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Fährting Around Frankfurt

Fährting Around Frankfurt

Old Feb 8, 09, 5:42 pm
Original Poster
Join Date: Feb 2000
Location: Lake Oswego, OR
Programs: UA 1K 2MM, Marriott Platinum-Bonvoyage, Hilton Diamond
Posts: 3,196
Fährting Around Frankfurt

Throughout the world, one will find there are various ways and means of driving (i.e. camels, horses, autos, etc., etc.). In Germany however, one finds that to drive one must Fahrt.

One is not required or compelled to Fahrt, but if he wants to get anyplace, either alone or with friends, he must Fahrt. The type of Fahrt varies, quite naturally, with the individual, and will depend, in most cases, on how well he can Fahrt.

I would feel safe in saying that in Germany more people Fahrt on a bicycle that on anything or in any place, with the possible exception of Holland. You might ask, “At what age can one begin to Fahrt?” I should say as soon as a child can balance himself with ease – say at the age of three or four – he will begin Fahrting with some degree of regularity. That is to say, he will Fahrt in a wagon, on skates, a sled, or some other such means of motion. Without a doubt, everyone Farhts on a streetcar.

When a person is old enough to Fahrt in a car, he must go to a school in order to qualify for a Fahrting license, a requirement by law for all car Fahrters. Now to get this license, one must pay from 200 to 300 Deutsche Marks to go to a Fahrting school. This school lasts from two to six weeks of Fahrting instruction, depending upon the individual’s Fahrting ability and interest. We can assume that those persons interested in Fahrting in their own cars will learn faster and can Fahrt sooner than those not interested or a little slow in learning the technique.

Once you have earned your Fahrting license, you can Fahrt for the rest of your life! I have, however, noticed half-blind people Fahrting when they should have stayed at home; or elderly people 70 to 80 years of age who Fahrt without a care in the world. People of this age who are Fahrters are a definite traffic menace, don’t you think? …More
Chapter Summary
  1. In Search of the Tower of Fools
  2. The Girl from Serendipity
  3. Mein Klein Shrine on the Rhine
In Search of the Tower of Fools

I always hate it when work interferes with fun, so much so that I rarely allow that to ever happen. By the time I returned home from visiting Istanbul at the end of August, I found myself within a mere 3000 miles of the requisite 100,000 miles needed for 1K re-qualification so I figured that 2009 elite status with UA was easily in the bag. But, as things turned out, I did not set foot on a plane for nearly four months! With the end of the year fast approaching, time was swiftly running out and if I did not do something about this dire situation quickly, any chance for 1K requalification would be lost.

So, in early December, I booked a discounted business class (Z) fare from PDX to FRA that would depart a few days before the end of the year and return me to PDX in early January. Along with the class of service bonus, this would provide me with the missing miles I needed for 2008 and would also nicely bootstrap my 2009 mileage earning gauntlet.

The Z fares that I found were not especially cheap but my travel dates were at a very busy time of the year so standard economy fares had left much to be desired as well. I chose FRA as my destination mostly because it was the least expensive business fare that I could obtain. In addition, having previously spent a full day wandering around Frankfurt on my way to Johannesburg and Istanbul, I now considered myself to be quite the expert on the place.

Although this trip was a true mileage run in every sense of the word, I have never been willing to do same day turnarounds, preferring instead to take the time to actually see some sights, interact with the local populace and to engage in whatever other forms of mischief present themselves. I opted to spend a couple of days in Mainz, figuring that the city was reasonably close to Frankfurt and boasted two different Hilton properties in which I could secure point stretcher awards. Besides, how could I possibly resist visiting a place where one of the main visitor attractions is an extremely important icon called, "The Tower of Fools?"

From Mainz, I would then take an ICE train to Cologne, a city that appeared to offer a reasonable enough repertoire of sightseeing possibilities to fill three days of exploration. Cologne also sported a Hilton plus two separate Starwood properties, the Four Points by Sheraton Central Köln and the Dom Hotel, so I immediately realized that I would be obliged to try out each one of the properties. My final day would be spent back in Frankfurt, where I planned to wander around more of the city and spend the last night at the same Le Méridien property I had used at the conclusion of my trip to Turkey last August. In any case, several weeks were available for me to make all of my final travel arrangements, learn a bit more about my destination and to take care of a variety of last minute errands and obligations.

Snow Job

I live on the edge of a hill at an altitude of about 800 feet in a realm where the primary technology used to remove snow is called "rain." One day, a few inches of snow fell and quickly morphed into ice as vehicles much more adept than mine compacted the fallen precipitation into a solid slippery sheet. Any attempt to ascend the nearest hill resulted in my car invariably sliding of its own volition in the opposite direction.

Then it snowed a few inches more and a few inches more after that. The subsequent ice storm certainly did not make conditions any better, other than killing power for a day and toppling more than a few trees. The following week, at least a foot of additional snow descended upon the area and ambient temperatures barely reached freezing. Buses stopped running in the vicinity of my apartment and taxis refused to come to the area. I had been trapped in my apartment for 16 days and my impending departure date was fast approaching. I had no reasonable way to escape my icy prison and to find my way to the airport.

A few days before my flight, the weather mavens were threatening that yet another storm was targeting the Pacific Northwest. So I called UA reservations late at night and asked the Hawaii-based reservations agent whether I could fly out the day before, stay over night in either SFO and LAX and then continue on my flight to FRA the next day, as scheduled.

She acknowledged that was a very sensible and reasonable thing to do and commended me on my foresight and planning. She then casually asked for my credit card number, explaining that it would cost $400 for the privilege of doing so. After due consideration, I politely declined to fork over the additional fee and opted to see how things worked out as my day of departure drew near. Besides, it still was not at all clear to me how I would be getting to the airport in the first place.

The morning before my flight, some friends rode in on a four wheel drive vehicle and were able to rescue me from the wilds of my hilltop refuge in Lake Oswego. From there, we attended our monthly Bollywood gathering in Beaverton, an event in which we stuff our faces with Indian food and, of course, ridicule Bollywood movies, often by adding our own dialog. Another friend dropped me off at PDX, where I awaited the dawn of the next day at the Sheraton.

I had already checked in on line so on the morning of my flight, my primary task was to set about securing an upgrade to first class from my Z fare, whose rules very clearly stipulate that it is non upgradeable. An agent at the check-in counter poked around a bit and noted that it appeared that the fare was fully upgradeable but that for some reason the computer was not allowing her to do so. From the counter, I meandered through the TSA security gauntlet, whose non-elite line appeared to extend halfway through the terminal. The friendly staff manning the checkpoint were as diligent as ever, seemingly spending the vast bulk of their time complaining about the color of their uniforms.

At the Red Carpet Club, I chatted with the affable concierge for a bit and presented her with an unused Lufthansa paper upgrade certificate, which I asked her to donate to a worthy looking sole, with the strict admonition that she do everything in her power to ascertain that the designated recipient is not a pompous a$$. We joked around for a while as we entertained ourselves with various prospective ideas that could be used to ensure that the recipient of my noble gift would be suitably cert-worthy.

I casually mentioned that several of my own systemwide upgrade certificates would expire by the end of January and a few minutes later, my flight to FRA was upgraded from business to first, as was the return. No fuss, no muss.

The service on my flight to SFO was predictably pathetic, which now seems to be the standard on this particular route. After an initial round of beverages that were deployed in calm skies 45 minutes into the flight, the FA who staffed the full F cabin on the A320 disappeared in the back of the plane, where she spent the remainder of the flight kibitzing with the other FAs, never to be seen again. I suppose my call button was intended primarily for additional illumination but given that the year was coming to end, I had now enjoyed a full unbroken record of shoddy and inattentive service on this specific route.

After landing in SFO on time, I was delighted to be able to avail myself of the newly opened corridor that now connects the domestic and international terminals. Clear signage mounted just past gate 75 directed passengers to make a sharp right to enter the new walkway and other signage warned passengers about accidentally meandering out of the secure area, just a few feet away. As I entered the fairly short corridor, I could see that several other passengers had availed themselves of the easy egress now afforded to flights from both terminals. As far as I was concerned, it was a pleasure to put the days of long international shuttle queues behind me.

Lounge Act

Now that I had arrived within the safe confines of the international terminal quite expeditiously, I soon found myself beset with a profound sense of suspicion and paranoia. Perhaps I had read one too many stories of first class passengers who had been unceremoniously denied access to the first class lounge and even one case in which a passenger had accepted an upgrade offer for cash and was later not only denied access to the lounge but had her first class seat summarily taken away. In that particular instance, the passenger had even encountered difficulty obtaining a refund for the seat that she never even got to use!

In my particular case, my rightful claim to a first class seat was founded upon only the most dubious of credentials. So, I resolved that it would behoove me to keep a very low profile and not draw any additional attention to my reservation. Instead, I opted to bypass both the international first class lounge and the RCC and sauntered off for the Silver Kris Lounge instead.

Once there, I was directed to the first class side on the left, where I remained for the next two hours until the lounge finally closed and they threw me out. The food offerings seemed to be significantly diminished compared to the last time I visited this lounge in April but I had the entire place to myself and after several helpings of ice cream and quite a few servings of vodka, all was right with the world.

Once my private Silver Kris Lounge closed at 12:30, I still had a fair amount of time to kill so I strode over to the RCC and presented the concierge with my first class boarding pass. She immediately provided me with a couple of drink vouchers but kindly pointed out that I would probably be much more comfortable awaiting my flight in the first class lounge. My response that I was meeting some friends at the RCC appeared to satisfy her and away I went.

Adrift in the High Planes

Having had the fire of intoxication been more than amply stoked during my prior tenure in the Silver Kris Lounge, I do not remember very much about the details of my trip after that. I sat in the RCC for a while killing time by making drunk phone calls to friends and then trundled off to my flight about a half hour before scheduled departure. After take off, I recall placing a drink order and poking a bit at my food, which, whatever it was, was not very good but I scarfed down the ice cream, which I always enjoy.

And then I slept, for a good five hours at least, which is a record for me, a fellow who seldom sleeps at all on planes. Later on, the flight attendant removed the drink that I had ordered earlier on the flight and from which I had not even taken a sip. The only casualty of the entire experience was that my glasses must have slipped off my face while I was asleep and when I retrieved them from the floor, a lens had popped out and no coercion on my part could convince them to reinsert themselves into their proper position.

We landed on time in FRA but needed to be bussed to the terminal, which often seems to be the custom there. As I disembarked, I could not help but notice that the pilot's aim was profoundly accurate. In an expansive dry tarmac otherwise devoid of all signs of frozen precipitation, the plane had come to a stop next to what appeared to be a solitary patch of ice. Airport personnel had very carefully deployed the stairs so that passengers would alight directly onto the patch of ice but then covered the whole thing up with a dirty blanket so that it not only became even more slippery but was difficult to see as well.

Once deposited safely near the immigration queue at terminal B, it was still fairly early so I decided to spend a little time at the Lufthansa Senator lounge to grab a snack and catch up with email. The only credentials required for successful admission to the lounge was my Star Gold card; the guardian of the entrance evinced no interested at all in my inbound boarding pass nor of evidence of an onward itinerary.

After spending an hour or so in the Senator lounge, I emigrated through immigration and continued on to the Frankfurt airport regional train station that was conveniently situated under terminal 1. Once there, I purchased an S-Bahn ticket to Mainz and availed myself of an S8 train that pulled in about 15 minutes later.

During the 25 minute trip to Mainz, the train stopped at a few stations along the way, none of which represented any especially noteworthy scenery, including the expansive Opel factory and headquarters in Rüsselsheim, which boasted its own station. Once I arrived in Mainz, I wandered around the streets a bit in my effort to locate the Hilton Mainz City but my navigation was somewhat hindered by the fact that I could not see where I was going. However, in the spirit of a full confession, I must admit that I do not see all that well with glasses either.

Fortunately for me, the city of Mainz seemed to be more than amply endowed with an abundant assortment of opticians but the first shop I stumbled upon was afraid of effecting any repairs, cautioning me that they might actually make things worse. However, they graciously furnished me with reasonable directions to my hotel, where I was greeted by the friendly and pleasant staff 15 minutes later.

Inside my room, I found a gift of assorted chocolates and cookies and two small bottles of Gold Cuvée sparkling wine. After poking around the room a bit and unsuccessfully attempting to open a door that led to a small terrace, I set out once more for the streets of Mainz, where I hoped to see my sight as well as see the sights.

A Man of Vision

The city of Mainz has enjoyed a very long tenure in Germany, having been founded by the Romans at the site of an old Celtic settlement near the confluence of the Main and Rhine rivers well over 2000 years ago. Similar as it may sound to the Main river, the etymology of the name "Mainz" appears to be a simplification of the original Roman name for their military camp, "Moguntiacum."

In the year 406, hölle may not have frozen over but the Rhine river did, which allowed an assortment of Germanic tribes to cross the river and overwhelm the Roman defenses. In later years, the city was occupied twice by the French, the first time during the French revolution when French forces attempted to establish an independent "Republic of Mainz". For some strange reason, Prussia was not too keen on the idea of an independent free state on German soil and quickly put an end to the republic. A few years later, Napoleanic forces occupied the area but eventually retreated after their influence throughout Europe had begun to wane.

The long history of Mainz notwithstanding, my first stop of the afternoon was a visit to an optician situated on the left side of Ludwigstrasse, a brief 10 minute walk from the Hilton. A few minutes later, the friendly optician had expertly repaired my glasses and I could see once again, or at the very least, see as poorly as I usually do. Continuing east along Ludwigstrasse, I could glimpse the distinct outlines of the Mainzer Dom, the Roman Catholic "St Martin Cathedral" situated a little further to the southeast.

To my left, I walked past the Domus Universitatis, the old college of the Society of Jesus that had been erected in the early 1600s when the original Jesuit college needed a little more breathing room. Today, the building houses the Journalistic Seminar and the Institute for European History for Johannes Gutenberg University.

I soon found myself squarely in the midst of the Market Square, a sometimes bustling inner city shopping sanctum that often hosts lively outdoor markets several days of the week. During milder weather, teaming throngs of shoppers wade through the densely packed Marketplatz, which is centered around the Marktbrunnen, a colorful Renaissance fountain that caps a well dating back to Roman times. Most of the buildings surrounding the square were actually copies of the originals that had been lost during WWII.

From the Market Square I walked in the direction of the Mainzer Dom and soon came upon the entrance to the Gutenberg Museum, originally founded in 1900 to honor the achievements of Johann Gutenberg, Mainz's native son. Over 600 years ago, Gutenberg is credited with the invention of the mechanical printing press, oil based ink and a technique for mass-producing movable type.

I walked further east along Dom Strasse until I located the simple and understated entrance into the Mainzer Dom. Once inside the nondescript foyer, a casually attired gentlemen offered me a hearty, guten tag, although I could not discern weather the fellow worked there or was just an innocent bystander.

Construction of the Romanesque Mainzer Dom began in the year 975 and was initially modeled after St Peter's in Rome. As bad luck would have it, on the very day of its consecration in 1009, the edifice burned down, which delayed its formal utilization for another 27 years. Thereafter, the cathedral burned no less than seven more times over the centuries until it finally dawned on the engineers that it might not be a bad idea to start emphasizing stone over wood in the internal construction. Some additional damage was caused during WWII although some other cathedrals in Germany actually fared fairly well during the war because they often served as convenient navigation points for allied bombers.

Over the centuries, seven kings undertook their coronation within the purview of the cathedral and the bodies of 45 bishops currently enjoy the hospitality of its various crypts and graves. The cathedral also served as the location in which Emperor Frederick Barbarossa formally inflicted the Third Crusade upon the world. It failed as miserably as the Second Crusade, partly because the Christian powers spent too much time bickering amongst themselves over the spoils of war.

One of the first structures I encountered as I strolled along the entryway was the statue of a man who looked like he was trying to get a head.

Elsewhere within the same area, I could see many other statues, monuments and portraits of important religious figures and assorted Mainz dignitaries. There was also a statue of one of the architects, who appeared to be groaning with an aching back from having to serve as a pillar for a doorway.

The expansive interior of the cathedral was comprised of the typical cross layout but departed from traditional designs by encompassing two chancels, one at either end. Whatever the original symbolic significance and intent might have been, eventually one of the chancels served as the location for mass and the other as a place reserved for bishops and other church dignitaries. And as I continued my walk around the interior, it was abundantly clear that no one could hold a candle to the place.

After exiting from the main part of the cathedral, I found myself in a long open air corridor that comprised a corner of a Gothic style cloister.

I slowly walked along two sides of the cloister, which was adorned with a diverse assortment of statues and engravings, many of which were in fairly decent states of repair.

Once back at the original entry point, the same gentleman who had greeted me when I had first walked in enunciated a cheerful, "Auf Wiedersehen" as I exited the cathedral and began to walk further east, in the direction of the Rhine. I walked north along the embankment of the Rhine for a while, until I came within the vicinity of the Theodore-Heuss Bridge that connects Mainz with Wiesbaden.

The construction-scarred area around the Hilton Mainz, where I would be staying the next evening, boasted some exhibits depicting the remains of Roman ships that had been unearthed during the excavation. From the Rhine embankment, I turned west and began my trek back inland towards the center of the city. While en route, I walked past the Karmeliter Church, whose inhabitants of the eponymous order have dwelled within its confines since the 13th century.

To Admonish the Living

About 10 minutes later, I came upon the ruins of the early Gothic St Christopher's Church that had originally been constructed over 700 hundred years ago. Rumored to be the scene of Gutenberg's christening, major portions of the church were destroyed during WWII. Although never rebuilt, the ruin has been stabilized to prevent further deterioration and currently bears a plaque dedicating it to the victims of WWII, bearing the admonition, "To Remember the Dead/To Admonish the Living."

From St Christopher's Church, I found myself near the heavily trafficked Schusterstrasse, where a truck had pulled up near one of numerous kebap houses and was in the process of deploying several dozen frozen Döner kebab.

From there, I walked along the pedestrian-only Stadhausstrasse, where I encountered an eclectic assemblage of restaurants, vendors and shops.

The Tower of Fools

As I worked my way back to the Hilton, I eventually found myself in the middle of the Schillerplatz, a plaza situated in front of the Osteiner Hof. This residential palace was originally built in the in the middle of the 18th Century for use by Johann Friedrich Karl von Ostein, who was often derisively referred to as “Monsieur Mouthpiece” after the arrival of Napoleon’s occupation forces.

Every year at exactly 11:11 on the 11th day of the 11th month, the "fools" of Mainz assemble in front of the balcony of the Osteiner Hof, where the commencement of the year's "fifth season, "Carneval," is declared. It is considered a time of unreasonably foolish behavior, I suppose in contrast to the reasonably foolish behavior in which the city's populace is usually supposed to comport themselves. In 1967, the Fastnachtsbrunnen, the Carnival Fountain was built in the plaza facing the Osteiner Hof. The bronze fountain is comprised of a 27 meter high "tower of fools," populated by some 200 symbols and fantasy figures derived from popular Mainz lore.

Daylight was beginning to fade quickly as I turned briefly back towards the Mainzer Dom, its main tower exuding a brilliant golden glow courtesy of the sun's low position in the winter sky. As I resumed my walk back towards the Hilton, I caught a glimpse of the tower of St Stephen's Church, a destination I planned to visit the next morning.

It was quite a profound pleasure to finally escape the cold streets of Mainz and re-enter the warm and inviting lobby of the Hilton. When I queried the staff about internet access I was told that I could use a computer in the lobby, which is normally reserved for use by airline personnel in general and Continental Airlines in particular.

As I was checking my email, I was amused to discover some interesting web pages that were still accessible thanks to careless browsing by previous users so I did my good deed and deleted the cache, of course only after poking around just a little bit. After that, I trundled up to my room, sat down on the bed and promptly fell asleep.

Making his Marc

"If a symbol should be discovered in a painting of mine, it was not my intention. It is a result I did not seek. It is something that may be found afterwards, and which can be interpreted according to taste."

"Will God or someone give me the power to breathe my sigh into my canvases, the sigh of prayer and sadness, the prayer of salvation, of rebirth?"

-- Marc Chagall
The Hilton restaurant was very sparsely populated with guests during the hour I spent there enjoying breakfast, perhaps only four diners in total, including two who were airline crew. After my internal furnace was suitably stoked to confront the morning's cold temperatures, I set out upon the day's sightseeing ventures after briefly stopping at the front desk to request a late checkout, which was quickly granted.

My first stop of the morning was a visit to the Gothic St Stephan's Church, less than a 15 minute walk from the hotel. The original church had been built over a thousand years ago at the top of the highest hill in town and its current incarnation was completed nearly 700 years ago. Until 1911, a lookout staffed the high tower, serving as a fire watcher for the city.

When the city of Mainz served as a federal fortress in the 19th century, the baroque exterior of the church was destroyed when a nearby gun powder tower blew up. The church was also heavily damaged during WWII but has since been rebuilt, although not all of its natal components could be restored to their original form and composition.

The inside of the cathedral echoed with the sounds of a thunderous German oration being delivered by a white haired gentleman to a seemingly appreciative audience huddled together in the first few rows of pews near the altar. I sat in the rearmost pew for a short while and then opted to explore the church a bit once I had sufficiently warmed up.

Brilliant blue stained glass windows were mounted in strategic positions throughout the cathedral. Many of these had been crafted by the Russian Jewish modernist artist Marc Chagall as a symbolic gesture fostering Jewish and Christian reconciliation and international understanding.

Ironically, Jews have had a significant presence in Mainz for over one thousand years but the relationship of Mainz towards the Jewish residents has always been schizophrenic at best, a pattern alternating successively amongst freedom, protection, banishment and massacre. Chagall ultimately became an honorary citizen of Mainz but never really got to know the city, passing away just after completing his final window at the age of 97. Monsignor Klaus Mayer, himself the product of a Catholic/Jewish marriage, says of Chagall's windows that "the colours address our vital consciousness directly, because they tell of optimism, hope and delight in life."

I explored the exterior of St Stephan's for a while before finally wandering off and walking along Willigistrasse in the direction of the old town.

I soon found myself within the narrow cobble-stoned streets of the Kirschgarten, an area once comprised of a cherry orchard but now consisting of three storey half timbered houses centered around the ornately adorned Marian-Fountain. Mounted on top of the fountain pillar is the "Madonna Harxheimer," surrounded by a golden halo comprised of local Hessian products.

A solitary cherry tree stump is purported to reside near the "Zum Beymberg" bakery but, scandalous as it may seem, it is actually the petrified remnants of an oak. As I exited the Kirschgarten, one of the vendors was marketing a colorful array of comfortable-looking hammocks in the courtyard but there were very few passersby interested in purchasing these symbols of much warmer times.

Once back in the vicinity of the Mainzer Dom, I wandered past St John's Church, a Carolingian basilica first constructed over 1100 years ago that has now morphed into a Protestant denomination. The original Mainz cathedral was probably originally situated in the land occupied by St John's before relocating to more spacious accommodations nearby.

Eye of the Needle

From St John's Church, I soon found myself on Augustinerstrasse, the popular pedestrian shopping portal that had been the main business thoroughfare of Mainz several hundred years prior. Located in the busiest section of the Altstadt, this street situated squarely in the heart of Old Town was comprised of a plethora of cafes, restaurants, pubs and boutiques. On the left side of the street stood the baroque sandstone edifice of St Augustine’s church, originally built to accommodate the needs of an Augustinian hermit monastery and now functioning as a seminary. Unlike many other churches in Mainz, Augstinerkirche survived the violence of WWII relatively unscathed.

Inside the church was a spectacular panoply of art, design and ornamentation. Fundamentally missing the essential spirit of love and charity that supposedly underlies the raison d'être of Western religious institutions, the church bigwigs encouraged generous support from their patrons because the concept of a "peasants' church" was very distasteful to them. I suppose they must have skipped the chapter where Jesus said that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Perhaps camels were much smaller creatures in those days.

At the terminus of Augustinerstrasse, I caught sight of the red sandstone façade of the St Ignatius church, tightly nestled within a residential area comprised primarily of low houses. The church was originally built over 700 years ago but was more recently renovated in the 18th century. Guarding its entrance stands a large wooden statue of St Ignatius of Antioch, its patron saint.

The church lacks a tower but its edifice and gardens are rife with a plethora of outsized sculpted adornments. A large crucifixion sculpture was crafted by a member of the church council, Hans Backoffen, who was later buried with his wife within the domain of the church. Accompanying them in their crypt are 198 tombs occupied by the architects, stucco workers, and carpenters who built the church, buried alongside many of its resident priests.

Inside the church, the walls and ceilings are replete with a myriad assemblage of ornate stucco artworks.

Vibrant frescos spanning the ceiling describe the life and death of the church's patron saint.

From St. Ignatius church, I walked in the direction of the Rhine and then continued south along Rheinstrasse until I came within the vicinity of the Museum für Antike Schiffahrt, the Museum of Ancient Shipping. The heart of the museum's collection is founded on the ancient remains of five Roman military ships that had been unearthed in the early 1980s during excavation work for an extension of the Hilton Mainz. In addition to the collection of antique naval relics, the museum also contains an assortment of models and reconstructions whose primary purpose is to demonstrate and elucidate ancient ship building technique and technology.

From the Museum of Ancient Shipping, I headed back north, walking inland for a while and was quite surprised to stumble upon what appeared to be a kosher Indian restaurant.

From there, I meandered back in the direction of the Rhine until I ultimately came within the environs of the Holzturm, a Gothic wooden tower dating back 500 years. It was one of three towers that had survived the wall that originally circumscribed and guarded the city of Mainz. In addition to its original role as a gate and watchtower, it also functioned as a prison in later years. Heavily damaged during WWII, it has since been rebuilt and from the appearance of smoke trickling out of its chimney, someone was evidently still at home.

The Spital of the Holy Ghost

After departing the Holzturm, I wandered past another church, whereupon I arrived at a very narrow street labeled Spitalgasse. This was originally the site of the "Holy Ghost Spital," constructed 800 years ago to serve as a refuge for the poor, elderly and sick. Now having morphed into a small warren of yuppified pubs and restaurants, I could only hope that the current patrons no longer have any need for the building's original incarnation. And having no need for any additional spittle myself, I thought that it would be as good a time as any to head back to the Hilton Mainz City, check out and then trundle off to my next destination, the Hilton Mainz.

The walk between the two Hiltons took about 20 minutes but the trek can be profoundly longer if one gets lost. However, I had studied the city map very carefully before embarking on the journey and actually completed the trip without any unexpected diversions, which is certainly not my custom.

A Tough Nut to Crack

Due to heavy construction that currently surrounds the newer wing of the hotel, I checked in at the older wing and then was directed back towards the newer section of the hotel, a walk that seemed to be nearly as long as the one from the Hilton Mainz City. As I ambled along a hallway that would connect me to an overpass, I walked past a door emblazed with a large "no smoking" icon and a sign that read, "Vista Lounge. Crew lounge. SAA Only." The heavy beat of disco music leaked under the threshold of the door, as did copious amounts of smoke.

Once in my room in the new wing, I found a thoughtfully placed amenity of fruit and wine plus a small collection of hard shelled nuts but there did not appear to be a nutcracker in evidence to facilitate enticing them out of their shells. The room also boasted a pleasant view of the Rhine, a vista that was not especially scenic but was nevertheless a nice change of pace from my previous landlocked room. I could see the Theodor-Heuss Brücke to my left and directly across from me a large ship was quietly moored, awaiting its next load of passengers. Its topmost level boasted a gargantuan sized chess set and I could not help but wonder how many of its human sized pieces would be replaced with actual humans during milder seasons of the year.

The lobby of the hotel housed a small beverage machine from which guests could obtain unlimited cups of coffee, lattes and hot chocolate, all under the watchful eye of an elderly gentlemen who alternated between overseeing its operation and alerting the front desk staff to the incessant squeak in the revolving front door. I am not sure whether or not he was actually an employee. As I stoked up with several cups of hot chocolate, I was accompanied by a gaggle of Air Canada crewmembers awaiting their ride to Frankfurt airport.

The Land Beyond the Flachsmarkt

I exited the lobby and walked northwest, in the direction of the Flachsmarkt and eventually arrived within the grounds of the Naturhistorisches Museum, the Natural History Museum. Although this is the type of venue that would typically pique my interest, I figured that there were only a couple of daylight hours remaining at best and I preferred to not spend them indoors.

Continuing to walk north, I soon arrived on Peterstrasse, in front of St Peter's church, originally founded over 1100 years ago. A new building was constructed in 1748 and was subsequently restored to its original pristine condition 20 years ago after a 10 year renovation effort.

From St Peter's church, I walked to the busy, traffic laden Grosse Bleiche. As I waited for the signal to change so I could continue my journey north, I glimpsed a golden steed striding atop a large building on the other side of the avenue, the Landesmuseum Mainz, the Museum of the Rhineland-Palatine, one of the oldest museums in Germany.

A half dozen blocks further northeast, I arrived in the domain of the Kaiserstrasse, a broad multilane boulevard that had widened into a small park and contained a series of hibernating fountains, at the apex of which was anchored the Italian Renaissance style dome of the Christ Church. Consecrated in 1903 after seven years of construction, this Protestant church had been badly damaged during WWII but was reconstructed shortly after the end of hostilities.

I meandered inside the church for a short while and appreciated the opportunity to warm up a bit before commencing on my long slog back to the Hilton.

After walking for about 10 minutes on my path back south, I caught a glimpse of some bright lights and the white tops of tents in the distance. As I drew closer, I could discern the outlines of a large ice arena around which hundreds of people were gathered around watching a noisy blue ice machine circumnavigate the rink in an effort to smooth its surface. As incongruous twangs of country music serenaded the populace, I eventually continued my walk back to the hotel, not at all sure whether the myriad observers were actually waiting to start skating or whether they just enjoyed watching the large blue machine work its magic on the ice.

Mainz Meat

The daylight had faded completely by the time I arrived back at the hotel but I rested in my room for only an hour or so before setting out once more, this time to hunt down some dinner. My choice for the evening was a well known restaurant located squarely in the heart of Augustinerstrasse, a famous local icon, named, appropriately enough, Augustiner Keller. It turned out to be an old but colorful venue, a place in which one could obtain some traditional German fare at fairly reasonable prices.

I was immediately recognized as a foreigner as soon as I walked in the door, perhaps because I was the only lunatic wearing a fishing hat and lightweight jacket whilst more sane members of the populace were well bundled up with heavy coats, tightly wrapped scarves and bulky woolen hats.

Another customer smiled and wordlessly pointed up a flight of stairs, where I soon found a small table overlooking the kitsch and chachka filled main room below me. A waitress promptly delivered an English version of the menu, from which I opted for a tall glass of hefeweizen and an order of schweinshaxen, a large, crusty chunk of pork, promptly delivered to the table with a knife firmly implanted in its flesh, I suppose to be sure that it was dead.

As I enjoyed my dinner, I looked down on the scene below me and watched as a steady parade of happy customers sauntered in and out of the compact dining area. At one point, a fairly large assemblage of guests trundled into the dining room and arranged themselves around a long table. One of the diners had brought along her large, shaggy white dog, which remained on her lap all through dinner. To the best of my knowledge, the restaurant did not impose a plate sharing charge.

After dinner, I wandered the cold streets beyond the Augustinerstrasse for a short while longer than expected because of a misplaced sense of direction in my pursuit of a short cut back to the Hilton. The next day, after undertaking a somewhat problematic ICE train journey further north, I would arrive in Cologne where a suite of very interesting and serendipitous events would unfold.

Next Chapter: The Girl From Serendipity

Last edited by LarryU; Mar 12, 09 at 12:55 am
LarryU is offline  
Old Feb 10, 09, 5:04 pm
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Larry! We can always count on you for an interesting and detailed report. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to the next chapter!
MatthewLAX is offline  
Old Feb 10, 09, 6:56 pm
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Fantasic report and photos; I am going to FRA this weekend for the first time and am taking lots of notes. Nice to see I am not the only one who likes to visit the cathedrals in cities that I visit.
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Old Feb 23, 09, 12:46 am
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The Girl From Serendipity

You don't reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously

-- John Barth in "The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor."
Poached Seat on ICE

I enjoyed a leisurely and quiet breakfast at the sparsely attended Hilton restaurant, set in an expansive room accompanied only by various airline crew members. Walking past a large ballroom on my way to the lobby, I could see that preparations were already well under way for the impending onslaught of 2009.

I walked around Mainz for a couple of more hours before returning to the hotel for the last time to pack up my things. From there, I set forth for the Mainz Hauptbahnhof, from which I had booked an ICE train to Cologne, my next destination. As is my custom, I made a wrong turn along the way, until a kindly fellow noticed my perplexed expression as I was staring at a street sign and pointed me in the right direction.

I still managed to arrive at the station about a half hour early and 15 minutes later, I wandered down to the platform to await the 12:20 PM arrival of my train. The InterCity Eexpress is a high speed train operated by Deutsche Bundesbahn for relatively quick transport between major cities in Germany. Precisely how "high speed" the trip is depends on the train's particular routing and the number of stops it makes along the way. For my currently selected train, the trip was not especially fast, scheduled to take about 105 minutes to reach Cologne.

IC Train # 2024 pulled in about 10 minutes late and, as soon as the doors opened, it was instantly mobbed with passengers squeezing on board what appeared to be already full cars. There were so many people crammed into the train that it was virtually impossible to wander through other cars to check on available seating because the aisle was fully occupied by an impenetrable barrier of passengers. We pulled away a few minutes later and I supported myself by tightly clutching the edge of one of the luggage racks.

After about 10 minutes, I noticed a solitary seat near a window a few rows further back so I squeezed passed some of the other passengers, flung my rollaboard onto the luggage rack and plopped down into the empty seat. My seat opponent mumbled something to me in German, which I ignored and I relaxed for a few minutes, quite delighted at my luck of obtaining a seat in the crowded, standing room only train.

A few minutes later, another passenger approached my seat opponent, quiet words were exchanged, whereupon the new passenger took the seat from the original occupant. Five minutes after that, a male passenger approached my seat and pointed out that I was sitting in his seat, explaining that the seat was reserved. He pointed to a seat number mounted nearby bearing an icon that indicated that it was reserved, something that I had not even noticed in my joy at having found a seat.

After much shuffling around, I resumed my proper position standing in the aisle and resigned myself to a long uncomfortable schlep to Cologne. This would not be the first time -- I once endured a very uncomfortable, bumpy two hour ride standing on a rickety train from Naples to Sorrento spent standing in a position only a contortionist would appreciate. In any case, I resolved that the next time I availed myself of the hospitality of Deutsche Bahn, I would have the foresight to pay the extra two euros and reserve a seat.

About 15 minutes later, a conductor materialized at the far end of the car and began inspecting tickets. He worked his way about halfway through the car, made an announcement in German and then abruptly turned away. Within the next few minutes, all of the standing passengers slowly filed out of the car for parts unknown. I had no idea what they had been told but I now had the entire aisle to myself.

A few minutes later, one of the seated passengers explained to me in English that she thinks that the conductor told the standing passengers that they were free to seek out seats in one of the first class cars. That sounded good to me so I fetched my rollaboard from the luggage shelf and wandered forward in the train, not knowing exactly where the first class cars would be positioned.

As soon as I stepped into the next car I could see that it was designed quite differently from the one from which I had just escaped. It was configured with a single corridor on the left side and a series of large, glass enclosed compartments to the right, occupying the bulk of the car's available real estate. I truly suspected that this was not what the conductor had in mind when he advised all standing passengers to seek seats elsewhere but, figuring "in for a cent, in for a euro," I proceeded to open the door to one of the compartments. As I flung my junk on one of the six available seats, I could see that the compartment was already occupied by a solitary female passenger who looked up briefly with a subtle, semi-disdainful expression and then immediately returned to her reading.

"This is more like it," I thought to myself, as I relaxed in my comfortable seat, or more accurately, three spacious seats because I had the entire side of the compartment all to myself. By this time, the train was wending its way through pretty scenery carved along the very edge of the Rhine river. We stopped from time to time at an assortment of quiet towns and villages where grey smoke gently billowed out of a dozen chimneys sprouting from pale white roofs tinged with thin, powdery layers of hoarfrost. The streets were all devoid of people, all probably enjoying the comfortable solace of cozy warm pubs and fireplaces.

During the trip, an attendant trundled through the car periodically to hawk an assortment of snacks and beverages. Clueless as I may be, I began to get a little suspicious at this point, wondering whether my cabin opponent realized that I was an interloper and would say something to the conductor when he came by. What would the conductor do when he found a passenger bearing a second class ticket comfortably nestled within a "luxurious" first class compartment?

I detected some activity at the far end of the car and I peered through the window to see that the conductor had finally arrived and was beginning to inspect the credentials of all passengers, one compartment at a time. I had wanted to take some pictures anyway so I grabbed my camera and exited the compartment. I figured that when the conductor inspected my second class ticket, he might just conclude that I was just standing in the car and had not actually poached space in one of the first class compartments.

Soon enough, the conductor came within my vicinity, looked me squarely in the eyes … and then kept on walking. And that was the end of that. I stood there completely bewildered but certainly not unhappy about the outcome. A little while later, after making some additional stops along the Rhine, the train pulled into Koblenz and another female passenger clambered on board, settled into my compartment and proceeded to deploy her laptop.

While standing just outside of the compartment, I looked around and noticed some other details about the layout of this particular car. At the end of the car, I could see that a small number "1" had been placed squarely in the middle of the glass door. On the side of each individual compartment was mounted a plaque with space allocated for six removable labels. My compartment contained three labels, each one listing the passenger name, the seat number, the station of origin and the final destination. Of the three labels, one listed a passenger boarding at Koblenz and departing in Cologne – that must be the woman who had just boarded the train. The other two labels were assigned to passengers who would be boarding the train at Cologne and departing in Bremen.

There were no passengers listed as boarding in Mainz or Frankfurt, which means that I was not the only person who had poached a seat in this car. The woman who was initially in the compartment when I arrived was not supposed to be there either!

The train eventually meandered away from the Rhine and took a considerably less scenic course to arrive at its next destination, Bonn. From there, another 20 minutes or so brought us into Cologne Hauptbahnhof, where the majority of the passengers disembarked, along with one of the conductors and my fellow seat poacher.

The overall look and feel of the vast space encompassed by the sprawling train station seemed somewhat reminiscent of an expansive greenhouse. Indeed, the location of the station had been the original home to the Botanical Gardens at the time of its preliminary construction in 1859. Mounted high on a glass wall at one end of the station, a large sign boldly referenced "4711 Kölnisch Wasser," the well known brand of the city's eponymous, Eau de Cologne.

I exited from the "cathedral side" of the station and turned towards an expansive series of steps that surrounded the gargantuan Cologne Cathedral. On the opposite side of the enormous Gothic structure, I came upon a large square filled with a sizeable herd of visitors and an assortment of resident personnel. Other than a couple of kiosks and exhibitions staffed by attendees who were quietly protesting one perceived insult or another, the realm behind the church sported a bit of a carnival-like atmosphere. On the other side of the square, I spotted the ornate exterior of the "Dom Hotel," where I planned to spend the night. On the way over to its entrance, I noticed some passersby being entertained by an invisible man who had taken up residence nearby.

A dozen or so guests were loitering in the small lobby of the Dom Hotel as I strode into the entrance. Several guests were already awaiting service at the front desk and I could find no evidence of a "Starwood Preferred Guest" queue or, if there was one, it was certainly well hidden. Once it was my turn to check in, I presented my reservation details and platinum credentials to the friendly desk clerk, who then asked me to select my amenity and then sent me on my way.

As a Starwood platinum member of many years tenure, I have been very spoiled by the great treatment I have received at the vast majority of Starwood properties, especially international locales. Unfortunately, that was not the case at this hotel. Instead of receiving an upgrade to a suite or the best available room, I was assigned one of the smallest rooms I had ever seen, situated in some grungy, hidden inner recess towards the back of the hotel with a spectacular view of a blank wall. The fact that the bedroom and the bathroom were both of equivalent size left me profoundly disappointed. Inside the bathroom, I discovered a cache of coarse, flimsy towels that might have been composed of paper had they been any thinner.

I found an ice bucket housing a full bottle of Champagne, accompanied by some candy, positioned in front of the room's small and only window. I initially figured that was probably a thoughtful gesture by the hotel to make up for assigning me such a substandard room. Besides, the Hiltons I had visited the prior two nights had both thoughtfully provided me with wine, Champagne, chocolates and fruit. However, within a few minutes, I heard a knock on the door and a staff member walked in and apologized, explaining that the Champagne was meant for someone else. And off she went, taking everything with her so, as a platinum guest, this hotel did even see fit to provide me a complimentary bottle of water.

As I passed through the lobby on my way to see the sights of Cologne, I told a front desk clerk how disappointed I was with the room but she explained that nothing else was available. No matter, I could certainly endure one night in this pretentious hovel and could look forward to better accommodations for my remaining two nights, which I had already booked elsewhere.

Ode to Cologne

Like many other cities in Germany, the city of Cologne boasts an ancient lineage, founded by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago. With a population of about a million people, it is currently the fourth largest city in Germany and is part of a greater metropolitan area comprised of ten million inhabitants. Its coat of arms include three crowns representing the three magi, whose bones are said to be entombed within a golden sarcophagus housed within Cologne Cathedral. It also displays 11 tears symbolizing Cologne's patron saint Ursula who was purportedly murdered by Attila the Hun, along with her 11,000 virgin companions.

Cologne is very well-known as the origin of two popular liquids. Eau de Cologne was first crafted in the early 18th century, I suppose at a time somewhat before the science of bathing had been invented. Another major popular product is its indigenous beer called Kölsch, which also happens to be the same name as the local dialect. Therefore, a common joke amongst the local populace is that Kölsch is the only language you can drink.

Better Late Than Never

Along with 20,000 civilian casualties, the center of Cologne was nearly obliterated during WWII. However, one major structure that endured surprisingly little damage, especially when one considers its gargantuan size, was its most dominant landmark, the Cologne Cathedral. Although it suffered 14 direct hits during the war, it did not collapse. Given how long its initial construction took, perhaps that is not all that surprising.

From the time construction first began in 1248, the structure took over 600 years to complete. In fact, local residents jokingly referred to the cathedral as the Dauerbaustelle, the "eternal construction site" and predicted that the world would come to an end once all renovation work was finished. It is currently the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and in the latter part of the 19th century was the tallest structure in the world. With its massive twin spires, it still represents the largest façade of any church in the world.

The Legend of Ursula

Many years ago, when I still lived in New York, I would often undertake a yearly fishing pilgrimage to the wilds of Maine, deep within the northeast corner of the state, not far from its border with New Brunswick, Canada. One very windy June day, I was readying a boat for smallmouth bass fishing on East Grand Lake when I noticed a small black and white kitten gingerly crawling over a pile of wet, wind swept boulders amassed by the shore of the lake. Standing off to the side on firmer ground, a large German Sherman appeared to be eying her hungrily.

I was not in the market for any pets at the moment and had always considered myself to be primarily a dog person anyway so I went about my business and left the diminutive kitten to her fate. The next morning, the little kitten was still ambling along the shore of the lake but so was the dog.

By that point, I was very tempted to rescue the little fur ball but wound up leaving her to her fate once again. However, on the third day, I found the kitten once more crawling amongst the slippery, wind-swept rocks, still stalked by a large dog. In fact, by this time there were three dogs!

I was astonished that the kitten was still alive and kicking and was very surprised that it did not seem to display much of an aversion to water, although I guess water was the lesser of two evils compared with the hungry countenances of the three large dogs. We were already sitting in the boat by then and the kitten seemed to be making a tenuous effort to work its way in our direction. Any cat that liked to fish was OK in my book so I scooped her up and brought her along with us. And that's how I was adopted by my kitten on the shores of a lake in Maine. I named her Ursula, which means "little female bear" in Latin, a moniker which suited her personality quite aptly. We spent many fascinating years together and she even used to get her own junk mail, addressed to "Ursula Catz."

Fast forward about thirty years and while wandering the streets of Cologne, I came upon a street sign displaying the word, Ursulaplatz. From a distance, I had actually thought that it said "Ursala Catz," so I ambled on over for a closer look, where I discovered an old church that at first glance appeared to be honoring my little kitten from so many years ago. What I found was an ancient Romanesque basilica supporting a Baroque style steeple topped with a crown.

A little over 1600 years ago, Ursula was the beautiful daughter of a Christian British king. She had taken a vow of chastity but was betrothed to a pagan prince against her wishes. As directed by a dream, 11,000 virginal handmaidens accompanied Ursula to sea but a storm swept them into Gaul in a single day. Once there, Ursula declared that she would embark on a pan-European pilgrimage before undertaking her marriage. On their way to Cologne, they were beset by Huns who beheaded all of the virgins. Clearly not her "Hunny," the Hun leader shot Ursula dead, after she resisted his advances.

A golden chamber in the basilica of St Ursula is purported to contain a massive reliquary comprised of bones assembled from Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. It has been described as a "veritable tsunami of ribs, shoulder blades, and femurs...arranged in zigzags and swirls and even in the shapes of Latin words."

However, from what I have learned, the main difference between my legend of Ursula and the Catholic one is that my story is actually true. Plus my Ursula certainly was not a saint. And even casting aside some blatant time frame anomalies, the "11,000" figure is likely to be Latin translation error from "XI MV" in which the "M" was misinterpreted as "a thousand " rather than "martyr." In addition, the vast repository of bones housed within the basilica also includes numerous heads of large animals and the skeletal remains of many children commingled amongst the remains of the virgins.

In all likelihood, the relics themselves probably devolved from a long forgotten ancient burial ground and the legend of Ursula herself is more likely a Christianized form of the Norse goddess Freya, who welcomed the souls of dead maidens. Whether known as Orsel, the pre-Christian German bear goddess, or Horsel, Ursel and Ursche in countless other mythologies, the Christian incarnation of Ursula, appears to be an embellishment of stories and myths of much older gods from another time and place.

Früh Frau

I confess that I have never been especially fond of all the new years eve hubbub, preferring to spend my evening in relatively quiet surroundings, delegating all of the noisy revelry and hullabaloo to all those so inclined. This chilly evening in my diminutive room at the Dom Hotel was no exception so I opted to engage the disinterested and taciturn concierge in conversation in order to deduce the location of a suitable dinner venue, preferably somewhere simple and close by. My very straightforward objective was just to eat and run, to grab a quick bite and return relatively quickly to the safe ensconces of the aged hotel before all hölle broke loose in the streets of Cologne at the stroke of midnight.

Actually, my use of the word "conversation" in reference to my interaction with the concierge is not entirely accurate. The impatient fellow, displaying a haughty air of snootiness that was in marked contrast to the generally friendly demeanor of all other staff members at this hotel, did not actually deign to speak with me at all. Instead, he picked up the phone and began calling around, I presume querying local restaurants about their respective availability that evening. A reasonably courteous response to my simple query would have normally engendered at least a modicum of eye contact and some rudimentary dialog but I guess that just proves that I must not know very much about the concierge business. The reticent fellow spoke not a word to me in regards to any of my prospective dining preferences.

With the disinterested concierge clearly providing very little substantive assistance, I opted just to strike off on my own, intending to seek out a snack at the very first place I would stumble across. From the entrance of the Dom Hotel, I made a sharp turn to the right and then turned right again, whereupon I arrived at a small street on the other side of the hotel, Am Hof. After walking for another minute or so, I noticed a large red sign emblazoned with the simple word, "Früh" mounted high over the doorway of a building across the street. A steady parade of customers were seeking refuge from the frigid Cologne evening by marching into the pub's warm and glowing embrace so I decided that I would just follow the crowd. I hoped that the fact that "Früh" means "early" in German would signify that I would have no trouble finding a place to sit.

I learned that Früh was one of the oldest Brauhäuser in Cologne, a designation helped in no small part to having survived bombing during WW2 virtually unscathed. The Brauhaus was well known for serving limitless quantities of the eponymous Kölsch, a local beer that is, as decreed by the Provisional German Beer Law, brewed only in Cologne. It is a clear, top fermented beer that is invariably served in long, thin, cylindrical 0.2 liter glasses known as stanges that are also sometimes derisively referred to as Reagenzglas (test tubes) or Fingerhut (thimbles) in reference to their diminutive size. Waiters deliver dozens of glasses of beer on small metal trays much as tea is delivered in Turkey. They will continue to deploy fresh glasses of beer until a customer stops drinking or covers the top of the glass with a coaster.

Historically, the copious consumption of Kölsch is equally acceptable to both men and women and was often slurped up in groups comprised of mixed social strata. The idea that exclusiveness is antithetical to the consumption of Kölsch is best demonstrated by the fact that it is forbidden to be sold sporting any additional supercilious designations, such as "Premium", "Special" or "Extra high quality." Even Karl Marx once remarked that his revolution could not possibly work in Cologne, since the bosses went to the same pubs as their workers.

Früh is actually an amalgamation of several restaurants that seat nearly 600 guests at bare wood tables deployed within a cavernous, mazelike structure organized across multiple floors. The main level includes the Hofbräustuben, a more upper class establishment that provides guests with views of the cathedral and nearby fountain and that can expand rapidly to fill an outside seating area during milder weather. The medieval upper level boasts a series of rooms typified by old chandeliers, high ceilings, wood paneling and traditional murals. But the true heart and soul of the brauhaus lies deep below the ground; the keller is an ancient basement comprised of a seeming labyrinth of rooms, hidden nooks and crannies, all somewhat haphazardly carved within the pillars of old Romanesque foundations.

From the moment I squeezed myself into the crowded front entrance of the brauhaus, I could see that the old tavern was already packed to the rafters with a dense assemblage of boisterous guests, even at this very early hour on the eve of the new year. From the appearance of a seemingly endless series of large wooden barrels that adorned a long bar to my left, I surmised that the restaurant appeared to be very well prepared for the coming onslaught. As I strode from one crowded room to the next in my vain attempt to find a place to sit, I noticed that many of the guests were settled in quite nicely for the long haul. Some of the tables sported smaller wooden Kölsch-filled barrels that would obviate the need for a waiter to deliver successive rounds of the little stanges to the thirsty guests.

It was deep within the inner recesses of the subterranean keller where I was finally able to eke out a small niche for myself. For nearly 20 minutes, I had fruitlessly searched high and low for a single seat but none could be found. I was just about to give up and seek to escape from the crowded underground maze, when a waiter took pity on me and approached a table of five people, I presume to ask them if they wouldn't mind scooting over a bit and freeing up a little room for that weird guy wearing a Flyertalk hat.

I sensed that the other guests were not especially delighted about the idea about having to share their turf with me but sharing tables with strangers is indeed the local custom, even if some of the strangers might seem to be a little stranger than most. With half-hearted smiles, we all said hello, whereupon they promptly resumed their own private conversation as I took my seat at the corner of the table. That "hello" was, in fact, the first and only verbiage exchanged amongst us.

I ordered the obligatory glass of Kölsch because that is the thing that one tends to do in Cologne and it was promptly delivered a few minutes later. Keeping to my plan to eat only traditional German fare, I placed an order for sauerbraten, which was delivered after waiting a mere five minutes, accompanied by large potato dumplings and a side dish of sweet, red cabbage. I picked at my food somewhat slowly as I took in the atmosphere and looked around at other guests sharing the dark medieval vault with me that evening. After about 10 minutes, my table opponents gestured that they were ready to depart and soon enough I had a table for six all to myself.

During the next 20 minutes, nobody else sat down to join me. And then I heard a sweet, quiet voice to my right and a woman asked me in English if she could sit with me. She ordered a stange of Kölsch along with a vegetarian combination, which I confess surprised me quite a bit because I had always thought that non-fleisch substances were strictly verboten in Germany.

We quickly found ourselves deeply engaged in conversation, as we shared the stories of our lives, the journeys that brought us here, our hopes for the future and all of the trips planned in between. I learned that her name was "Indra" and that she has been living in Germany for 20 years. She originally hailed from Sri Lanka, where her family ran a tea plantation high in the cooler altitudes of the hill country. Once upon a time the source of many an imaginative mileage run for Flyertalkers worldwide, her homeland had been called Serendib after its fortuitous rediscovery by Persian traders more than a thousand year ago. Serendib is, in fact, the origin of the English word, "serendipity," which neatly summarized how we both came together at this very time and place.

Although it was really not her custom, that evening something had possessed her to take a train to Cologne from the distant suburbs and to visit the shadow of the Dom and welcome the new year all by herself. Three separate times she had wandered into the cavernous labyrinth of Früh in a vain attempt to find a place to sit. The first time, she searched every room, nook and cranny and wound up returning to the festivities by the cathedral when no space could be found. She made a second attempt a little while later with a similar outcome. Her third attempt would be the final one before heading back home in defeat. When she arrived deep within the inner sanctum of the keller, she had finally spied a table that had a place for her to sit. That is where I was sitting alone, toying with my sauerbraten.

Travel has always been her passion and we spoke at some length about our collective journeys and experiences. A little while later, four twenty-something fellows joined us at the table, where they eventually became so drunk and so loud that even the waiter ultimately had to tell them to quiet down a bit. Their level of intoxication continued to accelerate until two of them drooped down so low that they nearly fell into their own food, evidently unable to support the weight of their own heads. During that time, Indra and I vainly tried to obtain a check from the waiter but we had to endure another 45 noisy minutes before we could get his attention.

We were finally able to flee the raucous depths of Früh at about 9:30 PM but our inebriated table mates wound up leaving at about the same time. Indra and I walked around the streets of Cologne for a while and, for some reason, the frigid air temperature did not seem to feel quite as cold as it had been when we had been wandering the streets alone. But after a while, we sought refuge in a bright and airy coffee shop, just a stone's throw from all of the commotion steadily gaining momentum near the base of the cathedral. And there we sat for the next couple of hours, drinking coffee, deeply engaged in conversation, seemingly oblivious to the boisterous cacophony amassed just outside the doors.

Suddenly, the crowd in the coffee shop began to thin out and we realized that the witching hour was soon at hand. Indra whispered a few German words to the waiter, who returned a few minutes later with a bottle of Champagne and two tall glasses. From there, the two of us wandered back into the frosty air outside and made our way through the mounting bedlam until we found ourselves standing in the middle of the expansive cathedral square amongst a rowdy throng of thousands.

At the stroke of midnight, the girl from Serendipity and I stood under the surreal shadow of the Gothic Cologne Cathedral and raised our champagne glasses to toast the demise of the prior year and the frosty dawn of 2009, a time of new hopes and friendships, expanded horizons and countless possibilities. If I had not been standing there in person, I would have found it very hard to believe that a dark shadow could be cast under a chilly cloud-enshrouded sky at midnight but indeed there it was.

The very air molecules were abuzz with the incessant raucous blasts from 12 thunderous bells, all dominated by the Petersglocke, the largest free standing bell in the world. And the entire scene was framed within an expansive smoke-filled plaza set ablaze with an armada of brilliant floodlights aimed squarely on the teaming throngs below. A new day had indeed dawned as the night sky was alit with cascading intense beams of search lights frantically scanning the skies above as if awaiting an impending aerial bombardment from the invasion of 2009.

The frenzied Cathedral Square was seemingly filled with the entire alcohol-fueled population of Cologne, many of whom were continuously firing rockets in our direction whilst blitzed beyond all sense and rationality. And I guess the fact that none of the missiles actually hit us is a testament to the intense level of the crowd's intoxication because if the revelers had been even the slightest bit more sober, I would bet their aim might have been that much better.

Having successfully survived the smoky and fiery gauntlet of missiles, fireworks and careening bottles of Champagne, wine and booze, we eventually found ourselves back at the threshold of the Dom Hotel. After gingerly stepping through mounting heaps of broken glass and spent weaponry, we said our goodbyes in the lobby and agreed to meet again the following afternoon. And then I turned away to slowly trundle through the tobacco infused public areas of the elderly hotel, whose thick air seemed to be even more noxious than the smoky air amassed near the cathedral. The girl from Serendipity slowly turned back in the direction of the Cologne Hauptbahnhof in order to catch the last S-Bahn train of the night and make her way back home to Leverkusen.

Walking Through the War Zone

I woke up slightly before the sun, although from the look of the dreary, grey day that demarked the dawn of 2009, it appeared that the sun opted to stay in bed all day, no doubt from a very intense hangover. With the onset of daylight, such as it was, I wandered out of the hotel and stood near the edge of the cathedral square, admiring the fact that an army of orange-clad workers had already made serious progress in their valiant effort to clean up and rebuild the city.

It truly resembled a war zone as busy maintenance crews attacked heaping piles of rockets, fireworks and glassware with shovels and brooms. A convoy of trucks and bulldozers followed closely behind the crew but it did not take very long for individual trucks to be filled to capacity with garbage and then sent on their way. I stood quietly in the middle of the square for a few moments observing a homeless man look for buried treasure amongst the dumpsters and garbage piles that adorned the square and then suddenly move off in the direction of a Bulova store, where I suppose he hoped that greater riches would await.

From the cathedral square, I looped around the corner of the hotel to find myself once again at Am Hof, in the domain of Früh. With the exception of a few other hardy or foolhardy souls such as myself, the area was mostly deserted. The tables and chairs outside the brauhaus lacked the derrieres of patrons to warm them. Even some nearby stone sculptures and statues appeared to be shivering in the frigid air. I suppose that it was indeed a very difficult morning to be stoned.

A few well-bundled brave souls wandered along a lengthy, store encrusted pedestrian street past a long gauntlet of signs loudly advertising a variety of stores that were, in fact, closed. From there, I sauntered back towards the cathedral and then walked cautiously down long flights of stone steps that were coated intermittently with a dusting of white frost and thin layers of black ice. I soon found myself at the edge of the Rhine embankment, an area populated mostly by beggars asking for spare euros. Moored nearby at the edge of the water, a fleet of KD Rheinschifffahrt cruise ships stood at the ready but there were no takers on this very cold morning.

A colorful series of shops and pubs were surrounded by a heaving moat of detritus because the army of orange clad workers had only just now begun to wade into the depths of the garbage-strewn morass. Overhead, a myriad assemblage of partially deflated balloons were trapped in the distal region of the treetops, whose sprawling craggy limbs had cruelly blocked their escape to the freedom of the atmosphere.

From there, I found myself at the threshold of the Altstadt, looking up at a soaring Romanesque tower that dominated the icy, rubbish-strewn streets below. Great St Martin Church was originally founded nearly 900 years ago on an island in the Rhine but it later morphed into a Benedictine monastery on turf that was ultimately subsumed by the mainland. Across the river in the borough of Deutz, I could just make out the hazy Romanesque roof of the Baroque Alt St. Heribert, currently under the domain of the Greek Orthodox community.

I was in great need of thawing out by this point so I sought refuge within the expansive atrium of the Maritim Hotel, nestled squarely between the Rhine embankment and the Heumarkt section of Cologne, near the old Market Square. From there, I walked past the Heumarkt tram station and across the nearly deserted Heumarkt Square.

Center of Mass

Once back in the vicinity of the cathedral, I noticed that a steady parade of people were shuffling towards the Portal of St Peter, located on the western side of the huge Gothic structure. I felt obliged to tag along and was immediately thrust within a large throng of visitors, all of whom were held back by a set of ropes and two elderly white haired men dressed in bright red uniforms. From my position within the seething mass of humanity, I enjoyed a spectacular view of one of the largest Gothic vaults in the world.

As I squirmed my way to the front of the crowd, I could see that hundreds of worshippers were kneeling in the pews, in rapt attention to a white clad priest standing at the altar, far in the distance.

Once the new year's mass finally drew to a close, the attendant worshippers began to slowly file out of the church. The guardians then released the ropes and the awaiting throng of visitors surged into the cathedral, accompanied by the cacophonous echoes of organ music.

I sat in the pews for a few minutes and then worked my way towards the broad altar that dominated the easternmost apex of the cathedral.

As another red enrobed clergyman proceeded to extinguish the flames of thick white candles with a long pole, I meandered around the altar to examine some of its attendant relics and ornamentation. The large wooden renaissance pulpit dating from 1544 stood on tall pillars just to the right of the altar. Mounted above and behind the altar, the Shrine of the Three Kings consisted of a large gold gilded sarcophagus purported to contain the remains of the three Magi, who greeted Christ at his birth.

At the easternmost central apex of the church just across from the Shrine of the Three Kings, the Axial Chapel was "recently" renovated in the late 19th century and incorporates a disparate variety of medieval relics.

I meandered around the circumference of the cathedral where a voluminous array of shrines, relics and altars occupied the various nooks and crannies. In a large alcove positioned in the north transept, the devout gathered around broad tables where they lit candles under the watchful gaze of the Jeweled Madonna. Like many other religious relics, this one was rumored to be miraculous so worshippers made contributions of so much gold and jewelry that the original slender sculpture was eventually swallowed by a mass of religious offerings. Unfortunately, thieves stole much of the jewelry about 40 years ago so the jewel encrusted cloak that shrouds the 350 year old Baroque sculpture is now more symbolic than real.

Deployed all around the perimeter of the cathedral was a large assortment of tombs and sarcophagi, including that of 600 year old Archbishop Engelbert von der Mark, 700 year old Archbishop Wilhelm von Gennep and Duke Gottfried von Arnsberg, which dated from the middle ages. I was especially fascinated with the fact that the Duke's tomb was encased within an arched iron cage because I figured that he was in no position to escape. It turns out that the hefty iron grillwork was crafted to protect the deceased from the greedy paws of disappointed relatives. And speaking of paws, I could not figure out why his feet were deployed to rest squarely on the backs of two stone dogs.

After I finished my tour of the ancient cathedral, I figured it was about time for me to wrap up my stay at the ancient Dom Hotel. Within a few minutes, I had packed up my things, checked out and walked through the Cologne Hauptbahnhof to emerge on the other side of the station, a busy construction zone from which I could see the Four Points by Sheraton Central Köln beckoning to me from just on the other side of the road.

My room was not quite ready so I was invited to avail myself of free internet access via a computer on the first floor. Once I got to my room, I was pleased to learn that the hotel had upgraded me to a sizable corner suite on the top floor with an interesting view of the train station and the Cologne Cathedral just beyond. Two complimentary bottles of water were already cooling in the minifridge and I was invited to partake in a complimentary breakfast for two the following morning.

In short, although the Four Points was technically a much lower status property in Starwood's taxonomic hierarchy, the room and perks they provided to me were profoundly superior to those proffered by the purportedly fancier milieu of the decrepit Dom Hotel. In fact, the only bad feature of the hotel was that it housed what must have been the slowest elevator on the planet, a device that was so painfully slow that I could have easily undertaken a roundtrip walk through the Hauptbahnhof in the same time the elevator took to change floors. And I confess to being in a little bit of a rush by then. I was planning to meet Indra at the station so we could scout out some dinner together.

The Children's Crusade

What could possibly be more frightening than the image of thousands of uniformed children running towards you en masse? That was indeed what confronted me as I emerged from the cathedral-side exit of the Hauptbahnhof late on Friday morning. Seemingly endless battalions of children were streaming down the steps of the old Gothic church heading right in my direction, many of them carrying what appeared to be oversized Ninja death stars mounted at the tops of very long poles. I noticed that the children were cloaked in colorful biblical costumes, perhaps to protect their identity.

And then I had an epiphany or perhaps it was the children who would be having theirs. Please understand that this is all a very alien culture to me but from what I pieced together, it appears that 500,000 members of this children's army would be loosed upon the land to ring doorbells and threaten to sing and won't stop until you give them money and candy. The annual event is actually called Sternsingen, which literally means "carol singers" and is typically scheduled to occur on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the date on which the magi first visited Jesus.

When the "Star Singers" show up at your door, it is considered bad form to refuse to open it and even worse luck if you fail to give them some geld. I am not quite sure how they exact revenge if you fail to come up with goods. Is there a uniquely German incarnation of the American Halloween tradition of a burning paper bag filled with dog poop?

In any case, once you dutifully obey, a message in the form, "20*C+M+B*09" is inscribed on your door to signify that you have complied for this year. At first, I thought that "CMB" stood for the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka but I later learned that it was originally conceived to represent the initials of the three magi, Caspar, Melchior and Baltassar. It was only in later years, that it evolved to mean "Christus mansionem benedicat", which translates generally as "may Christ bless this house".

I was still not quite sure why the army of children were dressed in full regalia fully two days before the designated date of the Epiphany celebration. Perhaps they were in the process of undertaking some sort of training exercise? And was their attempt to storm the train station an effort to shakedown unwary passengers who would have no practical means of escape? In any case, it was gratifying for me to realize that when the fateful date finally arrived on Sunday, I would be protected from the raucous onslaught in the pointy end of a UA 777.

Charlemagne and the Chocolate Factory

In the Middle Ages, Charlemagne was a Frankish king who conquered most of Europe and was ultimately the founder of both France and Germany. There clearly being no such thing as separation of church and state in those days, Charlemagne was eventually crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. A short while thereafter, the position of Cologne was elevated to the status of an archbishopric and the Archbishop of Cologne became one of the most powerful feudal lords of the Holy Roman Empire. This archbishop also laid the cornerstone for the Cologne Cathedral, whose construction would not be completed for another 600 years.

Having had my fill of touring the gargantuan cathedral over the last couple of days, I decided that today I would visit another very important Cologne institution, one that was admittedly of much more recent vintage. But to do so, I would have to seek an escape from the brigades of colorful "Star Singers," who were still steadfastly marching in my direction. I made a break for it by dashing up the extreme left side of the cathedral steps and then made a bee line for the Rhine embankment, somewhat further in the distance.

A thin layer of snow and ice rendered my passage quite slippery but I made it safely to a walkway by the river, safe at least until I encountered a large bus unexpectedly careening down the sidewalk at very high speed. I briefly wondered whether a contingent of "Star Singer" commandos had hijacked the bus but I eventually made my escape and finally came within view of an odd, boat-shaped building residing on a small island emerging from the Rhine.

That building was the home of the Imhoff Stollwerck Museum, a museum dedicated to chocolate that was founded in 1993 on a small island that formerly constituted part of an old customs office. Accessing the museum required traversing an old iron swing bridge that crossed a realm of dirty brown water. At first, I thought that perhaps the museum had the foresight to create a small chocolate-filled mote to guard its entrance but it just turned out merely to be a relic of Rhine turbidity.

Once inside the entrance, the hot and steamy lobby was packed full of people, perhaps some of whom were just seeking a brief respite from the cold and bleak weather outside. When it was my turn to purchase my entrance ticket, I was not amused to learn that the entry fee amounted to a rather usurious €7.50. However, I noticed that they offered a discount to "senior citizens over 65, unemployed persons and those receiving welfare" so I explained that I was retired and presented my AARP card. The cashier presented me with my ticket accompanied by a diminutive square of Lindt chocolate and I was on my way.

According to verbiage on their web site, "A tour of the exhibits on the three levels of the museum is a journey through the 3000-year cultural history of chocolate." Indeed, the museum encompasses a series of rooms housing displays and artifacts that describe the history of chocolate, cocoa farming and chocolate production, all accompanied by signage mostly in German. There was also a small tropical greenhouse accessible on two levels via an airlock that housed two cocoa trees, a banana plant and a small pool of water.

Wandering through the museum, I could not fail to notice the very frequent emphasis on Lindt & Sprüngli products and was bemused to discover that this was no accident. The museum's clear affiliation with Lindt is inescapable and one cannot deny the cleverness of the corporate entity for devising a way to charge customers for the privilege of absorbing some free brand advertising and for the opportunity to purchase more of their product, either in their gift shop or the attached cafe.

Many of the visitors dashed off quickly towards the farthest reaches of the building, a large glass-enclosed room providing expansive views of the Rhine and sporting fully functioning machinery that was dutifully churning out little Lindt squares and chocolate balls, all safely ensconced behind protective Plexiglas barriers.

Of primary importance to most visitors was a large chocolate fountain in which a worker dressed in white chef attire dipped little rectangular wafers into a brown cauldron of chocolate so visitors could get a taste of the actual product.

Into the Rat Hole

The chocolate museum had been so warm and humid that when I finally re-emerged outside, I actually found the cold air to be very refreshing. From the museum, I walked back in the direction of Heumarkt and onward to the Alter Markt, the Old Market Square, where I found myself in the vicinity of Cologne's rathaus, the old city hall.

If the building was named after rats, I briefly wondered whether UA had established a far flung RCC outpost of which I was previously unaware. However, tempting as it is for me to anglicize the word and interpret "rathaus" to mean a place where politicians and other "rats" seek refuge, I am forced to admit that the German word "rat" just means "council" or "advice." This particular rathaus was actually the oldest city hall in Germany, dating back nearly 900 years.

Situated on Judengasse, the Cologne town hall is very well known for its loggia, a Renaissance façade that was built 450 years ago to replace its older and rundown Mediaeval entrance hall. Six hundred years ago, the adjacent clock tower was considered a sky scraper of sorts, its Gothic form boasting a total of five floors that reached a dizzying height of 61 meters. Mounted just below the clock was a wooden face sculpture called the "Platz Jabbeck" that marks the hour by sticking out its tongue at passersby.

Damage to this area during WWII was quite extensive and excavations that took place during the restoration effort revealed a surprise that lurked deep beneath the rubble of the rathaus. Workers uncovered the hitherto unknown remains of the praetorium, a 2000 year old Roman structure that served as the headquarters for the Roman army in the Lower Rhine.

At one time one of the largest structures in the region, encompassing an area of 3.5 hectare, it later morphed into an extensive palace that served as the home and social hub of the local governor. Once these remains were uncovered and stabilized, they were made accessible to visitors willing to pay a few euro to trundle down some flights of stairs and access the ruins via the basement of the rathaus.

After wandering around the underground Roman ruins for a while, who could possibly resist the opportunity to take a pleasant stroll through the adjoining sewers?

Once I reemerged into the light of day from the hole beneath the rathaus, I came upon another, considerably more ignominious, artifact that had been rediscovered during the "clean up" after WWII. At the time of their expulsion from Cologne in 1424, there had been a vibrant Jewish community that included a main synagogue, women's synagogue, hospital, bakery and community center. Under the protective shield of a large glass pyramid dwelled the remains of a mikwe, an old Jewish ritual bath, comprised of a fifty foot stairwell leading to a pool fed by the Rhine. The only other vestigial remains of the original Jewish community was the local synagogue, which had been converted into the rathaus chapel.

Making An Assumption

By now, it was mid afternoon and I found myself back in the vicinity of the cathedral. After a brief walk through the train station, I had just about enough time to checkout of the Four Points and reposition myself at my next hotel destination, the Hilton Cologne. To get to the Hilton required another trundle towards the cathedral side of the train station and then veering right towards a group of taxis lined up along An Den Dominikanern and then turning left.

As I continued walking a short distance towards a traffic circle, I could see the side façade of the Baroque St Maria Himmelfahrt church on the right side of the street. Originally constructed in the 17th century, the Church of St. Mary's Assumption had been the second largest church in Cologne for quite some time. After successive bombings during the war, much of the church had collapsed and fire had consumed all of the interior.

At the traffic circle, I turned right onto Marzellenstrasse and located the entrance to the Hilton half way down the street on the left side, directly opposite the main façade of St Maria Himmelfahrt. Inside the lobby, I was greeted by very friendly staff who assigned me to a pleasantly appointed room on the executive floor. From my window, I was presented with a nice view of the church across the street and was even afforded a fairly decent view of the Cologne Cathedral, slightly to the right.

The Last Supper

A short while later, I hooked up with Indra and off we went in search of a meal, fully intending to locate someplace reasonably close and not especially noisy. As things turned out, we failed miserably on both counts and, after investigating and rejecting a few likely candidates along the way, we wound up settling for an establishment all the way back in the Alter Markt neighborhood.

Although the restaurant had seemed a little bit quieter than the other prospective venues at first, Bierhaus En D'r Salzgass eventually achieved a clamorous level of din sufficiently mind numbing to preclude all attempts at meaningful conversation. But service was reasonably quick and the food fairly decent, including an order of rabbit and some wild boar, which tasted suspiciously like domesticated boar to me.

Once back at the Hilton, we finally had time to talk for a while. This would be my last evening in Cologne before heading back to Frankfurt in the morning, where I would spend a day seeking mischief in that part of the region. I had already booked my non-refundable return trip on the ICE train in the morning so my plans were fairly well engraved in stone at that point.

At the very least, I figured, I was now a little more experienced and better prepared at contending with the nuances of travel on ICE so I could look forward to a fairly uneventful and problem free trip. Or so I thought at the time. And whatever ICE would have in store for me the following morning, little did I know that some real fun would await me when I began my journey back home.

Final Chapter: Mein Klein Shrine on the Rhine
LarryU is offline  
Old Feb 23, 09, 7:49 am
Join Date: Aug 2005
Location: Germany
Programs: Skywards, Miles n More, FlyingBlue
Posts: 67
Great report again from you. One small correction though. The train you took from Mainz was not the famous InterCityExpress but is an InterCity. There is pretty much difference between both. ICE is the highspeed link and would have taken a separate track to Cologne (not the scenic one you took along the beautiful Rhine).

Its quite a coincidence, I was in Cologne for brief time on 1st Jan around hauptbahnhof. You were walking somewhere around.
stuttflyer is offline  
Old Mar 12, 09, 12:51 am
Original Poster
Join Date: Feb 2000
Location: Lake Oswego, OR
Programs: UA 1K 2MM, Marriott Platinum-Bonvoyage, Hilton Diamond
Posts: 3,196
Mein Klein Shrine on the Rhine

Slippery as ICE

I typically do not do very well adapting to different time zones and this morning was no exception. However, one slight advantage of being chronically chronologically challenged is that I am often treated to some very pretty sunrises within the course of my travels. Whereas the precise orientation of my room at the Hilton did not really provide me with a view of the rising sun as such, it did reveal a very lovely visage of the silhouette and contours of the Cologne Cathedral set against a vivid blue background.

Most meaningful to me was the fact that the sky was exceptionally clear, a meteorological condition that I not encountered for several weeks. The snow and ice that had lingered in PDX for so many days had morphed into dreary overcast skies throughout the duration of my very brief tenure in Germany so the sun had been nowhere to be seen for a very long time.

Indra joined for me breakfast at the Hilton and the spread of hot and cold goodies was quite a treat, both in terms of quantity and quality. The attendant staff members were also extraordinarily pleasant, sporting a demeanor that nicely matched the very classy ambience of the restaurant. Nevertheless, a palpable tinge of melancholy permeated breakfast because we both understood that we would now have very little time together. My ICE train was scheduled to depart Cologne for Frankfurt at 9:51 AM and I would be flying back to PDX the very next day. Indra would be returning to Sri Lanka sometime in the very near future.

After checking out of the hotel, the two of us strolled over together to the Cologne Hauptbahnhof and then set about to determine from which track my train departed. Oddly enough, I could not find my train listed anywhere on the departure board. After I double checked both the date and departure time listed on my ticket, the two of us carefully scanned large yellow schedules mounted on walls throughout the station but still could find no evidence of my train listed at all.

Seeking some expert travel assistance, we soon found ourselves in a very long queue awaiting consultation with professional Deutsche Bahn customer service personnel. As we waited, Indra cautioned me that, in her experience, the attendant Deutsche Bahn staff are typically neither helpful nor personable. Indeed, I noticed that when the next person in line had failed to move forward when a staff member finished processing a customer, the clerk simply glared at the hapless patron rather than oblige her with a simple, "nächste." It was certainly a good thing that looks could not kill.

Fortunately, the demeanor of my particular Deutsche Bahn staffer was not nearly as unpleasant or formidable. After studying the nuances of my ticket, he kindly pointed out that the reason my train was not listed on the schedule was that it did not depart from this station! He explained that it leaves from a completely different station entirely, Cologne Deutz!

I guess that I must not have noticed the "Deutz" designation when I initially booked my Deutsche Bahn ticket several weeks prior to the trip. And now I was stuck with this choice because "savings fare" tickets booked on line are only valid for the specific train actually booked and cannot be used on any other train. One option would be to purchase another much more expensive ticket for the train of my choice and forgo the value of my prior ticket. A much more satisfying and economical option would be for me to find my way to Cologne Deutz.

With that, Indra and I dashed over to the other side of the station and bolted down a flight of steps and onto the awaiting S-Bahn platform. A few minutes later, we hopped onto a regional train and we were on our way to Cologne Deutz.

Fortunately for us, the S-Bahn cars were sparsely populated with passengers at this early hour on a Saturday morning so we had very little difficulty stowing my luggage and finding a place to sit. Also fortunate was the fact that we had not encountered a conductor by the time the train pulled into Cologne Deutz. In my haste to make it to my ICE train on time, I had neglected to purchase a ticket for the S-Bahn train and it was somewhat debatable whether my prepaid ICE train ticket would serve as satisfactory credentials for use on this particular train.

After we successfully disembarked onto the Cologne Deutz platform, the two of us stood for a while in the cold breeze, contemplating the nuances of some distant signage. We eventually concluded that my ICE train to Frankfurt was scheduled to depart in 10 minutes from track 11 so off we ran, deep within the bowels of the station.

With only five minutes to spare, we arrived within sight of my track, whereupon a conductor commanded us to halt and asked us about our destination. When I told him that I was heading to "Frankfurt," he explained that my train would be leaving from track 12. The fact that his instructions directly conflicted with the official verbiage displayed on the departures board confused me, but I had very little time to argue.

Accessing track 12 required schlepping my luggage down a flight of steps, traversing an underground passageway and then running up a matching flight of steps at the other end. We arrived at a platform that was devoid of passengers where two conductors lingered chatting nonchalantly just outside an awaiting ICE train.

The conductors confirmed that this particular train was indeed heading to Frankfurt and cautioned that it would be doing so within another minute. That left Indra and I very little opportunity for a proper goodbye but I had simply run out of time. After hopping aboard the train, I found myself in the dining car so I schlepped my stuff forward into the relatively empty domain of another car and helped myself to a seat, this time presumably in the proper class of service. Almost as soon as I sat down, the train pulled forward, soon leaving Cologne Deutz far in the distance. At the very least, I had wanted to wave goodbye to Indra as the train pulled away but from my particular location on the train, I was unable to get a good view of the platform so I did not get to see her again.

The ICE train picked up speed very quickly and it was soon abundantly clear that this would be a much faster trip than I had experienced when I first arrived in Cologne several days ago. For one thing, the train's routing to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof was much more direct, bypassing the Rhine river altogether. Another reason for its celerity was that there were no intermediate stops at all, other than a brief visit to Frankfurt airport.

About 20 minutes into the trip, a conductor entered the sparsely populated cabin and made his way over to my seat, whereupon he asked me for my ticket and the credit card that I had used to make the purchase. I dutifully submitted all of the requested credentials, quite reasonably concluding that all possible trip complications were over by this point. Needless to say, I was more than mildly surprised when the conductor looked at me quizzically and asked, "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" After I responded "nein," the conductor replied, in English, that "we have a problem" and then proceeded to explain that I was on the wrong train.

We politely bantered back and forth about the situation for a while and from what I could understand, although this train was indeed heading to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, the train I had booked was ICE 121 but this train was actually ICE 621. My guess is that when the conductor guarding the platform at track 11 had redirected me to track 12 upon hearing that my destination was "Frankfurt," it did not occur to him that I was booked on a different train to Frankfurt, one that was scheduled to depart seven minutes later.

However, my ticket was only good for my originally booked train and if rules are rules, I would be obliged to cough up another, much more expensive fare for the privilege of enjoying this alternative transportation. Had this been the case from the beginning, I could have just hung around with Indra at Cologne Hauptbahnhof and taken a train from there.

I am not sure what was going through the conductor's mind that morning as we sped on our way towards Frankfurt. Perhaps he had a nice time carousing in Cologne the night before, or was just in a good mood or just liked the jib of my Flyertalk hat. But after a pause of the merest few seconds, he smiled, told me not to worry about it and continued on this way to check the credentials of the other passengers. ^

Now that my needlessly complex transportation endeavor had finally come to a favorable resolution, I could finally sit back, relax and contemplate my activities for my last day once I arrived in Frankfurt. My plan was to spend the day undertaking a quick tour through an assortment of scenic castles and dormant vineyards dispersed along the cliffs and hilltops perched over the Rhine Gorge. Just two days before my departure form Portland, some local German friends advised me that Brigitte, a friend of theirs from Frankfurt, had very kindly volunteered to be my host for the day!

After a total of 50 minutes in transit, my train pulled into the Frankfurt airport long distance train station and 10 minutes later came to its final stop at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof.

From the station, I undertook a shortcut under the heavily trafficked Am Hauptbahnhof and emerged onto Wiesenhüttenplatz, a mere one minute stroll from the Le Méridien Parkhotel, where I would be spending the night. Although I had intended just to store my luggage and then hit the road, it turned out that my room was already available and waiting for me.

In contrast to the substandard treatment and recognition endured at another Le Méridien property, the Dom Hotel in Cologne, this property at least furnished me with spacious room accommodations, appropriately catered with two large bottles of water and a nice assortment of chocolates and cookies. I strolled down to the lobby at about 11:25 AM and five minutes later, Brigitte pulled up in her car precisely on time.

Noble Rot of the 50th Degree

-- He who breathes the air of Rheingau is a free man.
After exiting the streets of central Frankfurt, Brigitte and I drove westward towards the middle Rhine valley and continued past Wiesbaden and Mainz, where I had spent two busy days exploring the area earlier in the week. We proceeded onward towards Bingen, this time trundling along on the northern banks of the river, a choice of locales that was no accident. Given the cool climate and northerly latitude in which Germany finds itself, the southerly exposure of hills flanking this side of the river has proved to impart conditions considered optimal for the ripening of grapes.

The section of the Rhine between Bingen and Koblenz is notable for boasting one of the densest concentrations of castles in the world, whose structural conditions range from ruined to relatively pristine. Many of these castles were built to protect the inhabitants from invaders, whereas others sheltered a shady assortment of thieves, bandits and plunderers. Not a few of these castles served as very profitable customs houses designed to extract fees and tolls from commercial businesses and hapless citizens alike, in a sense, I suppose, just another flavor of thievery.

Grapes had been cultivated in the region from the time of the Romans but viticulture really came into its own starting in the 10th century, when the Archbishop of Mainz ordered the obliteration of all forests along the Rhine and replaced them with vines. The peasants who undertook the strenuous task of toiling in the Rheingau were subsequently granted freedom and the region was subsequently known as "the land of farmers with civil rights."

Our first stop on our drive from Frankfurt was at Schloss Johannisberg, a winery whose tenure dates back to the time of Charlemagne. Benedictine monks had concluded that this was one of the best areas for growing wine, which therefore also made it optimal for constructing a monastery at that location. Thirty years later, they built a basilica to honor John the Baptist and the hill upon which the monastery stood was heretofore known as "John's mountain," Johannisberg.

Riesling grapes were first planted here nearly 300 years ago, which makes Schloss Johannisberg the oldest Riesling vineyard in the world. A little over 250 years ago, the harvest could not be initiated for three weeks because of a delay in obtaining official permission from Prince-Abbot of Fulda, the estate owner. As a consequence, all of the grapes were infected with Botrytis fungus and rotted on the vine. When the seemingly worthless grapes were handed over to local peasants, an extraordinarily sweet wine emerged, and thus Spätlese was born from the noble rot. Such is serendipity.

As we pulled the car up to the mansion, we appeared to be the only visitors on this bright but cold day. From the parking area, we ambled over to the edge of the vineyard where we surveyed the very hazy vista of the Rheingau displayed far below us, a region once described by Goethe as, "Blessed plains and vine-clad countryside." Mounted in the middle of the vineyard, a solitary marker delineated the precise location of the 50th parallel north.

Epiphany at the John

As we wandered amongst the various buildings that comprised the estate at the Mountain of John, I was quite bemused to observe the very concrete affiliation of all religious icons with wine. A drawing of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus was unmistakably adorned with clusters of grapes and grape leaves. We wandered into the associated abbey church where we encountered not a single religious painting or statue that did bear a dutiful amalgamation of the viticultural with the ecclesiastical.

After departing the shrine to wine, we walked through a small courtyard at one end of which the descendants of an earlier proprietor still reside behind black iron gates marked "private." On the other side of the courtyard, a nondescript building housed some public toilets, situated amongst a series of unmarked doorways.

Over one of the doorways, I could not help but notice the unmistakable insignia, "20 * C + M + B * 08" ominously scribbled in chalk. It was a vestige of last year's calling card from the Sternsingen, who would no doubt be invading the area within the next day. I did not want to take a chance of getting caught unprepared by the Ninja death star-wielding "Star Singers" so I figured it would behoove us to move on to our next destination as soon as possible.

A Loss at the Schloss

Our next stop on our journey through the middle Rhine, found us a very short distance from Schloss Johannisberg, at the 800 year old wine estate of Schloss-Vollrads, sitting high on the hills overlooking the village of Winkel. Originally established by "Vollradus of Winkel," an early 14th century tall stone tower house stood in the center of the estate, accessible only by an ice covered bridge that crossed a stagnant moat. Never at a loss for poetic and profound words, when Goethe visited the estate in the early 19th century, he eloquently described the tower as "unusual."

In later years, heirs to the Lords of Winkel ran into significant financial difficulties running the estate. When it was ultimately reclaimed by the bank in 1975, the current proprietor withdrew to the inner sanctum of his beloved vineyard and blew his brains out.

These days, a two-winged manor house built near the tower in the 17th century occasionally opens to the public just for special events. We hung around in the area for a relatively short period of time but there was a palpable rotting stench that pervaded the wine processing area and whatever rot it was did not appear to be especially noble. With that, we moved on to our next destination.

From Prussia With Love

… As long as a drop of blood still glows,
a fist still draws the dagger,
and one arm still holds the rifle,
no enemy will here enter your shore! ...

-- From the lyrics to Die Wacht am Rhein, "Watch on the Rhine"
At the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Prussia soundly defeated France, with a little help from its friends, the other members of the North German Confederation, along with Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria. This military achievement marked the official foundation of the German Empire, a union of German states that endured for 47 years until its collapse after WWI.

What could be a more fitting way to commemorate the unification of Germany into the Deutsches Reich than a suitably prodigious monument befitting the industrial might and military power of the new union? The Niederwalddenkmal Monument features a towering figure of Germania, a goddess-like entity representing the personification of Germany. Bearing the laurel-entwined imperial sword in one hand and the recovered German Emperor's crown in the other, Germania stands alongside an imperial eagle.

The base of statue's pedestal bear's the inscription, "Zum Andenken An Die Einmuethige Siegreiche Erhebung Des Deutschen Volkes Und An Die Wiederaufrichtung Des Deutschen Reiches 1870-1871," "In memory of the unanimous victorious uprising of the German People and of the reinstitution of the German Empire 1870-1871." A little lower down the monument, flanking either side of the pedestal are two smaller statues, one representing war and the other symbolizing peace. In the middle of the monument, residing under another imperial eagle, is a relief depicting emperor Wilhelm I sitting astride his horse amidst an assemblage of sovereigns, army commanders and soldiers. Appearing just under the historical relief are the complete lyrics to Die Wacht am Rhein, a militaristic and patriotic anthem.

And, of course, would a monument on the Rhine really be complete unless it featured two very large figures sporting icons of the grape harvest at its very foundation?

Residing far down below the hill on the shores of the Rhine under the watchful gaze of Germania, the town of Rüdesheim is one of Germany's biggest tourist attractions, second only to the Cologne Cathedral. During warmer times of the year, tourists can even avail themselves of a gondola lift for transportation between the town and the Niederwalddenkmal Monument. Today, with only a few hours of sunlight remaining during the short days of early Winter, we just had time to walk around for a few minutes before hitting the road again. Although, I must concede, spectacular local attractions like the Mediaeval Torture Museum certainly sounded provocative.

Attack of the Killer Mice

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

-- The Children's Hour by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
As we continued driving along the edge of the Rhine, the river valley began to morph from an area of gently sloping banks into a steeper rocky gorge. A few minutes west of Bingen, we found ourselves within view of an old stone ruin precariously perched at the edge of a steep hill, nestled amongst several heavily terraced layers of vineyards. This structure was the remains of the 800 year old Ehrenfels Castle, operated for many years by the Archdiocese of Mainz as a customs station.

The heavily fortified castle lacked a clear commanding view of the river of its own, so a tall tower had been constructed on a small island situated in the middle of the Rhine, which provided it with a much more expansive view of approaching ships. A heavy chain would be stretched between the two towers so that all river traffic was effectively blocked until a ransom had been dutifully paid.

The Mäuseturm served basically as a lookout tower, constantly in search of ships from which it could forcibly extort heavy dues used to line the pockets of the Archdiocese of Mainz instead of using the funds to maintain the river channel. Any crew staffing ships who failed to comply with the extortionist demands, would be shot by crossbow from the platform of the tower.

According to popular folklore, Archbishop Hatto II was a man of many talents, both a deeply devout clergyman and also a cruel and sadistic oppressor of all peasants who resided within his domain. During a severe famine that inflicted the area in the year 974, the archbishop sequestered all available grain in his barns and would only sell it at prices well beyond what the people could afford.

When he learned that the peasants were none to pleased about this, Hatto II advised them all to assemble in an empty barn where he would bring food. Needless to say, the peasants were delighted and they all assembled in the specified barn to await the archbishop's arrival.

When Archbishop Hatto showed up, he ordered his servants to shut and lock the barn door and set the barn on fire. As the peasants burned to death, he remarked that, "They are like mice, only good for eating up the grain."

Having done the deed, Archbishop Hatto II returned to Ehrenfels Castle but was besieged by an army of mice. Trying to flee the angry horde, he took a boat across the river to the safety of his lookout tower but the mice swarmed into the Rhine and thousands of them began to crawl onto the island. Hatto II barricaded himself behind the tower's massive thick doors but the mice ate through the doors and followed him up to the top of the tower where they ate him alive.

The name of that tower, the Mäuseturm, means "Mouse Tower" in English. According to a popular 19th century poet, August Kopisch, "the Bishop's ghost appears every midnight pursued around the tower's battlements in a hellish light by hordes of glowing little mice."

And in at the windows and in at the door,
And through the walls helter-skelter they pour,
And down through the ceiling, and up through the floor,
From the right and the left, from behind and before,
From within and without, from above and below,
And all at once to the Bishop they go.

They have whetted their teeth against the stones,
And now they pick the Bishop’s bones;
They gnawed the flesh from every limb,
For they were sent to do judgment on him.

-- The Tradition of Bishop Hatto
Taking its Toll

A ship of stone, eternally afloat upon the Rhine, and eternally lying at anchor before the town Caub, this is the palace, the Pfalz

-- "The Rhine, A Tour from Paris to Mayence" by Victor Hugo
From the realm of the Mouse Tower, we continued on our drive along the Rheingau Riesling Route, passing through Assmannshausen on our side of the river and along Bacharach on the opposing shore. Further up the river, haze partially obscured the tall spire of the Church of St Martin's in the town of Oberwesel.

Once we arrived at the town of Kaub, we stopped for a closer look at a picturesque Baroque structure occupying a small rocky island in the middle of the river. The shape of Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, known simply as "the Pfalz" amongst its many friends and admirers, resembled a medieval battleship, which I suppose made a lot of sense given that its origins were medieval and it was conceived to do battle against ships. As was the custom at the time, a chain would be deployed across the river forcing passing ships to submit fees for the privilege of passing by.

The castle itself was not actually the customs station per se because its surrounding waters were much too swift and shallow to afford its prey a safe place to berth. Its primary function was to watch for ships and to draw their attention with a loud blast from a trumpet. At that point, the ships would be diverted to the actual toll station in the town of Kaub, where their merchandize was inspected and appropriate fees levied.

In later years, the castle was enhanced to include a series of corner turrets bearing a bastion of cannons pointing upstream, which made it the first castle in the middle Rhine to deploy the new fangled technique of artillery. This proved to be very effective at stopping ships when the trumpet failed to draw their attention. If traders still proved to be uncooperative, they would be thrown into the dungeon until their ransom was paid, a structure comprised of a wooden float residing deep within a well.

Despite numerous battles and conquests that plagued this area over the years, Pfalzgrafenstein Castle was never destroyed. Various occupying forces invariably recognized the great financial opportunities afforded by the tradition of the tolls so they would always happily maintain the Pfalz for their own purposes.

High on the edge of a rocky hill overlooking Kaub, Gutenfels Castle worked in concert with the Pfalz to extract tolls from river traffic. Originally named "Cube Castle" after its shape, one legend states that Gutenfels Castle was named after the "Lady Guta," a sister of the Count of Kaub, after she was won in a fighting tournament in Cologne.

The castle did not stand up very well to modern 17th century weapons and it was eventually handed over to Napoleon without a struggle in the latter part of the 18th century. Napoleon felt that he was not greeted with sufficient fanfare so he ordered the fortifications razed. In the 19th century, much of the woodwork and masonry were auctioned off and the remnants of the castle sold. However, it was then carefully renovated and now operates as the Castle Hotel Burg Gutenfels.

Die Lorelei

I cannot divine what it meaneth,
This haunting nameless pain:
A tale of the bygone ages
Keeps brooding through my brain:

The faint air cools in the gloaming,
And peaceful flows the Rhine,
The thirsty summits are drinking
The sunset's flooding wine;
The loveliest maiden is sitting
High-throned in yon blue air,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She combs her golden hair;

She combs with comb that is golden,
And sings a weird refrain
That steeps in a deadly enchantment
The listener's ravished brain:
The doomed in his drifting shallop,
Is tranced with the sad sweet tone,
He sees not the yawing breakers,
He sees but the maid alone:

The pitiless billwos engulf him!-
So perish sailor and bark;
And this, with her baleful singing,
Is the Lorelei's gruesome work.

-- An ancient legend of the Rhine, Mark Twain's translation of Die Lorelei by Heinrich Heine
According to local legend, Lorelei was a maiden from Bacharach who took her own life by throwing herself off the top of a steep cliff into the turbulent waters of the Rhine river when she learned her lover was unfaithful. Reincarnated as a siren, she would lure navigators to their doom with the sounds of her hypnotizing voice.

Brigitte and I arrived in the realm of the Lorelei via a comparatively safer route, by car. After we ascended the winding road that led up to the top of the 433 foot high slate promontory overlooking the Rhine Gorge, we were obliged to walk very gingerly along ice-encrusted stone pathways, lest we join the dismal fate of numerous generations of sailors in the gaping maw of the river far below us.

Lorelei resides at the very narrowest point of the Rhine, where treacherous shallow shoals abut the depths of the river and the current is swift and turbulent. The name of the rocky cliff is thought to derive from "lureln," the old Rhine dialect word for murming and "ley," the old Celtic term for rock. Indeed, well before the noise of modern civilization intruded upon the area, a murmuring sound emanated from the heavy currents of the river and a nearby small waterfall, further amplified by the acoustical echoes of the rock. This echo was said to be wailing song of Lorelei.

Cat and Mouse

As I stood on the icy edge of the precipice, I glanced northward, along a sharp bend in the river. Above the town of Sankt Goarshausen, a large castle was perched on an outsized rocky ledge, just a stone's throw from the rooftops of the village, sporting two tall towers that resembled the ears of a cat. Burg Katz had been built in the latter part of the 14th century by Count Wilhelm II of Katzenelnbogen to use as a military base and to help form a fortified barrier used to enforce Rhine river tolls.

Even further north along the Rhine Gorge, I could barely make out the faint outlines of Burg Maus through the thick haze that had been steadily gaining momentum in the valley. At the time considered somewhat of a threat to Burg Katz, this castle had been built by the Archbishop of Trier, ruler of an opposing electorate. Originally called Burg Peterseck, its sponsors had much more limited resources than the residents of Burg Katz, who once declared that "the mouse would be eaten by the cat." It has been known as the "Mouse Castle" ever since. These days, the reconstructed structure of Burg Katz serves as a private boarding school, whereas the rebuilt remains of Burg Maus now hosts an aviary.

As I faced southward along the deep river gorge, the sun's low position in the sky spawned long shadows amongst the trees, shrubs, grasses and ice covered rocks. Beyond that, a very sharp bend of the river hid a long panoply of scenic Rhine towns and villages situated just beyond our field of view.

The Ice Burg

From the mythical domain of the Lorelei, Brigitte and I continued further north along the Rhine until we came upon the town of Braubach, characterized by numerous narrow streets populated with many half timbered buildings, some dating from the 16th century. Near the entrance to town, we drove past the Obertor, the "upper gate," the eastern-most gate in what had once been the city-wall, formerly used as checkpoint on the trade-route to Wiesbaden. These days, one can rent a conference room at the top of the tower.

High on a hill overlooking Braubach, the impressive edifice of Burg Marksburg dominated the skyline, just as it had long ago dominated the political and military climate of the region. Its main claim to fame is that it is the only fully preserved castle on the Rhine, an accomplishment due in no small part to the fact that it has never been overtaken or destroyed.

In the early part of the 13th century, the fortress had been known, appropriately enough, as "Braubach Castle" and underwent a series of ownership changes over the years, as its might and power grew. During seven hundred years of occupation, the castle's design and structure grew and evolved as its needs and functionality changed over time.

Conceived primarily as a refuge during hostile times, it was often left unoccupied during the relatively rare times of peace. In later years, the castle sometimes housed disabled soldiers and also operated as a state prison; later on it had even been used as apartments. These days, the castle is owned and operated by the German Castles Association, under whose auspices it has undergone a series of major renovations.

The castle's current name, Marksburg is derived from one its earliest structures, Markuskapelle, "St Mark's Chapel," on the first floor of the chapel tower. According to a popular legend, Elizabeth, the daughter of the original lord of the castle, Seigneur von Eppstein had the hots for a local knight, Siegbert von Lahnstein. Siegbert ran off to do battle with Bohemia, which was a popular hobby at the time and never returned, which was also somewhat of a tradition at the time.

A young monk named brother Mark, who had been named to honor the patron saint of the chapel, Saint Mark the Evangelist, took pity on the grieving Elizabeth and tried to give her emotional support, possibly with privileges. A year later, Rochus von Andechs materialized at the castle, alleging to be a cousin of the deceased Siegbert and thereby claimed the inheritance of the property, which I suppose included Elizabeth.

Although Rochus could offer all that a maiden could ever desire in that era, money and power, Elizabeth had bad vibes about him, complaining that he was emotionally distant. She shared her innermost thoughts and yearnings with her monk friend, who also claimed to not trust Rochus. Rochus was not too thrilled about the monk either and Elizabeth's father was fairly oblivious to the whole thing, not quite understanding what all the righteous Rochus ruckus was about.

By now, the official legend refers to Rochus as the "Black Knight," which definitely makes the legend more legendary. On the night before Elizabeth's wedding, the monk Mark prayed to St Mark for Elizabeth's happiness and the safety of her soul. Miraculously, St Mark appeared before monk Mark, warning him that the Black Knight belonged to Satan. St Mark presented the monk with a Holy Cross, advising him to touch the Black Knight with it.

When the Black Knight showed up for the wedding, monk Mark hit him across the chest with a right "Cross," whereupon the Black Knight was swallowed up by the earth. I suppose that the story is rather weak as miracles go but it was evidently a good enough yarn for Burg Braubach to be renamed "Marksburg."

On our drive up the winding road to the castle entrance, we passed through a hilly landscape liberally covered with abundant trees and vegetation. However, the scenic vista was also scarred by the presence of three large unsightly smokestacks belonging to the Berzelius Metall Group, Europe's largest car battery recycling plant. At the time of the castle's origin, this same area had been the site of a very profitable silver mine that had been granted to the original Lord of the castle as part of his fiefdom.

We eventually pulled into a large parking that contained only a few other vehicles. As we walked up several very steep flights of stairs, we found many of the steps and the safety railing to be covered with thick patches of ice, which made walking a little precarious at times. In warmer climes, when the castle is besieged by hundreds of visitors and finding a parking space becomes more of a competitive tournament, visitors can also commute to the castle via a tourist shuttle that leaves from the old town section of Braubach.

From the top of the stairs, we arrived at the first of four gates, the drawbridge gate, which led directly to a vaulted tunnel. We emerged into a small open courtyard alongside of which was an antiquarian bookshop, formerly the residence of the castle's gatekeeper. In front of us, the fuchstor, or "fox gate," led to another stone passageway that ended at the Schartentor, or "Notches Gate." At one time, defenders of the castle would smash in the heads of invaders by bombarding them with stones from a balcony above the gate.

No Tours for You!!!

The time was now approaching 4:00 PM and several other tourists were milling about the area. However, a few minutes later, a somewhat larger cadre of heavily dressed visitors slowly emerged from beyond the "fox gate," led by a woman who appeared to be a staff member. Knowing that visitors are only permitted to enter the castle under the auspices of an official guide, we asked her about a tour but were curtly informed that there would be no more tours for the day.

The attendant, whose sour facial expression indicated a profound level of spiritual pain that must have permeated the very depths of her soul, essentially slammed the door in our face. I wondered briefly whether she could have staffed the towers many hundreds of years ago in the formative days of the fortress. Or perhaps she was a sister of the Black Night? In any case, it was abundantly clear that Markburg Castle's very formidable defenses that had so effectively deterred limitless legions of pesky invaders throughout its long history had been brought to bear on us and evidently still worked quite well.

And lest the staffer's abrupt dismissal not been sufficiently clear to us, an elderly female visitor who had herself undoubtedly just emerged from somewhere deep within the castle's torture chambers, brusquely turned to us and said in a very sharply worded tone, "You should have come earlier!!!," her every angry syllable spat out and enunciated like a handful of knives stabbing at helpless livestock.

As is my custom, I figured that I would try filming her especially photogenic visage for posterity, just as I had done for the younger version of herself who had just slammed the castle door in our faces. However, she just turned away quickly in disgust, which I suppose is just as well, or I might have been unceremoniously tossed over the battlements, along with my camera.

With all that said and done, Brigitte and I wandered around the public areas for a while, admiring the expansive view of the town of Braubach set against the hazy backdrop of the Rhine river far below us. We walked past walls of ice-covered masonry and thickets of frost-encrusted shrubbery that well matched the icy disposition of the lady of the castle. After a brief visit to the ancient public toilet and ye medieval gift shop, we proceeded to trundle back down the stairs to her car, as a luminous half moon peaked at us from amongst the towers and battlements of the fortress.

Dinner Mit Musik

We had traveled as far as Koblenz during our journey alongside the Rhine but the sky soon began to grow dim and we figured it was time for us to high tail it back to Frankfurt. Of course, there were several important obligations on our way back, such as stopping to load up on chocolate, but we made it back to the city in due time for dinner.

We decided to dine in Brigitte's neighborhood, the Sachsenhausen district, located on the south bank of the Main river, across from the old town district. One of this neighborhood's main claims to fame is that it is home to several well known traditional cider houses, purveyors of Apfelwein that can be easily identified by a wreath of evergreen branches adorning their entrances.

Apfelwein is often the least expensive alcoholic beverage in the region and is consequently exceedingly popular. As a matter of fact, local law requires that Apfelwein be the cheapest alcoholic beverage for sale by any public house. At an alcohol content upwards of 7%, it is traditionally served in a Geripptes, a 0.3 or half liter glass that is cut in a pattern that refracts light. This specific type of serrated pattern is considered very practical because it provides a much firmer grip for greasy hands that might have opted to forgo cutlery.

These days, many of the Apfelwein restaurants use a quarter liter glass as their standard and patrons often derisively refer to the smaller glass as a Beschisserglas, or a "rip-off glass." For thirstier patrons, Apfelwein is sometimes served in a Bembel, a rotund blue and grey stoneware jug that can hold a liter or more of liquid.

We chose to grab a bite at a very popular local establishment, Zum Gemalten Haus, "To the Painted House," well known, quite appropriately, for the extensive array of murals and frescoes that adorn its walls. Established in the late 19th century, Brigitte's uncle was the artist who was responsible for much of its extensive collection of murals, many of which depict scenes from life in Sachsenhausen, greater Frankfurt and the surrounding Rheinhessen area.

Ninety five kegs filled with 15,000 liters of apple wine are stored in the restaurant's cellar, which guarantees that they are well prepared to quench the needs of the thirsty. According to their web site, patrons "sit together and talk about God and the world. You drink a pint of cider and enjoy typical Frankfurter specialties."

The restaurant was crowded and noisy, clearly quite popular amongst both locals and visitors. We started out with the first of several rounds of Apfelwein, mine served straight and Brigitte's diluted with a little mineral water. I ordered a dish of Rippchen, some very traditional fare comprised of cured pork shoulder cutlets and sauerkraut. In addition to some bratwurst, we also ordered two other very traditional local dishes, eggs with Grüne Soße and Handkäse mit Musik.

Said to be Goethe's favorite grub, the former dish was comprised of four hard boiled egg halves and boiled potatoes served in a mayonnaise-like sour cream and yogurt sauce combined with at least seven herbs, most typically parsley, chives, dill, sorrel, chervil, salad burnet and borage. The latter dish consisted of a large blob of pungent Handkäse, hand cheese, which has been softened by vinegar into a translucent, gelatinous mass.

It is typically sprinkled with caraway seeds and topped with fresh chopped onions and the local Hessian populace is said to take special delight in introducing foreigners to the nuances of its unique flavors and bouquet. The "mit musik" in the name of the dish refers to the very professional level of flatulence typically induced by its consumption.

After a great meal that incorporated lots of food, abundant Apfelwein and plenty of "musik," Brigitte graciously dropped me off at the Le Méridien where I thanked her for a fascinating day and her wonderful hospitality while fährting through the Rhine.

Gambling With Check-in

When I last flew out of FRA in late August, I had asked the UA check-in agent whether I could upgrade to first class using one of my system wide upgrades but she quite correctly explained that my Z fare was non-upgradeable. My current situation was that I had already been upgraded to first class but wanted to avoid engaging in any sort of risky behavior that would increase the odds of losing my seat in the pointy end of the plane. To my mind, minimizing this risk meant that I should ensure that very few human eyes would be in a position to scrutinize the details of my reservation.

A very easy way to accomplish this task would have been to check in on line well before I arrived at the airport. However, after a very long day spent escaping from Cologne, touring the Rhine, drinking Apfelwein and making "musik," I was quite pooped by the time I arrived back at my hotel. The bottom line was that I had never gotten around to checking in for my flight but I figured that it did not present much of a problem because I could always avail myself of an "Easy Chicken" kiosk at the airport.

After a very efficient check out from the Le Méridien at 7:45 AM, I walked over to the sparsely populated Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof in about five minutes. I soon purchased my train ticket and quickly found myself at the appropriate S-Bahn platform with a few minutes to spare.

Given that "Easy Chicken" kiosks are quite ubiquitous at so many other UA stations, I had not anticipated that I would have a problem locating one at FRA. However, even after several circumnavigations of the terminal, I was unable to locate any at all! There appeared to be some paid internet services in the general area but it did not seem like any of them offered printing services.

Not wanting to risk losing my first class seat, I was not quite sure what I should do at that point. I was just about to bite the bullet and risk interacting with UA personnel, when I vaguely remembered passing by a very distinctive business during my past few visits to this airport. I knew that it was somewhat of a long shot but I reversed my steps and strode back in the direction of the train station where I found what I was looking for. Just to the right of the escalator was a diminutive casino sandwiched between terminal one and the regional train station, a somewhat anomalous enterprise easily identified by the sound of slot machines and the stench of cheap cigarettes wafting through its entrance.

As soon as I opened the door, I was transported to an alternative reality, an alien universe comprised principally of the cacophonous clamor of electronics and video games, all of which were well immersed in a thick noxious fog of stale, smoky air. The master of this universe was an older, zaftig woman wearing some raggedy clothing and a sullen expression. When I queried the saturnine matron about the possibility of internet access with the ability to print, she pointed to a preprinted list of prices and asked me to "show her the money."

Having satisfied herself with my presentation of a handful of euros harvested from the nether regions of my pocket, she led me into a back room that contained two computers and instructed me to feed coins into a slot and then to feed in some more coins after that. Soon enough, I was on line, logged in and checked into my flight. One minor problem was that the number of minutes of internet access afforded by my payment seemed quite limited, if not random. The other problem was that additional money was required to actually print a boarding pass.

Even with the expert help of a nearby Russian pilot using the adjoining computer, the best I could do was to coerce my first boarding pass out of the machine, and even that was formatted oddly. Nevertheless, that was all I needed for my flight out of FRA and with my new boarding pass firmly clutched in my grasp, I strode back in the direction of the terminal. On the way out, I thanked the casino caretaker, who I suppose really was wasn't that unfriendly, despite her surreal resemblance to a certain grotesque female protagonist in a Lina Wertmuller movie.

My original plan had been to hook up with a small assemblage of other Flyertalkers who would be gathering in the terminal B Lufthansa Senator lounge this morning. Needless to say, I was somewhat disappointed when I saw that my flight to IAD was scheduled to depart from terminal A. I was even more disappointed when I learned that my flight was already delayed by at least 90 minutes.

There were very few other passengers at customs, immigration and security at this mid morning hour on Sunday and none of the personnel looked askance at my peculiar looking boarding pass. Once these formalities were complete, it was a very short walk to the terminal A Lufthansa Senator lounge, where I was welcomed cordially by the concierge. The lounge itself was even smaller than the one in terminal B and proved to be just as crowded.

However, I was fortunate to find a vacant computer in which to park myself for the long haul, and I monopolized this machine for the duration, checking email, browsing Flyertalk and pursuing other equally admirable endeavors. As with the terminal B lounge, this lounge was very well staffed by attendants who paraded a steady stream of consumables out of the kitchen.

After several visits to the buffet, a trip to the frankfurter cart, two trips to the pasta bar and many helpings of Wodka Gorbatschow 44, I felt reasonably primed to place my fate in the hands of UA and see what they had in store for me for the day. Little did I know at the time, but my fears about losing my first seat class seat were not entirely unfounded. I would later be asked to move further back in the plane and wind up flying all the way back from Germany with Ted!

Flying in F with Ted

With 45 minutes remaining before my delayed flight to IAD was scheduled to depart, a Lufthansa concierge wandered over to my computer to advise me that my departure gate was a considerable distance from the lounge. This was an especially nice gesture given that I was not even traveling on a Lufthansa flight. I was even more appreciative of her thoughtfulness when I opted to heed her advice and it really did prove to be a much longer trek than I had anticipated.

Once I arrived at the gate, boarding was in full swing but when I submitted my boarding pass, I became somewhat concerned when the gate agent told me that I would need to obtain a new one. I explained that I had become quite emotionally attached to my old boarding pass, especially after having held onto it for so long during the delay but she insisted on printing a new one anyway. Nevertheless, my seat assignment remained unchanged and I proceeded through the jetway and quickly took my seat … on a waiting bus.

After a reasonably short bus tour around the tarmac, I trundled up a flight of stairs and into the awaiting maw of the F cabin, where I promptly staked claim to my assigned seat in 2A. After a few minutes, I noticed a little commotion in front of the cabin and looked up to see several flight attendants assist what appeared to be a very frail and elderly woman to the seat in front of me. I soon returned back to my very important duties and obligations, including making myself comfortable and faithfully signing the "United Voices" page in the Hemispheres magazine.

A short while later, I discerned an oddly familiar voice nearby, distinguished by a tone that was concomitantly subdued and resonant. A moment later, two flight attendants approached my seat and asked me if I wouldn't mind switching seats with a passenger who wanted to sit closer to his wife. Their tone was very friendly and respectful and as far as I am concerned, one seat in international first was mostly as good as any other, Mr Pillows viewpoint on the matter notwithstanding. As I gathered up my belongings and undertook my long migration to seat 3J, Ted Koppel approached me and profusely thanked me for switching seats with him.

What I did not know at the time was that the "elderly" woman sitting in front of me was not really that elderly at all. She was actually his wife and the reason she appeared so frail was that she was suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a progressive and often fatal disease whose symptoms include both emphysema, chronic obstructive bronchitis and often both conditions concurrently.

She had been first diagnosed with COPD in 2001 and has since become the national spokesperson for the "Learn More, Breathe Better" campaign. During an interview with Katie Couric in 2007, she explained, "We're all going to die; we're all going to have the toe tag, and it's going to say something and it's most probable that my toe tag is going to say COPD. But we've got to face these things in life and say, 'What can I do to make my life most productive, most enjoyable and most healthy,' and I made that choice." ^

The service on the flight was exemplary and all of the flight attendants were very friendly and attentive, including a number of them who had wandered in from other cabins just to stop by and say, "hi" to me. The only downside of my newly adopted seat was a stillborn entertainment system, an oft too common occurrence in UA cabins these days. Sometimes, the old adage that "no good deed goes unpunished" really does appear to be true at times but at least Grace Anne Dorney Koppel could sit near her husband on the relatively short ride to IAD.

Even the food itself was not too bad, at least by UA's recently diminishing standards. Service began with an appetizer comprised of smoked prawns in a tomato sauce, followed by creamy carrot ginger soup. After the salad course, I opted to continue my German food theme by ordering a roasted bone-in pork chop in a dark beer sauce, served with caraway potatoes and Savoy cabbage, all of the above generously accompanied by my beverage of choice, Tanqueray.

Maintaining a balanced diet has always been such an important preoccupation with me that I made sure to enjoy a healthy portion of one the most important of all food groups, ice cream, since I had not consumed any for several days. Shortly before landing, a snack was served, comprised of a spinach and smoked chicken bruschetta.

As I stepped out of the F cabin and onto the jetway, Ted shook my hand and once more thanked me for switching seats so he could be near his wife. From the jetway, it was a short walk to the customs and immigration gauntlet, which turned out to be uncharacteristically empty. However, one officious official stopped me because he could not possibly grasp why I had no checked luggage. My casual answer that I fly on United seemed to satisfy him and I was then permitted to proceed on my way without any additional verbal molestation.

As a result of our late departure from FRA, my three hour connection to my PDX flight had dwindled to less than hour but that still left me a little time to pay a brief visit to the international first class lounge, if only symbolically. Recent Flyertalk discussions had suggested that new rule changes limited access only to passengers departing in international first but they graciously permitted me access without any unnecessary resistance or rancor. As it was, I only hung around the lounge for a mere 20 minutes before starting on my very long schlep to the farthest flung reaches of IAD at gate D20. Boarding for my A319 flight to PDX was already well underway by the time I arrived but I was able to avail myself of the red carpet boarding line to bypass the majority of the teaming throng.

Flying With a Tight Wad

The flight attendant who served the eight passengers residing in the F cabin on the six hour flight to PDX was quite pleasant and affable but I had very little need to avail myself of any of his services other than frequent helpings of diet Coke. The fare UA chose to show on the diminutive Airbus monitor did not prove to be especially engaging and almost made me reminisce nostalgically about the malfunctioning entertainment system on my "Ted flight" earlier that day. The food delivered to me on a single meal tray was equally uninspiring but I had been stuffing my face with extreme prejudice over the last eight hours so my food needs really were quite minimal by that point.

Although the video choices offered by UA were not very entertaining, I cannot say the same thing about the real-life antics of the passenger who occupied the bulkhead seat just in front of me. He spent a significant portion of the fight counting all of his money.

A large satchel parked near his feet appeared to contain innumerable wads of currency, all very tightly bound together in neatly bundled stacks. He would grab a stack of bills from his satchel, unbind them and then proceed to meticulously count each bill on his tray, one at a time. Once all the bills had been enthusiastically counted, he would stack them back on top of one another with great precision, each realignment requiring careful and deliberate taps on the tray. Then, he would deftly rebind the tight wad of money and place it neatly back into his satchel, whereupon he would withdraw his next wad of bills.

Oh, what I would have given for a nice gust of wind at an opportune moment. I valiantly tried to redirect my air vent but I could not quite vector it to the necessary angle of attack.

At the very least, I thought I should document the entire procedure and perhaps someday post a Youtube instructional video documenting money counting techniques but the fellow did not seem to be quite as enamored with the idea as I was. I suspect that the yellow dot that appeared on his bulkhead when my camera's focusing apparatus kicked in was probably a giveaway. So, the best I can come up with under the circumstances, is a semi-graphical reenactment of his methodology, which looked something like this:

An Icy Reception

All good things must come to an end and the same adage applies equally well to the more mundane aspects of life, such as dull domestic transcon trips. Many hours later, as we finally began our descent into the PDX area, I casually glanced outside my window and became concerned when I saw a terrible vision outside the plane.

There was clear indication of very significant precipitation hurdling past the plane. And it was not just any precipitation, it appeared to be a dense conglomeration of frozen precipitation as was evidenced by the copious amounts of thick snow particles that were frozen in space by the strobe lights mounted on the plane's wing tip.

Indeed, by the time we had landed at PDX, several inches of thick and wet snow had already fallen, as opushomes pointed out when he picked me up in his four wheel drive vehicle. By the time we arrived within a half mile or so of my apartment, high in the hills of a Portland suburb, a subtle hint of rain had only then begun to enter into the mix but by then it was too little too late.

We could conceive of no safe way for his vehicle to descend the steep, ice-covered hill that leads into my apartment complex. Quite frankly, there was really no safe way to walk down the steep hill either but we figured that I could do a lot less damage to surrounding structures and vehicles if I fell down than if his vehicle careened down the hill out of control.

As a result, the last quarter mile or so of my journey was reminiscent of the way I had started it, surrounded by snow. But this time I was confronted with a long, chilly trudge over several inches of snow accrued on top of thick layers of ice, facing a cold and biting wind, further encumbered by carrying a bag in each hand. I shuffled along as slowly and carefully as I could, sometimes stooping down so low to the ground that my walk was tantamount to a crawl. But I eventually made it back safely and could finally look forward to some much needed rest.

By early the next morning, there was no remaining evidence that it had ever snowed at all. Portland's very efficient snow removal technology had kicked in much as it had done so many times in the past. It was just a shame that the rain that had thoroughly washed away all of the snow had not had the consideration to arrive in the area just a few hours earlier.

I have now been back home for two months, certainly more than enough time for me to contemplate hitting the road again. I initially figured that I might swing by Sri Lanka but I think I'll defer that trip for a little while longer given the recent escalation of violence that has plagued that strife torn country for so many years. But that's where Indra is stuck right now, ensconced on her tea plantation high in the hill country in Bandarawela. And she will probably still be marooned there until well into April.

In the meantime, I think I'll poke around northern Thailand for a bit early next month and then return to Cologne to meander around Europe once Indra arrives safely back in town. But wherever I venture, I have just one very simple request. Ted Koppel, wherever you are, please stay out of my seat!

LarryU is offline  

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