Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Afternoon in Aachen

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Bound and determined to make a trip to Aachen today, I woke at 7:00 and finished packing.  

Using the regional transportation company´s website, I had been able to quickly build my entire transit schedule for the day from my neighborhood tram stop all the way to Aachen!   After a flat-out sprint, I arrived at the Rheintörchenstraße stop where the tram was uncharacteristically late. At 8:03 I was the lone passenger, though more boarded as the tram passed through the Turkish district and then the transit point at the Pauluskirche.  After the 14 minute ride, I disembarked at Duisburg Hbf, by now a familiar stop. While the university-provided tram passes are good for all public transportation within Duisburg, I needed to purchase my own ticket for the regional trains.  Upstairs near the regional trains I found a ticket machine and purchased a Schöner Tag Ticket (a 26€ regional day pass good for all trains, trams, and buses in North Rhine-Westphalia). Group tickets are also available for around 35€ with one being usable by up to five people.

SchönerTag Ticket and coffee!

Coffee in hand, I boarded the 9:00 RE Train to Mönchengladbach, a 40-minute commute.  Again, this early on a Sunday morning I was one of only a handful on board.  The train crossed the Rhine only a mile or so downstream from the Kanu-Club and I pretended that I could see it through the trees on the far eastern bank.  The heavy industry along the river soon gave way to farmland, and after changing trains in Mönchengladbach, I arrived at Aachen Hbf around 10:30.  My only scheduled event for the day was a tour of the cathedral at 2:00, so I decided to talk a walk, try some of the local food, and take in the sights.   

Whenever I find myself in a new city, I´ve found that the best time for exploring is Sunday morning.  Traffic is lighter and the crowds arrive later in the day.  This Sunday morning in Aachen was no exception.  Sure, most of the shops were closed, but they weren´t why I had come. 

For the history buffs out there, Aachen is a historically important city nestled on the Germany-Belgian-Dutch border.   It was at one point a Roman town which later regained prominence during the reign the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (in German, Karl der Größe) who rebuilt the city as an imperial retreat and constructed an impressive chapel where many later Germany´s kings would hold their coronations.

model of Aachen Cathedral

With time to spare before the tour, I opted to pass by the Old City and headed for the nearby border. Kylace had made the trek when she visited Aachen, and with her experience to guide me, I thought I would have an easier time of finding it than she had.  I'd hoped to speak kein Englisch heute; however, seeing as the guide at the tourist information center spoke fluent English, attempting German there seemed rather pointless.   I picked up a map and headed east.  The next thirty minutes were spent wandering residential neighborhoods looking for a seemingly-imaginary train station which the map clearly depicted.  Finally deciding there were better things to do than travel out to a hill and look at trees, I turned around and walked back into the Old City.  All was not lost though, I happened upon the city´s well known RWTH Aachen University ( and a few minutes later found myself in front of the gothic-style Rathaus, or city hall (

Aachen Rathaus

I love student discounts!  For only 4.50€ I was able to tour the city hall with a really well-designed interactive audiotour.  A receiver which I wore around my neck tracked my location in the building while a touchscreen on the front allowed me to select relevant audio clips and watch short videos explaining the construction and layout of the building which dates to the 14th-century with several additions over the centuries.  The highlight of the tour is the beautiful Coronation Hall on the second level where various HR emperors held coronation dinners. Replicas of the early imperial regalia are on display there and the room has also been used since the WWII for the presentation of the annual Charlemagne Award to individuals who “render outstanding services towards the unification of Europe”.

Coronation Hall of Aachen Rathaus

The time was now 1:00 and I decided that it was time to find a bite to eat.  I had read that the local delicacy was hard biscuit/cookie referred to as an Aachener Printen.  I found a nice café called Nobis (est. 1858) on the cathedral´s southeast corner and sat down with a ham focaccia sandwich, a bag of Printen, and a strong cappuccino.  An amateur brass band was playing in the square.  Even indoors I could hear the low “oomph” of the tuba.  The Aachener Printen come in many flavors, but I had selected the spiced ones: Kräuter Printen.  They seemed at first like gingerbread but soon revealed an overpoweringly bitter aftertaste.  While other varieties like chocolate or almond are undoubtedly good, these were a rare miss.  The band finished their show, and I hurried to a nearby Eishall for a lemon cone to wash away the bitterness of the Printen.

Nobis Printen. A nice, old cafe on the square next to the cathedral. (Showing a cathedral ticket gets you a discount!)

Lunch at Nobis.

A brass band performs in the square.

At 2:00 I toured the cathedral.  I was afraid that I had joined the German tour until the English-language guide Alex Stoll arrived and split the group. As the English tour entered the cathedral, the sound of a visiting youth choir singing in Latin greeted us from the second floor.

The cathedral (technically, only a cathedral since approximately 1930) was originally constructed by Charlemagne as a grand chapel attached to the city hall by a covered walkway.  Recent analysis during extensive renovation work has determined that the building was begun and completed between the years 793-813, very quickly for the period.  In its day the chapel was the tallest domed structure north of the Alps with a numerology-based architectural style borrowed from Byzantium by way of then-contemporary Roman palaces. This was also a first for the region.   

Throne of Charlemagne.  The marble came from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, likely from the floor since some pieces bear traces of a etched gameboard for Nine-Men´s Morris.

 Charlemagne was interred here upon his death, and a few short centuries later, his successor Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa attempted to have him canonized.  Barbarossa botched the job, having set up more than a few anti-popes to push his agenda to canonize the position of emperor, effectively making himself a living saint.  As a result, veneration of Charlemagne is tolerated by the Vatican in only a handful of churches, mostly in this region of Germany.  As for the remains of Charlemagne, recent research concludes that the reliquary likely contains the right man.  The lone holdout is a Bavarian researcher who is persona non grata in these parts.  (Again, Bavaria confirms it´s label as the “Texas of Germany”.) The church´s beautiful mosaics and stained-glass windows were worth the trip.  When the restoration is finished in six-weeks’ time, they will be magnificent.

View from the rear of the Choir Hall - Aachen Cathedral.

View from altar into the Choir Hall - Aachen Cathedral.
Side Chapel - Aachen Cathedral
Side Chapel - Aachen Cathedral

I left Aachen early.  I had not seen the border nor the famous hot springs, but I believe in always leaving something for the next visit.  I would not be going back to Duisburg directly.  Rather, I would go down to Frankfurt and spend the night since I had paperwork which I needed approved by the consulate there.  My day-pass for the train took me as far as Bonn where, to my everlasting regret, I purchased an extension ticket for an IC train to Frankfurt (but more on that later).  With a few minutes to spare, I walked around a nearby square past a statue of Beethoven.  At 6:14 I returned to the station and visited McDonalds for the second time in as many days.  A broken signal box on the line had backed up the schedule, and my IC train was 15 minutes late.  I was a bit worried at first, but it all worked out in the end.

 Bonn, Germany. (Note the statue of Beethoven in the center)

More of the mysterious blue sheep... (Bonn, Germany)

South of Bonn, the train entered the Rhine Valley and hugged the river, at times so close to the water that it seemed to be gliding across it.  The grey evening sky was reflected in the waters below; the two separated only by the steep, green hills spotted with vineyards.  At 7:30 we passed under the shadow of the Lorelei, a large cliff standing at the one of the narrowest points of the Rhine. A 19th century legend tells of a beautiful siren who lived near the cliff and drew river travelers to their deaths.  We passed quickly through the river towns and villages, trying to make up lost time, but were soon slowed further by a rainstorm.

The River Rhine south of Bonn. (taken on 11 July).

*A note on the trains of Germany.  In my time in this country, I have now ridden all three of the major rail networks:  regional (RE), Intercity (IC), and Intercity Express(ICE).  The REs are often extensions of the regional bus and tram networks and likewise make frequent stops. They are slow but offer relative comfort and a leisurely ride.  The ICEs offer luxury at 230+ km/hr with nice seats, restaurant cars, and other amenities. But what about that sort of traveler who is too cheap to travel quickly and in too much of a hurry to travel comfortably?  He condemns himself to that special traveler´s purgatory which is the IC with its cramped seating and non-air-conditioned cars. 

But as I soon learned, such a traveler does not know he does this and therefore directs his ire and discomfort towards his fellow passengers.  Packed in like cattle, I had settled for the only place available, a fold-down seat in the aisle next to an open window through which the driving rain splattered into the car.   I lost count of the number of times that I was required to stand to allow some inconvenienced traveler to pass.  “Surely there are decent seats in the next car away from THESE people,” his look would say.  The pattern would be repeated a few minutes later when the traveler passed back the way he had come, defeated.  Outside, the rain continued to pour.

Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof is a terminal station.  By that I mean the trains arrive and depart from the same direction.  Thus, the approach to the station involves the rail line branching into the twenty-four platforms and numerous cargo sidings of this major rail hub.  The constant lateral jostling of the train through the switches, left then right then left then right, felt like sidestepping through a slow waltz.

Upon arrival in Frankfurt am Main, the time was half past eight on a Sunday evening.  What had been to my advantage in Aachen was now a problem since all the tourist centers here were closed and I now had to find a hotel on my own.   Fortunately, my phone detected a singular free hotspot: Starbucks. Oh, Starbucks! In the past I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the chain, but today I was grateful.   I settled in with a White Mocha and my laptop.  Jörn would have been proud.  Meanwhile, an Indian woman at the next table was surprised by a wandering pigeon which landed beside her.  “Oh, look! That is good luck! It means a good journey!” she exclaimed to her companion.  I could have used the luck.

The laptop soon died, so I switched to my smartphone and found a nearby hotel.  I wandered the back streets near the station until I located it, bartered with the night clerk (from 45€ down to 39), found the room, and went to sleep…

Saturday, August 6, 2011

BEST: Week 4 (cont.)

Thursday, July 07, 2011

This evening the Mercator School of Management hosted its annual Sommerfest as a way to give back to its students at the end of the semester.  Faculty and local bands play music on a main stage while tents and booths are set up to serve food and beer.  Prof. Klein actually played a double set with his group.  I only saw the first set but they plowed through a good number of convincing metal and rock covers. I also got to meet my friend Christian Heggen who attended MSU this year as a transfer student and recently returned to Duisburg to work for Thyssen-Krupp. Overall, Sommerfest was a lot of fun.
Blayze and Kate at Sommerfest.
Clo and Kate can't wait for the show.
Dr. Klein (second from left) and his friends rock out on the main stage!

 Afterwards, I decided to pay a visit to the university library which I had been meaning to do for some time.  The building itself is quite interesting architecturally.  From the outside it appears to be a simple five-story octagonal building (Ground to 4th Floor).  However, the interior from the 1st floor upwards consists of a series of staggered inner- and outer-rings connected by short staircases which make the space feel lighter and more open. At some point I stumbled across the impressive English-language section.  To make up for our weekend trip to Spain having been canceled, I settled in on the top floor with some Hemmingway until closing time around 10pm.  

"The Sun Also Rises" under its original working title "Fiesta"

Not yet ready to turn in for the evening, I made up my mind to try a nearby restaurant whose name caught my eye everyday during the tram ride home.  Der Lustiger Bosniac (The Funny Bosnian?) is a family-run restaurant specializing in Mediterranean and international cuisine and seems the type of place one goes for special occasions: family dinners, parties, and evening drinks.  A very local place. A well-dressed young family occupied a long table, the children out long past their bed-time, while and older couple sat in the corner.  The prices were reasonable, but I was content with dessert.  I ordered ice cream and a Türkischer Mokka coffee.  Turkish coffee differs from that served in the West.  Fine grounds are mixed directly with the water as with a French press, but the mixture is served unfiltered.  Instead, the drinker allows the grounds to sink before carefully pouring the coffee over sugar cubes into a small cup. The result is an intense burst of flavor and, for me, a delicious way to end the evening.

I walked off dessert on the way the Hauptbahnhof and arrived in time to catch the 903 Tram back to Wanheimerort. 

Friday, 08 June 2011

The day was relatively uneventful.   Most of the other students were still exhausted from the Sommerfest the night before.  Class consisted of two blocks of German lessons with Beatrix Fehse during which we rehearsed for our final next Wednesday.  The final will consist of four parts: listening, reading, grammar recognition, and writing.  We spent an hour on each part and finished the day by reading an excerpt from Mark Twain’s book The Awful German Language.  Because of the free weekend, four of the eight students left early to catch a flight to Rome.  The rest of us took turns reading the Twain excerpt in which he humorously criticizes German grammar including the habit of constructing lengthy compound words.  Have you seen my Donauschiffgesellschaftskapitan? (That would be a Danube Ship Company Captain)  

Note: these pictures are from earlier in the week... They just fit in well here.

You awake?

Apparently, Kate is an expert in Game Theory (or at least the Prisoner's Dilemma).

With half the class on their way to Rome, only three of us returned to the Kanu-Club.  Clo and I later made a trip to a new grocery store called Netto Marken-Discount which we found to be similar to the nearby Lidi in that it is a discount store with a limited selection.  We bought ingredients for chicken enchiladas, stopping at the larger Rewe on the way back for a few harder-to-find items.  Tortillas were nowhere to be found, so we decided to experiment with crepe mix!  Our experiment paid off, though our tiny kitchen was a mess by the end of the evening.  Exhausted, we decided to leave it until the next morning.

Saturday, 09 July 2011

I meant to go to Aachen today, but feeling sick, I spent most of the day at the Kanu Club.  The only thing to report is a trip to McDonalds around mid-afternoon.  I made the trip to König Heinrich Platz in order to find some lunch, but not feeling terribly well, I wanted something familiar.  McDonalds seemed like just the thing; it even had a red carpet. 

Inside, I approached the register in the rear of the restaurant and waited in the line.  The menu was much the same as at home with two or three key differences.  Combos are called McMenüs with the Angus Burger being called the Big Classic Cheese McMenü.  Also, wait for it… McRibs are on the menu year-round! As Mike explained later, pork is so popular in Germany that McDonalds needs some on its permanent menu, hence McRibs. (The sandwich is seasonal in the UK as well, so whenever Mike comes to Germany, the trip usually involves a McDonalds run or two.) There was also a regional sandwich called the McBrezel which seemed to be a sandwich with Fleischkäse, potato salad, lettuce, and a type of honey sauce.

I ordered the Big Classic Cheese McMenü and requested the small size (the menu had the word “small” written in English). However, the cashier didn´t seem to understand and charged me for a large.  I tried again in German and received a pouty face; it was too late to change the order.  This incident would play out again a few days later. So there is English on the menu, but sometimes the employees don´t understand (or maybe just say they don´t so that they can charge more…).

The sandwich and fries were good, though the Coke didn’t come with any ice.  The ketchup packs were also larger and mayonnaise was also  an option.

The weather outside was cold and wet, so I opted to stay a while and try some coffee from the McCafe inside.  My table had a coffee menu in German so I looked over my options. I was misled by a picture and ordered a Vienna which I read as being a single espresso with cream.  However, it turned out to be some sort of long espresso served in a tall glass with whipped cream on top.  I still don’t understand the European manner of serving certain coffee drinks in glasses.  They are impossible to pick up while hot.  

My McDonalds Vienna (apparently in Europe they don't need a "Hot Coffee" warning)

After my McDonalds adventure, I returned to the Kanu Club and spent the remainder of the day resting up for a trip to Aachen on Sunday.

Friday, August 5, 2011

BEST: Week 4

Monday, 4 July 2011

Wanheimer Kanu-Club.  (from left: admin. building, glassed-in breakfast/lounge area, guesthouse (white buliding), new guesthouse w/ garage) NOTE: flags at right denote nationality of current guests.
After the long weekend, we somehow made it through classes and returned exhausted to the Kanu-Club.  There I learned the story of why the club has such a strict no-smoking policy.  Herr Rolf Heusner was called up to serve in the German army near the end of WWII but was promptly captured by the advancing Soviet army.  He and his fellow prisoners were actually held at Auschwitz concentration camp which the Red Army had recently liberated.   Given only meager rations, Herr Heusner would trade his cigarette rations for extra food.  He was the smart one; many of his comrades in the camp died from starvation.  As a result, he has a no-smoking policy which has been strictly enforced ever since.

For our Fourth of July celebrations Blayze, Ryan, and I ventured out to the Rewe to buy “hot dogs” for the group.  We settled on some bockwurst and dinner rolls.  The store actually carried one brand of hot “American” dog buns complete with the Statue of Liberty on the package, but the rolls we chose were cheaper and better looking.  We boiled the sausages, toasted the rolls, and sautéed some onions and peppers.  Altogether, it made for a nice dinner, completed by a selection of beers from the Trinkgut store.  Mike even attended; bringing a beer and a bottle of Tabasco sauce as a peace offering (remember, he’s British).  He did, however, jokingly advise us to remember during our celebration that our forefathers were really “a bunch of rich, white men who just didn’t want to pay taxes”.  After dinner we walked down to the canoe launch and skipped rocks on the River Rhine as the sun set.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

This afternoon I followed Ivy and Kylace around southern Duisburg while they visited several churches.  Being from Hong Kong, they were excited to see these old Western religious buildings.  Many Chinese are non-practicing Buddhists or Taoists, though Ivy told me that the running joke in China is that the “government is the religion”.  Anyway, they seldom see churches, so the two found even the small neighborhood churches in Duisburg very interesting.  I explained that in Germany one can tell the denomination of the church from the steeple decoration: ein Kreuz (cross) für eine katholische Kirche und ein Hahn (a rooster)für eine evangelische Kirche.  This led to a very quick lesson on Martin Luther and the Reformation which I´m not sure got through, but at least they understood that there was a denominational difference.

Afterwards, I wanted to cook dinner, and so with Meru and Ivy’s help I went to the Rewe and bought pasta, wine, and dessert.  Back in our kitchen at the Kanu-Club, I began to cook the tortellini and sauce while Meru made an omelet appetizer.  Clo walked in just then, and having more than enough to go around, we invited her to join us for our dinner of tortellini with a ricotta-tomato sauce, bread, Spanish olives, and a good Cabernet-Syrah blend.  We didn’t skimp on dessert either, finishing off the second apple pie from our 4th of July party along with some almond and caramel ice cream.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Berlin Excursion - Day 4

Sunday, 3 July 2011

This morning we said an early goodbye to Prof. Chamoni who had to return to Duisburg straight away on business.

Ivy, Lena, Meruyert, and Kylace are ready to go! (Check out Dr. Klein on the far left!)

For the last day of our Berlin excursion, we took a trip to nearby Potsdam to visit the summer retreat of Frederick the Great.  This palace, one of 15 in Potsdam built by successive local rulers, is known as Sanssouci, or French for “without care”.  Prussian King Frederick the Great (1712  – 1786) built Sanssouci around 1745 to escape the pressures of courtly and married life (his wife was specifically forbidden from setting foot on the palace grounds).  The king enjoyed spending time here with his hunting dogs and numerous philosophers.  He even requested to be buried in a simple grave on the grounds near his beloved hounds.  He loved this relaxed lifestyle after suffering through a rigorous upbringing in his youth.  Our guide must have repeated a hundred times during the tour that Frederick’s father and the young prince had “a bad father-son fight”.  Still, Frederick the Great went on to become a famous, though controversial, leader and military strategist who introduced numerous reforms throughout his territories (regardless of whether they were necessarily good ideas).

Sanssouci Palace.

The grave of Frederick the Great. Visitors often leave potatoes (a crop introduced during his reforms) on the grave as a tribute to the king.

Located in the former GDR, the palace fell into disrepair during the Cold War, but has since been renovated. Great pains have been taken to return much of the looted artwork to maintain the building’s original interior.   Still, one can sense that the building has seen better days.  It is kept very dark to preserve the interior decorations and seems rather musty.  However, it must have really been something in Frederick’s day. 

The grounds, however, are very nice with extensive gardens and fountains.  Visitors may walk to the nearby surrounding palaces and tour them as well.  We wandered around for a while with our guide before being seen out near a small chapel.

BEST group at Sanssouci.

A Japanese-style pavilion on the palace grounds.
We were now in the old main shopping street of Potsdam called Brandenburgerstraße and decided to walk along and find some lunch.  At the far end of the street, we finally settled on a Thai restaurant where I enjoyed a plate of yellow chicken curry.  Ryan and Clo chose the sushi and waited nearly twice as long as the rest of us.  Clo accidentally received Ryan’s plate but didn’t realize it at first, starting to eat and leaving Ryan to wait another 15 minutes!

Siam Sushi, a Thai restaurant where we stopped for lunch.

After lunch we explored a pair of nearby churches and Malte mocked the local university’s library, built in an ugly, distinctly-Soviet style.  The building will soon be receiving a much needed renovation.  The nearby Landtag, or state parliament, is being rebuilt after lying in disrepair since the Second World War.

interior of St. Peter und Paul Kirche. Note the floral arrangement running the length of the aisle.

The Nicholaikirche in downtown Potsdam.

Future site of the new Brandenburg Landtag.

We then found a tram back to the Potsdam Hbf, then a regional train back to Alexanderplatz.  We picked up our luggage from the hotel and then headed off to the Berlin Hbf to catch our evening ICE back to Duisburg.
We arrived in Duisburg around midnight, saying goodbye to the university staff before taking cabs back to the Kanu-Club and a good night’s rest.