club for a bit and then ended up at the bar in the hostel we were staying and had some bear fights! If you don't know what a bear fight is, you can read about it here: http://www.bearfightnation.com/about.html. Unfortunately the bartender totally screwed it up and just mixed everything together.

One of the most interesting things we saw were the sections of the Berlin wall that are still standing. Here's one section that reproduces what it looked like when it was actively guarded:

There is so much interesting history associated with the wall that I was completely unaware of. There were several other sections of the wall that had some really interesting graffiti.

 After seeing all the sights in Berlin and watching a few exciting world cup games, we said farewell to Geoff and boarded a night train heading South to Munich. We booked a "couchette", which gets you a little room with 6 bunks. The ride took about 7 hours and left at 11pm, so it was a good way to save some money and get the traveling done while you sleep. However, we also learned that this approach comes with some risks, such as getting a bunkmate with serious body odor. Overall, it was good experience and surprisingly comfortable.