Frohe Weihnachten aus Deutschland!

Merry Christmas from Germany!

Christmas 2013 was an untraditional one, to say the least.  Even though I’ve now been away from home for Easter five times, this was the first time in my life that I wasn’t with my family for Christmas.  It was sad to be apart from them, but the Stark family were such wonderful hosts that I couldn’t feel gloomy for long.

As I mentioned before, Christmas Eve is the day of holiday festivities in Germany, so Christmas Day is usually relaxing and relatively uneventful.

In typical form, Katharina had yet another fun surprise up her sleeve, so off we went to visit the beautiful Burg Hohenzollern, just a short drive from her parents’ home.  This is castle #3 of the trip, if you’re keeping track.  Katharina kept saying, “Now, I don’t want you to think that Germany is nothing but castles!” but then off we’d trot to another castle the next day.


Katharina described this as a true fairy tale castle.  Like the iconic castle in Disneyland, Burg Hohenzollern was created in the style of the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, meant to represent the ideal of a medieval castle.

Like so many others, Burg Hohenzollern has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times over the years.  The original castle was built in the eleventh century, but the current structure is the third incarnation to stand on this spot.  (Is incarnation the right word?  I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who.  Wait, not possible.)


Timo met us in the parking lot and we decided to skip the shuttle bus in favor of walking up the steep woodsy path to the castle.  The huffing and puffing was worth it for the views!


We entered through the gates and spent a little time poking around on our own.  The castle is all spires and battlements and ivy-covered walls and is truly exactly what you think a castle should be.




There’s a walkway that follows the wall almost the entire way around the castle and which looks onto some amazing panoramas of the German countryside.  These are the kind of sights that make me really feel like I’m in a different country!  There’s something magical about looking on to a landscape that you’ve never ever seen before.



It started to mist a little bit, so we moved on to the interior parts of the castle and spied this secret little courtyard complete with spiral staircase and miniature Christmas tree.  It was the second time that month I felt like I was at Hogwarts at Christmas!


We took a guided tour of the interior of the castle, but no photos were allowed (that’s where I learned the phrase “Bitte nicht fotografieren,” actually).  The castle is so well preserved, including the original hardwood floors, that we all had to wear gigantic felt slippers over our shoes that made us look like clowns and shuffle along like penguins.

After our tour, the rain had picked up a bit, so we didn’t dawdle before skipping back down the mountain to the car.

We all spent a relaxed evening at Katharina’s house, enjoying dinner together and looking up places in the US and New Zealand in Katharina’s dad’s atlas.  After some more Christmas cookies and proper German beer, Timo, Katharina, her brother, Johannes, and I broke out the poker chips for a few good old fashioned rounds of cards.


Timo taught us all how to play Texas Hold’em and before we knew it, we’d whiled away nearly four hours at the kitchen table.  And guess who was the big winner?


Katharina brought it home!  I’m not destined to be a poker champ.  I’m too much of a risk-taker (or I’m just bad).

That night, Katharina, her mom, and I stayed up late chatting in the living room – about New Zealand, Germany, England, their cultural differences, recipes, and everything in between.  It was a lot of fun to get to know another culture and spend some time with such a wonderful German family.

The next morning, we made sure to snap a self-timer “family” photo before Katharina and I left for Stuttgart so I could catch my flight back to London.


I loved getting to learn more German during the trip, and I was especially touched when Katharina’s dad, who was not very comfortable with English and mostly relied on Katharina to translate for him during my visit, hugged me and said perfectly, “Goodbye, Julie, see you again!”  Saying goodbye to Katharina reminded me of how sad it was to do so in New Zealand, but we’re already planning on her visiting London sometime during the coming year, so hopefully our next reunion isn’t too far away!

My flight to London connected through Brussels, so it was a bit of a mindbender to switch so rapidly from using my tiny bit of broken German in the Stuttgart airport, to the French that I haven’t used in a few years in Belgium, and back to good ol’ English once I arrived in London.  It actually felt a bit odd to understand everybody I came across (and vice versa) back in England.

Even though it was a bit nerve-racking at first, I think it was a really valuable experience to visit a country where I didn’t speak the language.  English speakers especially tend to have it pretty easy in world travel, so I think it’s important to remember that we’re not the center of the world and that sometimes we’d do well to make an effort in learning the language and customs of other cultures.

Here’s to more of that in 2014!

Christmas Eve in Tübingen

On December 24th, I woke up to this beautiful sunrise out of Katharina’s window:


Not a bad incentive to get your day going, right?

We had a leisurely breakfast and multiple rounds of tea and coffee for everyone.  Katharina normally lives a couple hours south of her parents, where she has a teaching job, and her brother and sister were also home from their university studies in other cities.  I could tell that Katharina’s parents loved having their three children home again, and meals were fun, chatty family affairs.  They are all pretty good English speakers and made me feel right at home.  I would never expect them to speak English just for me (I was the one visiting their country, after all), but it was really thoughtful that they made the effort, and it allowed them to teach me a bit of German along the way!

After breakfast, Katharina and I drove just a few miles away from her parents’ little village to the main town centre of Tübingen.  We walked over the bridge that crosses the River Neckar, the same river that flows through Heidelberg.  Katharina told me that they have punting races around this bend in the river every year!


One of the loveliest sights in Tübingen is this row of brightly painted houses right along the river.  It reminded me of Rainbow Row in Charleston, South Carolina (I’ve never actually been there, but my grandparents have a cross-stitch of it that I always liked to look at when I was younger).


Tübingen is such a quintessentially old-European town.  Apparently, the Alstadt (old town) is one of the only completely intact historic old towns in Germany.  The winding cobbled streets are lined by tall, narrow timber-frame houses and on Christmas Eve, the village centre was still packed with Christmas markets and fresh produce stalls.

Satsumas are a type of mandarin orange that are extremely popular in Europe, especially during the winter (they’re also called Christmas oranges).  I love how markets always leave the dark green leaves on the fruit like this – it’s such a pretty contrast.


Tübingen is a university town, and since most of the students were home for the holidays at that point, the markets weren’t too crowded and it was easy to wander around without getting stuck.  We walked up to the highest point in the village to see the castle, Schloß Hohentübingen, that’s now part of the local university.  I’ve definitely been racking up my tally of castle views lately!



The castle looked out over the village and river valley, and to the forested hills in the distance.


We walked through the main courtyard of the castle, which now serves as art and history museums, research labs, and a few classroom spaces for the university.  It’s also home to the famous “Wild Horse” sculpture, which is one of the oldest man-made artifacts ever found.


I thought that giant head looked like Grawp.


The clouds scampered away as we continued exploring the castle and found our way to some of the castle wall walks and gardens.


I wanted to live here!  Look at that beautiful river in the background.


After our wander through the Alstadt of Tübingen, Katharina and I drove back to Wurmlingen and stopped by her grandmother’s house to visit with her family for awhile.  Another of her uncles was there along with his three-year-old son who was entertaining everybody with chocolate-fueled antics.  Some of her family spoke English and some didn’t, but regardless of the language barrier, everyone was so sweet and welcoming.

That evening, Katharina and I went to the Christmas Eve service at the local church with her father and sister.  I could actually follow along with most of the service, and I even knew the German words to “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”)!  I knew there must’ve been a reason we had to practice that growing up.


After church, we returned to Katharina’s parents’ house for a big family dinner.  And this was when something very, very beautiful happened.  I was introduced to raclette.  It’s apparently very popular in Europe, especially around the holidays, but I had never heard of it!  There’s basically a big two-tier griddle that goes in the middle of the table (the big black thing in the photos), and everyone picks their favourites from a wide selection of raw meat and seafood that’s laid out in bite-size chunks.


We had pork, beef, lamb, chicken, salmon, tuna… and yep, that’s octopus.  There are veggies and potatoes that are served as side dishes, but my favourite part was the cheese.  See those little black things with handles that sort of look like sand shovels?  You pile yours up with olives, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and whatever else you feel like, then fold this big slab of raclette cheese over the top and stick it in the side of the raclette grill, underneath the top level where all the meat is browning.


Everyone throws their meat on the grill and starts melting their cheese all at once, so it’s a very interactive, communal way of eating – I loved it!  It was fun, too – you’re guaranteed to run into some shenanigans when someone accidentally grabs somebody else’s meat from the grill, or some squidgy octopus goes bouncing out of reach of your fork.

After dinner, Katharina and I Skyped our friend Erika to wish her a happy birthday, and our dynamic trio from the roadtrip we took around the South Island of NZ was (almost) reunited!



It was so much fun to all talk together again, reminisce about our past adventures, and daydream about a real reunion someday!  We also called our other NZ mate (and one of my flatmates) Chelsea, before cutting it short as the rest of the family began to wander back in for Christmas festivities.


In Germany, the main day of celebration is Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day.  We all gathered around their pretty Christmas tree with coffee and Christmas cookies and prepared to open presents.


I was just really enjoying being in such a cozy family atmosphere and was happy to watch them all exchange gifts, but Katharina and her mom had gone way overboard, and I had almost as many gifts sprinkled under the tree as anybody else!  It was wholly unnecessary but still really, really sweet of them.

The absolute best were these two calendars with are now hanging side by side next to my desk:


The one on the right is from Katharina’s mom, and it has lovely scenes of Tübingen for every month of the year (including punting next to the rainbow row on the front!).  The calendar on the left is handmade by Katharina and it’s packed with photos of us during our time in New Zealand – some of which I’d never even seen before!  It was especially sweet because Katharina and her brother and sister make a calendar of like this of family photos for their parents every Christmas, and it was really touching to be included in their family tradition.

Between these two and my amazing Geneseo photo calendar, I don’t think I’m in any danger of a lack of beautiful scenes to gaze upon… or of forgetting what month it is.

Heidelberg: An Intro to Germany

Following our week of frolicking through Scotland (well, as much as you can frolic in puffy coats and big boots), I collapsed back in to Flat 12 and didn’t really feel like moving again for a good week.  But move again I did.

Amity’s sister Katie and her husband Chris came to visit for a week!  They arrived the day after our return from Scotland, and I got to spend a couple of days hanging out with them before I was repacking my bag and heading out to the airport (London City Airport, incidentally, which I hadn’t been to before).


I started getting jittery with excitement as the plane descended through the clouds and I got my first view of Frankfurt, Germany.


Who?  What what?  Germany?  Yes indeed!  I was off to spend a whirlwind Christmas reuniting with Katharina, one of my very best friends from New Zealand.  She pops up all over the place if you go back to the old posts from My Life as a Kiwi.  We’ve written letters and Skyped pretty regularly since we left NZ, but we hadn’t actually seen each other in three and a half years!


(Mid-tramp with Aoraki Mt. Cook in the background – wow, I miss that)

Needless to say, I was ecstatic at the thought of reuniting with Katharina and I couldn’t say yes fast enough when she generously invited me to spend Christmas with her family since I couldn’t be with my own.  I was also really looking forward to experiencing Germany for the first time, and seeing the country through the eyes of a local!

Katharina’s family lives in the southwestern region of Baden-Württemberg, so we had about a two-hour drive south from the Frankfurt airport (which was hilariously marketed as “Fraport”).  However, Katharina had adventures up her sleeve from the moment she met me at the arrivals gate, so our first stop was about halfway home in the beautiful city of Heidelberg.


Heidelberg is just the picture of German heritage.  Like so many places in Europe, it has a really long and rich history, including being the home of Heidelberg University (Germany’s oldest university – founded in 1386!).  We spent most of our afternoon there in the Altstadt (Old Town), starting with one of the famous German Christmas markets, where we had Glühwein (mulled wine) and Flammkuchen (sort of a thin pizza with crème fraîche, onions, and bacon – also known as tarte flambée in French).


Katharina’s uncle, aunt, and cousins, who live in Heidelberg (that’s them traipsing intrepidly towards us in the picture above, next to the beautiful Church of the Holy Spirit), offered to show us around their hometown for the few hours that we were there.  I was thrilled to have built-in tour guides!


We spent some time just walking through town and enjoying the amazing architecture, and then caught the funicular railway up the hillside to one of the city’s best-known landmarks: Schloss Heidelberg, a partially ruined castle.  The castle provides an incredible vantage point of the River Neckar and the entire valley in both directions.



The castle was built, demolished, and added on to again in patchwork fashion over hundreds of years, beginning in the thirteenth century.  It has been hit by lightning twice, in 1537 and in 1764, and in both instances the lightning bolt actually destroyed parts of the stone and brick castle.  How’s that for bad luck?


Many parts of the castle have been well-restored, but it is no longer a seat of any political or governmental activity.  It mainly serves as an important historic site and tourist attraction.  The view from the castle walls is like something out of Grimms’ fairy tales, with the blue-green river winding its way through the clusters of red roofs.


Some of the buildings in the castle still house exhibits and attractions, such as the world’s largest wine barrel!  Known as the Heidelberg Tun, it was built in 1751, is about 23 feet tall, and has a dance floor built on top of it.  Even ol’ Samuel Clemens visited it once!

Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me.

— Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880


So, Mark Twain was apparently not too fussed about a big barrel, but I thought it was pretty cool.  Contrary to his assertions, it hasn’t always been empty (it was actually used as a wine barrel a few times) and it can hold almost 300,000 bottles of wine.  So phooey on you, Mark Twain.  Sorry, I didn’t mean that.

It also comes with a few good stories, as do most things involving that much wine.  My favorite was the story of Perkeo, the court jester, who is immortalised by this little statue right next to the Heidelberg Tun.


Perkeo was an Italian dwarf who became the royal court jester at Schloss Heidelberg in the 1700s.  He gained that nickname because he drank so much wine that he was notorious for answering “Perché no?” (“Why not?” in Italian) whenever he was offered another glass.  The legend goes that one day, he accidentally drank a glass of water and it killed him.


We crossed the courtyard of the castle as the light was starting to fade, and decided to take a quick walk through the Pharmacy Museum, which had fascinating and intricate exhibits of apothecaries and medicines as they existed in past centuries.


After our visit, we took the funicular back down into town, and as a result I had “Funiculì, Funiculà” stuck in my head for the rest of the day (Also, I had NO IDEA that song was actually about funicular railways.  I mean, obviously I don’t speak Italian, but I still thought that was pretty funny.)


We strolled through the streets and stopped in for cappuccinos at a little café (it was nice to be back in a country where coffee is properly appreciated).  This is apparently where the big huge mother of all Christmas markets is normally set up, but it had ended just a few days before we got there.


Our next stop was the Old Bridge, which is as much of a Heidelberg landmark as the castle.  You can see it spanning the river in all the photos above taken from the castle.


There’s a really cool medieval gatehouse at one end of the bridge which actually has a little apartment in one of the towers.  It’s allotted as student housing by a random lottery every year, and we actually saw the current occupant coming back with a load of groceries when we walked past.  That’s got to be one popular kid (for this year, at least).


The last bit of the sunset faded away as everything along the river lit up.  So lovely!


Amity studied abroad in Heidelberg for a semester during college and I remember following her pictures, so it was really cool to see some of those places with my own eyes!  I’m so grateful to Katharina, her family, and her boyfriend, Timo for being such excellent hosts and guides!  (I did not actually warn them that I was taking this photo, so it’s not their fault that they weren’t fully prepared.) 


It was pretty windy and chilly by then (not to mention dark), so we said our goodbyes and Katharina, Timo, and I continued on our drive south.

About half an hour in to our drive, Timo heard on the radio that there had been a big accident resulting in huge delays on the highway we had been planning to take, so we had to reroute.  I didn’t think this was a big deal until Katharina turned all the way around in her seat to look at me and literally said, “We have to go through the Black Forest.  I would not go there in winter unless I had to, but now we have no other choice.”  She did not get why I thought that was so funny.  She was even making this exact face of trepidation!


Apparently the road through the Mines of Moria Black Forest can get really icy in winter, but we had met neither ice nor Orcs and made it alive to Katharina’s parents house in the end.

We stayed up just long enough for introductions and homemade Christmas cookies before collapsing into bed.  Heidelberg was a perfect introduction to Germany, and the adventures continued the next day…


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