Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

freiburg...christmas spirit in the black forest

In Germany's Black Forest, so-called because of its dense, dark pines, you can spend hours or days hiking amongst gnomes and wood fairies, howling wolves and vampires. Surely, none of these things actually exist here, but I don't find it difficult for a minute to imagine they do.


The Black Forest is bordered to the west by the mighty Rhine in Germany's south-west, can wave branches to France and Switzerland, and is a beloved tourist destination for hiking, spa-ing, and cuckoo-clocking. Here is where tradition lives...and is loved.


The Black Forest inpires moments of wandering along pine-scented hiking trails, enjoying cozy, firelit evenings with steaming cups of anything, and relishing sumptuous food with names like Spätzle, Knöpfle, Gugelhupf and of course, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cake).

Käse Spätzle (cheese noodles)

But, the Black Forest can also really do Christmas. In its largest city, Freiburg, the advent spirit of twinkle lights and mulled wine, the manger and St. Nick, children singing and adults shopping is a well-lived tradition.


Freiburg is a very old city, and even without the Christmas flair, is a beloved tourist destination for people wanting to explore the Black Forest. Founded in 1120 as a free market town, it is humming with wine connoisseurs and university students, architecture fans and witch-hunters. Well, to be honest, the witch-hunters have long gone, but the fact that there were witches here to be hunted is kind of exciting. Not for the witches who were hunted of course...I digress.

Historical Merchant's Hall

Beginning in the 1200's, and continuing on for centuries, Freiburg was a bustling town of free trade and merchant deals, as buyers and sellers made this the financial hub of the region due to its strategic position between the Mediterranean and North Seas, and its connection to the Rhine and Danube Rivers.

Freiburg Münster - a medieval cathedral
In the heart of the city, is the Freiburg Münster, an imposing medieval gothic cathedral which took over 300 years to build. Can you imagine what a thankless job it was building this, knowing even your grandchildren's children won't be seeing the finished product?


But, it does have one of the most spectacular entrances that I have ever seen. The colours and detail on every figure is awe-inspiring, not to mention the huge double wooden doors which are about two-stories high. In this case, taking their time really paid off for the (many) architects.


The Freiburg Minster has the only German gothic church tower completed in the Middle Ages and still standing today, surviving countless numbers of wars and weather. Impressively, the Minster began as a Romanesque cathedral, but ended up as Gothic.


Another interesting, and whimsical feature of Freiburg's old town is its system of Bächle. These narrow streams flow throughout the pedestrian area, and also date back to the Middle Ages when they were used to feed livestock and put out fires. They have always had fresh water running through them, and I was very happy to hear that they were never used for sewage!


Much of Freiburg's impressive buildings were somehow spared during the WWII bombing raids, including the two commanding city gates, the Schabentor and the older Martinstor. There are wooden beams in the Martinstor that date back to 1202!

Martinstor - one Freiburg's original gates
And it serves as surely one of McDonald's most impressive locations. Sigh.


But, now back to Christmas. I was visiting my dear friend, who moved to Freiburg a year ago, and had heard (from pretty much every German I know) how pretty Freiburg is and how wonderfully dreamy its Christmas market is. Germans are no liars.


I suggest, for anyone wanting to photograph a Christmas market, to go at dusk or just before dusk. That is when the lights are on, but it's not too dark to get the details in the photographs. And, because you should actually enjoy the market, leave the tripod at home.


One wonderful constant at every German Christmas market is glorious Glüwein (hot mulled wine). I love it. Red, white, rosé...it's all perfection.


And on this early December evening, our not-too-few mugs of steaming, sweet, but tart wine helped us to forget that it was pretty darn cold outside.


At many traditional German Christmas markets you will still find locally, handcrafted decorations and ornaments. Sometimes you do have to look hard , and possibly even ask if the items are made in China or Germany, but in Freiburg it was quick and easy to find the real things.


These gorgeous, tiny pewter tree ornaments were so lovely and authentic, made just around the corner, that I had to buy one.


There is also an assortment of great things to eat, including sausages from the region in all kinds of delicious flavours. These make a great treat to bring back home.


But, what we were really excited about was the Christmas market version of Raclette which isn't found at too many German Christmas markets, at least not at any I have been to.


Raclette is actually a Swiss meal (Freiburg is just 70 kms from the Swiss border), and revolves around Racelette cheese. The wheel of this alpine cheese is melted and then scraped onto potatoes and onions, often including various meats and pickles. It is yummy. Bergkäse (alpine cheese) is something you just need to try...it's so full of flavour that you don't really need much more than that.


Pretty much no European Christmas market is complete without a Striezel stand. This cone-shaped sweet bread coated in sugar and cinnamon, or almonds and cocoa, has a different name in practically every country, but the idea is the same. It's delish.



As the evening grew darker the warm glow of the lights blanketed the cobblestoned streets of the old town and the atmosphere was festive and joyful. Okay, maybe it was the glüwein warming the thousands of revellers, but hey, we were all out together enjoying the fact that it's Christmastime...a time to be together, to give of each other and be thankful for the most important gifts.


Some people have a harder time than others being joyful in a crowd, but I'm sure the Santa hat helps.


And so that no one loses sight of the real reason most of us are celebrating Christmas, the German markets pretty much always have a large nativity scene set up. This one in Freiburg was almost life-size and so pretty, but I had to really fight the urge to jump in and cover up baby Jesus. A real baby would've been screaming his brains out on that cold night. Maybe Jesus wouldn't have.


So, in these pre-Christmas weeks, I want to wish you wonderful moments with cherished friends and family. I will spend these days trying to visit more markets, one of my favourite things to do at this time of year, while appreciating the many blessings that I am surrounded by. Cheers, my friends!

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Saturday, November 9, 2019

the berlin wall...its peaceful demise, and the people who brought about change

Today, 30 years ago, the world watched as hundreds of thousands of East and West Germans literally pulled the Berlin Wall down. As inspiring and incredible as that day was, and I remember well the excitement and underage drinking that celebration involved in Canada, at the German Canadian Club,    the story about how this came to pass should mean much more to us now then just the events of November 9, 1989.


The power that people have when they work together for good inspires me greatly, and how a group of  average East German citizens, over a decade got this ball rolling, forcing local, then European, and then international leaders to take notice, enacting significant change for the better, is nothing short of incredible.

Often it takes just one person to have the courage to get things started.


Way back in the early 1980's, Christian Führer (which funnily enough translates into English as 'christian leader'), a new pastor of the protestant Nikolai Church in Leipzig, East Germany, began Monday night prayer meetings at the church. Open to everyone, it was a chance for mostly young people to connect, to pray, and to dream for a better future.

East Germans, at that time, had already been living with the communist GDR regime for decades, and the Berlin Wall was already 20 years old. An entire generation of young people hadn't known freedom.

The GDR was a brutal regime. Uprisings in the '60's had been bloodily quashed, rumours constantly swirled of Stasi spies infiltrating workplaces, schools, and even families. People had gotten used to watching what they said and did, and with they talked too, everywhere, everyday, because enough people had already disappeared without a trace or been imprisoned indefinitely.

Everything was censored, everyone was watched, and almost nobody was allowed to travel. East Germany was just 15% the size of Texas. Just think about that for a minute. Your entire life you are not allowed to travel anywhere. You are locked in, with guards ready to shoot if you try to escape. And many tried.


The Monday night prayer meetings became a fixed event in 1982. Over the years, many who attended weren't from the church, but came to discuss the hot topic of the time, the suppressive and restrictive Cold War.

What surprises me is that the meetings were actually allowed to take place at all. Apparently, in the late '70's the state agreed to recognise churches within the communist system, after decades of repression. The GDR thought they would be able to better control the Volk if they co-opted church leaders...essentially making them an extension of the state. Church leaders were basically supposed to keep dissidence down and rein in any rebellion....essentially they were supposed to spy on their congregations.


But, the Nikolai Church became a safe place for thought leaders, for dreamers, for the courageous. 7 years of coming together, of praying together, of planning peaceful dissidence, of working together, led to some of the largest protests ever seen taking place. Completely peaceful. Completely successful.

The focus throughout the years was always peace...and freedom. In 1987, Führer organised a peace march. In 1988 he led prayers for protestors who had been arrested during regular demonstrations. All the while, the state was watching. And in 1989 the heat from the authorities turned onto the Monday night prayer meetings. Roads were blocked to the church. Random people going in or out of the church were randomly arrested. But, the Monday night peace prayers continued. Unwavering, resolute, and always peaceful.


On October 9, 70,000 people took to the streets after the Monday night session to protest the presence of 1000 military, police and Stasi (secret police) officers standing in front of the church.  The authorities were fully armed and ready for confrontation...but they didn't get it. The leaders of the peace prayers repeatedly appealed to the crowd to remain peaceful, to stay calm, and show no aggression.

A week later, on October 16, 120,000 protestors peacefully took to the streets with slogans of 'No Violence' painted on signs and practiced by the masses. Banners with 'For an open country, with Free people' were waved about by the thousands.

November 6, 500,000 people filled the streets of Leipzig's centre. Peacefully and powerfully.
They were fighting for:

Free elections and the freedom to vote
Freedom to travel and move where they wanted
Freedom of the press

Does this not sound incredibly familiar right now, in 2019? Thirty years later, in almost every country the fight is still real. East Germany won freedom, and the wall came down, because of common folk going to the streets, not giving up, forcing change...and international leaders stepping up to the plate, listening and enacting change.

Peaceful protest is much more powerful than aggression. Throwing pipe bombs, destroying shopfronts, burning cars (and not that I can't try to imagine the frustration, anger, and hopelessness) distracts and creates attention, but with violence the government has a 'bad guy'. They can focus on the 'rioters', the 'hooligans', and the 'gangs' as criminals, instead of focusing on their message.

With peaceful protest, there is nothing to focus on except what the crowd is saying, chanting, moving. There is no bad guy, except those in power who are not listening, not doing, just ignoring.

As difficult as situations are in so many corners of the world right now (Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, Iraq, Spain), with so many violent demonstrations causing loss of life, chaos and insecurity...go in peace, my friends. Stay. Stay strong. Stay peaceful. The world. Will. Listen.


And, on a lighter a note about Leipzig...one of the most elegant Starbucks I have ever seen is located in the former arrivals hall of the central train station. It is a beautiful art deco delight.

See the church and be inspired, have a coffee and be at rest.
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Saturday, August 31, 2019

the italian riviera...2 perfect days


Santa Margherita...the perfect home base

On Italy's north-western coast you will find the most gorgeous towns, where the Italian jetset from Milan spend their summers. Some are difficult to see through the wall of yachts filling their coves, but others are, in comparison, more the wall flower towns, ignored due to their glitzy neighbours. For me, Santa Margherita is one of these perfect, 'plain-jane' gems on the Italian Riviera - mostly undiscovered by the masses...and wonderfully situated for two great days of touring.

This area is not called the Golfo Paradiso for nothing.


Day 1: Camogli, San Fruttuoso, Portofino...train, hike, boat


Camogli

Training around Italy is very easy and affordable. The stations can be crowded, but September is a great time to visit. School holidays in Europe are mostly over, the exhausting heat has moved on, and what's leftover is just dreamy Italian goodness. Let's start with one of my favourites...Camogli.


I have written about Camogli before, and I said I'd be back. Little did I know it would be quite so soon. The train from Santa Margherita to Camogli takes less than 10 minutes, but from Camogli there is a wonderful hike back, which will take you to San Fruttuoso...a hidden cove only reachable by foot or boat.


But first, Camogli. Just north of Santa Margherita nestled amongst the rocky, sea-battered hills, this fishing village, like many fishing villages, has a turbulent past of piracy, shipwrecks, and even Napoleon! His fleet was stationed in Camogli in 1978 according to Wikipedia (the knower of all things true).


But, now Camogli has a peaceful, serene vibe. Sure, there are tourists like me, but it's not overrun. It is quaint; the houses colourful, the cafés outside, and the horizon the bluest of blue.


The trail leading south meanders up many stairs, behind homes dotted along the hillside, towards a chapel high on the hill, San Rocco di Camogli.


As is custom in Italy, the trails are dotted with Christian markers, these here especially large and colourful. I'm not exactly sure of the significance...if they're meant to be signposts towards the a deeper faith possibly, or inspiration, or just symbols of adoration. It doesn't matter to me, I just found them so beautiful among the rocks.


Needless to say, the view back towards Camogli is a treat, but as we kept getting closer to our first goal, I was getting more and more excited. It takes under an hour to reach the hidden cove of San Fruttuoso and I couldn't wait to get there!


San Fruttuoso

Nestled in a deep cove lies the Abbey of San Fruttuoso of Capodimonte, which you reach after many steep, zig-zaggedy steps back down to sea level. The Abbey was built in the tenth century purposefully hidden out of view to protect it from pirates and other sea-faring bandits.


The cove is a lovely spot to bath, drink an aperol and have a bowl of pasta. Most people come and go by boat from Camogli or Portofino, and that is what we chose to do. After a rest, we hopped on a boat, enjoying the view from the water, and jetted along the coast heading south to Portofino.


But, not before passing the site of the underwater Cristo degli Abissi - the Christ of the Abyss. This huge bronze statue (8 feet tall) was placed on the sea floor in 1954, dedicated to an Italian diving instructor, at the place where the first Italian to use scuba gear died. Copies of the statue are located off the coast of Grenada and Florida - Christ's arms and head facing upwards in a blessing of peace.


Portofino

What is there to say about Portofino? As our boat turned the bend from open sea in towards the bay of Portofino, we were first greeted by a giant yacht...one of many. I strained to try and make out who was on board: JayZ and B, Bill Gates, Ralph Lauren? I couldn't tell. But, this is apparently the place to be, if you are rich and not currently in St. Tropez or Mykonos.


It is beautiful, absolutely. Portofino has cute, coloured houses surrounding a quaint harbour, and but for the super high-end boutiques among its few streets and the yachts blocking the view of the Ligurian Sea, you won't see much difference from Camogli, in my opinion. The plain fact is all of these towns are gorgeous!


It's also the perfect place for another Aperol! I really need to start including this refreshing drink into my 5 o'clock, after-work routine...if the Italians do it, then everyone should do it.


Apparently, Portofino is still technically a fishing village. But, since the European aristocracy discovered it in the late nineteenth century fishing has slowly taken a backseat to tourism. We were lucky to have visited on a quiet day. It was late afternoon and there were no cruise ships in the area, and so we found the town to be peaceful and pretty. From Portofino it is a 20-minute bus ride or hour's walk along the seashore back to homebase, Santa Margherita....where pizza awaited us.


Day 2: Cinque Terra's Vernazza...train, hike


Pretty much anyone who is on Instagram has the dream of visiting Cinque Terra someday. Any of the 5 villages making up this unique and extraordinary area is grammed hundreds of times a day. 'Picturesque' seems a mundane word to describe Cinque Terra, but nonetheless the term fits.


We chose to visit Vernazza, the second, most northern of the villages, and 1 hour away from Santa Margherita by train. We took our time exploring the little harbour and the narrow the lanes, slowly making our way to higher ground, wanting to get the view from above.


The way people live here intrigued me, and I could've take a million photographs. Whenever a door opened I tried to sneak a peak inside. I'm not sure if the flats are all small and narrow and high, or if beyond the outside walls there are large open spaces inside...something I can't quite imagine.


The homes are built as if among the rocky cliffs, and not just atop them. It is a curious mix of concrete and rock, as if to purposefully blend the two: nature and man. I'm sure this coast experiences some hefty weather and no doubt the rock provides shelter and structure to the many homes and buildings here.


The bright colours and laundry hanging on the lines everywhere can't help but bring joy...again, as if on purpose.


We wandered the narrow trail which connects all of the villages, to the top of Vernazza, and were rewarded with an incredible view. We had perfect weather, as you can see.


 Back to Santa Margherita...swim, eat, eat

Upon our late afternoon return to Santa Margherita we went for a swim and laid out on the beach. It really is the perfect town to rest for a while, while also exploring some fascinating corners of the Italian Riviera.
  

And don't think for a minute that we weren't enjoying the incredible food. The pizza was to die for, with such simple, fresh ingredients, baked as they should be in a stone oven. We drank wine and ate on outside terraces each evening, taking in all the wonderfulness that Italy has to offer.


If you go:

Training in Italy is easy - book online or on-site for short trips - www.trenitalia.com

Santa Margherita dining - pizza and seafood are excellent options.
Try these delicious options:
-A Santa Lucia Pizzeria
-Trattoria Baicin (Specialty Seafood)

We stayed in a very cute, but apparently illegal suite (common in Italy) and therefore I won't mention it here. The prices along the coast, in the towns along the Golfo Paradiso are higher than inland of course, but for a couple of nights it definitely won't break the bank. Just search and take your time in planning and you will find something perfect.  Have fun! 

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