205. Day 9: wherever I lay my hat…
For about two hours today I really, really wanted to come home.
We’ve stayed in six different places so far on our tour: all booked through AirBnB (which should really be called just AirB, as there’s no breakfast involved, but I guess it doesn’t roll off the tongue so well.) There’s been a complete range, from the young couple in Cologne who sleep on their sofa so they can put up guests in their bedroom to the Salzberg apartment we left this morning, where we basically had our own Alpine cottage.
Without exception, we’ve been made to feel very welcome. When the owner lives in the rest of the house, they’ve greeted us warmly, chatted about the city and their jobs, recommended places to go and restaurants and then left us alone unless we asked for help. In the couple of cases where the owners have not been at home, they’ve arranged for some one to let us in and there have been notes waiting for us. We’ve been left maps, guide-books, useful information. In the case of our lovely Alpine cottage, Beate had also left two small bottles of prosecco in the fridge and chocolates on our pillows! Every new place has felt like a treat.
Vienna is by far the biggest place on our Grand Tour and perhaps people are by nature not so friendly. We have an apartment booked for three nights. The owner had sent a message to say she’d be at work when we arrived and she’d arranged for someone to let us in and give us the key. She gave us directions from the station and we found the place easily enough: no tethered goats or triumphal arches to confuse us.
The apartment is in a functional gated block. We rang the intercom and Aforesaid Friend came down to let us in. Perhaps he’s always a low-key kind of cove; perhaps he was having a bad day. We trailed behind him to the flat – well, basically a bedsit room. He vaguely showed us around then, as he left, said that if any of the neighbours spoke to us, not to mention AirBnB.
So, either the owner is not supposed to sublet, or there have been issues in the past with tenants or – well, who knows? But the effect was to make us feel unwanted, uneasy, uncomfortable. There are no welcoming notes, helpful hints or personal touches. Perhaps we’ve just been spoilt up to now.
The apartment is clean enough but felt musty and stale. And then I really, really wanted to go home. Who needs Vienna? It means nothing to me.
Anyway, we walked around the neighbourhood a while, bought some flowers and a scented candle to make the room feel more cheerful.
We discovered a wool shop and a book shop: not that I need either but good to know they are there in an emergency. And there are some rather dashing buildings round the corner.
We came back to the room, had a cup of tea and watched Bake Off. All well and tomorrow we explore Vienna. Now going to practise some waltzes.
204. Day 8: Are you sitting comfortably?
Glory be, I’m tired! Today we did Salzburg: 16,959 steps on the pedometer if you are counting. So I fear you’ll need to make do with the highlights before I go completely onto standby. ActorLaddie is already knocking out the zeds as I type this.
203. Day 7: Show me the way to go home…
We’d promised ourselves some exploring in the Yorkshire Dales and, to that end, had picked up from the tourist centre a promising looking leaflet for a circular walk. As directed, we’d gone through the churchyard, and over a stile, and left at a gate. The next instruction read “turn right at the tethered goats.” Continue reading →
202. Day 6: to boldly go…
“I’ve just found a blog about this old couple who went interrailing,” I say.
“Can you go inter- railing if you’re old? I thought it was just for students.”
” Apparently you can and it doesn’t look that expensive. And if you’re really really old – like you are – then there’s a concessionary rate. Look, come and read it.”
“I can’t,” says ActorLaddie, “I need to stir the soup. Tell me about it.”
200. War … huh, good God y’all … what it is good for?
“I remember leaving Silesia in a cart with my mother. We went to where the Americans were in charge. They were very nice – as were the English, of course.”
We nearly didn’t get our guided tour around Heidelberg. It was advertised as starting at 10.30 from the tourist centre based in the Town Hall. We arrived in good time but the girl behind the desk refused to sell us tickets. “The tour won’t run if there are less than five people and at the moment there are only three,” she said. “But someone else may turn up before half past ten.”
Sitting near the desk was a young woman who we later learnt was Lin from Hong Kong. She arrived in Heidelberg this morning and is going to be attending a conference at the University on stem cells in Lupus disease, starting tomorrow, when we will be on our way to Freiberg.
There was also a lady in a smart blue suit. We deduced by her “Guide” badge that if another two people turned up, she would be our guide. So we introduced ourselves and ActorLaddie mentioned that he was a London City Guide. In a nanosecond, he and Christa were swapping guiding stories and the four of us made our way outside and tried to look like really nice people with whom anyone would want to go on a tour.
When nobody else did turn up, we asked Christa whether she’d consider doing the tour anyway.
“I’d like to,” she said, “but the tourist office insist on there being a minimum of five.”
At that point, ActorLaddie and I suddenly realised that we were feeling particularly plural today. So I went into the information desk and broke the good news that there were now four people wanting tickets in addition to Lin, paid accordingly and off we headed: Christa, Lin, ActorLaddie, me and the other two.
Heidelberg is a very beautiful city in a steep valley. At the top of the valley is a ruined castle overlooking the city; at the bottom the River Neckar. The buildings have an attractive homogeneity due, Christa explained, to war. Again. In this case, it was the War of Succession which had complicated roots involving the young Princess Lisalotte and the younger brother of Louis XIV of France, who was a thoroughly nasty piece of work. I won’t bore you with the details – that’s what Wikipedia is for – but the outcome of the sorry tale was that in the 1690s Heidleberg and its neighbouring towns were completely destroyed – burnt to the ground – by the French troops.
When it came to rebuilding the city after war, Heidelberg was luckier than Cologne and Coventry. The powers-that-be decided that the buildings would be rebuilt in a very attractive light baroque style, which was fashionable at the time. The town hall was built first as a template and other buildings followed suit. The city escaped being damaged in any of the subsequent wars, so it remains beautiful. It has a university dating back to the 1380s – pretty much the oldest in the world after Oxbridge.
Christa took us to see one of the university buildings. It has this statue in the entrance:
It represents a book and means ‘always open’. A bit further along, a plaque commemorated those who worked for the University and fell victim to the Third Reicht.
Each name has its own story. Christa picked out one to share: Max Freiherr Von Waldberg who supervised the postgraduate studies of a certain Joseph Goebbels who studied there for a Doctorate in Philosophy. Nevertheless, Max lost his job in 1938, dying shortly afterwards and his wife put in an internment camp in France.
Which brought the conversation around to the Second World War. Krista shared with us the story of her family taking refuge in 1945 as Russian Red Army moved into her native Silesia and started to take revenge for their dreadful losses on the remaining civilian population. Krista told us how seriously the Germans take the responsibilty to look squarely at the past: when we mentioned Kristallnacht, she said that this is an unacceptable phrase now. It is referred to as the November Pogrom so as not to disguise what happened. As we talked more widely, she mentioned that her sons had been at Malvern College in the 1980s and, to start with, were badly bullied by the other pupils, who called them ‘Hitler’s sons’. She said what a wonderful thing it was now to see Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel working together to try and solve problems peacefully.
Moving on, Krista showed us the Student Prison, where badly behaved university students were held in detention. The walls are covered with the graffiti those prisoners had left to prove that they were there: it became, along with their duelling scars, something of a badge of honour.
In all, Krista spent some two hours showing Heidleberg to Lin, ActorLaddie, the other two and myself: far more than there is room to share with you here, alas, as I really need to be sorting out my bits for tomorrow now. A brilliant morning, anyway.
This afternoon , AL and I went up to see the ruined castle and I got a bit carried away with the discovery that my phone can take panoramic photos
199. Day 3: It is better to travel hopefully…
It used to be that holidays abroad meant limited contact with the mothership: a good or bad thing, depending on circumstances but oh – the excitement when you found a three day old Guardian in the newsagents!
Not the same now, of course, as the news is just a click away. But it’s still jolly decent of people to have thought of me when the story broke; so many thanks to all those who texted, messaged and even phoned to make sure that I knew about Mel and Sue leaving Bake Off. I’m delighted to say that I have big consolatory news in return which, in the interest of dramatic tension, I’ll tell you in a minute.
So, early tram to Kõln Bahnhoff and this time the Cathedral – or Dom, as we should call it to be properly native – didn’t catch me by surprise.
With lots of time to spare before the 9.19 to Heidelberg, we sat outside the station with coffee and pastries by way of breakfast. Couldn’t help noticing that they do still appear to be working on the Dom. Not a job I fancy.
Then we made our way up to get the train.
The tannoy told us that we should take care because “tricksters were working at the station.” Also that the train was running five minutes late. We went to check the platform and it was then that we made a happy discovery!
It appears that Sue at least has managed to find gainful employment; and with Deutsche Bahn. I bet they’ve got a pension scheme and everything.
Maybe she’ll be able to swing something for Mel. Unless, of course, she’s the trickster?
198… travelling, travelling, travelling…
When their coach finally got to the hotel, it was dark. So Ma and Pa hadn’t really taken in the neighbourhood.
After breakfast then, Pa had gone to the Reception desk to ask for directions to the Pyramids. The receptionist had looked a little confused, so in the time honoured manner of the English abroad, Pa’d asked again but louder. The receptionist silently pointed at the hotel’s entrance lobby, through which Pa could see, on the opposite side of the road, the foot of a bloody great pyramid.
Now the one thing I knew about Cologne – or Kõln as we are now calling it, having gone native – was that it had something of a cathedral. As we left the station, I was scanning Googlemaps attempting to work out how to get to said cathedral, and in so doing I nearly bumped into this, secreted on the station forecourt.
It is, the guide on the sightseeing bus told us this afternoon, the biggest cathedral in …. or it might have been church in… actually, the sun may have got to me at that point. But there’s no denying it is big.
It was initially built to house the relics of the three Kings (honestly) which the Holy Roman Emporer of those time had filched from Milan. It was started in 11something then in 14 something the builders nipped off to another job, leaving their crane in place. Four hundred years later, someone twigged that the builders probably weren’t coming back. So they got another lot in, who finished the job in forty years.
There’s a golden shrine inside containing the Magi’s relic but to me, it was the afternoon sun through the windows which won the day.
I’d imagined that, with such a gorgeous building at its centre, Kõln would be a beautiful city. But actually, a great deal of it reminded me of Coventry and, it turns out, for the same reason. Far from its original function, the cathedral acted as a landmark to the bombers: in fact, we were told, was intentionally left intact for that purpose. So the cathedral escaped with some broken windows but 70% of Kõln was flattened. There are some attractive pockets – a small terrace of C18th merchants’ houses, sections of medieval wall, some restored churches – but these are amid lots of functional postwar buildings whipped up, as in Coventry, to provide quick housing. And a fairly ghastly ring road overpassing and under passing around the city centre. I’d love to have seen how it looked before.
Our guide pointed out many, many museums and galleries including one museum dedicated to mustard and another to – though not, alas, from – chocolate. Anyway, it would have melted today.
Our Airbnb is a handful of stops out from the centre and is in a pleasant area. Lots of cafes and flowers shops. Tomorrow we set off early to become RhineMaydons, heading for Heidleburg.
Other things I have learnt today:
– I obviously look much more decrepit than I feel, as people fall over themselves to offer me a hand lugging my case around. Or perhaps people are just really nice here. Next time, we’ll pack much less stuff. Just the one ball gown.
– Kõln Zoo has five baby elephants. Allegedly. All we could see from the top of our bus were cows.
– our hosts: a young couple – he a Tunisian dentist, she in IT – had never before made tea. This didn’t stop them offering it, what with us being English- I told you that the people were helpful – and twenty minutes later appeared with a coffee mug of peppermint tea and a cup of icing sugar. Bless.
191. The Secret Agent
Are you sure we can’t be overheard?
I shouldn’t really be telling you this: don’t breathe a word – not even if Tom Hiddleston tempts you to swap confidences with promises of a ride on his motorbike. I will deny all knowledge, if challenged. I’m taking lessons from Boris on denial and will do so at bumbling length and in Latin.
176. But oh, those Nordic Nights …
“Who’s he? Have we seen him before?”
“He’s married to the woman who posts the blog.”
“The vlog. We’ve established it’s a vlog.”
“Yes her. With the blond hair.”
“OK. Can you pause it a minute? OK. Tak.”
Put aside quilt. Dash into bedroom and return with reel of thread. Install self back on sofa and start to thread needle.
“OK?” says ActorLaddie. “Say when.”
“Nu. Tak… Hang on – who’s he? Is that the Russian Roulette guy?”
172. A thought
I was talking with friends about how interesting life is at the moment. I did think that I’d be teaching full time until gone sixty.