Heading to Switzerland

For those of you playing along at home, we will be leaving Germany today and heading to Switzerland. Tonight we stay at a hotel in Bern, and tomorrow we hopefully move into our permanent home for the next year. Tomorrow is Switzerland’s national day so we will be greeted with parades and fireworks.

Unfortunately it does mean that for the next few days, at least, we will likely be without reliable Internet access. For those of you who have been kind enough to email or Skype us with your comments, we will be hard to reach over the next few days. We’ll post an update as soon as one is available.

Wishing you all well as we roll into August!

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Reinheitsgebot - German Purity Law of 1516
Reinheitsgebot - German Purity Law of 1516

How could I possibly spend any time writing on my travels in Germany without mentioning the beer. Germany is so steeped in beer culture and brewing tradition that it is impossible to escape the connection between German Brewing, and German People. Land has changed hands, laws have been written, monarchies won and lost, all on the backs of the brewers, and the beverages they create.

I’m no beer historian, but I do know that the region of Germany that we are currently staying in has been involved in a significant portion of brewing history. Nürnberg, in the 13th century, had laws forbidding the use of certain grains in beer. And of course, the German Purity Law of 1516 (or Reinheitsgebot) was signed by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria on April 23, 1516 in Ingolstadt, Bavaria. This law stated that “no longer any materials for beer brewing will be used other than Barley, Hops and Water.” Even the Germans were not aware of the necessity of yeast until Pasteur’s work in the 1800s.

Sunday in the Biergarten
Sunday in the Biergarten

But more than the contribution to beer history, Germany is extremely liberal in how it allows and facilitates the consumption of beer. Beer and beer mixes (Radler and Ruß being among the most popular) are frequent lunchtime beverages. There is not only a Biergarten on every corner but there are two in-between. They are outside of town halls, next to churches, and you can assuredly find a beer at the local Sommerrodelbahn (kids playground with alpine-style roller coasters). Open bottles of beer can be carried on the street, enjoyed on the subway, bus, or tram, or sipped on a park bench. There has been some proposed legislation of open container laws, but none of the Germans I spoke to thought it would go anywhere.

Helles Beer
Joe drinking a Helles beer

Ordering beer in Germany also takes some practice. In America, you might ask what they have “on tap,” or look for a beer list. You expect to get a list of labels: Miller, Budweiser, Schlitz, etc. In Bavaria, you order a type of beer, and they bring you what they serve.

Common types of beer that you may order would be Helles (German for “bright” – a light colored lager beer), Dunkel (dark), Bock (generally a stronger lager that varies in color depending on the type of Bock it is), Weizenbier (sometimes called Weissebier, or Hefe-Weizen – a wheat-based beer). And then there are the different sizes; the most frequent sizes are listed as 0,3l (0.3 liters), 0,5l (a half-liter or ein Halbes in German), and 1,0l (a full liter, or ein Maß in German).

Löwenbräu's Bottled Radler

And then there are the beer mixes (gemischt). The Radler (German for “bicyclist”) is a combination of beer (usually a Helles), and lemon-lime soda (like Sprite; in German weißes Limo). It is supposed to be mixed 50/50, but I’ve found that men seem to get 60/40 beer, and women get 60/40 soda. Maybe it’s just my imagination. The Radler is a favorite summer drink amongst travelers and, not surprisingly, bicyclists. There is a version in Northern Germany called, I believe, an Alster. The Ruß (short for Russian) is similar to a Radler, but instead combines weiße Limo with Weizenbier.

And the local Getränke-Markt (drink store) sells a wide selection of biers, sodas, etc. in crates, usually containing 20 0,5l bottles. Crates can be bought whole, or you can make a crate containing different drinks as well. And don’t forget to save the bottles as your local liquor store will take them back, send them back to the brewer, and refill them. No wasting glass here.

So for better or for worse, beer is plentiful here. And generally speaking, in Bavaria, if you sit down at a Biergarten or Gasthaus and order “ein Bier, bitte,” you will most likely get a half-liter of a Helles-type beer.

But regardless of what you get, it’s going to be darn good.

Branching Out

James is spinning the mythical (and touristy) brass ring in the fence - make a wish!

A really old tower near the train stationWe finally broke free of our confinement and visited two of Bavaria’s larger cities: Nürnberg and Augsburg. We saw so many sights in just two days it could make for an extremely long post. So, instead of giving the background story for each one, I have just included a lot of links so you can find out more for yourself if you are interested.

Kristina’s car was still in the shop on Tuesday morning, so we hopped on a bus in Riedenburg, to a train in Saal, and another train in Regensburg. (I told you we are in the middle of nowhere). Trains are still exciting for the kids, and great for us too when we aren’t carrying 350 pounds of luggage!

At the main train station (Bahnhof), we met Carmen, another Amity intern who spent the year in Milwaukee and who lives near Nürnberg. She was our guide for the day. We ate lunch at a fantastic outdoor café in the old town. Then, Carmen suggested that Joe and I visit the World War II museum at the Documentation Center on the Nazi Party Rally Grounds. James is spinning the mythical (and touristy) brass ring in the fence - make a wish!Nürnberg was the center of the Nazi party during Hitler’s reign, and was also home to the Nürnberg Tribunal after the war, so it was fascinating to see. Meanwhile, Carmen and Kristina took all three kids to a toy museum (Spielzuegmuseum) – thank you girls! We met up afterwards in the Hauptmarkt by the central fountain and made our way up to the city’s Imperial Castle. We arrived just as it was closing, but we walked around the castle grounds and enjoyed the view. Then we descended back toward the train station, and stopped along the way at another outdoor café for dinner. We got home very late that night (almost 11:00pm) and crashed in bed to rest up for another big day.

On Wednesday we drove (in the newly repaired van) to Augsburg to visit Thomas, another friend and MGIS Amity intern. He took us to König von Flandern for lunch, a microbrewery restaurant near the Rathausplatz where the kids got to see some beer brewing in process. With some food under our belts, we climbed the 260 stairs to the top of the Perlach Tower in Augsburg’s central square. Then, we went next door to see the town hall (Rathaus), including the stunning golden hall (Goldener Saal). Watching the canal under the GassenFrom there we walked through old, quaint little streets (Gassen) to the famous Augsburger Puppenkiste. To be honest we had never heard of it before, which I think offended Thomas a little, but the museum was very cool. Some of you may remember seeing their programs on t.v.?? This time, we wanted to get home at a reasonable time, so we took the tram back to Thomas’s apartment, got the van, and drove the hour and a half back to Obereggersburg.

I have to say that this is the best way to travel: visit someone in their home city and let them show you around. They know all the major attractions as well as the cool little areas that you would otherwise miss. And they know how to get around, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. Thank you Carmen and Thomas for being our guides to these great cities!

Nürnberg and Augsburg Photo Gallery

The Merry Wanderers

Barley Field

Emily and James and I set out this morning on a mission. We were on day three of our transportation shortage, and rations were starting to run low. I decided to ask Emily and James if they were up for the challenge of the 8 kilometer round trip walk through the Altmühl Forest, down into the valley, and back up to make a trip to the nearest grocery store. As usual with youth, what they lacked in comprehension, they made up for in enthusiasm. Regardless, the walk turned out to be an extremely beautiful walk through forest, along fields of corn, hay, and barley, and down through a wooded river valley. Complaints were few, but questions were plentiful.

Barley Field

While on our walk, not more than a kilometer from home, we stopped at the side of a local farmer’s field to examine the grain. My experience with homebrewing helped me realize it was a field of 2-row barley. This particular type of barley is commonly used as a base malt when brewing German beer, but it can also be used for other purposes. We each grabbed a stalk of nearly ready grain, and would pick seeds and munch on them as we walked.

2-row and 6-row barleyOn our way back from Riedenburg, we walked by another field that was growing 6-row barley. This kind is particularly suited for animal feed, and we could see why. The kids noticed the seeds were more plump, softer, and had more of a flavor to them. We enjoyed our walk, our snack, and four hours later, we found ourselves back home with a backpack and two bags full of groceries.

I’m terribly proud of those two kids for making that whole journey with me, but I am even more amazed at the incredible surge of energy they seemed to have when they got home. They started running around, wrestling each other, and generally wreaking havoc. It was a good opportunity to send them over to the spielplatz to burn off more steam. We’ll see how they sleep tonight.

Home Sweet Home?

Our big plans for the weekend were dashed when Kristina’s car (our only method of transportation) broke down.  Instead, we were effectively stranded in our little town of Obereggersberg.

Trying to stay optimistic, we went out on Saturday morning for a hike through the trails in the forest of the Altmühl valley (Naturpark Altmühltal), which encompasses the entire area.  With a two-year-old along, our “hikes” are extremely slow and short, but we did manage to find and catch a frog and a toad and observe some beautiful scenery.  In the afternoon, we again went over to the Schloss Eggersberg, our neighborhood castle, with the intention of actually going inside.  There is a small museum there, but it appeared to be closed.  So we just walked in through the restaurant and went up the first set of stairs we saw.  The castle has been turned into a hotel, though it didn’t seem to have many guests in residence.  No one bothered us, so we explored the whole place, up to the 4th story theater that used to host a lively music festival (about 35 years ago).

Looking over the Altmühl ValleyIt was still early, and the restaurant wasn’t seating for dinner yet, so we walked down the road to where it stopped and looked over the Altmühl river and valley.  There were also ruins of an even older castle there, which proved, along with the beautiful landscape, to be a great backdrop for pictures.  So, we did an impromptu photo shoot, and played and climbed until it was time for dinner.  We went back to the castle restaurant for a delicious dinner and congratulated ourselves on making a great day out of nothing.

That night, we talked to Kristina and found out that her car would be out of commission until Tuesday.  Having now explored every inch of the two short roads that make up Obereggersberg several times, we were completely out of ideas of what to do.  So, we all had a lazy Sunday.  The kids watched quite a bit of German television, including a “SpongeBob Schwammkopf” marathon on Nickelodeon Germany, which we justified by saying that it would be helpful for their language comprehension.  The older kids and I crammed into Kristina’s brother’s sports car so we could get out of the house for at least a couple of hours to eat lunch and enjoy some live music at the Fuchsgarten.

Today is day three of our immobility.  Joe took the older kids on an extremely long walk to Riedenburg to get some groceries and have lunch.  They walked about 8km round trip and were gone from 10:15am to 2:30pm, and they did a great job!  Meanwhile, I stayed home with Henry, and cleaned the apartment.

Which brings up the question of “home.”  We often say “It’s time to go home” when we are going back to our apartment here.  The kids have declared that our house in Milwaukee will be referred to as “home home” and our current residence (in Germany, Switzerland, or wherever) can be called just “home.”  We do what we can to bring many of the qualities of “home” with us wherever we go, including our family, our routine, eating meals together, etc.  And certainly life follows you wherever you go.  Things like laundry, dishes, learning manners, and other responsibilities are always with you no matter what your surroundings or other experiences are.  So, regardless of the language or food or other differences, we still have somewhere, or something, we can call “home.”

A few pictures of Obereggersberg.

Posted from Riedenburg, Bayern, Germany.

Kids, Kelheim and Kloster

For the past two days we have spent a lot of time in the nearby town of Kelheim.  We have actually been there once before to visit the Befreiungshälle.  But, Joe discovered a cute blue train called the Ludwigsbahn.  We told Henry "Look mom! It's Thomas!"we were going ride on Thomas the Train and he loved it!  We ate lunch in the center of the Kelheim old town at another outdoor café.

That was enough for one day, so we decided to return on Friday to ride the boat down the Danube river (Donau in German) from Kelheim to Weltenburg to visit the abbey there.  The Weltenburg Kloster is the world’s oldest still functioning abbey brewery, established in 1050 A.D..  In case you aren’t familiar with this, it is very common in Germany for monks to brew beer to raise money.  The abbey has a beautiful church, museum, a hill with a spectacular view of the Danube gorge, and a great restaurant to serve their guests (and their beer!).

Beautiful view of the Danube and the Befreiungshälle in the background.They also had a riverside outcropping made out of the smoothest, flattest, most beautiful rocks.  So what did we do?  What else?  We threw them into the water of course.  Henry was in heaven with rocks as far as he could see.  And these rocks were so perfect Joe could skip them countless times.  It was hard to drag ourselves back to the boat to return to Kelheim and back home.

We got lots of great pictures.  You can see some of the best ones in our gallery.

A break in the weather

I know most of you reading this blog are struggling with overwhelming, oppressive heat right now. We hope you all are staying cool! After having had beautiful weather the first five days here, we have had rain and cold the last two. But last night we had a wonderful surprise that heralded the end of the rain, and hopefully the return of nice weather. Here are a couple of photos that captured the end of last night’s storm.

It was such a wonderful sight to see!We caught sight of a rainbow over Schloß Eggersberg, right behind our apartment.

No day off for mom

Wednesday was cold and rainy all day. The kids were a little toured-out anyway, so we decided to take the day off. We stayed home and watched some German television, played games, and just hung out. It’s nice to be in a place long enough that we don’t feel obligated to do something every day. I even stayed in my pajamas all day long, though I did that for a very specific reason.

You see, is isn’t very common here to have a dryer. So, when I do laundry, I have to hang it out to dry. I realize that much of the world does this all the time, but for me it is a new experience. My options are to hang it in our bedroom, in the attic, or outside (if it’s not raining). Hanging clothes on the line.Then you have to wait for 1-2 days before they are really dry. We have no microwave either, so when I wanted to eat the leftover käsespatzle from yesterday, I had to warm it in the oven for 15 minutes, and even then it was still cold. Oh, and also, there is no dishwasher and we have barely enough dishes to get through each meal with five people. Dishes have primarily been Joe’s job. Although staying home all day also meant eating all our meals here, and using every dish, bowl, saucer, and whatever else we could put food on. We are getting used to a slower, more rural lifestyle here.

Up until now, it has really felt like a vacation (and it has been). But today it started to feel more like we are really living here, with all the little things that go with that.

Beyond Riedenburg

We ventured a little ways out of our small town home to see some more sights.  On Monday we visited the Befreiungshalle (Hall of Liberation) in Kelheim, Germany.  It is a monument, built by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, to German Independence and victory over Napoleon.  The kids climbed all the steps up to the entrance and then the additional 165 steps up a tiny winding staircase to get to the upper level. Whew!

That afternoon we visited Burg Prunn just outside Riedenburg, our thirdCastle #3 castle if we are keeping track.  It is a stunning fortress castle up on a cliff above the region.  We got a private tour, as we were the only people there for the last tour on a Monday.  This was good since the kids were a little restless learning about Jesuits and life in the 1600’s (most of which we didn’t understand anyway).  The next day when we were preparing to go out, they complained, “Do we have to go to another castle?”

“Nope” we told them.  We went to the Tropfsteinhöhle Schulerloch, a cave in the rocky cliffs of Riedenburg.  The parking lot was at the bottom of the hill, so we had to hike about a kilometer up to the cave opening.  This is a European phenomenon that I don’t understand.  Can’t you build a road up the hill and put the parking lot closer to the actual destination?  Throughout the hike to the cave, the kids referred to it as the “bat cave,” although we learned that the bats only live there in the winter, so they were again disappointed.  Although the sound & light show in the middle of the tour was pretty cool.

Tuesday night we decided to do something for the kids, so we ate dinner at the Fuchsgarten, an open-air beer garden in Riedenburg.  They have a Playing at the Fuchsgartenplayground for the kids, as well as a petting zoo with goats, pigs, a donkey, and a pony.  They loved it!  They even made friends with some other local kids and spoke German the whole time.  We ordered them käsespatzle and told them it was like German mac & cheese.  They disagreed and didn’t eat much of it.  Oh well, you can’t win them all!

Check out more pictures of our excursions here.