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Art & Culture

various essays on, well, art and culture

Bookbinding & Conservation

lessons learned from this profession


ok, I'm not the guy from SNL,
but I still have a sense of humor

'Jim Downey' Stories

mostly true stories from my

Personal Essays

more "it's all about me"


Iím at -7.13/-7.33 on The Political Compass.  Where
are you?


observations on the human condition


Europe 1994

Wales 1998
Wales 2003
Wales 2006
CCGA Vignettes


After weeks of planning and anticipation, Monday came.  We double checked, made sure we had the passports, tickets, railpasses, travellers checks and all the rest of the necessary little bits of plastic and paper one needs in order to launch such an expedition.  Also a copy of Twain's Innocents Abroad, a couple of Omni magazines I had been saving for the trip, a stack of travel literature from various sources, and two or three Guide to . . . books.  That and lots and lots of clothing.  Tossed it all in the car, and drove to Kansas City.

Got to the airport with plenty of time to spare.  Not surprising, given how organized Alix and I tend to be about any large-scale project.  Checked the bags, ate some Burger King lunch, and went off to wait for the plane.  Got our flight to Chicago, where we had a little bit of a layover, and then boarded the plane for Frankfurt.  As it left the ground I started to get a little bit excited.
          The flight over was fast and uneventful.  The plane was uncrowded enough that we grabbed the extra center aisle seat, and made a nest for ourselves.  This must have made an impression on the staff, for before we landed one of the attendants came up and asked if we were celebrating our honeymoon . . . sort of stunned Alix and I, so that all Alix could say was that no, this was going to be our 7th anniversary . . . whereupon the attendant said "Good enough" and handed over a bottle of expensive French champagne.  Seems that there was a mix-up on a duty-free delivery, no one claimed the stuff, and so . . .
          I carried that bottle of champagne over most of the continent before we opened it on our anniversary.  But that story can wait.

As we took to the air, we both set our watches ahead to Frankfurt time, one of the recommended strategies for beating jet-lag.  Ate the dinner they gave us (surprisingly good), drank enough wine to help with sleep, put on the blinders and conked out.  Alix slept lightly, her head in my lap, much of the trip.  I slept some too, enough to help the time pass, but not enough to feel rested.  As it turned light outside, we 'woke up,' had a little bit of breakfast, freshened up some, and I drank all the coffee I could hold.  We landed, bright and sunny, in Frankfurt just a little under seven hours after we left Chicago.
          Got off the plane.  International-level airports are pretty interchangeable, and there was nothing to really tell we were in Germany.  Sure, the first language on the signs was German, but that was only a small change in the order of things, nothing foreign.  We wandered through the customs/passport area with barely a pause to show off our passports (saying that they were 'examined' by the sleepy officials would be drastic overstatement).  Found the baggage area, and waited for the bags to come up.  I noticed a higher percentage of the folks around us were speaking German, but still nothing was much different than an airport in the States.  Got our bags, and walked the short distance to where the shuttle train would take us to the Bahnhof.  Still nothing too different.  Sure, the shuttle train was nicer than what you'd find at home, but it wasn't enough to penetrate the fog of sleepiness surrounding me.
          Then we arrived at the Bahnhof, and I knew without a doubt that we were in Germany.  This train station was huge, bigger than most of the Midwestern airports, with arching ceilings now completely out of fashion here, alive with commuters going about the business of getting to work.  Some two dozen platforms, all clearly marked as to the type of trains they handled, how the cars were arranged for first and second class, and where to stand if you needed to be on a certain car to make a connection.  The aroma of fresh brotchen and steaming coffee, gigantic signs announcing the train schedules (all on time, of course), and a weird mix of German beer signs, Pizza Hut signs, Information signs.  And the place was clean, spotless, crowded and hurried, but not congested or claustrophobic.  We sought out a locker for the bags, bought some rolls and coffee, changed a little more money, and went off to explore a bit of Frankfurt before we caught our express train an hour or so later.
          We could do this because the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, like most every main train station in Germany and on the Continent, is located at the heart of the city, serving as the keystone holding the entire transportation architecture together.  The buses all focus on it, branching out from the station.  If there is a subway system, it probably originates there.  Even the roads tend to radiate out from the main station.  In the States you might have to hunt around for the Amtrack station, and will probably find it near the warehouse district or old stockyards.  Not on the Continent.  There is no difficulty in finding where the train station is located.  Just drive into the center of the city, and you'll probably run into it.  At the very least you will be close and the prominent signs which are everywhere on the roads will point you in the right direction.  So it was no problem for us to just walk out the front of the station and into downtown Frankfurt.
          Cool, sunny, not yet awake (either me or the city).  We just started walking, no particular direction in mind, just enjoying the freedom of being out of a confined space for a bit.  Frankfurt is a modern city, but more like the Plaza in KC than the Loop in Chicago.  It had few of the things about it that I so dislike in large cities (beggars, trash, graffiti, crowds), and made up for it with occasional treats of architecture (a nice 16th century tower now doing service as a disco, fountains and sculptures from ancient times to the present, plazas in the German variation known as a platz) and plenty of flowers. It wasn't yet 9:00, and many of the shops weren't open.  We decided to just look around a bit, arrive at the Thomas Cook Office to pick up the current train schedule (it was unavailable in the States), and then go back to the station.  We got to Thomas Cook, were able to make ourselves understood (hey, it had been 14 years since I had to use my German even in a classroom, so I was pleased), and got back to collect our bags.
          Stopped at the information desk long enough to double-check our routing so that we would arrive in Kronach with minimal hassle, and discovered the wonderful German computer system that will automatically plot the most efficient sequence of trains, connections, et cetera between any two points in the country.  The rest of Europe needs this system.  Especially the British.

Got on the right train at the right time, popped our bags in the storage area in the back of our car, found some unoccupied seats, and sat back to relax.  We got first-class EuRail passes, figuring that with all the travelling we were going to do on the Continent, the luxury would be welcome.  It was a good decision.  The second-class cars weren't bad, but the first-class cars were much more conducive to long-distance comfort.  We should have done the same thing for our BritRail passes, but then again we spent much less time on trains in Britain.
          The trip was a delight.  It had been 20 years since I had ridden a train, with my American disdain for mass transit in general and Amtrack in particular.  The train to Nurnberg was a EuroCity Express, meaning that it made very few stops, regularly travelled at about 100 mph, sometime reaching speeds considerably greater than this, and was the highest level of cleanliness and comfort.  The seats are wide and comfortable, rising high enough to provide a sense of privacy.  Adjustable footrests in front of you, with large, airline-style drop-down tables built into the seat in front.  And you could turn the seats around, with a flip of a lever on the aisle, a pull here, a spin there . . . so that you could face forward, or back, changing the seat to match your preference and the direction of the train . . . since the trains don't really have a 'front' or a 'back', and sometimes pull into a station just to pull right back out the same way again three or four minutes later.  The cars were quiet and smooth running, the floors carpeted, the walls panelled, with automatic doors at each end of the compartment that kept out noise and drafts.
          We cut across the center of Germany, through tall hills/small mountains not unlike the Ozarks, except the ground was obviously wonderfully fertile, as it was farmed about anyplace there was a more or less level area, and had cows on it where it wasn't level enough to farm.  We discovered that trains moving so fast entering a tunnel caused a pressure buildup, leading to ears popping and great yawns seeking equilibrium.  Now and again a spire would stand out from one of the little towns, or we would see the remains of a tower in the distance, and grin at each other like a couple of kids in an amusement park.  Along the way we followed our path on the great folded Rand McNally map we had bought in the States, noting the names of the small towns we zipped through, keeping track of the progress across the country.  This added to the whole sense of adventure, making us explorers of a sort, following the lines of the rail marked on the map, matched with the passing countryside.  In a scant couple of hours we had reached Nurnberg, where we needed to make a change to another train, this one heading north toward Kronach.
          We weren't in the Nurnberg train station for very long, just a couple of minutes, crossing from one side of the platform where we pulled in, to the other side, and onto the train north.  This was a smaller train, a 'fast' train, still comfortable in our first class seats, but nothing like the ECE train we had come in on.  Rather, it was more along the lines of the shuttle we had taken from the airport to the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof.  It made stops in most of the major towns along the way, never for very long, and then was off again.  It wasn't far to Lichtenfels, a small town where we changed trains again, this time getting onto a little local train, just a few cars, that served the milk-run all up and down the line that included Kronach.  Here there were no first class seats, just standard class with vinyl bench seats set in little clusters facing one another, wire racks just above, more noise and rattle, but still it was clean and graffiti free.
          As we wound the few miles to Kronach, a familiarity started to creep into my awareness.  It had been twenty years since I was a student there, and the memories were dim.  But echoes of the countryside remained, images of the upper-Bavarian fields, stacks of hay, horses still in use to move produce on the little roads along the tracks.  We counted down the small towns, stopping for just a bit at each one, to let a few people on or off, and finally pulled into the Kronach station.

We got out of the train, went down and under the tracks, coming up into the train station I remembered from so many years ago.  Looked out the front steps to the parking lot, bordered by the Post Office, a small pub, and across the street some restaurants and offices.  The buildings were the same, but some of the details had changed: one of the restaurants was now a Chinese place, another offered pizza.  Above these sights, on the high hill in the center of town, were the walls of the old city, red tile roofs of the older buildings inside or near those walls, and rising well above all of these was the Veste Rosenburg, only partly visible from this vantage point, but still dominating the town.  We asked a couple of questions at the information desk and the small newsstand attached to the station, and were recommended to try the "Frankenwald" Hotel back over across the tracks and the main road through town.  A pedestrian walkway under both brought us up to almost the front door of the hotel.  We stopped in, asked about a room, got one, and climbed the stairs, lugging bags.  It wasn't the first time that I wondered about the wisdom of all the clothes I brought.
          Typical German building:  lights off, doors closed.  The lights in the halls were all on timers, and would go off just moments after you left the hallway.  The room was cozy, but not small, with attached bath and shower.  A wardrobe, a small desk with chair, and a bed with down comforters.  Out the window we had a perfect view of the castle, and the ranks of houses leading up to it, some half-timbered, some stone, some brick, many a combination of all three.  We dropped off the bags, freshened up a bit, and though tired from the continuous travels, wanted to at least walk around the city, so we went out.
          Back through the walkway to the platz at the train station.  Across the street in front of it, around the corner, and over one of the bridges that spanned the Hasslach (one of three small rivers that ran through the town . . . the other two were the Rodach and the Kronach).  School was out, and between the kids, people on bikes, and crazed German drivers zooming around the town with no concept of using the brakes except in an absolute emergency, it was a bit exciting.  My recollections of the town were still pretty good, and we walked the few blocks through the twisting, narrow streets, dodging cars and kids, until we came to the 15th century main gate into the old city.  On the street just below the gate was a grill, and we stopped in for some lunch, even through it was late afternoon.
          In the low doorway, stepping down from the sidewalk a bit, into the restaurant.  Heavy, dark wooden beams, a scattering of tables, colored leaded-glass windows looking out on the street.  And Alan Parsons playing on the stereo.  We sat down, ordered some food, and a beer.  Sigh . . . it was all that I had hoped.  A crisp lager, locally made, drawn from a keg . . . the perfect compliment to the couple of slightly charred wurst, french fries with pepper vinegar and thick slab of dark, coarse bread.  Simple food, probably much too high in fat content and god knows what else, but delicious, and part of the reason I had come back to the country.  Some variation on that theme was what I had for every meal except breakfast until we left Germany.

After eating, we went up through the gate and into the old town.  Walking the quickly rising streets toward the castle, we stopped now and again to admire some particular building or part thereof.  All the buildings in this part of the town were at least a few centuries old, most of them dated back well into the middle ages.  The streets were cobblestone, of course, hunks of granite about the size of my fist, roughly square when seen from above, usually arrayed in a fan pattern.  The curbs were likewise usually granite, as long as your arm, six or eight inches square in cross section.  Most of the doors on the buildings were solid oak, carved with ornate designs, their cracks and repairs testifying as to their age.  Here and there an arched passage led to a central courtyard, now usually used for parking, the passage closed at night with thick doors of wooden beams and wrought iron.  Even where there had been recent improvements and renovations, the style was still comfortable with the rest of the building, or the surrounding buildings, in a natural and easy way.  Some of the buildings were offices or residences, but many were either small shops or restaurants/pubs, with menus posted outside next to the door, frequently just a handwritten bill of what was offered, the writing clean but foreign, almost like some cursive version of Fraktur.  The buildings were all built one right next to the other, but as the streets were relatively wide in the old city, this did not give any sense of being crowded.
          We walked almost directly to the castle, wanting to make the most of the late afternoon sun.  We went past the last line of buildings in the old town, residences with hedged-in front yards, and crossed the expanse of open hillside in front of the castle proper.  Up a winding road, past a memorial for the soldiers of the first great war, curving then back before the clean lines of the front walls of the castle to the main gate.

It was too late for us to get a tour of the castle, or really to do much more than just walk around the inside for a bit, exploring on our own.  The museum inside closed at 5:00 (it was about 4:30 when we got there), but the castle would be open until dusk.  We decided to go it on our own, perhaps try to make it back the next day for a tour, trusting to my 20 year old memories of the history of the place, supplemented by a few facts gathered from pamphlets about the city.
          The Veste Rosenburg had seen several periods of renovation.  The oldest part of the castle was the inner tower and attached buildings, probably going back to the mid 12th century, what was left of a motte & bailey design.  The inner walls were probably not much later than that, with their massive inner gate making use of both a portcullis (the grooves for which were still in quite good condition), and thick oaken doors, shod over with steel plates, with slots in the walls behind it for reinforcing beams to bar the doors.  The outer curtain walls which had once been there had been renovated with the advent of cannon, converted into the typical star-shaped bastions of the 16th century, designed for the best coverage of field of fire for the guns of the period.  Since the castle was almost at the apex of the hill (not quite, behind it were some buildings used for housing the local Bishop, I believe), the front walls of the bastions were very high, some sixty or so feet.  The rear of the castle was pretty much protected by an almost sheer cliff, and the arms of the star to the rear were not nearly so large nor high.  The castle has never been taken in battle, though it had suffered a devastating siege during the 30 Years War that cost the city dearly.
          We went in the main gate, a high vaulted-ceiling tunnel, which curved, rising constantly, giving no attacking force a chance to mass troops or room for a battering ram.  Coming to the narrow courtyard between the inner and outer walls, and in through the old walls at the gate there, having to shift to the left to come up to the inner gate.  It was a straight passage through the walls, a tower above it, arrow slits and murder holes all throughout.  Through this darkness for some twenty or thirty feet, emerging to the inner courtyard.  Most of the buildings here were closed, their doors locked, but still it was wonderful to see the place again, with the additional knowledge I had of how castles were built and functioned as both symbols of power and instruments of war.  To the left were buildings attached to the inner walls, probably once used for housing the garrison or servants.  To the right it looked like old stables, cars now using that space.  We went toward the main tower, around it, admiring it.  Back through the inner walls to the outer courtyard, larger in the back of the keep than in the front, coming upon a broad expanse of brilliant green grass, freshly mowed, just waiting for a tournament with banners flying.  Part of the yard dropped down, going to meet more stable areas, the rest swept around behind the inner walls, with an arched stone bridge crossing to the postern gate.  We paused there for a while, looking over the outer walls, out over the vast valley of the city to the south.  The sun was getting lower in the sky, and though it was still some hours until dark, there was already a mist gathering force over the valley, there in the shadow of the mountains on the other side.
          We went in through the postern gate, past the cars in the stable areas, looked up once more at the central tower, and then out the gate to the outer courtyard at the front of the castle.  I wanted to go up on the outer walls, where I remembered sitting as a student, drinking stein after stein of beer from the little cafe up in the center of one of the broad front bastions, looking out over the city.  Up we went, and I was only mildly surprised to find the scene almost exactly as I remembered it.  We stopped in at the cafe, got something to drink, and went and sat on the low battlements, looking almost straight down into the old town and the newer city beyond it.  Here it was high enough to be windy and cool, the uprush of wind blowing our hair straight back when we looked over the walls, the birds playing in the drafts just above us.  Most of the trees hadn't yet begun to take on their fall foliage, but a few at the foot of the outer walls there had turned, and caught the early evening sun, exploding in golds and yellows, burning with the first reds and oranges.  We sat there, finished our drinks, using the binoculars I had brought to look out across the valley at the farms on the surrounding hills.  Out there somewhere to the northwest, within sight of the castle, was where I stayed as a student.
          At last it was time to come down, as the sun was starting to drop behind the low mountains to the west, and the staff who cared for the cafe and the castle would want to close up and go home.  We went down off the wall, out the main gate, and descended into the old town.

We wandered through the few streets, stopped at the platz which contained an ornate fountain, the fountain we played in after getting tossed out of one of the local pubs on my 16th birthday.  The pub was now under new management as a small Italian restaurant.  We didn't bother to go in.  We wound our way around the old city walls, coming back around almost to the foot of the castle, going down an alleyway and out a relatively new exit in the walls, steps carved out of the wall, leading down behind the homes built just below the wall toward the main city gate.  On a landing at the base of the old wall, tucked in there next to one of the little family gardens, was a path running up along the wall, under the shade of backyard trees.  Instead of continuing down to the street, we took this path, wanting to look closely at the gargoyles spouting out from the wall at just about head level.  It was drainage for the upper city, of course, and the gargoyles had probably been twenty or thirty feet above the ground level when the wall was built, having long since been filled in to allow for building the houses there.  They were now worn, but still their mischievous grinning faces were clear, the stonecutter's marks barely smoothed from the passage of hands and years.
          We dropped down to the street level, past the little grill where we had our late lunch, and followed the much more narrow streets of the newer town back around to the train station.  Along the way bits and pieces of memory would wander up in me, noting that here was the little shop where I bought souvenirs for family and friends, there was the wall where I had leaned, admiring the flowers in the few square meters of the front yard of a house, chatting with the old gent who owned the place, who wondered if I was perhaps Italian from my accent.  The flowers were still there, blooming powerfully in spite of the lateness of the year, and made me wonder if the old fellow was still around.
          We got back to the hotel just as it was getting dark and cold.  Dropping off our packs, the binoculars, and our jackets, we went downstairs and had dinner there in the hotel that night, too worn out to go in quest of food again, and were rewarded with a fine meal and good beer.  That night we wrote postcards, curled up under the feather comforters, and slept soundly, dreaming of all we had seen and done since we parked the car in Kansas City just the day before.

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