Plan B. Visit as many Schengen states as possible in a short time: Germany and Luxembourg.
To further my career as an ethical web developer passionate about my job, I applied for a positoin as the Senior Web Editor for Unicef U.K.s website. Before travelling to Paris I still hadn’t received notification of my application status – which would mean I had to travel to London for an interview. Alas it was not to be. Whilst my website making skills are out of this world, my inability to hold intellectual discussion and lack of a Bugger All degree meant I wasn’t invited. Just as well, I hate children any how.
Which left me with a problem: I had a week off work, alot of money as I had just got phat pay and no plan B. Shall I go to Spain? Too far away. Italy? Ditto – plus I really want to go to Rome and that is really too far away. Switzerland? Been there done that, plus my old flatmate and friend Simon who is (breathe in) a quantum mechanical physicist researching semi-conductors in Lausanne was too busy inducting (I kill me) a new research assistant to give me the middle of his week. France? I am already there, but then Germany is right over there… I emailed my friend Jess from my Experience New Zealand Travel days and asked her where in Germany she lived and would she mind if I came and visited. Her reply was Stuttgart and sure, when? “Tomorrow” I said. “Oh” was her reply.
I pulled up Google maps and typed in ‘Germany Suttgart’. Cool, it’s right near the border! So little old disorganised me booked a â‚¬100 euro train ticket and turned up at Stuttgart train station where Jess was waiting. We then picked up her friend Nicole from the airport who being much more organised had arranged to visit several months in advance. I couldn’t help feel like I was imposing.
Jess hasn’t changed a bit since Experience New Zealand and is friendly and funny as ever. She had only moved into her apartment one week earlier and it was still in a state of disorder. Hilariously when you rent a place in Stuttgart not only do you have to bring your own bed and furniture, but you also have to supply your own kitchen. And I mean the entire kitchen. She had no fridge, freezer, sink, cupboards or even a bench! The previous tenant had offered to sell Jess hers but Jess had politely refused given that she can buy a much nicer one from Ikea. Apparently you can buy everything from Ikea but I still haven’t been to one yet. I am dying to go but as they are like malls and you have to drive to them, I haven’t had the chance. Nicole (who has a kitchen at home in her house) was lovely too and met Jess through their work at a travel consultants company. By the way Nicole, Belgians only have one word for kroste.
It was mid-week and I did the tourist thing in Stuttgart while Jess worked and Nicole visited other friends. Walking with Jess to the light rail station in the morning I was overcome with a sense of forboding that was completely unexpected and shocked me. As we walked through the quiet suburb, between the houses and autumn laden trees one thought kept running through my head: these people caused World War II. The thought turned into what felt like a little panic attack. I was expecting something monstrous to be revealed around every corner. In New Zealand every time Germany came up in conversation or in the media it was almost always in relation to World War I or II. My strongest memory as a ten year old in Germany was Dachau. Now as a twenty seven year old I was swooning with irrational thoughts, which as quickly as they arrived I analysed into oblivion. Nonetheless I am a little disturbed by the prejudice that I wasn’t aware that I had. Needless to say it is now completely gone. I cannot wait to go back and visit Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Dresden.
Stuttgart surprised me enormously. My intial impression of the city was that it was quite bland. The downtown architecture was quite different to the other European cities I have vistied, although nothing extraordinary. It is all very recent, as Stuttgart and most other German cities were heavily bombed during the war (see, the War is inescapable!). Upon exploring I discovered just how much influence this region and Germany has had on the world. On a walking tour I stumbled across the birth place of the famous philospher Hegel. I visited the Daimler-Chrysler (MercedesBenz) museum which was not just a car show room, but an amazing piece of architecture and history of the modern world.
The most amazing gem was the Weissenhofmuseum which is a showcase architectural suburb built for the Werkbund exhibition in 1927. Mies van der Rohe of the Bauhaus organised the leading modernist architects of the day to each design one or two buildings advertising modernist style and principles. A centre piece by French architect Le Corbusier has been turned into a museum. All of the other buildings are inhabited which must be like living inside a piece of De Stijl artwork. While Theo Van Doesburg was in the initial list of architects he unfortunately wasn’t selected to design one of the final buildings. Now what is the all of the fuss about you might ask. Modernist architecture and its (hell-)spawn International Style created hideous abominations which cities are still trying to recover from. When I reached the kitchen of Le Corbusier’s house it hit home how revolutionary the style was, and how limited in ideas architecture would have been without modernism. Unlike a rental, this house came with a kitchen which looked like your average run of the mill Ikea affair. In stark contrast to the minimalist styling sat a stove created at exactly the same time as the house was built. It looked straight out of the dark ages – all iron, copper pipes and big knobs. To build houses like this when there were few other buildings like them on the planet… wow!
I bid adieu to Jess and Nicole and took off to Frankfurt on the awesome German railway system. It is unbelievably easy to travel around in Germany as every railway station has kiosks which allow you to not only plan your trip, but print off your final itinerary with trains, times and even platform numbers! The buses here even have LCD displays flashing which stop you are at, if that isn’t efficiency…
Frankfurt is very different to Stuttgart being one of the few European cities which allow skyscrapers to be built. It is the financial capital of Germany as well as the home of the European Bank. Frankfurt is awash with money, glittering glass and fancy shops. It also has a huge red light district that must be walked through to get from the main train station to the central city. For some reason the close community of international bankers and prostitutes makes sense to me. In the hostel I met the funniest English guy called Adam and we spent Saturday taking it in turns to make each laugh the hardest. We visited a local market, which again caused us to laugh even harder (note that I am missing contact with native English speakers). Every stall’s contents had the appearance of being that weeks burglary takings. Playstation 2s, shoes and coats, CDs, speakers, car stereos, packs of tooth brushes and razors. The strangest items were the stainless steel medical implements, from plaque cleaners and tooth pulling clamps to, well I don’t want to even guess what their uses were. As it was raining many of the stalls were drowning in pools of water which made me wonder who would want a pair of waterlogged speakers or sneakers.
I only spent one night in Frankfurt and decided to travel to Luxembourg that evening. I booked my train ticket and rode to the first stop with Adam. Thanks to German (in)efficiency the first train we caught was five minutes late, and all the other trains (of course) were running on time. I missed my next connection and got stuck for two extra hours in a town called Main (pronounced Mine). Fortunately Adam’s slack friend got distracted at lunch and Adam was also stranded with me which made Main utterly bearable. There is a moral to this story so please bear with me.
My general travel style is pretty slack. I tend to turn up in a city with little expectations and even less planning. My first port of call is always the local tourist office. This day I found out the fatal flaw in this method: travel delays. I arrived in Luxembourg at 9pm tired and hungry as I hadn’t had any dinner. It was dark and the tourist office was shut. I had no map and I couldn’t remember the address of the hostel I was staying at. I didn’t know how big Luxembourg was or how to get around. And it was raining.
From our disastorous experience turning up late in Stockholm I knew that hotels often had maps and information about the city. I went to the first hotel I could find to ask directions and struck the jackpot. Not only did he have a map on which he drew a circle around the hostel, but he also advised me on the quickest route to get there. I couldn’t believe my luck but that’s alright because I didn’t have any after that.
Luxembourg is, as described by the first people I asked directions from, three dimensional. It has not only north/south, east/west but also up/down. I spent the first hour and a half trying to find the building the now ill-favoured bus boy marked with no luck. Meanwhile I was getting wetter, colder, hungrier, tireder and angrier. My pack weighs over 20kg not counting being water logged and I also have my day bag and I’m now one inch shorter from having my spine compacted. Luxembourg is all winding streets and alleyways that criss-cross up and down very steep hills and a local winding river. Eventually the publican in the second bar from which I asked for directions pointed out that I was trying to find the wrong building. Needless to say when I began looking for the right building I arrived within 15 minutes. I developed a cold and felt like sh!t for the next three days.
So I don’t like Luxembourg that much – joking – although the shine was certainly taken off. I was there on a Sunday and European towns shut down completely on Sundays. Even with this in mind the place still had the open air museum feel of Brugge and to a lesser degree Paris. Beautiful to look at and wander around but not a lot to get excited about. This was a disappointment for me because Luxembourg always held a mystery. Why was there a little country in the middle of Europe that was independent of its much larger neighbours France, Germany and Belgium? How did it survive? What do they speak? And is the country of Luxembourg only as big as the city of Luxembourg? Fortunately an interactive kiosk outside the information centre answered all of my questions with the help of cheesy voice overs and bad animation. Luxembourg is tiny, only 100,000 people. It is small because of its prime defensive location which meant that the city couldn’t until recently grow beyond its fortifications. Over the centuries Luxembourg has traded hands between Germany and France so many times that the people speak ‘Luxembourgian’ – half French and half German. With my questions answered I decided to bail and head back home to Leuven. As Luxembourg the city is so small there are plenty of natural sights in the surrounding countryside. On the train leaving I missed them all completely because of reading ‘For whom the bell tolls’ instead of looking out the window. Good trade, take me home NMBS.