Today (January 1st), we’ve arrived in Germany for a first-ever post-Christmas break. Earlier today we rang in the New Year in Roscommon; a few hours later we were on a Ryanair flight. All six of us are here; Fiona, myself and our four children. We have six travel bags and we will be travelling around Germany and Austria by train. What could possibly go wrong?
After arriving at Stuttgart Airport, we taxi to our hotel, which is further ‘out of town’ than we and the old Internet thought. The good news is that the hotel stands in the impressive shadow of a huge stadium. It is next-door to it. I investigate, and yes, it’s the home stadium of Stuttgart FC. It’s the Mercedes-Benz Arena. Being so close to a great European football stadium gives me butterflies; I’m a boy again. Unfortunately, there’s no football until later in the month. It seems they take a break in January in The Bundesliga. Still, it’s nice to spend two nights next door to the home of Stuttgart FC, and I pass a half hour in the adjoining fans’ store. But I’m not converted from my loyal and long-suffering support of Leeds United.
In the hotel this evening, we discover that the bar/restaurant has been adorned with an Irish name. Yeah, right. At least they’ve gone to the trouble to stock Guinness. After we order food, I glance at the drinks menu. Beside ‘Guinness’, they provide a description (for the benefit of the bewildered):
‘Guinness: A velvety black Irish beer with a creamy finish accompanied by slight coffee note.’
The gentle sales pitch notwithstanding, I invoke the ‘Be suspicious of Guinness abroad’ rule. Unashamed porter prejudice. I order a local beer and it’s grand.
A day trip to Heidelberg. It’s the beginning of a week of train journeys. We plan to stay two nights in Stuttgart, two in Rothenburg, three in Salzburg and one in Munich.
Fiona and the girls will oversee the travel plans…checking train times, working out what ticket packages should be purchased, determining when and where we transfer, locating the correct platforms, very impressively getting a family of six across a landscape that is new to us.
Me? I will relentlessly count us and our travel bags.
My job’s not as complex as it sounds: Basically, every time we step off a train or tram, joining a new busy web of commuters on a platform, I check that there are six of us and six bags. And every time we step on to a train or tram I do the same. And every time I reach ‘six’ I exhale a satisfying man sigh and then try to catch up with the rest of them.
Heidelberg is a historic town and a beautiful one. We’re only there for a few hours. The highlight is our trip to Heidelberg Castle. It’s a pretty spectacular experience; an epic, winding walk to the summit, then a sensational view of the old city from its peak.
Castles and museums are great, but I can’t resist people watching. The various train stations don’t disappoint. Back at Stuttgart Main Station, there’s all human life and smoothies and hot dogs and jewellery and crafts.
“You have to try hot dogs (Wiener Würstchen) in Germany,” the girls told me; I did, and I didn’t like them.
A weathered looking middle-aged man leaning against a wall raises his crutch and shouts what I’m confident are German expletives into the stranger-dotted nothingness of his day.
Occasionally we have to check a detail or two about our schedule and so we find ourselves in a spacious ‘Information Room’ at Stuttgart Main Station. There’s no-one in front of us so we march up to the desk. “You have to get a number!” booms the highly unimpressed lady behind the desk, looking at us as if we have stolen every bit of joy from her life. So we get a number and join a ‘queue’ on a long bench. Beside us, a cocky man speaks in a cocky tone into his mobile. Then he lights up a fag. The woman behind the information desk roars at him. The desk almost shakes. The offender responds with a crude and rude gesture which involves his finger. Within sixty seconds, two police officers arrive, usher him outside and he’s soon apologising and pleading innocence.
Half an hour later, still inside the walls of the station, he’s lit up again, a few feet away from angry crutch man and a lifetime away from obeying the law.
The hotel in Stuttgart was very good and the staff were friendly and helpful. I might return when Leeds draw Stuttgart in the Champions League. The staff all ‘had English’, so we didn’t bother much with our German phrasebook. A range of free coffees from a machine in the lobby went down a treat with us. ‘Have a nice day’ some American guests said to us as we checked out, and we intended to do exactly that. Today we are travelling on leg two of our journey: to the medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
Arriving at a tiny train station later, we disembark from the train. Six people, six travel bags. A ten-minute walk to the town. We weren’t sure what to expect, but our hopes were high. Once we got there, we were bowled over by the beauty and charm of this town. All the more enchanting because it was still Christmas, Rothenburg is like something you’d see in a Disney movie. Beautiful cobblestone streets, unusually shaped and quaint houses, magical shops, a breathtaking square, majestic and historic buildings…we loved it.
There’s a fabulous town hall, historic churches and museums, and particularly enjoyable was our walk around the old city walls.
Our hotel was ancient and all the better for it, the lobby adorned with antique paintings and memorabilia reflecting the area’s history.
A few doors down, an Italian restaurant which we liked. On our first night there, three young American men took a table near us. In their 20s, at a guess. They placed their order. Soon they are talking about Trump, about what is happening to their country. I listen for a minute or two. Their conversation is considered, concerned, constructive. They are despondent about the state of the Republican Party and not thrilled with the Democrats either. “I can’t believe the Republicans haven’t split (since Trump)” one guy says. They despair for their country. It’s interesting listening to them; heartening and reassuring too. I can’t help but think that any one of these three articulate, patriotic, likeable lads would probably make a more stable and sensible President of the United States than the present incumbent.
There are souvenir shops everywhere. Some of the shops in Rothenburg ob der Tauber are magical in terms of their beauty and quaintness. There is a huge emphasis on Christmas decorations…toys, souvenirs, gifts, jewellery, thousands of beautiful items, many of them unique and hand-made. Things are quite expensive…but so tempting.
They are obsessed with cuckoo clocks: entire walls are adorned with beautiful variations of clocks. Some of the Healys are sitting ducks for the cuckoos. One tongue-in-cheek gripe with the owners/staff in these shops however; most of them had the ‘Staring suspiciously at customers’ thing going on. When you went into a shop, you invariably got a friendly hello, but after that, eyes and sometimes feet follow your every move, as though you have a getaway car outside. Understandable, I suppose, but a bit off-putting!
In one shop, the woman behind the counter had a shockingly stern expression. Everywhere I turn, I feel her eyes shadowing me. And she’s standing beside a display of penknives. I buy a miniature car. Apparently it’s an ambulance.
The woman perks up. “Ah, you need a doctor!”
There’s a Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg and it’s well worth a visit. We called in and couldn’t leave. It was fascinating. Over a number of floors, this renowned museum details much of the extraordinary history of crime and punishment in that area in medieval times. There are numerous original items on display. Reading about the torture meted out to people is fascinating.
People sentenced to death usually faced a very grim end. Often, undesirables were literally hung, drawn and quartered in front of a baying public in the town square. Others were drowned or boiled to death, or impaled or decapitated by a sword of axe. You could be executed by being set on fire or being crushed.
We read of the various gruesome methods of torture/shaming/punishment for people deemed to have offended the powers-that-be.
It was entirely usual for people to be humiliated in the town squares. Men and women were put on public display wearing ‘shame masks’ while locked into stocks or some such restraining device.
Ah, all these centuries on, we had to shake our heads and see the…er…humour in some of this. Two women who were bickering would be marched into the square and shackled together, their heads stuck through a gap in a piece of timber, their hands jutting out through two holes. There they remained, unable to move, staring at eachother, released only when they had made up. There was even a shaming mask for ‘bad musicians.’ And if a man treated his wife badly, locals came around and took the roof off his house.
After two hours of all this fascinating torture trivia, it was time to leave and return to the bright, mild afternoon outside.
Anyone for coffee? Or a ‘German hot dog’?
Next week: Three days in Austria…including ‘The Sound of Music, a Concentration Camp and Mozart’s birthplace’