Thursday, April 29, 2010

Catching Up the Travelogue: March's European Vacation, Part Two

When last I left you, constant reader, Beth and I had just arrived in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, on the first leg of our brief but incredibly packed vacation to Europe.  We met Beth's college friend, Ursula, at her flat in downtown Frankfurt, and sat down for a fantastic lunch / early supper and some great German hospitality.

Ursula catered us lunch with some fantastic dark, dense German bread; several cheeses (yes, European cheese is better than anything in America); fresh, hand-squeezed blood orange juice; and some incredibly tasty German coffee.  Then, we set out for a walk along the Main at sunset.

The Dom Sankt Bartholom√§us, or Frankfurt Cathedral, looms over all of the riverfront in Frankfurt.  Although it was damaged severely during World War II (and burned down in the 19th century), the Gothic icon has been rebuilt and today is as imposing and impressive as other.

We were in Frankfurt a few weeks before springtime would really come into bloom, but nonetheless during the walk we took through the park along the banks of the Main we could see what a sight it would be during the summer, with tropicals (which somehow survive the harsh German winters) more at home in Irvine, California, than continental Europe, and rows and rows of coppiced trees ready to sprout new green growth for summer evening walks.

Though the sun wasn't at a great angle, we also could see Frankfurt's skyline; as the financial capital of continental Europe, Frankfurt is one of the few cities with much to see in terms of skyscrapers.  Even London, the hub of everything across the pond, lacks the sorts of buildings those of us who've traveled at all to New York, Chicago, LA, and the other metropolises of the United States are used to.
On a more somber and disturbing note, Ursula did point out a somewhat industrial section of the river which apparently once housed a train depot from which Jews were sent off to concentration camps.  I know Germans aren't fond of speaking of the atrocities of World War II and their preeminent role in the same; the section was being remade into a park and, if I recall correctly, several bank buildings.

(No, the photo taken of the light rail beneath a footbridge with Frankfurt Cathedral in the background is not said hellish depot; its simply an image Beth fell in love with and suggested I photograph.  The ersatz train depot was not photogenic, as you might imagine.)

After a lengthy walk through the park--including several common European bird sightings which were nonetheless new life species for both Beth and I, such as the Egyptian Goose, Greylag Goose, Chaffinch, and the ubiquitous Great Tits--we stopped in from the late-winter chill at a cafe with what Ursula described as some of the best hot chocolate in Frankfurt.  Beth opted for a spicy apple wine, though, of all things; I'm not sure she enjoyed the local specialty (and certainly not like I did the hot chocolate!).

The cafe was very close to the caricature museum; I was jetlagged enough I missed much of Urusula's description of the place, other than the moose-in-trenchcoat statue Beth posed with:

We headed back to Ursula's flat at dusk, where Ursula's longtime male companion Thomas prepared for us a fantastic European feast.  I didn't realize until that point that Beth and I are very European in our dinner habits, dining late in the evening most nights; Thomas served dinner around 9:00pm, apparently a normal time of day for supper in Germany.  As a gourmand and everyday chef, I know what goes into meal prep, and I simply can't imagine how Thomas prepared the feast (baked and pan-fried fish, boiled potatoes, salads, and a delicious cabbage dish) and managed to entertain the downstairs neighbors' two toddlers in such a short period of time.

Wine flowed all night, from prosecco while Thomas cooked and we chatted with their French and Czech (I think, on the latter--they understood English but spoke very little) friends who'd been invited to dinner, to Italian and French reds... and finally a Grappa-like moonshine distilled by the Czech friend's father.

We slept in despite plans to get up and walk down to the Main in the morning light; after the redeye flight, long drive up from Munich, the stroll down to the river and cafe, and then our well-past-midnight supper party, I can't blame us.  Ursula and Thomas prepared us a fantastic breakfast, similar to the snacks Ursula had had for our arrival but with the addition of some hardboiled eggs which flummoxed Beth in their presentation in little egg cups.

We did have a snag in our plans to travel onward to meet up with Michael and Sam in Italy, though: I noticed the fine print of the rental car contract said that driving a Mercedes into Italy was verboten, and though we had a hatchback, economy-style car, it was still a Mercedes.  After much back-and-forth with Hertz with Ursula serving as our translator (and chief negotiator), we discovered the problem wasn't the Mercedes so much as the fact we didn't have snow tires on the car: driving through Austria on the way to Italy required snow tires.  After much discussion, Hertz agreed to swap out our car at Frankfurt Airport, saving us the trip back to Munich's airport (yes, it was Hertz's fault; we'd told them we were going to be in Germany, Austria, and Italy).  Still, this detour cost us several hours, and it was late afternoon when we finally left Germany laden down with lunches prepared by Ursula, a bag of fine Eilles coffee, and some chocolates in our new Citroen for the eight hour drive to northern Italy.

As usual, the Nolleys were behind schedule: I'd already told Michael, when he asked if he should make dinner reservations for our arrival, "Come on, you know the Nolleys... best not to plan on a specific time."  But so far, our trip was off to a fantastic start nonetheless.  Would we make it through the Brenner Pass, or would the snow we had seen falling in Munich be a sign of rocky weather ahead?

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