From Saltiest Deeps to Snowiest Peaks

From Saltiest Deeps to Snowiest Peaks

There’s something wholly overwhelming about the Alps in winter. Even when, as they were when we first arrived at our wide-roofed Alpine lodge one frosty night a few weeks ago, hidden beneath sleepy sheets of fog.

The culture of this area, namely that made up of Bavaria in southern Germany and its neighbor Austria, has developed a tough edge in response to the bitter cold and the sheer rawness of nature. This is where the tradition of Krampus was born, a demon armed with a switch who takes bad children away at Christmas time. This is where heavy, hearty foods and great mugs of beer tide people over through the cold days and long winter nights. Even the traditional Lederhosen attire and oompah bands seem to project a forceful presence within the dark paneled walls of a cozy Alpine inn.

Our adventures in the Alps began in the salt mines of the sleepy German town of Berchtesgaden, just near the Austrian border. Deep under the mountains, salt mining has been a major industry for some 500 years. Like the miners, we rode an open mining train down through the tunnels, clad in dark blue canvas work uniforms and straddling a wooden bench in a line with other visitors on our guided tour. Adventures abounded underground between explanations of the history of the mines: We slid down two steep mining slides at different points in the tour to delve further into the mountain; took a boat across a shallow underground lake as salty as the Dead Sea; and rode a funicular at the end to climb back up to meet our mining train again and reach the surface.

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A miner points the way to the Berchtesgaden mine
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Salt mine entrance
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Giant replica of iodized salt canister
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Salt rock
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Mountain entrance sign with miners’ slide

Truly, I felt the only thing missing from the tour was the clink of the mining tools and the uplifting ring of traditional mining songs. As if in answer to this thought, a CD of Berchtesgaden miner tunes was for sale at the gift shop alongside the expected array of salts in every grade and seasoning combination, including bath salts. We let the miners serenade us on the hour or so car ride from Berchtesgaden to the Austrian ski resort town of Sankt Veit im Pongau, belting out the local miner’s greeting of “Glück auf!” (a phrase literally meaning something like “good luck”) every so often along the snowy mountain roads.

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Nightfall in Sankt Veit im Pongau, Austria

Past field and farm and small town after small town of little wooden homes with low slanted roofs, the transition from Bavaria to Austria was imperceptible. As I had decided skiing was not for me after a few lessons in previous years, I found other ways to enjoy the scenic mountain area this time. I spent the first day at a thermal spa with some friends, swimming around from indoors to outdoors in the naturally heated pool surrounded by the majestic Alps. A few vacationers there would get out to leisurely walk around in or rub themselves with snow and then get back in the steamy water. “No thanks!” I thought, shaking my head while reclined neck-deep in the thermal bath.

Just like the German spas, this one had a complete cafeteria-style restaurant, massages and other spa services, a clothing-free sauna, a fitness room, and more.

On our last day, after some searching around, I went off hiking alone near the ski slopes to a narrow gorge called the Liechtensteinklamm. Parts of the area, including part of the entry road not maintained in winter, are closed for the season so it was an enter-at-your-own risk but still not very difficult trail. Signs warning of the risks of avalanche and falling rocks reminded me that I was at the mercy of the Alps. I only saw a handful of people walking their contented dogs during the roughly three hours that I hiked, large papery snowflakes falling all the while. Silence punctuated only by my boots plodding through the powdery snow and the occasional sound of a bird calling or a squirrel cracking nuts reigned under a muted sky.

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No winter maintenance: Enter at your own risk

 

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Liechtensteinklamm gorge
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Snow falling through the woods
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Mountain stream
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Hiking back through farmland

It was the very essence of nature. These are the Alps.

Glück auf!

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Castle Höhenwerfen in Austria
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An International Day of Remembrance

Today, January 27, is International Holocaust Memorial Day. Memorials throughout Europe honor the memory of individuals who were killed during the Holocaust and serve as a daily reminder to be vigilant.

History and responsibility are very clearly taught here.

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Max Oster of Oslo, Norway; born 1884, deported and killed 1 Dec. 1942

Germany and many other European countries pave gold “stumbling blocks” into the sidewalks to draw attention and promote reflection. Engraved with a name, the tiles are placed in front of the person’s previous residence. The last names and birth dates included allow you to speculate about the relationships between the people – often parent and child or husband and wife. It has the arresting effect, in the middle of the day, to make you suddenly imagine the person or persons living at the address in front of you and then see them being taken away.

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Family from Bamberg, Germany; deported and killed between 1941-1943
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August Klotzbach of Wiesbaden, Germany; arrested for treason in 1935 and survived

Date and/or place of death is often marked as unknown. In those cases, any known information about the person’s deportation is listed. Cities that are listed are mostly in Eastern Europe (as all death camps were purposely located outside of Germany): Auschwitz, Poland and Riga, Latvia being among some of the most common.

Munich is apparently the only German city that doesn’t use the gold blocks, as they feel it’s disrespectful to have names of the deceased underfoot.

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Frankfurt’s Holocaust Memorial Wall

In Frankfurt, a memorial wall also stretches around the old Jewish cemetery. Similar to the gold street bricks, small plaques jutting out display the names and fates of former Frankfurt residents who perished during this dark period of history, including Anne Frank. Visitors pay respects to those lost by placing stones on the protruding plaques that stretch on for rows upon rows upon rows.

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Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

For more on how Berlin remembers victims of the Holocaust and the National Socialist regime, see Berlin Remembers.

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Neologe Synagogue in Brașov, Romania
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Old New Synagogue in Prague – oldest active synagogue in Europe
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Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary – largest in Europe
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Memorial in the Dohány Synagogue courtyard

Today, the oldest still-active synagogue in Europe is in Prague, Czech Republic and the largest synagogue in Europe is located in Budapest, Hungary. We happened to visit Budapest during Rosh Hashanah and saw many families on their way to services both at the Dohány Street Synagogue and a smaller synagogue in the same area.

 

Interestingly, the relatively new Memorial for the Victims of the German Occupation currently stands as a hotly contested source of criticism in Budapest. Intended to memorialize Holocaust victims, its use of symbols is intended to misconstrue history, according to daily peaceful protestors. Specifically, they take issue with the representation of Hungary as an angel being attacked by the German eagle. Protesters demand that Hungary not deny the complicity its government and some of its citizens took with the Third Reich during the Holocaust. Their goal is to replace what they consider a gross misrepresentation of history with a more fitting memorial.

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Budapest memorial in question
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Protesters’ issues explained
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Call to the Prime Minister: “Mr. Oban, Tear Down Your Monument!”
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Pictures, stories, and artifacts in front of the monument
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Stones, candles, and plants honor lost lives

Both the monument itself and the surrounding controversy serve as an important reminder that how we portray history becomes how we remember it.

Never again.

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Budapest: Memorial to people lined up and shot into the Danube 1944-45

The World is Watching

The World is Watching

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It’s days like today that restore my faith in humanity and optimism for the future. Far from my native Washington, D.C., today we marched alongside other equality-minded people through the streets of nearby Frankfurt. For women’s rights. For human rights. For equality, decency, diversity. For love. For what seems to have gotten lost in the rising tide of nationalism creeping up, not only in America, but around the world.

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Current estimates for the Frankfurt crowd, made up largely of Americans abroad but also what I considered a surprising number of Germans and internationals, stand at around 2,100 according to Deutsche Welle. An impressive turnout for a non-American, albeit extremely international, city. Clearly the world is at attention.

The mood was positive and upbeat this afternoon, punctuated with chants of “When they go low, we go high,” “Build bridges, not walls,” and a German chant of a call to freedom and equality.

The route of around two miles ended in the midst of the Altstadt (old town) area where demonstrators gathered around a small stage for musical performances.

 

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Your move, America. The whole world is watching.

Fasching Costumes on Parade

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The Christmas Markets are closed, all the dust has settled from New Year’s fireworks, and that means it’s time to gear up for Fasching!

As you may remember, the German Karneval season (aka The Fifth Season) has long been underway. It began back in November on 11/11 at 11:11.

But with other holidays out of the way and nothing in store but cold, dark winter days between now and Ash Wednesday, it’s time to start thinking about costumes. In Mainz, Kӧln and other areas of Germany that celebrate Fasching (it’s not everywhere!), people of all ages wear costumes to march in or watch the colorful parades.

Here are some of your options:

1) It’s a fool’s holiday: Dress like a fool. Clowns and fools, or simply silly hats, are the most popular costumes along the Rhein. Even the Gutenberg statue in Mainz gets a fool’s cap for the occasion.

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2) Dress like it’s Halloween: pirate, hippie, fire fighter, etc. To an American like me, this is a little tired, but there are plenty of people-characters from all walks of life whose shoes you can step into for a day.

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3) *My personal recommendation*: Dress like an animal. Animals are the second most popular costume category after fools. As it was pointed out to me when we first arrived, the zip-up animal onesies are not only cute but practical as well. You’re going to wear the costume outside in winter, shouting “Helau!” (or “Alaaf!”, region-dependent) for hours, so this type of costume is warm and loose-fitting enough to go over a coat and/or a lot of layers.

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4) Gear up in Fasching banner swag. This is what I like to do for the first day of festivities, and this year I’m adding fingerless gloves and a hat to my scarf and legwarmers. All the gear is striped red, white, blue and yellow. Necklaces or buttons with “Weck, Worscht & Woi” (Mainz dialect for rolls, sausage, and wine), the duck float that ends the parade, and Fasching greeting “Helau!” are also common.

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5) Make your own costume. If you’re really artsy or daring and have a lot of time on your hands, bolts of fabric and bric-a-brac are available in costume stores or regular department stores as well. Who knows what you’ll come up with!

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To read about how Fasching costumes differ dramatically outside of the Rhein region, see The Soundtrack of Salzburg.

Until late February, Helau!

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Even Mainz bakeries gear up for Fasching

Finishing Christmas by Waterfall

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“This path is neither cleared nor sprinkled by snow and ice. Use at your own risk.”

Few Christmas Markets are open on or after Christmas Eve, but at least one of those that is, is spectacular. Triberg, a small town in the heart of the Black Forest, hosts a market that burns brightly for only a few days from Christmas Day to just before New Year’s Eve.

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Triberg Falls: Highest waterfalls in Germany
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Falls lit up for nightly Christmas performances
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Fire show
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Paths packed with spectators

Triberg is best known as being home to the highest waterfalls in Germany, and its Christmas Market makes them a highlight. Each evening of the market, a fire show – a fire-twirling act set to a circus-y story line – is held on a platform at the colorfully lit falls themselves.

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Market lights and stands
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Glühwein, children’s punch and roasted chestnuts
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Festgoers gather around a bonfire
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Warming up

This fest is also showier than most Christmas Markets in that it has a lineup of live music, including a great mellow cover band called Voice & Boys, plus a fireworks display at closing time. But it retains a folksiness about it, particularly with an area for visitors to huddle around bonfires (it gets chilly up in the mountains!).

Unfortunately or fortunately, the entry roads to even this small town were guarded by armed police for this event. A sign of the heightened security climate just a week after the terror attack at the Berlin Christmas Market. We are always aware of our surroundings but refuse to live in fear, so took the added security presence in stride and enjoyed the market.

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Mini version of the traditional Black Forest hat

To remember what may be our final visit to the Black Forest, we went into town to get ourselves a coo-coo clock and a Christmas ornament version of the traditional ladies’ hat from the Black Forest state of Baden-Württemberg: an ostentatious affair of large pom-poms (red for single ladies).

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Christmas lights among the trees
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All aboard the Christmas Market Express!
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Festive walkways wind through the woods

And so on the final day of the Christmas season, we say Auf Wiedersehen to German Christmas Markets and feel thankful that our last visit was to one of the most remarkable ones!

Guten Rutsch ins Neue Jahr! / Happy New Year!

To see this Christmas season in review…
1st Sunday of Advent:
A Winter Wonderland in the Erzgebirge
2nd Sunday of Advent: Finding Hygge in Copenhagen
3rd Sunday of Advent:
Traveling Through History by Christmas Market
4th Sunday of Advent:
Once Upon a Christmas Market
Christmas in Paris:
Parisian Signs of the Times