By Maya, Lela, Sarita, Emily, and Ankur
Helau! This is the phrase used in Düsseldorf for Carnival, also known as Fasching. When we planned our March break (also known as Fasching break) road trip, we somehow hadn’t really thought through the idea that we were driving into the cradle of Fasching, the Rhine valley, during its peak. It’s like going to New Orleans on Mardi Gras. We went this way primarily because it sounded like an interesting part of Europe, with a range of funky installations in former factories and mines (with a couple of cathedrals thrown in for good measure), which we figured would be a welcome change for the kids from the castles and museums of earlier trips.
Off we went to the Ruhrgebeit, which is essentially the rust belt of Germany and its only megacity (one of the largest in Europe). The region has more people (11 million) than Berlin, Munich or Frankfurt, but the many cities that make up the region are all under 1 million in population. Imagine if Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Akron, Toledo, St Louis, and Indianapolis were all a 1 hour radius of each other; that would be one big metro area!
So here are the highlights of our 8 country road trip! Well, actually, it’s the entire road trip and more. It’s more like our personal journal of the trip. Feel free to skim it or skip it. Hopefully, we’ll read this again in the future and wonder how we dragged a four year old and her two older sisters around so much. Of course, there’s always the obligatory playground pictures to remind us of that.
Carnival season actually runs from November 11 the previous year (at 11:11 am) until Ash Wednesday. But most of the events take place in the week before Ash Wednesday. Kids were showing up in costume at school various days during the week – though often not our kids, as we didn’t always know (a general theme for us and school). And this was true on Friday afternoon, the last day of twice a week afternoon ski school for the kids.
The mood was already festive, though the last day of ski school was somewhat odd. Lela’s teacher Derrick spent most of the time skiing with an extra ski that someone had lost. Maya’s class barely skied at all as someone’s ski binding fell off during class and another girl hit her head. Sarita’s class had an extra kid who was not as speedy. I suppose that’s part of the Carnival atmosphere. But after-school ski school the past few months has been a real treat and we had fun on the final ski school party and races with Emily’s parents after we returned.
We wanted to get a head start on our road trip and decided to leave immediately after ski school, for what we thought would be a short late evening drive to a hotel half-way to Köln (Cologne in English). We quickly bought a Carnival costume for Maya and face paint for everyone at our local office and school supply store. Then we had a quick dinner at a Döner kebab restaurant near our house (and which we always say we’d do on Thursdays for Döner Donnerstag, but hey what’s a one day error between friends, plus we corrected this oversight later (see below)), and took off for a roadside hotel in Karlsruhe.
Alas, a three hour drive turned into a five+ hour drive, as a major accident on the Autobahn led to a multi-hour road closure with a more than 5 km back-up. The kind where you turn off our car and get out in the middle of the highway in the middle of nowhere and hang out with everyone else. Though that night, only the smokers came out of their cars. Luckily, the younger kids were already asleep and the temperature was not so cold. Sometimes no speed limits is not a good idea.
A Saturday made for the Dutch
After less sleep than we hoped, we headed out to find the Autobahn absolutely filled with station wagons from the Netherlands, with packed rooftop carriers and trunks stuffed with comforters. I learned from my Dutch colleague, that at any one time, a 1/6 of the Dutch are on vacation, love testing their cars on the Autobahn, and bring everything with them when they do. Curious.
Finally, we made it to Köln to check out a chocolate museum and the cathedral. We learned earlier that the chocolate museum was closed for Carnival, but we figured the cathedral would still be fun. Köln is the land of Carnival for Germany – home of the biggest parades and most boisterous parties. Saturday is part of the “crazy days“. We drove in, right alongside a marching band parade, amazingly found parking in the center of the city, grabbed some Sushi (with gluten-free soy sauce – a big shoutout to http://gfgermany.de, which features prominently on how we found nourishment on this trip), and headed off on foot to the cathedral, past throngs of costumed revelers.
But we got there to find the cathedral grounds packed with Waldos, Pirates, marching bands, broken beers bottles, and the party aroma of urine and spilled beer, and it was only mid-day (the partying goes all night). And not surprisingly, the cathedral had locked its doors tight (we tested all of them), as they were closed for carnival week too, a fact we only later found buried on the website.
Nonetheless, it was impressive on the outside, and we got a cathedral fix later in the week (see below). We did get to walk by the original home of Cologne, the fragrance, and enjoyed people watching and street music (the jazz combo made it feel just like Mardi Gras in New Orleans!) and a gluten free almond torte. After that, we took off for Essen (which means food in Germany – so many puns and jokes the kids made of this…), where we had rented an apartment.
Sunday at the factory
Sunday, we went to see a play in a former coal processing factory, Zollverein, now a UNESCO world heritage site that consists of performance spaces, museums, a casino, and rusting machinery. We saw a kid’s play called Rumpeldipumpel, a comical re-take on Rumpelstiltskin, that combined the UK and Germany versions of the tale. Did you know he is called Tom Tit Tot in UK? Neither did the seamstress, or us clueless Americans!
Maya was excited because she understood everything and even answered a question to the audience about translating from English to German, “What does ‘My Name Is’ mean?”
Well, with us forcing child labor in a factory on a Sunday, we were bound for some workplace injury. Lela cut her head open when she tripped, getting the same kind of cut she got two years ago in Florida. But this time we skipped urgent care and just bandaged it well. After the play, we had lunch in a former factory building, checked out a large, but ultimately uninspiring, spiral shaped art installation in a warehouse, looked askew at a playground paired to its industrial environment, and wandered the somewhat staid Ruhr museum. While the exhibits were not so interactive, we were impressed by the museum’s environment (inside a former coal sifting plant) and Maya liked the cheery 360 degree movie about Rhine-Ruhr industry in a theater with funky swivel chairs.
Then we went to dinner choosing the most interesting sounding place on gfgermany for Essen. We ended up at a small, vegetarian African cafe that felt like we were suddenly on the east side of Madison. The owner was also the cook and server with two new employees in training. We did get forearm-bumps and talked to the owner about his upbringing in Guinea-Bissau. But a one-(apparently attention deficit)-man-show took a while for food – a long while. So we had a two hour dinner and Maya missed her Skype date with Rachel. But the African curries were really good with amazing GF french fries (more like hot, fried potato crisps)
Monday is known as Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) – the day when the big parades happen (unlike Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday). The three big parade towns are Köln, Düsseldorf, and Mainz. We decided to join the 800,000 revelers in Düsseldorf, just a 30 minute, very packed with drunken revelers, train ride away from our apartment in Essen.
We followed the crowds onto the U-Bahn, first buying more costume enhancements at the subway costume store. We were relieved to see the youth peel off to street corners (or stay in the subway platforms) to drink, while we got a prime spot to watch the parade and dodge lots of candy – as the custom is for floats to throw candy at children who then attempt to collect them all while avoiding the floats pulled by tractors. Lela liked the music from the marching bands except the two that were only drumming when they got to us. Maya liked the floats. Emily liked the political satire. Maya was a good candy catcher and we learned why Germany doesn’t need Halloween. The cool part of the big parades is that all the parade watchers are also in costume.
There is also a rivalry in Carnival between Köln (which usually has 2-3 million spectators and live national TV broadcast) and Düsseldorf (half as many people, regional TV broadcast), perhaps something like New Year’s Day parade in NYC versus the Mummers Parade in Philly. So, in Düsseldorf, you say Helau when floats go by, while in Köln you say Kölle Alaaf! In Köln, you drink Kölsch (a top-fermented beer only brewed in Cologne, and quite tasty), while in Düsseldorf, you drink Altbier (similar fermentation, but darker and sweeter). There was lots of political satire floats in Düsseldorf, but a giant naked copulating couple float in Köln (that we caught on TV after we returned to Essen).
Anyway, it started to drizzle and get cold and Emily is not a fan of big, tight crowds, so we left after we had our fill and before the subways got crowded again. Lela liked the soy sauce shaped fish we got at the train station sushi stand, which we added to our full candy bag. Back at Essen, we caught the tail end of the Essen parade, where very few parade watchers were in costume (just the drinkers at the train station), so we were glad we dragged ourselves to one of the big ones.
Tuesday is the last day it is still acceptable to walk around outside in costume. In Munich and Garmisch, most people leave work early for a final night of partying. But we were done with Carnival, and continued our industrial tour. We drove half an hour to Witten to go see Zeche (mine) Nachtigall (nightingale) – a former coal mine, then brickyard, now museum where you can explore part of the mine.
There were very few people there, so we ended up getting a personal family tour of the mine, after they initially wouldn’t let Sarita go because she was too small. Maya liked rubbing coal dust from the coal seam in the mine on her nose for good luck, though the kids did find it a bit claustrophobic. They also had a cool mining and barge shipping themed playground.
In Witten, our expected gluten free lunch place was closed, cleaning up from Rose Monday. So after a quick soup meal, we drove another half an hour to Dortmund to find a children’s museum we read about located in Westphalia park. It was a free children’s museum inside a park you had to pay to get into. MondoMio had exhibits themed on how children around the world live (in developing countries) and the global manufacturing and shipping of textiles and food. It had lots of little rooms with dress ups from various countries involved in global trade of goods with Germany. Curiously, it was missing any ‘how we live here’ section.
Lela thought it was fun. Maya liked the dress ups and the rooms for different cultures and the Brazilian themed play fruit stand (with play cocoa pods with real chocolate smell in it). Emily liked the hammock chair next to it. Afterwards, we went back to Witten to the restaurant that was closed for lunch and had a lovely dinner with Dortmund style Altbier and Pilsners (beer is very regional here).
Gray skies met our ashen day, the abrupt end of carnival season. We left our apartment in Essen and drove to Aachen. Initially, we planned to stop in Düsseldorf again, this time to see Tomás Saraceno’s “in orbit”, an art installation that has you to wandering around on top of nets hanging from the ceiling. But since access to the nets is limited to age 12 and up and the museum didn’t have many other exhibits that would be fun for the kids, we opted instead to go to another abandoned factory with playground in the next town over from Essen, Duisburg.
This time, a former iron works factory has been converted to a climbing park called Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord. A slide and climbing wall were built into a former retaining wall of the bunkers used for storing raw materials. I-beams and pipes have been turned into a ropes course. They don’t build playgrounds like this anywhere except Germany as far as I know!
We then drove down to Aachen, had gluten free (and decent regular) bagels at a Dutch-based coffee shop chain Bagel and Beans and dashed over to catch the 2 pm English tour of the cathedral at Aachen, where Charlemagne reigned and dozens of German and French kings have been crowned. For the most part, we have avoided guided tours of old buildings, since the kids lose patience with them, especially if not in English. Emily really wanted to catch this tour to find out why this particular building was worth visiting instead of just gazing at the details, especially as we missed getting into the Köln cathedral.
Of course, when we arrived for the tour, a large extended family of French people had also signed up for the English tour. With the the tour guide knowing both languages, and the French speakers having four times as many adults, the 45 minute English tour became 75 minute bilingual tour. I suppose it was ok, as it allowed us to space out and listen to the church organist while admiring the stained glass and octagonal shaped ceiling, but it will be an added challenge to convince the kids to do another tour.
But the tour is the only way to see Charlemagne’s throne and get up close and personal with his burial shrine. Our guide seemed to know a lot about the throne, which apparently Charlemagne might never have sat in. While the cathedral dates to the late 700s, there have been additions and renovations and repairs all the way through WWII. Further, the Vatican and Charlemagne have always had an uneasy relationship (he was canonized by an Anti-Pope).
Maya has now asked for a timeline, as our recent trips have mapped out a good bit of intro to Western Civ, from Greeks and Romans to Byzantines to Charlemagne to the Holy Roman Empire to the Hapsburg’s to Napoleon, to Germany’s industrial revolution, WWI trenches (see below), up to the bombing raids of WWII and the evolution of modern post-industrial Europe. If we put a quiz on the end, does she get course credit?
After a quiet dinner in an Italian place with not particularly good gluten-free pizza and gnocchi and a stay in a hostel on the south side of Aachen and, we woke up Thursday for our 8 country tour, with a plan to try to do something in each country, though we’d have to fight the sunlight since it was still early March. Thursday was our day to follow the contours of the German border south through the “BeNeLux” countries and end up in Alsace.
In the Netherlands, we went to the Dreilandenpunt (Dutch for Three Country Point), where you can stand in Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany at the same time and play in a playground where all the rides have a theme of the number three. As Emily says, yay for random geographical oddities (of which we have visited many, I recommend the “Exact Center of the Northern Half of the Western Hemisphere” off the side of a rural highway in central Wisconsin at 45 degrees N, 90 degrees W).
We followed pastoral hilly two-lane roads through Belgium and ended up in Verviers to tour a Wool and Fashion museum in a former factory, where we learned that back in “the day”, the best method to remove the oils from wool after shearing was with ammonium and the best source of that was urine from humans. The pee was collected (and taxed) in buckets from villagers, and even tasted to make sure it wasn’t watered down. Of course, after that lovely story, we had to get some chocolate pralines. Alas, not enough time for Belgian Ale and frites, though we can get much of that at two places in our own neighborhood in Madison.
Leaving Belgium, we entered Luxembourg, the land of cheap gas, road detours, and traffic jams, as they don’t have much in way of divided highways into the main city. But we enjoyed a quick walk through the ramparts of Luxembourg city.
As we crossed the border into France, we knew we’d be fighting the sunset to get to our last stop – to see some of the remaining trenches from World War I, located on top of a mountain in the Vosges range. The monument there is called Vieil Armand in French or Hartmannswillerkopf in German. 30,000 people died here in trench warfare that lasted over a year, as the peak was alternatively taken over by French and Germans. Eventually, as the line became entrenched (ha!), troops just lived in the trenches on both sides for the next three years until the Germans and the Central Powers finally gave up as the Western and Eastern Fronts held steady.
Alas, we made it just as dusk was ending and had to drive around a barrier since the road up the peak was not maintained for the winter (thankfully the warm winter made this an easy decision…). We did manage to walk through part of a trench and see the monument in the dark, but the kids were cold and hungry. In many respects, being in a trench at night in the cold overlooking the city lights 3,000 feet below made it perhaps easier to understand what it might have been like as a young soldier, not knowing who is running up to you.
But after a few minutes reflection, we left and dodged deer on the road down to our hotel in Mulhouse, France and opted for finally having Döner Donnerstag at the fast food joint next door.
Friday, we left early from France, crossed the border at Basel, Switzerland and attempted to find an interesting sensory-themed hike (Sinnespfad) in a small Swiss village, Gipf Oberfrick. We did manage to find it using our intuition, some poorly cribbed notes from the quick internet searching we did in the morning at the hotel, and finally asking a family on the street. The hike was a 3 km walk around a lovely Swiss meadow and forest with stops to explore our sense of direction by walking in a maze with our eyes closed, our sense of touch with a barefoot walk over different surfaces, and so on.
We left our meadow behind, buying gas station sandwiches to eat in the car, inadvertently driving through Zurich (instead of around) because of the 9 year old street maps on the navigation system of our 2005 Prius, getting back on the highway hugging beautiful Lake Zurich, finally entering back to our familiar Alps and crossing the border into the doubly-landlocked principality of Liechtenstein, which is easy to miss on the road if you blink (it’s as small as the island of Aruba). By now, we were anxious to get home and drop off Emily at her next stop, so we only stopped there to take a quick photo or two, get Swiss chocolate to feed the kids, buy the required Austrian toll vignette, and then leave for Austria, where we repeatedly ignored the Navi and gorgeous views, choosing instead mile after mile of tunnels.
Our plan was to drop off Emily in the town of Imst to catch a train to Innsbruck while I took the kids home, as there is a shortcut to Garmisch from Imst. Imst turned out to be quite a hilly, roundabout filled, confusing (but pretty) city, so that by the time we figured out where the train station was, it was too late and we opted to drive Emily to Innsbruck.
Why Innsbruck? To make her own skis! Emily signed up to do a design and build your own downhill ski workshop in Innsbruck for the weekend. She made her skis alongside a colleague of mine’s wife, who lives in Innsbruck.
Since we’ve been to Austria many times, we didn’t have much need to do anything more. While Emily toiled in the workshop sanding, cutting, pressing, and gluing wood into skis, the rest of us got back to our mountain home and spent the weekend unpacking, relaxing, and getting a little sledding in Wankbahn, the gondola a short walk from our house, which is normally closed for the winter, was open for the week, with a nice sledding hill on the top of the mountain.
And that’s how to spend a week in March in Germany, and 7 other countries. And probably the longest blog post we’ll ever write!
You know, if you’re living in Bavaria, surrounded by mountains, you can’t help skiing! So I asked my awesome friend Sydney, who is from Vermont and speaks English, to come skiing with me and my dad one day after school. Well, my dad had to come because, well, you never know what could happen.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen, although some crazy thing’s did happen. But those come later in the post. So, first we all got on the cable car to Alpspitze.
That part was boring so I won’t write about it.
Then, the skiing began. My dad said he would take us somewhere he’d never been before (ooh) and so off we went into a cluster of steep trees. First, we fell a lot. Then we fell some more (this is including my dad). So, the crazy things that happened? Well mostly the whole time it was crazy but here are some crazy parts.
So you can see, we had lot’s of fun. But very tiring. So then we decided to take a break and went to a stopping place. We got water and candy and you will never know how good that can taste after skiing for … forever (three hours with verylittlestop).
A few of you have asked about blog updates. Turns out February was a blur, with a parade of visitors, skiing, cheering for locals in the Olympics, and the day to day rhythm known as routine that creeps in and settles onto all things as they age. But not to worry. Maya is working on a post about a ski day with her friend. And we’ve all started working on a joint post about our recent March break 8-country road trip. Stay tuned!
We did have a lovely time with all our guests, which started in the beginning of the month with a visit from the Copelovitches, our friends from Madison on sabbatical in Berlin. They had their their mid-winter break a month earlier than us, so they came down for some hiking, (kosher) Weisswurst, and a weekend joint road trip to Bamberg, home of smoky “Rauch” beer that tastes something like liquid bacon might, with a side adventure to the Audi factory in Ingolstadt. Their version of events are here.
Next up were the Swift family, our neighbors in Madison, on sabbatical in Barcelona. The Swifts came for some sledding, remembering how to ski again, and a few other adventures, including a trip into a salt mine.
Finally, our former neighbors in Madison, the Perelli-Harris family, flew down from their current digs in Winchester, UK to ski and hike (sense a theme among our visitors?). Maya and their daughter Aralyn hadn’t seen each other nearly 7 years, but they (and the rest of the gang) hit it off pretty quickly.
And now it’s March, where the days have gotten much longer, as the sun doesn’t set right behind the tallest mountains so much. Emily’s parents visit next week and then I head off to a short meeting in Berlin. In the bits of time I do spend in the office, I’ve started a new research paper on the weather patterns that led to this very warm winter (and similar ones in previous decades) for the northern Alps and its relationship to the Arctic and the weather patterns in North America (cold!) and the UK (wet!) and what that all means locally for mountain grassland ecology. Skiing is still good, but with temperatures pushing 55 F lately in the valley, a bit of spring fever (and beautiful flowers) is creeping in.
Our experience in Europe has brought us to tasting many different foods. Here is a list of some of the most important.
1 Meat: As you probably already know, Germany is known for its meat. We have had salami, weißwurst, many kinds of other meats, and much more. We even went to a kosher butcher. I find I’ve been eating a lot more meat now. I think it’s good.
2 Bread: In Germany, there are bakeries on almost every street. Many Saturdays, Sarita and Dad go to a bakery to eat breakfast. It makes me really wish I wasn’t allergic to gluten. But we still can find gluten free treats too.
3 Beer: As you probably know, we went to Oktoberfest. There was lots of beer there. Beer is popular in Germany. There is even some at the vegetable store!
4 Nuts: I’m nuts for nuts. In Salzburg, we had fresh cooked Chestnuts. It was cold out and they tasted wonderful. Even Lela ate them and she doesn’t even like nuts!
5 Cheese: We can find very good cheese here. In Munich, we had really good Gouda cheese. It was delicious! Also my mom goes every week to the farmers market to get cheese.
6 Cool things.
1: When we were in Italy the restaurants didn’t open till 7:30
2: We went to a shop called Gluten Free World (GFW) and got gluten free gnocchi.
3: People in Germany eat a lot of schnitzel but when we got gluten free ones, I thought they were disgusting!
4:In Germany, we cant find corn tortillas to make our Favorite quesadillas. : (
5: We got really good Pfifferlinge mushrooms at the vegetable store.
6: In a restaurant, you can just sit down when ever or where ever you want.
By Maya. Do you eat to live or live to eat?
ps. What’s wrong with this apple core!?
This winter break I went to Israel. First we stopped at our friends Gavi and Ezra’s house. While we were there we went to two really cool places.
1. The playground
Here is the cricket play ground. We also went to the High Slide playground, which is a playground with very high slides and a maze made of slides. Going to many different playgrounds in many different countries has been interesting. Garmisch has many see-saws and slides built on mountains; Israel has about the same kind of playgrounds as Wisconsin.
2. Mini Israel
Mini Israel is a museum of Israel except all the buildings are super mini. We took our pictures in front of the mini ones and than the real ones.
On Dec.23 we went to a Turkish bath-house in Akko. We learned that it was really hot. Lela didn’t like it because in the movie they were hitting each other with really hot leaves.
Then later that day, we went to a Grotto in Nahariya. Here is a picture
We walked for a long time in the cave. it was really cool. There were a lot of pigeons living in the holes in the rock.
In the Kibbutz, we made Chocolate and it was really good. I made a chocolate house and the others made a family kit. My grandma made truffles that were also really good.
On Dec.29, we went to a field site that one of my Dad’s friends was on. They had a big tower and a lot of barbed wire because people kept stealing their stuff. They were studying how trees can grow in the desert. I played in the woods (desert) all day.
On Dec. 30 we meet up with the Swifts, our friends. We walked around the old city and it was really cool. We went on a tour of the old city. For lunch, we had gluten free falafel and it was the best!
On Dec. 31 we went to three different places in the desert. In the morning, we went to Masada. It was the castle ruins of King Herod. It was a good thing, it was morning because the hike was hot.
The next place we went was an oasis called Ein Gedi. The springs were beautiful and warm and the plants were green. We even saw a hyrax, which looks this:
At first, we thought it was a cat because there are thousands of stray cats in Jerusalem. I mean thousands.
At the end of the day we went to cool off at the Dead Sea. The dead sea is so crazy! When you first get in it’s like “Oh it’s a little floaty,” But when you lift your feet up, you can’t get them back down!
On the last day of our trip, we went to the zoo. We saw a lot of really cool animals. My favorite animal was the monkeys, who had no cage, but were on an island and kept hooooowwwwwling the whole time we were there.
To catch our plane, we had to get up at 3:00 in the morning but over-all in was a great trip!