To get to Heidelberg, we had to take a bus and two trains from Colmar and had a decision to make - get up early to start the journey and give ourselves a few hours to explore another town, Freiberg, in between trains, or sleep in and go straight to Heidelberg. We opted for more exploring, so off to Freiberg we went! Claude and Cecile (our hosts in Colmar), even gave us a map of the town that had a walking tour outlined in it - perfect! Armed with snacks and giant baguette sandwiches that I made (thanks for that idea, Paris), we arrived in Freiberg around 10am. We took our time strolling the streets, following with tour outlined on our map. We checked out the Rathaus, the giant cathedral that took 300 years to build, a farmers market, the old gates of the original city, and the small university. Surrounded by students in a courtyard, we made ourselves comfortable and enjoyed our lunch, making up stories about couples walking by and friends drinking coffee. People watching, as I've said before, is one of my favorite activities. Creating fictional stories about the people we watch is even more fun. While there was probably more to do and see in Freiberg than our small tour, we didn't have time to look. Good thing, too, because nasty storm clouds were rolling in and I certainly did not want to be caught in the rain with all of our stuff! We hurried back to the train station before the clouds started dumping and continued our journey to Heidelberg.
We weren't sure about what to expect from Heidelberg; we didn't do any research about what to do and see prior to arriving. The only things we knew were that we had a cheap place to stay ($78 total for 3 nights!) and that our buddy Peter from Munich opened a jazz bar here called Cave 54. Other than that, this place was a mystery! We stepped out of the train station to a big, dirty street, and immediately saw the Tourist Office. Well, that's a good place to start, so we walked in and cheerily said "Hello!" to the woman behind the counter. She stared back at us, as if she was wondering what the hell we were doing there. "We've never been to Heidelberg before! What do we need to know?" I asked, in a happy, sing-song voice. She grabbed a map, circled the castle, and said dryly, "This is our famous castle, it's in our Old Town. You are here." We looked at the map, hoping for a little bit more from her. When we got nothing, we said "Ok great! One last question. Do you know where we can find a water fountain?" She stared at us with a minor look of annoyance. "A water fountain?" she repeated. "Yes, a water fountain, to fill up our water bottles." "No," she stated firmly, "we do not have that." Well alright then, guess we won't be filling up our water bottles. We took our map from the cranky lady, said thanks, and walked out the door. After chatting for a few minutes about how unfriendly that interaction was, we started looking at the map she gave us. All of a sudden, a bight smiling young woman approached us on her way to the train station, a backpack on her back. "Can I help you?" she asked, cheerfully. We told her no, thank you, that we were just looking up directions on Jake's phone, and she continued on to catch her train. Ok good - not everyone in Heidelberg is cranky! After having our first interaction with Heidelberg be less than friendly, it was reassuring to see a stranger take a moment out of her day to see if she could help us out. Faith in humanity restored.
We checked into our apartment and met our new hosts, Mariana and Alejandra. Mariana is originally from Guadalajara and is in her residency at the hospital here, in the Psych department, and has been living in Heidelberg for 6 years. Alejandra is finishing up her Masters in public health, a year-long program that she is eager to finish. She is originally from Peru and can't wait to return to her country (she doesn't like Heidelberg very much). Also in the apartment are two adorable cats- a two year old black and white male with big yellow eyes named Sabby, and a three month old black female named Lilly! Both of the curious little monsters were super fun to play with and even calmed down enough to give us some snuggles. I think they worked their magic on Jake, too - he still says he doesn't like cats, but he sure had fun playing with these little fur balls!
We had a well sized room in a little 3 bedroom apartment. The apartment was slightly bigger than my old San Francisco apartment, but the kitchen was so small that really only one person could be cooking in there at a time. Our room was great and the bed was comfy- we had plenty of space in there. When we first arrived, I was a bit apprehensive about cooking meals in the teeny tiny kitchen - I didn't want to be in the kitchen if Mariana and Alejandra needed something, and I just felt like I was in the way. But seeing that meal #1 (a nice big salad requiring every inch of chopping space) went smoothly, the feeling disappeared. The next morning I was especially comfortable, whipping up breakfast while sipping my Nespresso coffee and playing with the cats. There's always a bit of an adjustment period with each new apartment we check into. When we rent the whole place, the adjustment period lasts about as long as it takes me to take inventory of the place - how many pots and pans there are, what kind of shape the knives are in, where the extra TP is located. But when we rent an extra room and share the living spaces with a host, the period of slight uncomfortableness can last a bit longer. With stranger hosts (like many of our hosts in Ireland), the feeling that we're in the way or intruding lingers for most of the stay. With friendly and comfortable hosts, like in Glasgow, Colmar, and many others, the feeling disappears almost immediately. I think these adjustment periods are good growth opportunities for me. I don't know why I feel like I'm in the way; we paid for the room, the amenities are clearly listed for us to use, and the hosts expect us to use them. So I try my best to just go about my business as usual and pretend the house is my own house, that the kitchen is my own kitchen, and make myself at home. I'm getting better at it, but it's still a work in progress.
Like Colmar, rain was expected for much of our visit, so we made good use of our first full day, the only day that didn’t have rain forecasted, and toured the Old Town. Our first stop - Schmeltzpunkt Ice Cream! At 11am people were already walking around with delicious looking cones (the best kind of advertising), and we just couldn’t resist. And I gotta say, I'm glad we didn’t! I don't know what it is about ice cream over here in Europe but MAN is it good! While I still think Tuchlauben in Vienna was slightly better, Jake thinks this was his favorite "ice cream experience", meaning even the cone itself was amazing. I'll admit, the cones at Tuchlauben were terrible, so he might be right. I got scoops of cinnamon and cookies, Jake enjoyed chocolate brownie and peanut butter. Like the lady behind the counter said, "it's always time for ice cream!", even if we had just eaten breakfast!
We spent the day wandering through the small Old Town and exploring the ornate castle in the hills. I had no idea that the castle was also home to some of the largest wine barrels in the world! While they are not used anymore (and haven't been used since the 1700s due to l some serious leakage) they live in "The Barrel Building" of the castle, an addition to the castle courtyard that was built specifically to house these gigantic barrels. In the old days, each town contributed wine to fill the barrels, though it was never all the way full. Thanks to some stairs and a balcony built on top of the biggest barrel, we could climb to the top and down the other side. We took our time checking out the barrels, and then spent another hour or so wandering around the beautiful, green garden, and taking pictures of broken castle towers, giant halves of which were resting against the castle walls after crumbling to the ground hundreds of years ago.
We got another slice of old Heidelberg by touring the old Student Prison, a building that was connected to the old university where misbehaving students would be incarcerated for anywhere from a few days to a month, based on the nature of their crime (public intoxication, slander, skipping loudly down the streets…you know, the hard stuff). While incarcerated, the students would paint pictures and write poetry and music on the walls, decorating them with educated graffiti. Soon, doing time in the joint came to be seen as a badge of honor among university students. Though the building was quite small, the students were kept in 4 rooms on the top floor for a 4 story building, it was interesting to see.
Our other favorite sight was Alte Brueke, or Old Bridge, that crosses the Neckar River. The pretty red brick bridge is decorated with the gatehouse at the Old Town entrance. Two white towers with dark spires crown the striped house below them. At night, the view of the bridge, the gatehouse, and the castle in the distance look like a postcard. The bridge seems to be a favorite hangout spot among locals and visitors alike - many people congregated near the gate house to admire the view and drink beers (and pee off the bridge into the river…gross) as the moon rose over the hill.
Our favorite meal (other than a delicious currywurst I finally tried), was dinner at Zum Roten Oschen, the oldest pub in Heidelberg. Decorated with old black and white photos and metal beer steins, the place oozed character. The piano man was joyfully playing as we walked through the door and sat down at a long communal table. Shortly after we sat down we were joined by two others, doctors in town for a conference. The doctors noticed our American accents and offered to help us with any menu translations we might need. Instead of translations, we asked for recommendations - pickled pork with potato salad for Jake, and brats in lentil and spatzle stew for me! Both dishes were perfect and just what we wanted! The best part, though, was the delicious homemade apple strudel we shared for dessert - it was better than any apple pie I've ever had (except for maybe one we had in Stevens Point, WI with the Noels), the crust was perfectly flaky, the apples were sliced to the perfect thickness, it was sweet but not too sweet….it was amazing.
Other than these few things, we really didn't find much else to do that interested us in Heidelberg. The Old Town is cute, but that's about all there was to see; we covered everything we knew of in a day but spent three nights there. What is special about Heidelberg, though, is that it was not bombed during the war, so the old architecture still stands, and the old culture is alive and well in the adorable Old Town. I'm glad we went, but I was also happy to move on to our next stop, Cologne, where Cammie and Kip Doble were waiting for us!
We just had two trains to catch to get to Cologne. Their first train was very quiet, the second, however, was packed full of people and one particularly loud group of already drunk grown men wearing ACDC t shirts. Jake and I found two seats in a compartment with another gentleman next door to this rambunctious group. Moments after we sat down and the train started moving, we asked our neighbor if he wouldn't mind shutting the door- those guys were loud! "I think they are going to the ACDC concert in Cologne tonight." What?? ACDC is still touring? And they're actually going to be in Cologne? How random! "I am going too, but for now I must rest.", he explained. "You don't want to drink beers with them? I bet they have more to share!" we asked. "No, no. I will drink beer later, but not now. I do not want to be friends with them." We ended up chatting with our new friend, Juergen, who happened to be from Freiberg, for the better part of the ride. When we told him about our 10 month trip around the world, he looked at us with wide eyes, put his head back in his seat, smiled, and simply said, "Respect.", while also giving us a fist bump. Awesome. He was also very excited that we were spending time exploring Germany. Juergen showed his enthusiasm for his country as we pulled into the train station, "This part of the town is not very nice, but just wait five minutes and it will be better. I will show you."
Well, to be fair, we didn’t expect the train yards to be very spectacular, we hadn't even arrived yet! But yes, we will wait five minutes to be wowed. When our train stopped on the platform, we followed Juergen out of the station. "There are many good places to eat in the station, there are many good places to eat and drink all over Cologne! But follow me, you will see how beautiful it is!" The moment we stepped outside the station, Jake and I both dropped our jaws and exclaimed, "WOW!" The station was in the middle of the Old Town and opened right up to the famous Cologne Dom. It makes quite a first impression! "Give me your phone, I will take your picture." Juergen was so excited to take our photo, he was beaming from ear to ear. We couldn't let this hilarious and happy man leave, though, without snapping a selfie with him first. "Say ACDC on three," Jake instructed. We asked him what he was going to do for the day until the concert, "I will go have a beer, and then I will find my hotel." I like this order of things, and we told him that was a great idea. We said goodbye to our new friend and headed off to find our old ones.
Like Heidelberg, we didn't do any research prior to arriving in Cologne, so we had no idea what to do when we arrived. All we knew were that our friends were there to see us, and we were staying near a chocolate museum! We got to our apartment just before 11am and were greeted with Cammie's voice coming from the windows above us as we waited on the sidewalk, "Hi guys!" Jake and I hadn't seen the Doble's since New Year's Eve, and we couldn't believe they were actually here in Cologne! Kip had a work even in London for the week, and Cammie went with him, so before going back home to Massachusetts, they decided to spend the weekend with us in Germany! Big hugs were shared all around the moment we walked inside. As we caught up on life, Cammie told me about the house they just bought and were remodeling. "We're going to paint our room this color, and the baby's room that color," she said. "Ha, the baby's room," I replied jokingly, "Are you trying to tell me something?" "Ha, yeah, I am!" Cammie said back! WHAT?! Cammie is pregnant!! This was such exciting news I could barely contain myself, and it made their presence with us even more sweet!
Most of our time together was spent wandering the town. It took us awhile to find the Old Town - we wandered for blocks along the streets highlighted on our map, streets that, we thought, were supposed to by full of old buildings. We even popped into the tourist office to ask where the Old Town was. The woman pointed us in the direction from which we had just come. As we walked back down the street we realized - barely any of the Old Town still stands. Cologne was destroyed during the 262 air raids in WW2 and rebuilt with moden structures. There wasn't much left to see.
But we followed our map of what was lef of the Old town anyway! The first stop, Germany's most visited sight, the Cologne Dom. Since had just briefly walked by it with Juergen, we needed to go back and fully explore. With its giant twin spires, gothic architecture, and black-from-pollution color, this church is impressive. We walked inside just as service was ending, to the sound of the organ playing a song that sounded like it belonged on a dramatic movie soundtrack. The acoustics in the giant stone building were actually quite good! We stood in the back until one of the priests declared service was over and allowed us to wander around freely. The four of us took in the sights - giant tombs of priests, beautiful stained glass windows filled with icons, the giant organ and beautiful altar. But all four of us were awestruck and stopped in our tracks when we saw the newest addition to the church - a modern stained glass window called "Symphony of Light". The beautiful window was installed in 2007 to replace plain glass that had been installed after WW2 since the original stained glass had been destroyed. The window is comprised of 11,500 squares of glass in 72 colors. During the unveiling ceremony, Monsignor Josef Sauerborn said that, "in its overwhelming abundance of color... it is a symphony of light." Indeed, it is. It's the prettiest stained glass window I've seen!
Cologne is chalk full of art museums, but Jake and I have little patience for museums (we just don’t really understand paintings or what significance they hold, so we don't enjoy walking around them), so we let Kip and Cam explore the impressionist museum on their own. The one museum we all made time for, though, was the Chocolate Museum! Owned and operated by Lindt (interesting, since Lindt is Swiss and not German), the Chocolate Museum educates visitors on how and where cocoa is grown and harvested, what life is like for cocoa farmers, the buying and selling of cocoa powder, regulations regarding fair trade and sustainability, how the cocoa is turned into delicious chocolate, the culture of chocolate over generations, and marketing. Did you know that kittens with their tongues sticking out was the most popular and effective marketing image for chocolate companies? I didn't either. Apparently, companies started putting animals on the packaging in order to evoke an emotional response from people, which made them want to buy it. The most powerful image among all of these animals was a kitten sticking out it's tongue. People went crazy for the picture and couldn't resist buying the chocolate bar that this adorable creature decorated. My favorite part of the museum was watching the chocolate bars being made - from mixing the ingredients to watching the molds being filled and chilled to following the newly wrapped pieces down the conveyor belt and into the box, I was fascinated by the big, automated machinery that made it all happen. We even got to try a piece of the freshly made chocolate (I should hope so, considering we paid 9 euros each!). Germany is the biggest producer of chocolate in the world, so it made sense that we got to try chocolate made by a Swiss company...oh wait...no, no that doesn't make sense at all. In any case, it was delicious!
On the hunt for a traditional meal experience (the lunch we had at a restaurant by the river was less than stellar - no one was impressed, and I accidentally spilled a beer on Jake's lap while simultaneously nicking my hand on the broken glass...whoops), we grabbed dinner at one of the oldest beer halls in town, Gaffel Am Dom. Gaffel Am Dom, and a few other traditional breweries make the local beer, kolsch, that is served in small .2 liter glasses; that way, you always have a cold beer that is easily replaced by the very attentive servers as soon as you need another one. We walked in to the packed beer hall a little after 8pm and were instantly entertained by the lively scene - birthday parties with people wearing party hats, stag parties, hen parties, drunk groups of friends laughing and hugging and speaking to us in Polish. We made our way through the crowds to the center of hall to survey the place and find a table. Just when were thinking we'd have to wait for hours, a friendly server waived us over to a table for four. Perfect! We happily sat down and said hello. "Beer?" he asked. "Yes!" we replied, and off he went. Moments later he returned with a tray of 10 .2 liter kolsch glasses filled with ice cold beer.
While they serve sodas and other drinks, they only have one beer for sale, their own kolsch! He marked down the number of beers he dropped off with tally marks on a coaster - our tab for the night. Looking around, I noticed every table had a coaster with little marks on it, and everyone standing was carrying around a graffitied coaster as well. I love this non-technological way of keeping tabs! We checked out the menus for a hot minute, but the server interrupted our perusing with a suggestion - for 66 euros he will bring us a giant platter of sausages, pork knuckle, fries, potatoes, sauerkraut, mustard, pickles, and even trade out a sausage for a potato pancakes entrée that Cammie wanted to try. Considering each entrée was around 17 euros, this was a hell of a deal and we couldn’t pass it up! "Yes! Bring us whatever you recommend!" After we racked up a few more tally marks on our coaster, a huge tray of food appeared - our eyes lit up at the sight of the traditional German grub before us. We dug right in, cutting up brats and passing curry sauce in a flurry. We ate all we could, but didn't quite finish the whole platter. It was delicious.
Just as we were trying to decide whether or not to let our waiter know that we didn't want more beer (he kept bringing it unless you signaled him not to), someone dropped off a little book of song lyrics with a picture of a man and a piano on the front. Apparently we were in for a treat - live music by Bjorn Heuser (whoever that guy is!) was due to start in 30 minutes! There was no way we could walk out now! Waiter, more beer! As the clocked ticked down to 10:30, the place got more and more packed. Before long it was standing room only! The servers carrying trays of kolsch armed with pencils and coasters were constantly delivering more beer all around the room. At 10:30 on the dot, the lights dimmed and the crowd clapped and hollered for their favorite singer. Bjorn started playing the piano and the whole room erupted in song! We might not know any of the lyrics, but we sure had fun making up words and pretending like we did, swaying back and forth, and clapping to the beat with the rest of the music lovers. This is EXACTLY the kind of experiences we're looking for on this trip- perfect moments like this, happy displays of culture and comradery and pure joy! This, my friends, is what I always pictured a German beer hall to be like! We sang (well, yelled noises) with the crowd for awhile before retreating to the cool night air to walk home. Thankfully, the rain had stopped just long enough for us to get a few pictures of the illuminated Dom and walk to our apartment. What a night! This was one of my favorite experiences on the trip so far, and I'm so happy that we got to share it with Cammie and Kip!
We had one final activity to cross off the list- my resident baker, Cammie, was in town, and we were dying to go to a bakery with her. I knew she'd be able to find the best one around, so we followed her to Backerei Balkhausen, one of the highest rated bakeries in Cologne. We all knew it was going to be good when we saw the line of people out the door upon our arrival. The window was full of perfectly golden goodies; cakes, pastries, breads, cookies…Cammie and I were in heaven! The four of us went crazy and ordered to our hearts content. Jake and I ended up with a bag full of deliciousness:
- marzipan and apple bobbles (basically soft pastry dough folded with marzipan paste or apple pie filling)
- A perfect pretzel cut in half and buttered
- A pretzel shaped filo dough pastry with almonds and almond paste in the twists (not the same as marzipan)
- The best, absolute best, berry cake I have ever had in my life! It was kind fanlike a coffee cake, only a million times better. This might top my list of favorite sweets of all time. It tasted like dense cherry cobbler, only with more cake and less cherry.
Pastries always make a perfect lunch!
For our last treat, Kip and Cammie indulged us- I spotted a fajita kit at the grocery store and couldn't pass up the chance to have a Mexican night! So instead of going out to dinner, I whipped up some surprisingly good chicken fajitas with perfectly ripe avocados, chips, and some seriously hot salsa (I can't believe I actually found spicy salsa!). The four of us chowed down on fajitas, toasted each other with a bottle of Cremant d'Alsace we had picked up from Leon Baur the week before, and spent the evening catching up. It was so good to be able to sit back and relax with our friends, learn all about the house they just bought and all of the renovations and decorations for it. Thank you, Cammo and Kip, for staying in Europe for a few extra days and making the trek over to Germany to see us! It really was such a special treat to be able to see you in person and share this wonderful journey with you. We will remember it forever!
All in all, our time in Heidelberg and Cologne was well spent. It was interesting comparing old Heidelberg to new Cologne. While they aren't the most happening cities (well, they can be if you're really into clubs for Heidelberg, or so we hear, and museums for Cologne), we're glad that we saw them. It's always nice to have some breaks, some destinations that don't have much to do or see, so we can take a couple days to catch up on the blog and picture editing, or just go for a leisurely walk without any specific agenda. These last several days gave us a chance to relax a bit and catch up with some dear friends. And now, we're recharged and ready for Poland!