Monthly Archives: December 2014

Jingle bells

We’re spending the holidays with family and friends in France. Talk about fairy-tale living!

DAY 1:  Wednesday, December 17

Leaving Ipswich by train and subway, we arrived at St. Pancrass Station to await my sister Betsy’s arrival from Cincinnati. While there I headed off to wander around (lovely bustling station) and Max kept watch over our bags. When I returned a young woman had sat down next to him and begun chatting him up. When I plopped down next to him she immediately began apologizing for talking to my husband, which I thought was a bit strange. Well, it got even better for Max later told me she began a conversation by saying her ex-boyfriend had just texted her asking her to reimburse him for all the money he had spent on her…. then she related how he had just bought himself a camper van, and she wasn’t about to give him any money for he was just going to use that van to get whores. Whoa, now it was turning into an interesting conversation. She then told Max (and, my ear was tuned in but still had to have Max fill in the details) that her 14-year-old niece wouldn’t have to work… ever… because she just had a baby and would keep on having them. All of this while she evidently had poured herself a glass of wine and drank it down.

Betsy met us at the Eurostar terminal and off we squeezed into a tube hurdling through the chunnel towards France. We arrived in Paris, located our EuRopcar

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and duly noted with the attendant all the itsy-bitsy scratches on the car. The kind attendant had the patience of that bible guy Job because we had already peppered him with questions about the extra insurance deposit; and, his sign of relief when we left must have turned to a groan when he saw us return asking where the garage elevator was. He must have promised himself a good bottle of wine when he finally saw us get in the car and actually leave as he waved us on. We quickly exited the train station and entered the sludge of rush-hour traffic as we centimetered our way out of the center and then suburbs of gay pariee.

We made it to Reims in 2.45 hours (yes, the last 15 minutes was due to my not seeing the blue moving dot creep to the correct turn in Reims so we had to retrace our steps just a wee bit), checked into our little but, to us, excellent rooms (remember, Max and I live on a boat where, to travel from the ‘bedroom’ to the ‘kitchen’ is a matter of 9 steps),and left to suss out a place for dinner. We found one just around the corner with a charming young waiter. The waiter became even more charming when he answered Max’s question about ‘what is this?’ on the menu with ‘father of Bambi’ :) I fell in love on the spot.

DAY 2:  Thursday, December 18

We wake Betsy at 9:50 am (she was on Cincinnati time), and she was perky although a bit confused. After some strong cafe au lait,

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we were off to Verdun,

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the sight of WWI’s tragic battle akin to the US Civil War’s Gettysburg. A friend recently told Max and me that WWI was begun by Queen Vicky’s petulant grandchildren:  someone snubbed someone at someone’s event causing everyone to begin maneuvering to hate anyone not on the side of someone. It’s confusing but considering all European heads were somehow related to England’s Victoria and, thus, to each other, it’s believable.

For those who were like me, the understanding of Verdun’s significance during WWI was it was bad. Scratch that, it was horrendous. Now, touring it I obviously learned just how terrible this 300-day battle turned out to be. As a symbol of French pride this town stood in Alcaise Lorraine, territory representing both German and French pride. The Germans decided to throw everything they had against this area counting on the French to then bleed to death defending and losing it (The Germans could have taken out the French supply line but wanted to keep that artery fully operational ensuring their enemy was pumping out life blood until it was depleted).

On February 21, 1916, the Germans began their bombardment and the Battle of Verdun began. Lasting 300 days (until December 18) it resulted in a French victory but not without horrific casualties (estimated just over 500,000 for the French and just under 500,000 for the Germans). There’s a reason this battle is also called The Mincing Machine of Verdun. The actual town of Verdun wasn’t captured but around it became a scorched earth. This engagement between two enemies ended with neither strategic or tactical advantage for either. It represents the senselessness of war, and seeing the scars and the memorials to the dead, we couldn’t have agreed more.

If anyone would like to see one, uplifting moment, check out Sainsbury’s youtube video of its 1914 Christmas ad. It’s based on a historical event that occurred during WWI. Max and I saw it played on the movie screen in Ipswich, and, although a bit saccharine, I still can appreciate its message.

Without too much trouble following the blue Google dot we located Verdun beautifully situated along the River Meuse. Our first Verdun stop was the town of Fleury. This is how it looked like after the German bombed the town.

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It is now a wooded landscape with a chapel and a path taking one to markers noting previous occupants’ livelihood.

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Haunting? Yes.  Beautiful? Yes. Sad? Of course.

With sprinkles turning a bit into straight away rain Max, who’s generally always prepared, got out his protector pants while Betsy and I just figured our hair would get rinsed well.

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The three of us took separate paths while each tried to envision what the scene would have been like in 1916 after the battle. I can honestly admit I couldn’t. It’s too overwhelming. I found it difficult enough trying to reconstruct towns and cities when ruined buildings and streets still stand. What was even more poignant to me was finding ourselves sloshing around in mud, mud that was so minor compared to what those in war were living in.

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Back in the car we headed towards another battle and memorial site.

The Duoaumont Ossuary is a sacred memorial to those unknown soldiers who died in the Battle of Verdun. Correct outfits are requested to be worn and men to remain bare-headed. Furthermore, one is greeted with the a sign asking visitors to remember where they are.

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The bones of 130,000 unknown fallen during the Battle of Verdun were dug up and re-interred under this building dedicated in 1932, seven years before the next war (and WWI was to end all wars? sure). Another tragic reminder of how most wars end–placeholders for the next.

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Touring the long gallery, we lit a candle for our mom and our two dads.

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We then went to listen to a 20-minute documentary that provided the overview of the battle and the creation of this site.

Back outside were 15,000 graves and their associated crosses standing to attention before the artillery-shaped memorial. Each cross has a rosebush, which means this site must be amazing beautiful during the spring and summer in spite of the deaths associated with it.

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Suitable somber after this visit we head towards Fort Douaumont, built to defend France against future German aggression after the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt ending the Franco-Prussian War (July 19 1870-May 10, 1871). That war resulted in the unification of Germany and France’s loss of the provinces of Alsace and part of Lorraine in addition to a heavy war indemnity and German occupation until it was paid. Not a good way to rebuild friendly borders.

On our way to the Fort there were remnants strewn along the road, such as this bunker that was connected to the Fort via its 3km of underground galleries or tunnels.

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This fort had a skelton crew when it was taken by the Germans in four days on February 25th. Talk about demoralizing.

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On the 24th of October the Moroccan Colonial Infantry Regiment retook this symbolic Fort, and a memorial was erected in thanks to those soldiers who fought for France.

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Similar to our Fleury visit the wispy images of former embattled structures, craters and trenches created more ghostly imagery of battle scenes. What helped bring a sense of peace to this and other sites was the documentation was in French, English AND German. And, often we saw the German flag standing in brotherhood next to the French one.

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We stopped at one of the most beautiful memorials for another ugly event:  the Trench of Bayonets. On June 12 the 137th Regiment of French infantry were buried alive, and they were found three years later only because of their bayonets sticking out of the earth. When they dug down they discovered a soldier standing next to each bayonet.

This memorial is the trench where they were found.

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From there we went to Citadelle Souterraine located under the citadel of Verdun where 7km of galleries housed 2,000 men, a bakery (reputed to have baked 28,000 loaves a day), mlll, armaments, telephone and telegraph exchange, and a water-pump station. It’s also where we decided to take a battery-operated cart running through some of the galleries (tunnels).

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Final review:  don’t do it. It was a bad Disneylandesque ride through what should have been held in a more sacred light.

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After that, we decided it was too dark to visit the American cemetery (the Americans arrived June 26, 1917, but needing training before entering the trenches October 21 on the Western Front; the war ended on November 19, 1918, with the Treaty of Versailles signed on June 28, 1919. As many know, the terms of this treaty set the stage for the next world war thanks to the ostracizing of Germany and its war debts).

Second option was pick up wine and scotch and return to room for cocktails. Max was willing to drive the extra hour+ if anyone wanted to go there. We smartly and unanimously went with the second option.

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… four hours later we’re back from eating street food (hamburgers and fries) amidst some locals who were serving champagne. Betsy caught their eye and started a conversation. Before we knew it Stephen was pouring us glasses from his family’s vineyard and Clemence was promising some from hers. We ate, drank, and spoke with them as well as some other locals. We also met Natayla. She’s from US via Columbia, South America, and is working at Clemence’s family’s vineyard, Lelarge-Pugeot as an intern from UC Davis. And, instead of one booked tour of Billecart-Salmon that B arranged last week we now have two… Billecart-Salmon AND Clemence’s.

Bubbles anyone? :)

DAY 3:  Friday, December 19

The alarm dragged us out of sleep as we prepared for even more champagne. We stumbled out of our rooms and to the car thinking we’d grab coffee along the way.

Wrong. There was no coffee along the way (with the exception of a Micky D’s we passed at which both B and I turned our noses up; big mistake).  Continuing to our destination in Mareuil-sur-Ay we scoured the ville centre for a coffee shop. Nope. But, there was a patisserie, so we ended up at least with some bread item in our stomachs prior to imbibing bubbly.

Pulling into the gorgeous French driveway of this champagne headquarters we met Sandie, our guide, and waited for two more to appear.

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They turned out to be Stephanie and Sam from LA, two young engineers, he, working on digital phones, she, on environmental and sustainability consulting.

Through the back garden

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we trundled off to the buildings where the champagne was squeezed from all the gathered grapes collected from the plots they own and from ones from which they purchase the harvest. Harvesting typically takes a week to ten days.

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To prove I was listening I’ve noted some retelling of Sandie’s tour:

  • They use three types of grapes in varying configurations to create their different champagnes and wines:  pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier. The first two are less hardy than the pinot meunier, but the climate change has made it easier to grown them.

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  • 4,000 liters of grapes convert to 2,000 of juice.Billecart-Salmon allows only thirty minutes from harvesting to pressing; they want minimal grape skin contact with the juice to keep the champagne from acquiring the color from the skin.
  • This champagne house produces two million bottles a year with five million kept in the cellars (3km long running under the town).
  • Their unique method is making it quite cold (although, you should drink it NOT cold but slightly chilled)If not a vintage year (year stipulated on the bottle), they can add up to one and two years’ previous wine to ensure a consistent taste.
  • It’s been in the family since 1818, and the cellar master along with the current owner and his father (over 90) are the tasters.

One of the most startling bits of information was learning that people squeezed into each tank to wash it out once emptied. A wee bit claustrophobic for me (as well as requiring a fairly restrictive diet).

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In the cellar we discovered another interesting tidbit:  they don’t like to clean their cellars of mold, even stringy, disgusting furry stuff:

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The reason being they fear destroying the existing mold and growth might ruin any natural benefit that occurs when keeping the wines in the cellar. Yuck, although I can’t argue with the end product.

While in this cavernous cellar we passed a gated and locked room where Sandie said the owner kept their vineyard library. They had wines going back to 1932, and she also duly noted no one had the key except the owner…

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The last stop prior to tasting was where they aged the wine in casks. On a large blackboard in calligraphied handwriting (by a man as per Sandie), each village’s grape juice is duly noted to identify each cask.

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Billecart-Salmon doesn’t replace the interior but will add new exteriors to ensure their image and brand keep up apperances. Plus, the angel hovering over the casks helps keep the spirits in heavenly order.

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After three glasses of champagne (and that’s with limited food intake and NO coffee) we were buzzing a bit. Poor Stephanie and Sam didn’t even have coffee. But, we all enjoyed our tour, our guide, and the champagne.

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Next, lunch.

We ended up at the only bistro in town and immediately wished we had bought sandwiches at the patisserie after seeing the buffet (items not recognizable floating in mayo and strange meat slices) and hearing plat du jour was either fish and potatoes or steak and frites. Thinking it’d be rude to leave we ordered one plate of each and coffee. Wasn’t bad but we wouldn’t be stopping there again if you know what I mean.

Off we go to our second tasting up to Vrigny to see Lelarge-Pugeot, Clemence’s family’s vineyard, which is organic and been in the family since the 18th century.

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We parked and poked around and were finally spotted by Clemence’s mom and dad followed by Natayla. Natayla, whom we had met the previous night at the impromptu tasting that we managed to get invited to, showed us around their operation. Lelarge-Pugeot produces roughly 60,000 bottles a year, and one this year is named after Clemence (unfortunately, she was in Paris holding some tastings otherwise we’d have a photo of her, too).

Natalia showed us the turning racks, both modern and traditional. She said the owner liked the traditional method. The reason for this exercise is to get rid of the cloudiness in sparkling wine caused by sediment (turning loosens it and gravity pulls it to the neck when bottles are titled downward; it forms a plug when the neck is frozen so when the cork is popped, the trapped carbon dioxide disgorges the sediment out). For a much better and more complete lesson on how this starry drink is created, check this site out:  http://www.wineperspective.com/making_champagne.htm  :)

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The tour was quick (which was fine by us) followed by some tastings and, of course, a purchase :)

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We ended up leaving wishing we could spend more time with this young woman from UC Davis who’s adventurous and curious and gracious. As she said maybe our paths will cross again. A traveler’s motto for sure.

We hurried back to Reims so we could visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral before the light faded. It had really started to rain, which only added to the somberness of this church.

A statue of Jeanne d’arc (she’s linked to this city, specifically, this cathedral) greeted us as we scurried towards the entrance.

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Once inside the chilly cavernous building we discovered we had to go to the Tourist Information Office to rent the audio guides. Back outside we ran to a neighboring building, procured the guides, and ran back through pouring rain to the now freezing interior of this historic building.

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As we walked around trying to use the audio guides we didn’t do too well following the snippets of history. Because none of us knew our chuch architecture when the tape directed us to a certain location we didn’t know where the heck to go. After forty minutes of asking one another ‘what’s the [churcey term for a locale]? ‘ we decided to call it quits but not before we paid homage to the Maid of Orleans, Jeanne d’arc.

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Her chapel and the alter were worth viewing, the latter because it’s where  the Kings of France (last one in 1825) were crowned starting with the baptism of Clovis I, 498-499.

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Being crowned in Reims provided the kings with a connection to God, imbuing their rule with a sacred flavor.

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This particular church meant a lot to Max because it’s where Jeanne d’arc stood beside Charles VII as he was crowned; and, it’s because of her that Charles was able to hold his coronation in this place.

We turned in our guides, purchased take-away sandwiches, salads, and a turkish duram, and strolled back to our rooms taking in the Christmas spirit glittering all around us. A lovely way to end our stay in Reims.

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DAY 3:  Saturday, December 20   

We packed our bags and set off for Amboise via Troyes, a stop roughly midway between Reims and a VRBO.com where we’d meet up with our friends the Sumners.

Troyes is described as a great way to experience medieval France because of its half-timbered houses.  I particularly enjoyed the odd colors (not sure if the residents really painted their homes using these tints way back when?)

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There’s even a street where the houses almost meet as demonstrated by Betsy and Max and looking skyward.

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After a lunch of salads, including Max’s that must have had half a porker on it (more than he wanted),

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we walked back to our car catching sight of even more half-timbered homes, many of which were looking like they were on their last legs.

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One of the best sights was seeing the Cheshire Cat surveying his domain from the rooftop of a parked car…

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and, a manhole cover with wooden inserts for Ellen :)

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Our final destination, Amboise, loomed ahead of us. Three hours later AFTER a 32+ euro highway toll. (I think this is what they must mean by highway robbery. One even cost us over 8 euros for only twenty minutes of driving) we arrived at our VRBO.com, which Traci and Smokey found, unloaded a few essentials (cheese, ham, bread and wine) then waited form our friends’ arrival :)

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DAY 4:  Sunday, December 21

Up and out like a herd of turtles. We all wanted to experience the open-air Market held 8:30a-1:30p on Sundays.

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We were going to pick up items for our dinners during the week, but it was a bit of a hodgepodge in a wonderful sense.

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There were so many items from which to select it was difficult not getting side-tracked.

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But, we managed to find plenty that would jumble together for dinners augmented by a stop at the local butcher’s.

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Betsy and I went for a walk to Clos du Luce, Leo’s home for the last three years of his life thanks to his pal King Francis I (don’t know if you remember from when Max and I were here but the two buddies had an underground tunnel connecting the royal household with Leo’s house so they could enjoy one another’s company without a whole slew of folk hanging around). It was as lovely as the first time so I couldn’t resist snapping more shots of local color.

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And, one of the best ones was the surprise Christmas concert we came upon just below the Royal Chateau, primarily due to the lively conductor.

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Back home we enjoyed the company of our visiting Butterscotch Butterball so dubbed by Michelle and Danielle.

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This kitty became our daily visitor and was hard to resist a cuddle whenever we spotted him.

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Our first market dinner was chicken that goes round and round along with a ratouille dish Traci made after she learned to cook each vegetable separately and to add the tomatoes at the very end.

Boy, was it good, and it looked pretty fantastic as well.

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The night ended with a photo of our leopardess followed by a night of charades.

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DAY 5:  Monday, December 22

A lazy day without any committed sites to see or meals to create, so we all ended up wandering around Amboise and soaking up the Christmas spirit in this lovely Loire River Valley town.

Everyone gathered around the kitchen and dining room connecting with friends and family while catching up on the news.

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Meanwhile dinner was prepped

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and a lovely dessert was presented by Smokey.

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Yet, the girls, both runners, were visiting the chicken carcass an hour or so later prior to our nightly game of Charades, warmed up from the night before :)

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DAY 6:  Tuesday, December 23

A long drive to Oradour-sur-Glane (only 3+ hours one-way but, still, it felt long, especially since neither Betsy nor I had had any coffee to start. By the time we found a place almost an hour away we split five javas amongst the three of us. Along with some french goodies such as a croissant and french-bread sandwiches.

The site we were heading for was called the matyed village. The museum was closed but a statue is situated beside a street in the existing town prior to entering the original one across the street.

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On June 10, 1955, Nazis surrounded the town with lorries. They then separated the men and the women and children. They machine-gunned and burned the men around the town (plaques note the locations), then herded the women and children into the church and set it afire. 642 people died that day.

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No reasons are given except to say it might have been due to the Allied landing in Normandy four days earlier. Another atrocity occurred two days prior in a nearby town when the Nazis strung up 99 resistance fighters over that town’s balconies as a warning to the French residents. Maybe it was a reprisal for some French Resistance event? Whatever the reason, it wasn’t reason enough to inflict the horror to that one town.

France has left the town ‘as is’. And, a haunting ‘as is’ it truly is. We first saw some burned ruins over the low walls, then walked the entire village spotting every day relics amidst the charred walls and burned out homes.

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Everyday items that could survive the fire were left in the village, adding personal reminders to this inhuman act of war.

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One woman and five men escaped (the woman by jumping out of the church window where a plaque marks the spot).

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I don’t know if you can really see it, but the melted item in front of the alter is actually a baby carriage, no doubt because a mother used it to bring her young chid when forced into the church by the Nazis.

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The fortunate ones were those already in the cemetery, where now a memorial with remnants from the ashes stands to those martyred that day.

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It was good to have seen and even better to have left.

DAY 7:  Wednesday, December 24

The morning dawned relatively clear and chilly. Today was a day of last minute errands, which included picking up the roast beast (that Max would be cooking).

We caused quite a stir of raised eyebrows in the shop because the nice guy helping us didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak French, so when he began cutting up the beef, Max and I loudly said ‘non, s’il vous plait!’. Fortunately, the guy who did speak English came over and Max explained to him what he meant. No problem, said the guy, and the other one went to get another cut. And, boy, did he.

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With other last minute errands (bread, lettuce, olive oil, and vino) I headed home as Betsy went up to Leo’s house.

Max had already begun the prep for our Christmas Eve dinner by the time I was back. We added some music to the ingredients and the evening was shaping up nicely.

Soon the Sumners were back from Chenonceaux (Smokey has charaded it out so now it’s easy for me to remember how to pronounce it), unloading another luscious gift box of sumptuous pastries,

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and the festivities began with the uncorking of a magnum filled with liquid stars

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and a game or two of charades split into family teams.

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followed by an amazing meal with Max’s stellar roast beast, and

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followed by more charades and tons of laughter… and some special liqueur brought out by Smokey.

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DAY 8:  Thursday, CHRISTMAS!

The morning arrived with us appearing for coffee in our pjs.

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Santa came during the night and hung gifts on our white, frosted tree.

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By 11:00 am we all were up and gift-giving was shared all around with some special ones from Michelle and Danielle, which, I have to admit, made me and some others a bit teary-eyed.

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Butterball Butterscotch appeared to wish us a Merry Christmas, although I believe he was checking out any scraps from the Christmas Eve dinner.

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Smokey had managed to get us in to a Christmas dinner that was like a fairytale, requiring some dressing up.

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By 1:15 pm we piled into the DM2 (Dork Mobil 2, a Smokey and Traci rental van named after their first one) and went to Chateau duPrayer for a meal of a lifetime.

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Being Americans (and off to ourselves in a corner table) we couldn’t resist some decorations…

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Six courses later, we exited at 5:30 pm much fuller and richer for the experience. Never ever have I tasted and lived such an event. I believe, too, it will be a long, long, ever so long while before I do so again :)

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(the dessert photo complements of Michelle :)

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Back home we were able to connect with good friends Robbie Meredith in San Diego…

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Leighton Meredith Reeve, Gwen Mac and Hugh Meredith in Virginia Beach…Cammy, Carmen, Iain and Sarah in Nags Head… Chris, Judy, Doug and Eileen in Brunswick. The only downside with hearing and/or seeing them is reminding us we miss them. I don’t know if this comes with being older but, I sure do miss being with people I know and love. Thankfully, Betsy and the Sumners are with us.

After a game of OH HELL with Max providing the initial tutoring, someone opened the fridge door. From then on it was leftover heaven and the seven of us are standing around the kitchen island finishing up leftovers from the day before and the day before that. But, the best part about all of this? The stories that we began telling. Danielle’s lifeguard experience her freshman year topped them all. I’d relate the story here but couldn’t do it justice. That tale will help me weather many stormy seas.

Where to begin? PART V

DAY 19:  Monday, November 3 (arrival in BERLIN)

It was time to end our wanderings around Germany, and Berlin was the place. After stopping off in Lutherville, aka Wittenberg, we drove another three hours, turned in our rental car, and found our VRBO.com (vacation rental by owner) apartment. We were staying in Charlottenburg, a western suburb of Berlin located about a 30-minute S-Bahn (fast urban train) & U-Bahn (underground subway) ride from the city’s center.

The owner of the apartment couldn’t have been more helpful in our pre-planning for Berlin. The approach to the apartment, however, didn’t bode well for what the interior might look like (graffiti walls, trash on sidewalk, grungy windows). Fortunately, it was nicer on the inside than out although a few extra dollars wouldn’t have hurt to improve first impressions. But, it was clean, offered a nicely outfitted kitchen, and was plenty large. Climbing five sets of stairs to reach it ensured we’d have plenty of exercise (Only after our stay was over did Max point out the complete lack of a fire escape).

After figuring out places we wanted to go, and sights we wanted to see, the next morning we walked to the convenient metro stop. Like a lot of our German experiences, using the public transportation was another example of this country’s efficiency:  you purchased a ticket (lots of different configurations; we chose the 7-day fare); hopped on the public transportation; arrived at our destination; hopped off; end of story. No turnstiles, no swiping, no barriers to entry or exit. The way they ensured compliance was by spot-checking passengers’ tickets. Talk about streamlining transportation.

With so much to experience in this historical city, it was a whirlwind of a visit in spite of allowing ourselves seven days; so, I’ll try to keep each day’s wanderings to captioned photos beginning with our self-guided city walk on Day One in Berlin…

DAY 20  Tuesday, November 4

Brandenburg Gate was our first stop. The only surviving gate of the 14 surrounding the original city, this impressive structure was built in 1791.

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It was originally designed as an arch of peace with the Goddess of Peace riding the chariot as the God of War sheathes his sword. After several mishaps and misrepresentations–Napoleon stole the statue in 1806 but lost it when Prussia beat him 1813; Hitler used it as a symbol of aggression–in 1989 it reverted to its original symbolism with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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And, since our trip was timed to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demise, we were fortunate to have the East-West Berlin history in front of our eyes as we walked around the gate (THE major site for the November 9th celebratory events) and throughout the city.

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Squatting in the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate we spotted a small blue car. Later we found out it was a Trabant, an East German car manufactured so cheaply it became a symbol of that government’s economy. Supposedly, a ‘people’s car’ in answer to West Germany’s VW Beetle; yet, it made TIME Magazine’s list of the 50 worst cars in the world…

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Looking around the square we noticed the Adlon Hotel, famous for Michael Jackson’s baby dangling over a balcony.

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Realizing this would be the primo place to be for November 9th’s celebrations, we casually walked in to inquire about a room. Well, let’s just say we weren’t dressed like the people who typically stay at this hotel, and the desk clerk definitely thought it was out of our price range the way he answered our question. In spite of his being right, we still thanked him and said ‘we’ll think about it.’ At least the doorman was nice. And, frankly, if we had known Gorbachev was staying there that weekend, we might have even said ‘to hell with it, let’s do it!’  (We did, though, find another place much more reasonable and still in close proximity to Sunday’s coming celebration.)

Nearby was the DZ Bank building designed by Gehry with his saying he thought it was his best designed shape ever.

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A short stroll away we found the stark memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, a granite maze of pillars of varying heights.

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Continuing on we stopped in at one of the ghost subway stations, stations blocked off by during the Cold War. When the wall fell these subway stations re-opened, providing a step back in history with the decor still unchanged since they were built in 1931.

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As we walked towards Museum island away from the Gate on Unter Der Linden, a major boulevard, we saw a lot of construction, both in buildings

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with temporary offices simply attached by cables

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and temporary, above-ground pipes as they worked on the underground water and sewage systems.

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One way you knew you were in the former East Berlin was the pedestrian signal. This East German, street-crossing light is seen around the city today and is one of the few ‘friendly’ symbols to have survived from the Cold War. There are even Ampelmann shops selling little green man logo items.

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Humboldt University was lovely and large, stretching across the street. We had a light lunch at the school’s library cafe and snapped a photo of the famous 1968, stained glass featuring Vladimir Lenin (after being admonished by the librarian not to include any people in it due to privacy issues).

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When you realize Lenin studied law here, it made more sense.

In the square opposite the library’s entrance is the site where Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, instructed university staff and students to burn 20,000 books in 1933. The memorial is an underground, empty book shelf you can barely see when peering through the covering at your feet.

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That was only a prelude, there
where they burn books,
they burn in the end people.
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One of the fun sculptures we spotted

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which you can see is quite large:

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Another piece of sculpture, only much more sobering, is one by Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945), “Mother with her Dead Son” also known as the pieta. This replica sits in the middle of a stone floor in an 1816 building, the Emperor’s New Guardhouse, which was remodeled in 1993. This national memorial reads “To the victims of war and tyranny”  with the only light coming from an opening in the roof. The sculptress, Kollwitz, was known for her artistic expressions against government repression, and her life is an interesting read.

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We crossed the river to Berlin’s Museum Island.

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With the fading light and falling temperatures, we decided to visit some of these another day. We headed back to the apartment where Max performed his culinary art and we planned our next day’s tour.

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DAY 21:  Wednesday, November 5

The next morning we continued our getting-to-know Berlin crawl. We ended up along the Spree River where the Chancellery and Parliament buildings stood.

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With the build-up for the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Wall we were constantly educated by some amazing ‘Wall Stories’ along the wall’s path. The city had erected 100 of these blue boxes, and we stopped at every one we came across. The snippets of history related by a large photograph and accompanying story made the wall come to life, many through the terror and pain this structure caused.  I took photos of many of these, and, hopefully, you can enlarge them to read the mesmerizing tales.

We found one here along the Spree River.

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A bit of history about this concrete snake…The wall was 96 miles long with 27 miles separating East and West Berliners (the remaining separated the East Germany countryside from West Berlin). Originally it began with barbed wire and some cement blocks in 1961 and eventually morphed into the ugly combination of a secondary wall, electric fence, trenches and death strip.

If anything can be comical about this structure it was how it came to ‘fall’. Over the years other communist leaders were realizing how out of touch the East German leader, Erich Honecker, was becoming. Enough so that Gorbachev was warning him of the futility of not accommodating the growing freedom occurring in neighboring countries (Russia’s Gorbachev’s reforms, Poland’s Lech Wales’s first free labor union, Hungary’s Miklos Nameth’s opening the border to Austria). Push came to shove and Honecker finally resigned October 18, 1989.

During this time a new law easing the travel ban was being considered. At a press conference on November 9th an official for the new East German government was asked about this proposed law. Not having clear instructions the woefully unprepared spokesman fumbled and stumbled and when asked when the proposed easing would take effect he finally said at 6:53pm “Well, as far as I can see, … straightaway, immediately.” Thousands ran to the border gates only to have the guards refuse to let them through. Evidently one guard kept trying to reach his superiors without any luck, so after a while he said open the gates. The rest, as they say, is history.

In addition to the Wall Stories, over 2,000 white balloons were being posted where the wall once stood. On November 9th at 7:00pm individuals would stand next to their balloon and release them one by one. As we were walking around Berlin we saw the numbered posts (so the assigned individual knew which one was theirs) with their deflated balloons being readied for the event.

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We walked to the Reichstag and saw the memorial to Politicians Who Opposed Hitler.

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Heading south we stopped on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate on the Pariser Platz where the US Embassy stands.

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We then espied more Wall Stories to read.

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and saw a memorial to those who participated in the June 17, 1953, demonstration in Potsdamer Platz. Called the People’s Uprising in East Germany, it began when East German construction workers went on strike June 16. They were joined by the general public the next day, resulting in the Democratic German Republic (GDR) confronting the protesters with tanks and guns. Ironically, it all started when the GDR, under pressure from the Soviet Union, announced easement of some work policies (10% raise in work quotas plus higher taxes and prices) they were going to put into place. Rather than diffuse the bubbling unrest, it inflamed the citizens, resulting in this demonstration.

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Further on Max bought a hotdog (there are so many names for their hotdogs I can’t remember them all so now they’re all ‘hotdog’ to me). In doing so, he befriended a sparrow

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who quickly drew a flock of his friends…

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Escaping their clutches we strolled along the eastern side of Tiergarten, a 400-acre public park and read more Wall Stories

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and the site of the memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime…

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and more Wall Stories (for someone like me these history blurbs were like candy).

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Further on we reached Potsdamer Platz, the “Times Square” of old Berlin and a postwar wasteland until businesses and a mall sprang up. This was also another site for celebrating the fall of the wall with a large screen showing a Berlin Wall documentary on continuous loop. This area was more like a carnival site with a snow slide, a lego-ed giraffe, commercial billboards, and the new Sony Center.

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The colorful sights seemed a bit bizarre when juxtaposed next to the history of this area.

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We saw one of the guard towers that was saved from being demolished and moved to a site for easy access. Guards who worked the wall weren’t allowed to fraternize with one another so, if one tried to escape, the other wouldn’t feel so bad shooting him.

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Our final destination of the day was the Topography of Terror sited on a former Nazi building used by the Gestapo and SS. Like all of the museums which we toured in Germany, the amount of detail and information is overwhelming. Two hours only seems to touch the surface but it’s at least enough to give you the basic overview; and, when you’re viewing the horrors of what was performed under the Nazi banner, two hours can seem like an eternity.

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Because the history found in this museum was so well documented, I took photos so you can experience first-hand the terrors of that time.

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The faces of the terrorized children is something I’ll never forget, and I don’t think I should. The memory is too much of a reminder of what can and did happen.

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It was still early afternoon so we decided to head across town back to the Unter den Linden (at one end is the Brandenburg Gate) next to Berlin’s Museum Island, a UNESCO site. The Deutsches Historisches Museum was our last stop of the day and it offered a mind-numbing but fascinating journey through Germany’s history. Centuries of artifacts, including Roman mosaics, items from when Napoleon was captured (they had a photo of his hat saying it was on loan… we later saw it was up for auction), a Turkish tent from the Ottoman siege of Vienna (1863), paintings and busts, Nazi posters, a trabant car, basically, almost anything German and it’d be there. Unfortunately, what we didn’t do is wander into the Pei annex. Saved for a later visit.

We stumbled out after our typical two-hours meandering to find it dark and chilly, which meant we were a bit disoriented. But we located an S-Bahn and found our way home with this sign illuminating the night sky and offering a suggestion for our heads ready to explode with German facts. Note to self:  never do TWO museums in ONE day.

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DAY 22:  Thursday, November 6

Another chilly day out but still easy for sight-seeing as no rain (or snow). We decided to visit another site, the Berlin Wall Memorial. The museum was closed with a new one opening up on November 9th; however, just seeing remnants of the wall and walking in a former death zone strip gave us a good feel of what happened here.

Still unsure of navigating our way around various U-Bahn stations we happened to ask a fellow rider directions. He kindly said he was heading there with his wife to visit his wife’s mother and offered to lead us towards our destination. Along the way we spoke with his saying he’d come from Africa to study and ended up staying for work. He also shared with us that it was difficult at times living in Germany because of racism. Just as in the states, we are reminded of how different skin colors and cultures can cause ugliness instead of opportunities to learn from one another.

After a ten-minute walk we reached the Berlin Wall Memorial, a green expanse with some memorials placed around. Formerly the site of a church (later demolished by the East German government to make way for the death zone) some graves still exist.

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In 1961 the wall seemed to appear overnight, with apartment buildings actually used as part of the wall along Bernauer Strasse where this memorial was located. This site was also where the first casualty of the wall occurred when Ida Sickmann fell to her death August 22, 1961, attempting to escape from her 3rd-floor apartment.

The open-air memorial listed with photos those who died trying to flee from East Germany.

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Some were young children and teenagers.

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Photos showing the final wall were on display.

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To visit graves remaining after the church was demolished required special passes.

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A sculpture on the grounds embraces the sadness and grief caused by the wall separating families. One copy exists in the Hiroshima Peace Museum.

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Some of the wall still stood along Bernauer Strasse, such as one where kids were playing after the fall in 1989, and where I stood 25 years later on the other side.

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Looking across the memorial from the street side we saw the second (or first) wall that bordered the death zone.

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Unfortunately the Visitor Center and the Berlin Wall Documentation Center weren’t open but  we absorbed the bleak ambiance just walking in this former death grip in the gray, damp day.

With that somber memorial seen, it was time for some lightness. I had read about a famous chocolate store on Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful historic square where Berlin Symphony’s concert hall sits. We didn’t hear any music but were able to watch a young girl entertained by a street vendor’s huge bubbles.

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Not to be distracted I made a beeline for Fassbender & Rausch, supposedly Europe’s biggest chocolate store. I don’t know if it’s true but this family-owned store offered up some treats; and, after 150 years of creating chocolate candies, I can truthfully say they know their craft.

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They even commemorated the Fall of the Wall’s 25th anniversary…

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We were hungry for lunch and scoured the area for street food. No luck so we found a grocery store off the square and picked up a wrap. While looking I spotted some dyed eggs being sold. A bit weird considering they were being sold as regular, uncooked eggs.

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We had a cabaret date at a little restaurant bar later that night. Something we had wanted to do, being familiar with the 1972 movie Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli. Although it wasn’t half as spectacular as the movie it was still fun to experience a live performance. Plus, we met a nice couple from San Francisco, which added to the night’s enjoyment.

DAY 23:  Friday, November 7

We ended up going to different destinations, with my heading for the shopping district and Max to Potsdam.

My excursion resulted in an ornament gift I had tried to purchase in Rothenberg but the shop was closed the morning we left. Locating the store took me longer than I had expected; but, It was a lovely day, warmer than previous ones, so it felt wonderful walking up and down Kurfurstendamm, up and down because of getting lost.

Max discovered the trains were on strike so his trek to Potsdam (to see the grim room where the Final Solution was initiated) didn’t happen. Instead he landed at the Berlin zoo and enjoyed a lighter outing amongst animals and their antics such as the ‘roos :)

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Arriving back home within thirty minutes of one another we packed up. We had booked a room downtown for two nights so were moving out. Thanks to economizing on our VRBO.com apartment, we felt we’d give ourselves a treat, especially since we had discovered a day earlier the S-Bahn, the fastest way into the city center, was on strike. Let the festivities begin!

DAY 24:  Saturday, November 8

Knowing Berlin had beautiful art museums, we wanted to see at least one; so, we headed into the city with our bags dropped off at our hotel in Potsdamer Platz.

The museum was the Gemaldegalerie, the “Painting Gallery”, located fairly close by to our hotel. The modern building held Germany’s top collection of 13th-18th century European paintings. [The following are from the Internet because I didn’t take photos of the museum and I couldn’t take them once in the galleries.]

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Thinking it would be packed on a weekend day, we were surprised to find it rather deserted. Although a fascinating example of modern architecture, it felt rather cold and lonely, lacking a feeling of vitality. Yet, the art was sumptuous, and I’m no art aficionado.

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Once again, two hours wasn’t enough time to soak in all of the magnificent paintings; however, I will say religious art can get rather redundant in my eyes (I need a guide who knows something about it), but there were other paintings that were captivating. One was Johannes Vermeer’s (1632-1675) The Glass of Wine.

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Another was Lucas Cranach (the guy who was friends with Luther in Wittenberg) and his Fountain of Youth.

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This museum I will definitely revisit if we ever return to Berlin. Only next time I’ll be better prepared.

We had purchased matinee tickets for a Las Vegas-like show, WILD, so we headed across town. The circus-like acts were entertaining, the best one being the acrobatic strongmen. The costumes alone were eye candy, and the singing and dancing entertaining. But, like our cabaret experience, the walking around Berlin was more of a highlight.

Once back at our hotel we prepared to go out again as the city was lighting up in anticipation of the next day’s celebrations. But, not before I recorded our dream room…

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Once you live on a boat bathrooms take on a whole new appeal…

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Yes, it was a slice of heaven.

With my drooling under control we went out into the night and took in the sights, beginning with the lit snow slide.

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Our hotel was right in Potsdamn Platz so balloons (they were illuminated starting Friday night) lined the sidewalk where the wall once stood.

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We took photos for strangers and they took ours. Everyone was excited to be there. And, rightly so! It was exhilarating, spellbinding, and joyful. We felt we were participating in history.

From our hotel it was a straight walk up to Brandenburg Gate where the moon hung over the Peace Goddess and her chariot.

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The stage for Sunday’s events was being checked out for the festivities.

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And, the lights splashed across the sky and venues.

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The crowds thronged around the stage and the Gate, while Max documented it with his iPad.

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The screen with the documentary was showing on the other side and I snapped some screen shot, including Kennedy’s proclaiming ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ June 1963.

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Outside Hotel Adlon (the one we inquired about and gulped) featured a banner of Gorbachev; that’s when we wished we’d paid the $$ just to be in the same proximity.

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Back to hotel primed for Sunday’s events.

DAY 25:  Sunday, November 9

And, we thought last night was packed. Saturday was just a tease for Sunday’s crowds.

We decided to go to several locations, the first prompted by CNN’s reporting of Angela Merkel at the dedication of the Berlin Wall Memorial’s new center. We hurried there hoping to catch sight of the German Chancellor. It was freezing but waiting around for her to appear we met a visitor from outside of Hamburg with whom we traded tales and kept each other company.

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We saw another Wall Story, one of a guard escaping.

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Finally, Angela left along with her entourage and I caught the back of her head while Max got a profile view.

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From there we headed north to Bornholmer Strasse. This is the spot where the wall was ‘opened’ and the first East Berliners poured into West Berlin’s working class neighborhood Wedding. By 11:00pm over 20,000, Angela Merkel being one, crossed into freedom.

Walking towards the gate and park the festivities included street music enjoyed by young climbers. Colorful, graffiti walls looked down into the park.

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It was frigid so when we finally reached the end of the walk, we were looking forward to the next stop via S-Bahn, East Side Gallery where CNN was broadcasting the signing of the Trabant car.

The riverside in Friedrichshain is the longest surviving piece of the inner wall. The wall has become a famous work of art thanks to over 100 artists from 20 countries using it as their canvas in 1990.

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We managed to find the CNN car only to discover the reporter had left and they weren’t allowing anyone to sign it. However, we persuaded the assistant we had come all this way to do so. She thought a second, then handed us the pen saying ‘do NOT give this out to anyone else.’ Orr’s Islanders, your home is immortalized or, at least, it decorates a car in Berlin :)

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Walking back along the river we saw a youth hostel, and I was ever so glad we didn’t have to stay there.

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Having seen the sights here we made our way back to our hotel to warm up prior to heading out for the night.

After an hour we were ready to hit the street again and, man, it was CROWDED. I have never felt so smooshed as when I was trying to reach the other side of the walkway during this celebration. We tried getting to Brandenburg Gate but quickly gave up when we were being routed through Tiergarten by police. We knew we’d never reach the stage area, let alone hear the speeches.

To give you an idea, here’s a crowd scene:

http://youtu.be/jwIKDGHjne8

So, we turned around and returned to Potsdamn Platz where we met a German family of two sisters (one married to a guy from California and they were living in London, the other married and living in Germany) and their uncle born and raised in East Germany.

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We grabbed hotdogs and beer along with our new-found friends and proceeded to enjoy the night in spite of the sardine-like situation.

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We watched the large screen and recognized places we’d been during our walks to see the wall, only this time it was before the fall of the wall:

East Side Gallery (where the car that we signed earlier in the day was located)

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Bernauer Strasse (where we went to see Angela Merkel and where we had been Thursday)

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Mauerpark (where we saw the live band and the little girl climbing the rock)

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and Checkpoint Charlie around Potsdam Platz (so called because “C” is “Charlie” in the NATO phonetic alphabet)

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With images like the ones above captured from the screen you can imagine how stunningly powerful this documentary was.

A yell went up when the balloons were released and we all watched mesmerized as they drifted into the heavens.

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The documentary (which we hope to purchase once it’s released) played on…

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and the night was one of shared appreciation for what mankind can do if thinking the right way.

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Berlin, Thank you. We had the time of our life.

DAY 26:  Monday, November 10

Up and out early for our plane, we took the U-Bahn to catch our bus to the airport via a connection in Stockholm.

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Of course, when I say via Stockholm I mean wandering in a deserted airport for an hour or two and ordering a salad that cost at least double what it’d be back home. But, hey, we were in ‘sveeedin’ :)

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Catching the bus from Heathrow to Ipswich we were charmingly entertained by Vinnie, our driver. This guy was great, and nuts. He demonstrated the stopping power of the bus by coming to a complete stop… on the highway. Yes, there was a slowdown due to traffic ahead, but, still, a complete stop was a bit over the top.

He had been to the states to visit his cousin and her husband in Mississippi. Come to find out his aunt was married to Eddie Willis of The Funk Brothers! Holy moly. We ordered the documentary Vinnie told us about, the DVD Standing in the Shadow of Motown, so we could pick it up when back in the states. Pretty cool.

Dropped off at the rail station, we walked home to Juanona. Our Germany adventure had come to a close, and all we can say is we’ll be back humming the Ode to Joy. 

And, to practice, i’ll just have to watch this over (and over) :)

YOUTUBE:  Flashmob Flash Mob – Ode an die Freude ( Ode to Joy ) Beethoven Symphony No.9 classical music

 

 

 

 

 

Where to begin? PART IV

DAY 14:  Wednesday, October 29 (later that day)

One of the most well-preserved towns is Rothenburg, a “free imperial city”. Remember how Trier was under the Archbishop’s thumb?  Well, Rothenburg escaped that fate by reporting directly to the HRE (Holy Roman Emperor). From 1150 to 1400 this town was strategically placed to take advantage of the north-south routes (sound familiar?). Then, it lost its place in history and proceeded to fade from view. Ironically, it’s because of lack of funds after its heyday that Rothenburg is now one of Germany’s most-visited sites. Because they couldn’t afford to renovate over the centuries, when they finally got some funds, they reconstructed their old buildings as if the setting was still the Middle Ages.

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By the time we found our inn,

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parked and dropped our bags, it was time for a major event in town:  their glockenspiel to chime. Rothenburg’s clock tower (built in 1466) features two men coming out behind closed shutters and playing out a centuries-old legend.

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During the Thirty Years War in 1631, the Catholic army was all set to plunder and pillage the Protestant town. The conquering general, taking the mayor up on the traditional ‘have a drink’, offered the town leader a dare:  “if you can drink this entire, three-liter tankard of wine in one gulp, I’ll spare your town.”

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Evidently the mayor did just that, and the town was saved. A fun start to a town to which we would love to return.

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We had read in Rick Steves’ guidebook that an English Conversation Club met every Wednesday night at Mario’s Altfrankische Weinstube am Klosterhof. Thinking it’d be fun to meet some locals we headed over. Sure enough Wolfgang was holding court, and we were welcomed immediately. Sitting at our end were two other tourists, Laurie and Dennis, and Michaela, a local school teacher.

Among other nuggets of history and local folklore, Wolfgang said Rick Steves visited here many years ago as a young backpacker. Somehow he ended up speaking with a shopkeeper, telling her some of his experiences. She suggested he write them down and make a living doing so. To this day, you can visit the shop now run by the same woman, Anneliesse Friese, with the help of her son and granddaughter. I can just see it now. Soon, there’ll be “Rick Steves slept here” as a mark of distinction.

Meals, beer, and wine later, the night passed too quickly. However, we made a plan to take the highly recommended Night Watchman Tour the next evening with Laurie and Dennis.

DAY 15:  Thursday, October 30

Rick Steves does an excellent job of presenting travellers with easy-to-do, self-guided walks around sites of interest, Rothenburg being one. So, up and out that morning we went, taking advantage of the continued summer weather.

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On the Market Square sits the Town Hall with old measuring standards attached to the wall. Of course we had to test the accuracy of each one…

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Besides the town itself one of the main attractions is a beautiful, wood-carved alter piece by Tilman Riemenschneider. Standing 35 feet high, the carving brings Jesus and his disciples to life in spite being wooden.

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Created over five years and completed in 1504, the free-standing alter sits upstairs at the back of the church and showcases the last supper with surrounding events leading to his crucifiction.

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One interesting occurrence is the removal of Judas every Easter. Why, I have no idea. And, I also don’t understand why John’s head is in Jesus’ lap. But, I do the know the perfect person to ask.

Downstairs the main alter had the friendly face of Jesus painted on the back, which, seeing it, I’d have put it there, too.

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Today the church promotes its sister church in Tanzania.

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Next to the pews, a Tanzanian carving is quite impressive and lovely.

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Continuing our walk we went by the spot where we had dinner the night before (which was one of our top six meals; matter-of-fact, we’d have to say our two top meals were here, based on food and atmosphere).

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We walked through the convent’s garden where poisonous herbs were marked with crosses,

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and, we spotted a cat blissfully content in its bed of catnip?

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Rothenburg was named for its red castle (destroyed in the 1300s). Now, only the chapel from that time remains.

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Outside the chapel is a memorial to the Jews slaughtered in 1298 by paranoid townsmen. Another reminder of intolerance. Chilling when compared to the tranquility and loveliness of the garden.

We reversed our walked back through the gate where we happened upon an old church. Stepping inside we immediately noticed large, free-standing display boards of cheerful Nazi supporters. Silently we went from one photo to the next puzzling over why they here here and why in a church? There were no English translations and no one standing by to answer any questions.

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It was only later we discovered Rothenburg had been promoted as the ideal, Nazi small town. Hitler was even made an honorary citizen in 1933. This exhibit created a shocking counterpart to the cheerful crowds of happy tourists we saw wandering the medieval streets. Once again, almost 70 years after the end of WWII, Germany was displaying its dirty laundry, demonstrating that even this fairytale village had its evil past.

The next stop was the Crime and Punishment Museum. I wasn’t really looking forward to it since I thought it was going to include primarily medieval torture tools; but, I was pleasantly surprised. The displays were focused more on the evolution of the legal system.

Yes, there were gruesome artifacts

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but, also comical punishments. Although, I’m sure it didn’t feel so funny if you were the one wearing any of these.

For those unable to get along…

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as punishment for playing bad music (I wonder who decided what was awful?)…

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and, for gossipers.

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What I found most interesting were documents from the medieval times. One was a papal document with seals of Indulgences. Rich nobles would purchase these in order to be pardoned for sins. In short, this transaction offered the Catholic Church a method to extract money in order to finance its growing wealth (such as paying Michaelangelo for painting the Sistine Chapel). These Indulgences figured powerfully in Martin Luther’s revolt against the established religion of the time.

Actually, this might be the pic of a leader granting a beer license…

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Once out, we again had to test the local hardware.

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Back in our room we relaxed prior to heading to our night tour.

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And, checked how well our daily laundry drying was doing (thank god for those heated towel racks found in most inns!).

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No pics of the Night Watchman’s Tour but the hour spent with him and ten or so others was one of the highlights. He was a consummate performer who looked like Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.

DAY 16:  Friday, October 31

There was still plenty to explore as we woke to a sunny day beginning with a wall walk.

Surrounded by a 1.5 mile city wall, Rothenburg can be circumnavigated most of the way by climbing up the stairs to the covered walkway.

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The night watchman had mentioned we’d see inscribed stones as part of the wall. They were the result of a post-WWII, destitute Rothenburg raising monies to rebuild the wall.

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Once down on the ground, we found a 700-year-old tradesman’s house that felt as if he just left on an errand. If I had been him, I wouldn’t have bothered coming back.

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One of our last stops of the day was taking Max to the Christmas shop for which Rothenburg is famous:  Kathe Wohlfahrt has her headquarters here and, boy, does her shop do up Christmas big, big as in you would not believe how many hand-painted, wooden ornaments can be crammed into a room. Her shop is so popular, no photos are allowed, and you follow a one-way path up and through numerous displays. You feel as if you’re on the yellow brick road only this time you’re in Santa Land. For Max, this was pure torture :)

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He survived it, though, with all limbs and wallet intact.

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Walking back to our room we spotted another display, only this one was sitting on a ledge blowing bubbles.

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Opposite our inn there was a lovely shop, and, being a devotee of sweets, including hulking doughnuts, I was immediately drawn to this display.

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Schneeballens are a local trademark (one shop even had a video on how they’re prepared),

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and they looked just perfect for a morning (mid-day, afternoon, nighttime) snack. Fortunately, I had read they were basically tasteless, so I steered clear. But, they were tempting. Although, I’ve found in my taste-testing that most of the pastries I tried looked better on the plate than planted on the tongue.

 DAY 17:  Saturday, November 1

Prior to leaving our inn owners kindly printed out detailed directions for our next stop, one they had recommended since we had two unplanned nights before dropping off our rental car in Berlin.

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They had suggested Bamberg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, north of Rothenburg. Straddling the River Regnitz, five churches form a cross creating the city’s layout. The historical part of the city is divided into three, distinct areas:  episcopal town, island town and the market gardener’s town; and, it is because of this structure and the well-preserved medieval buildings that Bamberg earned its UNESCO title. Sounded like a good place to spend a day, so off we went.

We headed off with only a few stops along the way…

when we discovered the loud banging noise was because we had neglected to put the gas cap back on…

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when we spotted some storks cruising a field for nibbles.

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Continuing on we drove into Bamberg, did our usual dumping of bags and headed out to explore.

The historical town is lovely. It being a holiday weekend coupled with glorious sun, the streets were packed with tourists.

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As opposed to touring a lot of interior sites, we chose to simply walk around the three areas, beginning with the famous old Town Hall, which sits in the middle of the river.

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Crossing to the island and walking through the avenue of stores (all closed due to the holiday) we found more modern bridges, one with lovers’ padlocks.
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Circling around we spotted parent-child transportation vehicles :)

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and a sign reminding us of one of our friends :)

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With the sun setting, we ended the day knowing we had tomorrow for more walking and gawking.

DAY 18:  Sunday, November 2

When poking down the alleys we saw some brass plaques set in the cobblestones. Looking more closely we noticed names and dates.

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These were the Solpersteine or stumbling stones. They’re called that because you’re meant to strumble or trip a bit and they’re brass so shoes polish them. These stumbling stones are placed where Holocaust victims lived and how they died. Earlier ones would describe a victim’s death as ‘perished’ but it’s been changed now to ‘murdered’. There are over 250,000 of these throughout Germany. Munich didn’t use them saying it was insulting to the people they’re suppose to memoralize because people are walking on them; however, I found the quiet notice moving and powerful.

With another beautiful day we decided to walk up one of the hills dominated by a large cathedral. Founded by Heinrich II (Henry II) St. Peter’s and St. George’s Cathedral has the only Vatican-approved burial north of the Alps (Clemens II’s tomb is there), but the Cathedral was closed for visitors. It still made for a nice walk around part of the old wall.

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After climbing up the hill and then down we went back into town and wandered around the riverfront and side streets.

We enjoyed the modern sculptures, both those used as playgrounds

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and one with a slight Mona Lisa smile.

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Lunch was composed of our other street -ood option when taking a break from sausages and no Turkish Doners are around…

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For dinner we decided to try a restaurant rated as offering the best burger around. We ended up sitting at a table with four young students, three finishing their teaching degree and one working on his PHD in engineering. The waitress warned us it would take 1.5 hours to be served, but we were enjoying the conversation (and the beer, although not Bamberg’s smoked beer) so didn’t care.

Sharing that time with those young folk (Anne, Viki, Michael and Moritz)

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was one of the highlights of our trip. We spoke of politics and one student exclaimed, ‘in my program there are people from Cuba, France, Canada, England, Russia, United States and we share meals, discuss events, and we all get along just fine’.

It was a wonderful way to end our stay in Bamberg.

DAY 19:  Monday, November 3

Instead of driving straight through to Berlin we decided to stop in Wittenberg where Martin Luther lived and preached. This city was one of our briefest stops yet one of the most impactful because (1) we were able to focus on a singular person and (2) that person was so much more intriguing than we would have thought.

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Unfortunately, the one museum (Martin Luther’s former home, now a museum) was closed but we were still able to see the church where he use to preach (the other famous one to which he nailed his 95 theses was being renovated for the 500th anniversary in 2017).

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Further down the street in the Market Square, two statues stood:

one of Martin Luther (1483-1546),

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the other of his sidekick, Philipp Melanchton (1497-1560).

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Melanchthon was a brilliant university professor who helped Luther translate the Bible into German. He was valued so highly that when he threatened to leave Wittenberg, the ruler, Frederich the Wise, bribed him to stay by arranging Melanchthon’s marriage to the mayor’s daughter. Evidently, that was quite a coup for, in addition to not being wealthy, Melanchthon was sickly and extremely unattractive.

Doesn’t look so bad to me.

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Continuing down to the street we came to the church where Luther had preached. It definitely had the feel of a Protestant house of worship due to not having a lot of flourishes hanging about.

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I didn’t know too much about Luther but what little I’ve learned is fascinating:  enjoyed the good ole life practicing law in Erfurt until caught in a thunder storm; he promised the patron saint of miners (he came from a large mining town and his father was involved with the industry) St. Anna (who also just happened to be Virgin Mary’s mama) he’d become a priest if he survived; must have been some storm for he became a monk.

A visit to Rome in 1510 as part of his monastery’s delegation really made Luther think twice about his profession. The corruption he witnessed in the Vatican including the selling of indulgences to the wealthy (allowing them to buy their way into heaven) got him thinking.

Once back in Germany, he transferred to Wittenberg, earned his doctorate in theology,  and began teaching. Soon, his lectures were packed as he began to question the role of priests as religious authority and obtaining salvation through deeds; in short, it came down to the Bible is THE religious authority versus some men dressed in red suits and you can’t buy your way into heaven, your faith earns your place up in the starry blue sky. Can’t you hear those  cathedrals’  walls cracking?

With Luther spouting his philosophy, he was beginning to cause quite a schism amidst the rich and poor. Pope Leo X ain’t too happy. Finally by 1521 the guy in Rome had had enough and excommunicated Luther. Well, Luther escaped, thanks to the local Duke’s friendship, hiding in the Wartburg Castle, and began his ten-year translation of the Bible into German. Luther, also, had enough followers that carrying him back to Rome for a barbecue wouldn’t have been popular.

Meanwhile others had taken up his preachings causing major disruption. His championing of religious freedom led to the desire for less restrictions in other areas of life (politically, economically). Voila,  the 1525-1524 Peasants War, which also included nobles looking for an opportunity to change the political landscape. Luther’s influence was such that local officials asked him to intervene. He tried and actually, when he feared the total overthrow of Church (his church) and State, he urged authorities to crush the rebellion. They did, brutally in some areas; but, this war did set the stage for the Thirty Years War 100 years later.

Back to Luther, he came out of retirement and took up his preaching again in Wittenberg. Together with Melanchthon, they completed the translation of the Bible to the common language. He also married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, in 1525, made children (six) and was good friends with the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder, the court painter for Frederick III the Wise, Elector of Saxony (there were seven of these prominent positions that carried tons of authority).

Cranach the Elder was also the only artist Luther allowed to paint his and his family’s portraits. In Luther’s church we saw several of Cranach’s paintings.

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Cranach the Elder wasn’t shy about supporting Luther’s cause as witnessed by one of the paintings showing the Catholic Church’s priests and bishops pulling up all the good work the Lutherites (on the right) had carefully planted in a garden with the Pope holding out his hand for payment.

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But the one that really fascinated me was where it truly transported me back in time as kids will be kids. Check out the painting below. Theology students would scrawl their names after their theology exams:  if they passed, it was on the side of the angels; if not, the side with the devils. One of his sons who did fail contributed to the graffiti. Fortunately, his legal studies ended in a better result.

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What’s a real bummer is Luther began his religious quest preaching religious tolerance for the Jews. He supported Jews, encouraging them to revolt agains the Catholic Church; but, when they weren’t converting to his church, he turned against them. Hmmmm, anyone see some double standard here? He became a rabid anti-semetic and an ugly one at that, as witnessed by a sculpture sitting atop his church wall.

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Today, the sculpture is countered with a thoughtful one placed in the church yard below the nasty one along with an olive tree from Israel.

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At this point, our Luther tour had to end in order to make our car rental return time in Berlin. We hightailed it back to our car but not before passing some of the Stumbling Stones

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and picking up one of our most favorite lunches.

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Next stop BERLIN!