…A Few of My Favorite Things – Part 1

With relatives in town, James and I have gotten to show off some of our favorite places, visit places we’ve been wanting to see, and search for new sites to explore. Here are some highlights of week 1:

Chagall window in St. Stephan's, Mainz
Chagall window in St. Stephan’s, Mainz

• Mainz: Some things old, something new
No trip to Mainz would be complete without a walk around town, an exploration of the Dom (cathedral), and beer and pretzels with Spundekas’ (a local soft cheese dip). We also finally got to see St. Stephan’s, a church famous for its windows, in the daylight. These stained glass windows are a creation of the artist Marc Chagall. Although they consist of simple shapes and are painted entirely in shades of blue, the windows appear very striking and complex. Their appearance changes throughout the day according to the natural light outside.

Marksburg overlooking the Rhein
Marksburg overlooking the Rhein

• Marksburg Castle: Great local riverside castle
For details on this castle, see my original visit: Marksburg. The main difference this time was that we went on a Wednesday afternoon instead of a weekend, which meant there were fewer visitors. We basically got a private tour of the castle after enjoying the sunny weather from the castle café terrace.

Schloss Heidelberg close-up
Schloss Heidelberg close-up
River Neckar in Heidelberg
River Neckar in Heidelberg

• Heidelberg: Fantastic third visit, this time with castle close-up
Perfect spring weather set the backdrop for our most recent visit to Heidelberg.  Music to set the mood:  “Memories of Heidelberg.”  This time we maneuvered by car along a narrow, switchback road up a steep hill to Schloss (Castle) Heidelberg. Previously I had only seen it from the quaint Altstadt (old city area) below. Once we had wandered through the Altstadt as far as the old bridge, we saw many people enjoying the spring afternoon on the River Neckar in rowboats and atop stand-up paddle boats.

Düsseldorf ship museum
Düsseldorf ship museum
Rainy view of the Rhein from the top of the museum tower
Rainy view of the Rhein from the top of the museum tower

• Düsseldorf: Of ships, churches, and market stands
That sums the trip up in a nutshell. About two hours northwest of here, we made a brief stop in Düsseldorf on a rainy day on the way to visit other relatives. In short, we visited a ship museum, St. Lambertus Church, and the town’s open air market.

First glimpse up at Köln Dom
First glimpse up at Köln Dom
Main aisle of the Köln Dom
Main aisle of the Köln Dom

• Köln: New favorite German city?
The visit to Köln was unreal: Most of the day consisted of intermittent drizzle but ended with a rainbow. This city is in the same direction as Düsseldorf but about twenty minutes closer. We spent most of the trip exploring the Köln Dom, and most of that time in a spiral staircase climbing its 520 stairs for an amazing view of Köln from a height of about 157 meters (515 feet). I should note that the Ulm Münster, also constructed in the middle ages and completed hundreds of years later, is an even taller church.

One of the walls of bones in St. Ursula's
One of the walls of bones in St. Ursula’s

A more eccentric highlight of our trip was a visit to St. Ursula’s Basilika, home to a chamber walled on all four sides with displays of human bones. The bones are said to be associated with a legend of St. Ursula, whose traveling companions were killed in battle when they arrived in Köln. The bones are artistically arranged into patterns and letters as though they were simply pieces of wood. After this macabre sight, the sun came out in time for us to see the Köln Dom adorned with a rainbow. And before heading home, we stopped into a small carry-out place for currywurst and fries.

Silver lining to a rainy day at Köln Dom
Silver lining to a rainy day at Köln Dom

Daffodil Sunday

Daffodils outside of every store on Daffodil Sunday
Daffodils outside of every store on Daffodil Sunday

With Fasching finished, Germany moves on to celebrating the next holiday – Easter – in street festival fashion. Various towns host a small day- or weekend-long Ostermarkt (Easter market) between this month and next, leading up to the spring holiday. Many households have already hung colorful plastic eggs from trees in their yards and set bunny decorations out. While these are sold at the markets, Ostermarkts are not only for Easter decorations. As Easter and spring stand for a new beginning, so the Ostermarkt provides an opportunity for car companies to showcase their new models in the town squares and stores to promote their spring sales.

Daffodil Sunday, Bad Camberg's Easter market, in the market square
Daffodil Sunday, Bad Camberg’s Easter market, in the market square

Last weekend, James and I drove about half an hour north to visit Bad Camberg for Narzissen-Sonntag (Daffodil Sunday), their Ostermarkt festival. We followed the sound of light music and a trail of potted daffodils in front of shops along a cobblestone street to the Marktplatz (Market Square), the center of the festival. Here townspeople drifted around drinking apple wine, buying goulash and flammkuchen (a crispy flatbread with soft cheese, onions, and bacon) from small scattered street booths, and peering into the new car models displayed around a bare tree decorated with child-made paper eggs. Many of the surrounding stores had put out their spring cleaning gear (brooms, mops, etc.) in addition to Easter art and decorations. After waiting in a long line for an ice cream cone, we made sure to buy a large metal egg with a rabbit painted on it before heading out. Small celebrations like this make spring a little more fun.

Bunnies, daffodils, and spring cleaning equipment for sale
Bunnies, daffodils, and spring cleaning equipment for sale

What is Fasching All About?

Fasching, Karneval, Fastnacht… It’s all a last grand hurrah before the somber pre-Easter season of lent begins.  And the way Germany does it puts the somewhat festive American Mardi Gras to shame.  Mainz rivals the city of Köln to put on one of the best and biggest Karneval celebrations in Germany.  But I must say that downtown Wiesbaden and Mainz-Kastel put on enthusiastic shows too.  So what is Fasching all about anyway, you ask?  Here it is in a nutshell:

Even Gutenberg gets into the Fasching spirit in Mainz
  • Weiberfastnacht/Schmotziger Donnerstag (Donnerstag = Thursday) kicks off the Karneval seaon the week before Ash Wednesday.  And the first day belongs to the ladies.  On this day, to symbolize their power, women are allowed to cut any man’s tie in half.
    Huge crowds gather for Mainz’s Rosenmontag parade

    More crowds in front of Mainz’s theater
  • Rosenmontag (Montag = Monday) before Ash Wednesday is the biggest party day of Karneval.  This day features the largest crowds, parades, and parties.

    Post-parade confetti in Mainz
  • Fastnacht Dienstag (Dienstag = Tuesday), AKA Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, is the final day of Karneval.  It’s also a day for celebrating, though not as important as Rosenmontag.

    Animal marching band in downtown Wiesbaden’s big parade on Sunday
  • Costumes:  Not just for kids.  Germans young, old, and in between don costumes to watch parades and party in the street.  Costumes range from any kind of animal you can imagine to clowns, jesters, dolls, Smurfs, babies, pirates, and a small handful of “scarier” costumes like witches and monsters.  During Karneval, towns belong to the Narren and Närrinnen (fools) so most of the costumes are rather cute and silly.  On Ash Wednesday, the fools supposedly return the key to the city to their mayor.
    A Fasching float in Wiesbaden

    Colorful balloon costumes in Mainz-Kastel’s parade on Saturday
  • Parades begin at 11:11 a.m. or 11 or 33 minutes after another afternoon hour.  The official start to the Karneval season is November 11 (11/11) so the parade schedules traditionally adhere to multiples of 11.  Marching bands, dance groups, and floats pulled by tractors parade through the streets for literally hours on end during each of the main Fastnacht days.  Costumed parade members shower the costumed spectators with candy, bags of popcorn, small toys, and confetti.  Street sweepers follow the tail end of the parade, tidying up the streets.

    “Helau! Helau! Helau!” from Wiesbaden
  • “Helau” vs. “Alaaf”:  In the Mainz area, cries of “Helau!” (Hehl-ow) can be heard as greetings to other costumed strangers and parade groups.  Three “Helau”’s are often shouted at the parade groups as they pass.  In Köln, however, the standard Karneval greeting is “Alaaf!”
    Parade spectators showered with confetti in front of Wiesbaden’s Rathaus (town hall)

    A band on parade in Mainz-Kastel. Red, yellow, blue, and white are popular Fasching colors.
  • Musik is loud and upbeat.  A mix of traditional German songs, modern German dance music, and many remixes combining the two styles set an energetic tone for the parades and street festivals.  Dancing is also popular for young people in makeshift nightclub tents.

    Drunkard float in Mainz-Kastel
  • Alkohol is (hopefully) never more abused here than during Karneval.  Because of open-carry laws, beer, wine, and schnapps can be consumed in the streets.  And this seems to be the time that people take it to the extreme, starting before 11:11 a.m. in some cases.  Unfortunately, this leads not only to overly friendly and wound-up spectators, but also a lot of glass underfoot.
    Mainz’s street festival next to the Dom (cathedral)
  • Festival food, rides, and games provide an ongoing fun and festive atmosphere in the town squares.  This is the first time I’ve spotted popcorn in Germany, though most of the street food smells are very sweet:  candied nuts, gingerbread, cotton candy, and crepes.  In addition, you can find hearty, tasty meal foods like bratwurst and fries.
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    Giant heads in Mainz’s Saturday parade