So, I have an old high school friend, Karolina, that might come visit here in January and, when we were chatting on email, she mentioned how she wanted to share Strasbourg and nearby Baden Baden with her beloved. Well, I had never heard of Baden Baden before then so I decided to research it a bit since we were going to be in the area. When I first looked, I thought perhaps we should skip it because, more than anything else, Baden Baden (or bathe bathe) is known for (you’ve guessed it, right?) its baths.
It has been known for its baths since the time of the Romans and even now many people come here to go bathe in the mineral waters. It is fairly inexpensive to partake of this experience, but the fact is, with 3 small children, a spa day is just so not going to happen. So, I thought maybe I would choose something else to do. I did some more research, and found a few interesting castles etc… in the Strasbourg area, but just kept coming back to the idea of Baden Baden. I looked a bit more closely and found there were many, many other things, besides the baths, to make this town worth visiting. Plus, I really wanted to get into Germany!
So our plan was to leave the gite by around 8 am so we could have some quality time before heading back home. Unfortunately, Zander got sick in the night. Luckily, we always bring some ibuprofen with us when we travel, so we were able to get him through the night and the next day of touring – just keep on popping those pills, ok? However, all the drama made us a bit late and we ended up not reaching Baden Baden until almost 11am. As usual, there was no drama, or even a welcome sign, when we crossed the border from France to Germany. We just started noticing the signs were in a different language…
Our first stop, just outside the city, was an information kiosk that gave us a map. We often stop and get these when touring – to help us find our way around. Andre used his rusty German to communicate and the helpful worker marked our hit spots on the map. Armed with this, we headed up a nearby mountain to visit Altes Schloss (Old Castle), also known as Hohenbaden. This is a giant ruin of a place. It was built in the 11th century and has been abandoned since the 15th, when the margraves of Baden moved down to the New Castle. If you are like me, and you have no clue what a margrave is, although you have heard the word before, read onward. (Thanks, as always goes to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baden-Baden). It turns out that a margrave is some sort of nobleman that has military responsibility. The region of Baden, bordering France, has historically been full of conflict, so I guess the family that lived there had to not only take care of the people of the town but also defend them when enemies arose. Since the king really wanted his border areas to remain secure, a successful margrave would have greater autonomy and more power than your average count. Of course, they also had to deal with the whole ‘people are going to try to kill you’ thing. Many, many enemies did arise against poor Baden – and most of them were French. (Turns out it wasn’t called Baden Baden until 1931 when people kept confusing it with Baden, Switzerland). In fact, among other conflicts, it was pillaged in 1643 and left in ashes in 1689.
Picture the scene. Hans and Frans, young men, are surveying the wreckage of their town.
Hans: Hello Frans, I’m glad to see you survived.
Frans: You too my friend, but I’m not looking forward to rebuilding this disaster.
Hans: I know,we were totally pillaged!
Fast forward 40 years to when they are old men…
Frans: Well Hans, it looks like this is the end of Baden.
Hans: I know, 1643 was bad, but this time we were left in ashes.
Frans: Oh well, we’ll be dead soon anyway.
But, back to Altes Schloss. We had a great time wandering around in the ruins. The place was surrounded by forest and hiking trails and we enjoyed, as usual, just hiking around it. There were lots of lizards skittering about and I managed to get a shot of one. Also we saw some really interesting mushrooms. In my French class, last week we were talking about French food and started discussing mushrooms. Turns out that out of the 6 or so people in class, only the teacher and myself did not regularly go out and gather mushrooms to eat. The African, Afghani, Cambodian, German and Algerian all expressed surprise we did not make this a regular habit. My entire life, I’ve been told to never, ever mess with mushrooms, you need, like, a PhD to even attempt this. Many mushrooms look similar – and, if you eat the wrong one you can end up dead. I habitually forbid my nature loving kids to even touch the things, I am so wary. Who knew this does not hold true in other cultures? Live and learn, I suppose, unless you eat the wrong mushroom, and die. We got to walk around through the castle and wander through where the great hall must have been. Nestled in one of the window niches was the largest wind harp in Europe. I had read about the wind harp ahead of time and was disappointed it was not a windy day – no chance to hear the music! I really appreciated, however, this artist. He made something modern and amazing, that fit with the feel of the castle – it seemed like it belonged there, somehow. Most of the time, the modern installations just annoy me! I was very inspired to see, as we climbed a bit higher, the remains of a romantic dinner or breakfast for two perched on the edge of a crumbling walkway. Romance lives on, people! Soon afterward we watched an employee of some sort come and clear the table. He simply tossed all the leftover wine and bread etc… over the side of the castle wall. Hope there were no walkers! The place was almost empty – although we did see 3 other people who turned out to be on a long vacation from Peru – see, we are not the only adventurers! We then climbed up to the top of the ramparts to enjoy fantastic views over the Black Forest. Totally awesome.
We headed back down the stairs and got in the car, passing by the wonderful looking cafe that is in one part of the castle they must have restored- perhaps this is more what it looked like? (The wood doors, not the tables and chairs…). Our next stop was to be Trinkehalle – the town’s pump house. Here you can take a taste from the 17,000 year old Friedrichsbad spring. We got more than a bit lost however, and ended up seeing a sign for Merkur mountain. Since this was also on our hit list we went for it. Merkur Mountain (named by the Romans for Mercury, the messenger god with winged feet) at 2200 meters, is the highest peak in the area and has a famous funicular that runs up it. This was too good of a chance to miss since riding it, especially since, roundtrip cost for our whole family was only about 8 Euros. Really, the Swiss should take some notes from the Germans on how to make fun things affordable. The funicular, known as the Merkerburgbahn, heads up the hill every 15 minutes or so and has been around for over 100 years. This makes it one of the oldest funiculars out there, but it seems to be working just great! It is also the steepest funicular in Germany and has grades up to 54%. That is very, very, steep – that makes you feel like you are going to topple backwards. To put this into perspective, trucks have to use low gear when driving on hills that are 5% grade! Try 10 times that, folks. I discovered, while researching, that the steepest funicular in Europe (located in Gelmerbahn, Switzerland) has up to 110% grade. Ummm…. I think they are cheating on that number (unless they are actually going backwards). Obviously this must go on my list of things to see….
We made it to the top in one piece and ate our picnic lunch at a thoughtfully provided picnic bench near the summit. The view was awesome, of course, and we could even see the ruins of Altes Schloss, where we had just been, off in the distance. Walking around a bit more, we discovered a free water fountain (in german they say ‘trinkewasser’) to fill up our bottles and, happy day, a fun playground, with a particularly good slide. We spent many happy moments playing before climbing to the top of another tower to see an even grander view. We headed back down the funicular – totally seemed like we were plunging off the edge of a cliff- and headed back to the car. Trinkehalle, here we come! Or so we thought. For those of you who take the traveling plunge, please know these facts about navigating Baden Baden. 1. The map they give out in the tourist help place is wrong 2. The map they give out in the tourist help place is wrong and 3. THE MAP THEY GIVE OUT IN THE TOURIST HELP PLACE IS WRONG!!!! We were going absolutely crazy trying to navigate in this place. I was driving, so André could direct, and I think I had the most terrifying driving experience of my life when we somehow got trapped in an old quartier where the roads were so narrow I had to inch along to avoid scraping Mr. Liberty (who is not a particularly large vehicle). The streets were beautiful, but no photos, we were too focused on not dying. It was so hard! We would follow a road and get to the intersection, and it would turn, suddenly, into a dead end with a walking path – was this marked on the map? No. We would come to another intersection and none of the roads would match the names written on the map. At another point, we got close and realized only pedestrians were allowed on these roads (also not marked on the map) It would have been funny, if it wasn’t so ridiculously frustrating! At the end of the day, I’d say the downtown of Baden Baden is meant for walking, not driving! We finally got to a park that we thought was near Trinkehalle and parked the car. I think it took over an hour to get there! The park was absolutely beautiful. We wandered through it passing gigantic cedar trees. André used the timer to get this shot of us trying to give it a hug. We often hug special trees we see on our travels and this one was the first that, even with the five of us reaching, we could not span. You can just see Zander’s hand reaching past the trunk – we needed one more body!
Then we made it to Trinkehalle. It was a beautiful building with 14 frescoes depicting legends about Baden-Baden – but the explanations of the legends were only in German. I was sad since I wanted to learn a Baden Baden legend. I had trouble finding any even online - though I found this link http://www.websters.net/blackforest/legends.html to Black Forest legends and on a hotel website I found a legend about the founding of the town - “According to legend Baden Baden's beautiful, spacious and liberal townscape came into being thanks to a mishap of the gods. Long ago, while playing with their `historical building bricks`, the gods seem to have got a bit mixed up with their architectural epochs. At a loss, they then finally each chose their favorite building and put them together on this delightful spot. And that is how Baden-Baden came into being, in the valley of the Oos River, just west of the Black Forest”
We headed inside and, sure enough, there was the fountain of water streaming down, free for the taking. It was fun to fill a water bottle and taste a sip of the same water people have been drinking for healthiness since at least the time of the Romans. We all tasted it – Zander actually really liked it. I can’t really describe how it tasted, except by saying it was strange, almost thick tasting. I kept a small bottle of it to bring back home. We headed back through the park to get to the car, passing some confused crocuses, an amazing waterfall, and a fairy. Yes, people, that’s right, for real live life, a fairy. We were walking along innocently enough when suddenly Callie started jumping up and down yelling – “Look, a fairy, a fairy! Quick, take a picture Mom!” Always eager to nurture their amazing imagination, (and see fairies) I shot quickly at the spot she was gesturing towards. But, here’s the amazing part, this is the photo I got…. I will also show all of you an extreme close up on the white blob… All I can say is I don’t know what it is, but I do believe there are more things in heaven and earth that can be explained by our feeble brains and also that I have 2 long time friends who 100% believe that fairies are real so, I say, why not? I think it is a fairy – and one of the coolest things we’ve seen on our travels. It even glows!
We headed back home – way behind schedule of course and got to drive along on the Autobahn. André pushed Mr. Liberty to 100 miles an hour (that would be about 160KM per hour), but it felt crazy and Mr. Liberty started to shake a bit so we slowed back down! Most of the cars were going between 80 and 120 mph on the highway – some were definitely racing. It is definitely true that the Germans, as a whole, drive completely differently than the French. Frankly, I’m glad we are in France. The Germans drive very, very fast, they are not afraid to cut you off and follow so closely from behind there is no way an accident could be avoided if you stop short. I have even noticed this to hold true when Germans drive in France. When I see a German license plate, I get out of their way! We made it home in one piece, stopping at McDonalds for dinner and fell into our beds.
Zander ended up sick for the rest of the week with the grippe and Griffin, after puking all over his classroom Tuesday morning, joined him. After that, Daddie also got sick and Zander actually got sick again for a few days. I am wondering, since Callie and I have remained unscathed, if this is some sort of testosterone-targeting germ? This is a main part of the reason I am so behind on blogging (besides planning for Ireland, of course). But I am determined to catch up before we leave since I anticipate a cornucopia of blogging material starting at the end of next week.