Well, Wednesday was supposed to be our travel day, with an outbound flight from Lincoln to Chicago that was to leave at 6:05 pm. But storms in Chicago resulted in the cancellation of that first flight, and the domino effect was rather dramatic, with United personnel being about as unhelpful as I have ever seen them. Thankfully, we had booked the flights through a travel agency, and they spent the subsequent 5 HOURS sorting out the mess and getting United to rebook us for the next day. So since we hadn’t even left Lincoln, we were able to put Kai up at Kati’s house, while we slept on our own futon (rather than kicking Davianne, the cat sitter, out of her nest in our bedroom).
We then tried our luck again on Thursday, leaving Lincoln Airport on a 12:55 flight to Denver, where the airline struggle continued—Lufthansa was supposed to get us to Munich, but United had messed up something and there were only two tickets visible, not three. To their credit, they resolved it by putting me (the one whose ticket had vanished) on standby, but needless to say, United is not my favorite airline at this point. We had a smooth, on-time flight to Munich, with Kai writing notes for a movie/soundtrack review of The Greatest Showman, while Mark and I mostly slept (I did watch The Shape of Water, and Mark the original Blade Runner). We got to Munich around 10:30 am Friday morning, and caught our connection to Düsseldorf without any hitch, arriving at 12:40 pm. Because we had lost a travel day, we got Kai a new train ticket directly to Berlin, where he was to meet his dad later that day, and Mark and I traveled to Osnabrück on a different train after we’d seen him off. (With the help of his DS, Kai was very patient about the whole thing, but his odyssey continued, as he and his dad were bound for Athens the next evening and hit more delays! They were finally in their hotel at 4 am in the morning. But since it means 10 days in Greece, it’s hard to feel sorry for him!)
We were FINALLY in Osnabrück at about 4 pm, to Imke’s great delight, since she didn’t know when to expect us. It was glorious to be the in her beautiful apartment, finally not moving, and we sat in the sun room (even though it was overcast) and looked out at her garden, including her roses in full bloom. She fed us a lovely, simple evening meal and wasn’t surprised that we drooped rather quickly. We settled into the guest room after much-needed showers and were asleep by 8:30!
Apart from waking up way too early, at 4:30 am (when the birds were starting to sing, since we are only less than 3 weeks away from midsummer and it gets light very early), we really didn’t feel very jet-lagged at all. We putzed around for a bit in the morning, after a lovely German breakfast for which we bought our own rolls at 7 am). Then we went off to purchase SIM cards for our phones at the Aldi, so we can have phone and data access while we are here. And even though that got a bit more complex than we thought necessary, we did get ourselves set up, and for cheap, too. Even with a few days of extra Switzerland data access, we spent under 30 euro each for four weeks of connectivity. We also went downtown to wander around a little and buy a few other necessities, and just to be on our feet for a bit. But it was a quiet day—we had a light lunch at a food court downtown, and later dinner with Imke, who had made a lovely soup and salad, and a fruit tiramisu that counts among my favorite desserts.
We also went for a second little walk with Imke as well, just down to the nearby university campus (formerly the residence of the regional ruler and therefore still called the „palace“ („Schloss“). There was a band playing brass instrument plus rap playing outside the student pub, and we sat and listened for a while. Then we went home through Imke‘s the neighborhood, which is full of gorgeous Art Deco and gilded age townhomes and generally so well kept up that a dilapidated house we discovered really stood out. It turned out it had an especially sad history—the Jewish family that had it built in Bauhaus style was deported and murdered by the Nazis, and the last scion of the „Aryans“ to whom it was „transferred“ stopped the upkeep about 15 years ago, rather than to sell it to the city, which has intentions to restore it. So now it has broken doors and windows, rotting furniture visible inside, and the front door actually has a note on it pointing out to the people who are covering it in graffiti and vandalizing it that they are adding insult to injury. That was very sad to see, but at least the pavement bears the ubiquitous „Stolpersteine“ or „stumbling blocks,“ bronze plaques the size of the surrounding cobblestones which the city has placed in front of the buildings to commemorate people who lived there and were deported, arrested, and murdered by the Nazis. I am always encouraged by the fact that German cities do a better job to make sure we don’t forget what happened to Jewish people, political dissidents, and the mentally disabled 80 years ago.
In the evening, we wrapped up the day by showinng Imke the video version of Big Fish, Kai‘s high school musical, which she watched with great enthusiasm. That way, we lasted until almost 11 pm, and truly felt like we had gotten over whatever jet lag there was.
We got up at a fairly usual time between 7 and 8, had Sunday breakfast (distinguished from weekday breakfast by the soft-boiled egg that got added to bread, cold cuts, cheese and jam. Then we went for a walk with my mom to the Botanical Gardens, which are only about 15 minutes from here, and checked out what‘s currently growing, both outdoors and in the tropical greenhouse. That was a lot of fun, and although we‘d been there many times before, there is always something new to discover. This time, there were some gorgeous irises, a magnolia with blooms the size of a cabbage, and something not quite in bloom that looked like a plant form of Yoda. and nearly extinct Sicilian pine trees, to which my mother alerted us, since she had just been in Sicily and knew a bit more about that. But we also saw lots of bees in various blooming plants, which was nice because we’ve seen so few at home recently. We then got some of our trip logistics sorted out, helped Imke with some household tasks, and had a lovely lunch with German potato salad. Mark and I took off for another walk, just around the older part of the downtown area, where parts of the city wall, gates, and watchtowers from the Middle Ages are still visible. It was getting sunny after a day and a half of overcast weather, and we really enjoyed the sunshine and the slow pace of the day.
Imke left around 4:30 pm, since she had made plans to go out of town, and we were going to start on an overnight train ride to Switzerland later that evening, anyway. So we repacked for our trip, had dinner by ourselves (more bread and cold cuts—our favorite), and made our way to the train station around 9 pm. It was still very nice and bright outside, so we waited on the platform, enjoying the warm but not hot weather, and settled into our reserved seats around 9:50 pm.
The overnight train ride was, frankly, a bit much and probably not something we‘ll repeat. The seats were more spacious than airplane seats, but still no good to sleep on, and the train, an IC, did still stop about once an hour for major cities, and so there was a major hustle and bustle of people getting on and off, and the lights were never dimmed—why I expected that, I am not sure, but it sure didn‘t happen! So by morning, when we had to change trains in Basel for Bern at 6:30, and then again in Bern for Geneve at about 7:45, we were good and tired! But we perked up when the last train route started to follow the coastline of Lake Geneva (just quite a bit higher up on the inclines above the cities and small towns between Lausanne and Geneva, which is on the very Western tip of the lake). The view was beautiful, and we were excited for Geneva.
We arrived at about 9:30 and put our luggage in a locker to go exploring. We went across the Rhone where it exits the lake. It was sunny and already very warm and pleasant. First, we went in search of an ATM for some Swiss franks, and a simple breakfast at an outdoor cafe. I knew this was the French part of Switzerland, of course, but I was surprised how French everything felt and looked—the townhouses, the cafe menus, and of course the ubiquitous French that all but the obvious tourists were speaking. After breakfast, we checked out the Old City and the Cathedral (where Calvin used to hang out). It’s beautiful in the old town with its crooked streets going up hill, but more like Montmartre than like the old town of Prague. The Cathedral is a complete hodgepodge of styles on the outside, with neoclassical columns in front of a basically northern Gothic church, and a crazy little side chapel in „flamboyant Gothic“ that the Calvinists ignored and used as a salt cellar. We climbed the cathedral towers for a great panorama view of Geneva, the lake and the mountains left and right.
Then we crossed back to the other side of the Rhone and walked along the lake shore until just past the point where the public baths are jutting out on a pier. We walked to the end of the next pier, which was part of the marina (where people were swimming although it was prohibited—I did stick my feet in the water, which was not quite as cold as I had imagined), and watched boats and people and swans. There was the obligatory statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and a ridiculous neo-Gothic monstrosity to commemorate some Duke of Brunswick or another. But it was mostly the lake itself, with the enormous Jet d’Eau fountain that was nice to look at. By that time, we were close to the neighborhood where our hotel is located. Since were getting very tired, even though it was not even 2 pm, we decided to retrieve our luggage from the train station to see whether our hotel would take us in a little early. We were in luck, and the Edelweiss hotel, with its somewhat cheesy but very new rustic decor, gave us our room at 2 pm instead of 3 pm. We took much-needed showers and crashed. We had a lot of night time sleep to catch up on, and it had gotten very warm, too, so a cool clean bed was about perfect.
By the time we got back up at 4 pm, the sky had clouded over and it started raining as we were searching for a restaurant. Swiss prices (hotels and restaurants) strike us as painfully high, but eventually we settled on an Indian place near where we‘re staying, and had some very good chicken korma and paneer in a tomato-based sauce. But they charged extra for the rice and were clearly not happy that all we wanted to drink was water. We then walked around a bit more until it started pouring again, had some gelato, got some groceries to have a cheap hotel-room breakfast rather than shelling out 18 Swiss Franks for each of us for breakfast, and headed home for the night. Not a maxed-out day by any stretch, but we need some R&R, and tomorrow will be very busy—we‘re headed to CERN!
We slept well despite a pretty continuously high noise level coming up from the plaza four stories below our hotel room window, and were up and running by 8:30 or so, supplied with hotel room tea & coffee and yogurt. We walked to the train station where the trams for CERN depart, and got to the visitor center a little bit before 10. There, we were met by our guide, Jose, a graduate student from UNL who is finishing his thesis on high-energy physics with a two-year stint at CERN. He took the entire day off to show us around! It was amazing, although I am not going to try to include everything I learned about particle physics in the course of the day in this journal!
We started out in the ATLAS building, where we watched a 3D movie introducing the whole idea and history of the Large Hadron Collider and its predecessors since the first collider was built in 1957. The building also featured a large-scale model of the ATLAS portion of the collider, so we could imagine a little bit of what we‘d see 90 feet below in the big tunnel that makes a large 17-mile/27 km circle.
Then Jose took us to the building where visitors can actually see a real particle accelerator—the 1957 one, long decommissioned and now set up so that a laser simulation shows you on its outside what was going on on the inside. Very cool! And then we went to the exhibit within the large wooden „Globe“ (built just to hold a science exhibit) where we learned more about particles, got to see a cloud chamber (I had never seen one and didn‘t know you could see electrons in motion with the help of one!). We also saw, among other things the server for the original World Wide Web, which was famously started at CERN to ease communication among the various physicists working on this research the world over.
We also saw lots of tubes full of magnets and wires and cables with highly specialized names and functions. Some things definitely looked like parts of wildly improbable space ships out of a Sci Fi movie! But I found out that things around high voltage are round and bubbly for a reason. And I also got to stand at the podium where the official sighting of the Higgs-Bosun particle with the help of the Large Hadron Collider was announced in 2012! Mark and I both still remembered the footage from that press conference, and Mark recognized the space right away.
Then, Jose took us to the (very busy) CERN cafeteria for lunch and showed us the office that he and the other UNL students and postdocs share. After lunch, we saw LEIR — Low Energy Ion Ring—which is a sort of pre-acceleration ring which makes packets of ions that are needed before the electrons are sent off to the LHC. This was actually running, although of course we had to take Jose‘s word for it. The building with the LEIR ring actually has a display of a hydrogen bottle the size of the one that „feeds“ the collider for about ten years—mindboggling— and more tubes and magnets to gawk over.
Then we went to the antimatter factory, where they can now keep an anti-hydrogen atom alive for 16 minutes. We had a tour with a bunch of students from the Physics Society at the University of Hull and a Polish tour guide, who showed us how the ELENA synchrotron, another little ring full of tubes, wires, and magnets, can make and slow down antiprotons. We also saw where they do antimatter spectroscopy, not to mention quite a few of construction shops that looked like larger versions of Mark‘s office with extra aluminum foil. I heroically repressed the urge to make a lot of jokes about anti-boxes full of anti-matter, since there was really an amazing amount of stuff in the building.
The last stop was at the CERN data center, where we got to see the enormous hall of computers and a slide show that was supposed to give us a sense of the enormous amount of data. But the fun stuff in the room was the older technology that couldn‘t really process any of this data fast enough—now, with many universities and their supercomputers helping, they finally can process a year‘s worth of data collection within a year.
Our gracious guide took us back to the visitor center, and we took the tram back at about 6 pm. The weather had gotten very hot, so we changed into lighter clothes, grabbed some to-go food from a nearby supermarket (salad, fruit, a large subway sandwich) and had it on a park bench at the Parc Mon Repos at the side of the lake. Then we took a lovely walk along the lakeside, and for the first 20 minutes or so we could even see Mont Blanc in the distance, before it clouded over again. We got back to the rue de la Navigation at about 8:30 as it got windy again and started thundering, but we never got rained on and even had time to get some gelato before returning to the hotel room for the night.
We had yogurts and coffee/tea in our room again, and then checked out and took off for the next portion of our Swiss adventure. It felt a little bit like a 10-cities-in-10-days kind of thing because we added both Bern and Zurich to our itinerary for today. We took the train to Bern and saw some beautiful vistas of Lake Geneva and the Swiss alps behind it on the way to Lausanne and a bit beyond, while the train still goes along the lake. It was a little hazy at 9 in the morning, but visibility was much better than two days ago when we came in. We got to Bern a little before 11 and checked our luggage in the lockers for the day. We walked around a little aimlessly at first, but then found the river Aare (not hard since old Bern is basically built into one of its big loops, and thus surrounded on three sides by it). We had a quick lunch of French fries and bratwurst at a public swimming pool by the river, and then found our way to the famous bears. The bears of Berne (the city name is allegedly derived from the word „bear“) used to be in this horrible little moat, much too small for them, but they now have a bigger territory right down at the river. Still not big enough, of course; the two bears we saw look bored and wandered back and forth restlessly. We crossed the Nydegg bridge back into the old town and walked through the crooked little cobblestone streets. There is a famous clock tower and an equally famous main church with excessively Gothic spires that turn out to be of the classic „finished in the 19th century” kind, and the up and down from riverbanks to the upper portions of the downtown, where the enormous Swiss parliament building is, was dramatic and a lot of fun. But I think we both liked the teal-colored, exceptionally clear river and the bridges best, especially in the gorgeous sunshine we had most of the day.
After our three or so hours in Bern, we got back on the train to Zurich, and arrived around 4 pm. We found our way to the hotel—not a bad walk, about 15 minutes, but since it was hot and we (more precisely, Mark, while I was trying to follow the gps instructions on the phone) were dragging the suitcase over cobblestones, it felt very long. Once we were at the Hotel Hirschen, we were very happy: It was an old hotel where we had a room high up overlooking a plaza (Hirschplatz, as one would imagine), teeny but spotless and with windows that opened wide for fresh air and people watching. We ventured right back out, though, walked around just a little and then settled at the restaurant next door for our fancy Swiss meals involving renowned cheeses—fondue AND Raclette. Technically, Mark ordered the one and I the other, but they had technical problems with their electric Raclette warmer (a contraption that heats little pans for melting cheese right at the table before you have it with potatoes and select veggies). So we were served the fondue first, then the Raclette, and split each. Needless to say, both were delicious—but I enjoyed the Raclette more, because I hadn‘t had it in over 30 years. My family used to occasionally borrow someone else‘s Raclette contraption, so we sometimes had it as a weekend feast, and I always loved it. But that would have been before I left home for school in 1987! For the record, we did not lose any bread in our fondue (in-joke for German Asterix readers: „In den See! Mit einem Gewicht an den Füßen!“). And I do think my fondue is just as good as the restaurant made it.
After dinner, we walked Zurich‘s inner city. Unlike Bern, Zurich does really have parts of the busy inner city on both banks of its river (the Linnap), right where the Linnap feeds the lake, so that like Geneva, Zurich is also a city at the tip of a lake. I didn’t realize it until I looked it up on Wikipedia, but by visiting these three, we have now seen the three most populous cities of Switzerland, with Zurich being the biggest at 390,000 inhabitants, and over a million in the larger area (it did feel like the biggest and most lively of the three!). We walked the river banks, but also the up and down streets of the old city quarters. Beautiful, with lots of crooked, unexpected alleys that were fun to explore. On the one bank, there is the Lindenhof, a plaza/mini park where the oldest settlements of Zurich sat. They date back to Roman times, and there is a gravestone from 200 AD that’s set into the wall as the first dateable artifact. It’s high up over the river and was undoubtedly a good defense spot. Now it’s just a great view. We also saw the various churches very briefly, and I even snuck a peek at one of the famous Chagall windows in the Frauenmunster before they shooed me out of the entrance because they were taking tickets for a concert that night. The Grossmunster, on the other side of the river, has really interesting twin towers, but again, we didn’t go in because it was already closed. But we really enjoyed the views, and especially the people watching. Of course, the entire inner city and also the banks of the lake a little further out were teeming with people, clearly a mix of locals and tourists, and the diversity of ethnic groups, ages, and fashions was just so much fun to watch. And I had just remarked that there wasn‘t much street music when we heard a violinist play the Danse Macabre, followed 10 minutes later by an entire brass and wind ensemble (30 people or so) that played in a plaza surrounded by the classic 4-5 story townhouses that characterize the whole downtown (great acoustics!). We also walked past the Cafe Voltaire—famous as the birth place of Dadaism, since Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, and other Dadaists hung out there and „invented“ their nonsense art. I had a very intense Dada phase in high school (because I liked German Dadaists-turned-surrealists Max Ernst and Kurt Schwitters), and got to revisit that last spring as I was taking my on-line Art History course. If we had had more time, we would have spent some time in the local art museum—and also in the Paul Klee museum in Bern. Geneva would have had a Nikki de St. Phalle / Jean Tinguely exhibit that I would have also like to see. Regrets…but the trip was just too short. We‘ll have to come back some year.
We wandered around until about 8, but then our legs had had enough. We sat in our plaza with some gelato for a little while, but then went back to our hotel room, opened all the windows wide and let the constant jabber of hundreds of voices from the outdoor restaurants below us lull us to sleep. Both of us found that oddly soothing and slept very well.
We got up early (6:15) this morning because we had a bus to catch but wanted to make sure to take advantage of the breakfast buffet at our hotel. It was predictably wonderful—fresh breads and rolls, jams, cheeses and cold-cuts, and also a homemade Birchermuesli (a sort of overnight porridge with various grains and dried fruit) that was delicious. Then we checked out of the hotel and walked back through the train station and on to the bus parking lot where the famous FlixBus busses depart—they are the new competition for the trains, and it cost us a grand total of 22 euro per person to get from Zurich to Salzburg via Munich. We didn’t take the „express“ bus without stops to Munich, so that was a 5-hour trip—but in the front seats of a double-decker bus through a fabulous landscape with much to gawk at. The highlight of the bus ride was that we went across Lake Constance (the third-largest lake in Europe, after Lake Geneva-check!- and a lake in Hungary that I didn‘t know about) in a car ferry! It was only a 10 minute ride, but we got to be off the bus and stand on deck as we crossed, and that was just fabulous—it made the bus travel definitely worth it! In Munich, where we had to change buses and had enough stuff to grab a sandwich and a drink for lunch. The two hours from Munich to Salzburg, which sits right behind the German border, turned into three because of traffic jams near Salzburg, but again, the beautiful landscape around us made that much less frustrating for us than for our poor bus driver. But we were glad to finally arrive at about 5:30 and find our friend Michl pretty much right away. We parked at a beer garden near the Mönchsberg, outside of the Old City of Salzburg, and walked up to have a good look from afar at the actual Salzburg („salt fortress“) high up on the hill on the south bank of the river Salzach, on which the salt (Salz) was shipped from the salt mines in the nearby mountains, making Salzburg a wealthy city in the Middle Ages and beyond.
Mark only took a few iPhone photos because he was without his camera for once (“I thought we were just going to the beer garden”—famous last words since we always find unexpected stuff we want to take pictures of wherever we go).
After a half-hour stroll high up above the river around the Mönchsberg (we‘ll be back in Salzburg on Saturday!), we went back to the beer garden, the Müllnerbräu, so we could meet up with friends at a reunion/anniversary event on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the student exchange between the university of Salzburg and Bowling Green State University. There are events planned for the next four days, and I would guess that a total of 70-100 people are here for it from those 50 years. I wasn’t actually part of that exchange in any way, but almost all my friends from my year at BGSU (1989-90) were, since that was the major draw of the German program there (in fact, I sent a student from Hastings College to their M.A. program, and he spent a year in Salzburg with them as well). The people from my year that could come are actually all already living in Austria or Germany, and they are all people I’ve been staying in touch with over the years—Laurie, who lives in Berlin and whom we will see again in a few days, and our Austrian friends, Monika and her husband Walter from Vienna, and Michl, who is our host for the next few days, although we are staying with a friend of his instead, because things are a bit up and down at his house—Silvia, his wife, just had shoulder surgery, and his older daughter and her boyfriend are coming to visit her. But we‘ll spend tomorrow and Sunday with Michl and hopefully also see Silvia.
This first evening, we just had fun catching up with these 4 (and the emeritus professor who initiated this entire anniversary celebration in hopes of preserving the program, which was at risk of being shrunk to a stupid Maymester) among another 50 or so reunion guests, in a special room at the beer garden (despite the name, actually an indoor-outdoor place). It was a great, informal venue (even though we had to be indoors to have enough room for everyone)—we had to grab our food at various stands (we had various kinds of pork, potato salad, sauerkraut) and then the drinks from another line, which was a lot of fun. Mark had a beer from a half-liter stein, but I indulged in more childish pleasures and had a Himbeerbrause (raspberry fizzy drink), a classic thing to get at a swimming pool kiosk. We talked until about 10 pm (I hadn‘t seen Monika and her husband Walter for probably 20 years, although we had seen Michl and also Laurie 2 years ago on our last trip) and then Michl still had to drive us to our host for the night, Loisi, and himself home. Laakirchen, where they all live, is an hour from Salzburg, and since Michl works tomorrow (he‘s a teacher), he was in quite a hurry to get home. So I had to adjust to 90-mile-an-hour speed on the autobahn all over again. I think I‘ll sit in the back of the car for the next trip. We were at Loisi‘s at about 11 pm and went pretty much straight to bed. Looking forward to a slightly slower-paced day on our own tomorrow!
Today, we enjoyed a much quieter, no-travel, no-tourism day. We were up fairly early, which meant that we still caught our host, Loisi, before she had to go off to work. She is a physical therapist who makes home visits to severely disabled people who cannot come to a PT office. Michl asked her to host us because she has a huge house in which she raised four kids, now all in their 20s and off to college, so there‘s lot of room in her house. We had a nice little chat over coffee and rolls (which she had obviously gotten just for us that morning), and she showed us the cherry tree in her back yard, from which I picked lovely sweet ripe cherries twice today. After she left, we sat in her dining room area with our breakfast and our blogs for quite a while, and only left to explore the village of Laakirchen around 10 am, again with gorgeous sunny weather. A total of 10,000 people live in this small town and its surrounding villages, and it doesn‘t have that much of a city center—but we walked around a little, basically to Michl‘s house and back, and then bought some cheese and cold cuts to have with our pretzel rolls for lunch. We had gotten up a bit too early, I guess, because a nap sounded wonderful, and we slept for over an hour—we lay down around 12:30 and I think it was 2 pm before we got back up. Then we went for a little walk out into the countryside—not very difficult from here, since it is really very rural—and enjoyed the view of the Salzkammergut mountains in the distance, across fields of rye and barley, as we found our way up one hill and down the next, cycling back around to the cafe/bar downtown, where we had sumptuous ice cream concoctions (mine with amarena cherries, Mark‘s with banana slices) before walking home to Loisi‘s house.
We talked to Loisi for a bit and hung out until Michl picked us up around 4:30. We went to his house and said hi to his daughter, Kathi, and her boyfriend, who had come in today from two different cities (Graz and Vienna) to spend the weekend. I admired the many new renovations in Michl‘s house since I last saw the house in 2009, and Mark got a full tour, including the glorious remnants of the former owner‘s artwork in the basement—when they first bought the house, it basically had these strange Henri Rousseau-style jungle murals on every wall, dark green jungles with portraits of the owner‘s wife on every wall! Although Michl and Silvia painted over it everywhere, they kept the ones in the basement to prove this unlikely story about the way the house looked when they first got it. But I saw it when they first moved in, on our 1997 visit (which included Bruce, Ginny, and a 1-year-old Kati), and can confirm that those murals were everywhere, as were the bushes and fir trees that covered basically the entire plot on which the house sat, and almost completely hid it from view. Since we actually had a couple of showers coming down and needed some indoor things to do, Michl dug up the album that showed the transformation of the house over time, and another one that had photos from the 90s, including from the Bowling Green years. That was a trip down memory lane! There were even photos that finally filled the gaps in my patchy memory about a trip on which we stayed with Michl and Silvia, but also met Monika and Walter—that was in 1993, as it turned out, on the last trip Bruce and I took before the kids were born. (We were back in 1997, and then I returned in 2001 by myself with both kids, and again in 2009. In 2016, we saw Michl and Silvia in Munich instead of coming here.)
Afterwards, the rain stopped and we had a lovely barbecue feast with grilled meats, fruits, and veggies, garlic bread, salad, tsatsiki, and fresh strawberries for dessert. It was delicious, and we had a good time talking not just to Michl (who even lit a fire in the back yard) but also to Kathi and her boyfriend, both of whom spoke excellent English. We sat outside until after 10 pm, and then Kathi drove us back to Loisi‘s house. It really was a nice low-key day, just what we needed!
In contrast to yesterday, today was not low-key at all, despite a slow start with a leisurely breakfast at Michl‘s. We walked to his house at about 7:30, picking up fresh rolls on the way, and then had breakfast on his deck and talked. The weather was again very nice and it was already quite warm. A little before 10, we drove the 10 minutes to Gmunden—Michl dropped us off before getting Silvia, his wife, who had shoulder surgery on Thursday and was released from the hospital this morning to go home (we still haven‘t seen her but we will on Sunday!). So we got to explore Gmunden while Michl got her settled at home etc. Gmunden is a lovely little town of about 10,000 right on the Traunsee, one of the lakes that dot the landscape between Michl‘s town of Laakirchen and Salzburg. It is basically built right on the banks of the river and has a lakeside promenade that has attracted tourists since the 1900s. The lake is surrounded by mountains that are part of the Salzkammergut, with the Traunstein mountain (also known as the „guardian of the region“) on the other end of the lake hovering over the town. We walked through the downtown area and down to the lake, where there was a flea market all along a half mile or so of the promenade. A lot of people were selling used Gmunden ceramics, since the town is famous for a couple of specific ceramic patterns, one a distinctive green-and-white design with loose brushstrokes. I actually ended up buying a single egg cup in that pattern, and also a copy of a German book for a friend–our first non-food purchases since Geneva! We continued along the lake until we came to a tiny lake island with a castle on it, Schloss Ort. It is so close to the shore that a short footbridge gets you there, and you can walk around it in about 5 minutes or less. It‘s very cute, with a regionally characteristic onion-shaped dome on its tower, and a popular destination for wedding ceremonies. (In fact, there was a wedding party waiting their turn when we crossed the bridge).
We turned around and went back along the lake the other way for a bit, checked into the cute little book store that Michl‘s sister owns (although we only bought a greeting card there—I am not in a reading mode right now and have been dragging my book along with me unopened for over a week now), and then took advantage of a street food festival to have some French crepes (savory and sweet) for a light lunch right on the lakeside. Michl picked us up again at about 1 pm, and then we took the scenic route to Salzburg, which was gorgeous. The winding road between the famous lakes of the region (Attersee and Mondsee in particular are popular tourist destinations, and some sort of plankton action makes them a bright turquoise—gorgeously nestled in between big chunks of granite and forest-covered hills) makes this a popular motorcycle route, and it was really pretty. There were many scenic spots and a gorgeous ravine to look down into. We also took a detour to see the idyllically situated boarding school where Michl went as a high-schooler, learning a trade alongside high-school.
We arrived in Salzburg around 3 pm and Michl showed us the highlights. We walked through the Baroque-style Mirabellgarten, the lavish park surrounding the former palace of the bishop (now the state administration building), including a strange area with baroque-era statues of dwarves, the Zwergengarten—we are not talking about garden gnomes, but over-life size statues of people in various traditional attire that looked like people with dwarfism, although their heads seems much too large. Then we crossed the Salzach river on a footbridge thronging with tourists to get to the most famous part of Salzburg—the old town, especially the Getreidegasse, a very long shopping street with traditional „pub sign“ style hanging brass signs for every shop—some actually old, but others, like the McDonald‘s sign, made to imitate the old style. The mix of modern-day shopping and 17th century city street was pretty bizarre; the culmination was that Mozart‘s birth house, right in the middle of this street, has a museum at the top, but a chain store (a SPAR—common in Germany and the British Isles alike) on the ground level. We bought cheap bottled water there because it was so hot, but it did prominently display the famous „Mozartkugeln,“ chocolate concoctions wrapped in gold foil that were a 19th century Salzburg invention and are sold the world over by way of Mozart‘s famous name. (As Michl pointed out, Mozart was born in Salzburg but actually spent most of his time in Vienna.)
The culmination of the tourist tour of Salzburg was, of course, the actually fortress / castle on top of the hill itself. We did not take the stairs but bought tickets for the funicular, the very steep railway that takes tourists in groups of 100 or so up to the castle buildings, some of which were used as barracks until the 19th century, so they are in very good shape. The area is huge, has two restaurants with seating along the outer walls and various exhibits, including of some Romanesque foundations that were only excavated in the 1990s. We didn‘t look at everything, but we had a good time wandering around; then we descended again in the funicular (I am so excited to use this wonderful word twice!). Michl led us to a great nearby bar/Café built right into the side of the mountain underneath the fortress, the Stieglkeller, where we sat outside with our beers/sparkling waters overlooking all of the Salzburg downtown with all of its densely packed churches—mostly baroque, with a little Gothic Franciscan church right in the middle. We walked to and into one of them, the big late baroque Kollegienkirche, where an art collective from Britain, Stan‘s Cafe, hosts an exhibit that represents various worldwide population statistics with grains of rice. Apparently, they add new exhibit pieces (piles of rice on pieces of paper and an explanation of what they represent) while the exhibit is going on. Some are very serious (enormous pile for refugees worldwide), some stunning (EVEN LARGER pile for daily visitors to McDonald‘s worldwide); some were Salzburg- or Austria-related, and some just plain silly (one Michael Jackson grain of rice).
Then we were done with our tour and found our way to the restaurant where we were to meet with the other Bowling Green people (this time, Laurie and an undergraduate from 1989-90, Tom Miller, were the only ones from our year, but we also chatted with the German professor that started at BGSU the year after we left, and with some people who were in the program in the early 2000s; one is now a German professor at Long Beach. We had to sit inside, unfortunately (the restaurant couldn‘t open their entire outside seating to the 50 or so of us), and it was quite hot, but we opened a couple of doors and were ok. We had a good time and good food—Mark had his first Schnitzel and I had a Pilzgulasch with a lovely steamed dumpling in the middle, and we ordered Salzburger Nockerln for the Michl, Mark, and me so Mark could try them—they are a soufflé-style dessert that‘s mostly egg whites and hard to make at home without making them fall apart, so it was pretty special—and also very light.
We had had a long day and still had the hour‘s drive to Laakirchen ahead of us, so we left relatively early—still after 9:30, so we were home about 11 and pretty much crashed right away.
We started the day with some catching up on journaling and photos, and then we walked with our host, Loisi, to the bakery that’s open on Sundays, and on to Michl and Silvia’s, now equipped with a dozen rolls and two “Topfenschmankerl”—a sweet baked good with a new name that is not translatable into English, and maybe not even into German (“Quark-Leckerbissen”?). We all had breakfast outside on their deck, even though we had some rain showers, snug and dry underneath their portable gazebo / garden tent structure. Silvia was recovering well from her shoulder surgery and had a great time; the conversation was an interesting mix of German and English. We sat until almost 11, and then Michl took Loisi home and us to the local papermaking museum. It’s located in a former paper factory, first founded in the 1870s and then modernized, before the operation moved into a completely new facility in the 2000s. Laakirchen has two paper factories, and Michl estimated that between those and some ancillary industries that emerged here, more than a third of the town, 3000-4000 people, work in the paper industry. We loved the exhibit and the surroundings, and learned a lot about paper making past and present. I didn’t realize for how long all paper was made from rags and that the process of extracting cellulose from wood wasn’t really discovered until the 19th century. Both processes require a lot of water, and that’s plentiful in Laakirchen, which has the Traun flow through it. We would have spent much more time there, but Michl called with new plans for the day, which required us to cut short our tour because we had a train to catch. He picked us up at noon, after only about half an hour at the old factory, and we drove to the nearby train station in Gmunden to catch a 12:15 train to Hallstatt, about an hour away. The route there was gorgeous—mountains and meadows left and right, cute little houses nestled along the edge of cliffs, and more lakes. It really felt like we were riding through a model train landscape, because it had all the classic features, even the short tunnels to cut through promontories. And then, when we got to our station, the train station is actually on the other side of the lake from Hallstatt, and we alongside a huge group of other tourists, many with full-size suitcases, piled into a boat that took us there in about 10 minutes—in the pouring rain, which conveniently stopped right as we were arriving at the Hallstatt dock.
Hallstatt was a truly strange experience. It is a beautiful little town squeezed in between the mountains and the lake, with houses built right against the cliffs in multiple layers connected by staircases and winding paths. The traditional wood balconies and roofs with their gingerbread cutouts are very pretty, and every wall and balcony is covered with flowerpots and vines, roses blooming everywhere. There are two churches, one down in the village and one up high in the hills, and a classic market place, cobblestones, winding paths, docks for fishing boats—and the upper church, with its baroque triptych altarpiece, has a special feature, the Beinhaus or “bone house,” technically a charnel house. Because there is so little room between lake and granite cliff, the dead of the village were traditionally only buried for 15 years, then exhumed, and their skulls and some of their bones placed in the charnel house—with the gravediggers painting their names and life dates plus some decorative patterns on their skulls. There are 1,200 skulls in the Beinhaus, most of them painted, and it’s apparently unique in that you can see families of the dead arranged together in generations. Of course this is a tourist attraction, but so is the entire town—so much so that it was actually replicated in China as a housing development. That apparently pushed its fame level in China to the extreme, because the most heavily represented tourist group in the crowds were Chinese, and the quadrilingual tourist signs always included Chinese (and another alphabet I didn’t recognize). There was something implausibly pretty about the whole area, a sort of Disney effect that made it hard to remember that real people live in Hallstatt (and that some occasionally drive cars through the pedestrian-packed streets, obviously grumpy about not being able to barrel through to their destination). But we had gorgeous weather and loved our walk through the town, and we found a nice, not too expensive restaurant with a garden that had covering (there was still the occasional drop of rain), and had a light mean while looking out over the city. We also finally found some pet table cats, and the Beinhaus was obviously a huge hit. We did not go to the salt mines that were the start of this and so many other towns in this region, but they are high up above the town and they can be toured. That would be fun for another trip!
We headed back on the boat back to the train station at about 4 pm and then took the train back to Gmunden at 4:30. Again, the ride was lovely and with the clouds gone, we got a new view of the lakes and mountains around us. Michl met a former student on the train, and I got to overhear a lot more conversation in an Austrian dialect without having to pipe up and become part of it. We drove back home from Gmunden to Laakirchen and then just hung out with Silvia while Michl took their daughter and her boyfriend to the train station (they live in Graz and Vienna respectively). We ordered pizza from a local dive, and although some of it featured some odd ingredients for our taste (hard boiled eggs, “four cheeses” including feta and blue cheese), we had a nice (if late—9 pm!) dinner and talked about traveling and about the differences between houses in the US and houses in Austria. It was a very nice wrap-up to the day and to our visit, and we crashed at about 11 after Michl took us back to Loisi’s.