Right now, The Civil Wars is on shuffle and I’m on a train that is speeding through the Swiss countryside, soon to be German. Tomorrow is a new year yet I’m constantly thinking of the past. It’s beautiful country here; chalet style wooden houses, more often than not connected to barns, are covered in a fresh layer of snow and Christmas lights still twinkle in every town we pass. Coming into Switzerland on the train four days ago, Kristen and I were greeted by huge snowy peaks and sleepy little valley towns. But my favorite train ride backdrop was on the trip south from Prague to Vienna. The rural Czech countryside is reminiscent of the Northeastern forests I call home but more mysterious. You pass by endless stands of tall, skinny pine trees with forest floors carpeted in needles. There are soft rolling hills that go on endlessly like this broken up only by industrial looking towns and the occasional farmhouse. And every now and then a break in the pines comes in the form of a grass meadow. This is my favorite. It’s a welcoming space of green in the face of the stoic pines, like some magical sign of human life in all this silence. The meadows look like they are farmed but I haven’t seen any tractors. Maybe the agriculture in this country is like that of Romania, still worked by man and horse, or in some cases just man and woman. It’s a hard way to make a living, but in these beautiful woods I can understand why people persist.
France: Brittany, Normandy, Toulouse, Lyon, Angers, Bordeaux, Dax, Biarritz, the Pyrenees, Paris, the Loire Valley, the Dordogne, Burgundy, Carcassone
Spain: Spanish Pyrenees, Basque Country, Barcelona
Italy: Piacenza, Piemonte, Rome
Greece: Athens, Spetses Island
Czech Republic: Prague
Switzerland: St. Gallen, Appenzell, Gossau
These are all the places I have been in the last seven months. The places I never found the time to tell you about between work and school. I want to write about each place separately; each had different charms and different experiences for me. Each was spectacularly beautiful and all I really want to do now is keep traveling. Because for some reason the more I see, the less I think I know about this world. Each new person I meet teaches me something else and every place helps build my perspective of how we rely on each other to make this life what it is. Like the Lincoln log houses I use to make as a child, I keep tearing down walls and rebuilding them, trying to make it all fit.
The most recent traveling has been in the past two weeks on my Europe trip with Kristen. First, we spent three days in Rome. She had been there all semester and served as an excellent tour guide. The first night we went to mass at the Vatican and stopped at an out of the way place for some pasta after. Although I am not Catholic, the Vatican is an undeniably impressive and awe-inspiring place. And just before Christmas, with a tree standing taller than my house all decked out in twinkling lights, Vatican square was just about magical. There is something about being in a city so old, with so much history and so many stories to tell, that is thrilling. It feels like every ancient ruin is speaking to you. Standing in the Roman Forum you can almost visualize what a bustling square it might have been thousands of years ago. Closing my eyes I heard the clatter of hooves on stones and felt the heat of the day settle into the carefully carved stone statues of various gods. The Coliseum, however, was my favorite historic landmark. So much death and suffering was brought about in this place for the sole purpose of entertainment and it reminds me how much people can change with enough time.
Prague was the goal after Rome. We found a cheap flight on a low budget airline to the Czech Republic and were in Prague after two hours on the plane. Prague greeted us with snow and a Christmas spirit like I have never seen before. Our hostel was on a quaint side street off of the Old Town Square, which had a Christmas market day and night. At night the Old Town Square was my favorite place to be. Shoppers wandered from stall to stall eating Trdelnik and buying handmade ornaments. Others sipped hot wine and took horse drawn carriage rides. The old astronomical clock always attracted a crowd when it changed hours and the twin towers of The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn were lit up like the Disney Castle. During the day, we made our way down Karlova Street and across the Charles Bridge, heading up to the Prague Castle. Unfortunately, we arrived in Prague just one day after the death of former president Vaclav Havel and most buildings in the castle compound were closed. However, given my love of food and cooking, it was only natural that I tried about everything on a Czech menu during our three days in Prague. All in all, it’s a lot of meat, potatoes, and bread in gravy. And let’s not forget the beer; it is the home of Pilsner after all.
We left Prague on Christmas Eve, arriving by train in Vienna, Austria that afternoon. We checked into our new hostel, dropped our bags, and went in search of Christmas Eve dinner. We found it at a small Italian restaurant just a few blocks from the main square and St. Stephens Cathedral. The place might have been Italian but they served apple strudel for dessert in true Austrian style. After dinner we hunted for a church that had either a midnight service or midnight mass and settled on the main tourist attraction of St Stephen’s Cathedral. Assuming it would be packed, we got there an hour early and found a line almost leading out of the church already. We did get seats however, right in front of the nativity scene, and by the time the mass started it was standing room only. The service was beautiful, the homily given in three languages, and the church was glowing gold from Christmas lights and candlelight. Because many sights were closed on Christmas day, we decided to dedicate it to food. Quite simply, we tried every regional or national specialty that Vienna had to offer. First stop was the Christmas market. Where we sipped hot mugs of gluewine and spooned goulash soup out of huge bread bowls. Dessert was several pastries we couldn’t pronounce and a pretzel filled with bacon bits. After the market we walked to the Hofburg Palace and through the gardens. We found the Spanish Riding School and decided to come back the next morning to watch them practice. Watching the Lipizzaner horses and their riders practice was like watching dressage on steroids. The horses are so powerful yet so controlled and their gait transitions are almost imperceptible. It was two hours of sheer awe. We also visited Belvedere in Vienna; an old palace turned art museum, on the outskirts of the city. It is a massive, three story palace with a beautiful pond in the front and gardens stretching to the stables behind.
After a memorable Christmas in Vienna, Kristen and I took a train to Switzerland, with beautiful views of the mountains the last two hours. Switzerland was our break from city hopping. Kristen has family friends, Werner and Monica, who live at Werner’s family home in the countryside near St. Gallen. This was probably the best part of the trip given the family atmosphere Werner and Monica provided for us. They gave us beds, fed us (A LOT), and took us around their part of Switzerland. It is such a beautiful and traditional country. Many people still farm, all small, family run businesses. Switzerland also prohibits new houses being built unless there was already one standing in its place, so much of the farmland and green space is preserved. The first night we arrived, Werner and Monica made us raclette; potatoes smothered in melted cheese with tomatoes, onions, and pickles. There was also a plate of Swiss chocolate in our room when we arrived… if that doesn’t tell you how well we ate there then I won’t bother to detail the “meatloaf” and beef stroganoff or nougat cake. We visited an Appenzeller cheese making facility and tried a very old, extremely smelly cheese that Werner ordered for us, not noticing the women warning us in German that we wouldn’t like it. Werner had a good laugh anyway. We also visited several small towns and poked around the Abbey of Saint Gall Library that has a mummy dating back to B.C. times and at least 2000 handwritten books. We walked part of the trail through fields and a forest that Werner and his brothers and sisters used to take to school every day and visited a dairy farm owned by his sister. Switzerland still has much to offer and I would like to go back with a backpack and a tent and hike for a few weeks. And of course visit my new friends again. Werner and Monica are a rare breed. They are kind, very well traveled and knowledgeable people. Every night, the dinner table was filled with discussion from politics to books to places we have and haven’t seen and what we’ve learned from other cultures. I miss them already.
It has taken me a bit longer than expected to post this update and the train that was carrying me through Switzerland in the beginning of this post made it to Munich, Germany yesterday. But I’m still listening to the Civil Wars. They’ve become my new writing playlist. New Year’s Eve in Munich was something to be remembered. Never have I seen so many fireworks in my life. You could turn 360 degrees and the entire skyline was lit up with fireworks, those of the city of Munich and private citizens alike. But Kristen and I turned in shortly after midnight in order to wake up early this morning and take the regional train out to the former Dachau concentration camp. That is a memorial that rivals the slave castles I saw in Ghana almost four years ago. I know no one needs a history lesson in the Holocaust but being at an actual concentration camp is not comparable to any written account. The horrors people experienced there are beyond reason and understanding. I am saddened by the things people have done to each other and was struck by the heavy feeling the place still has. It’s as if the ground has soaked up all of the death and still clings to the memories.
We now have three days left in Europe. Tomorrow we will pick up our rental car and drive, first, south to Neuschwanstein Castle and then north to Rothenburg. After that we will spend a night in Frankfort or Heidelberg and see the Eltz Castle. Then it’s still north to Hamburg where we will spend the night in the airport and catch a seven am flight to London and then home.
And if you were still wondering about the picture in the last post, it is Notre Dame, in Paris. It’s always more beautiful to me at night.