“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”
- John Hope Franklin

Monday, December 5, 2011

Schloß, Glühwein & Bikes - Karlsruhe, Germany

Nadine and I in Heidelberg!
For my last weekend trip of the semsester (my last voyage before going back home - it's crazy to think that 4 months have flown by so quickly!), I took a train from Paris for 3 hours to Karlsruhe, Germany to visit my good friend Nadine. She studied abroad at Westfield High when I was a junior and we became great friends over the course of the year, so I figured I'd swing by to catch up and to see what Germany has to offer. As I speak no German - aside from the incredibly handy phrases "Hello, my name is Rachael" (Hallo, ich heiß Rachael) and "It's windy outside" (Es ist windig) that I learned in 6th grade - it was great to be with Nadine who could translate for me and offer great insider tips about everything!

Nadine and I at my Junior Year Semi-Formal (2007)
While probably not one of Germany's more well-known cities, Karlsruhe has lots to offer. It is located in southwestern Germany right along the banks of the Rhine. The city is part of the state of Baden, renowned for its famous spas at Baden-Baden, and was badly damaged during World War II but has since been rebuilt. Meaning "Carl's Repose," the city was named after Kaiser Karl Willhelm III and built in 1715. The Kaiser (German king) had wanted to find a spot to build a hunting lodge, and thus picked this location on the edge of the Black Forest. 
Schloß Karlsruhe
Over the years, the hunting lodge turned into the Schloß (castle) that acted as a royal residence and is today a museum. For anyone familiar with French history, King Louis XIV had already turned his hunting lodge at Versailles into the giant palace we all know today and served as inspiration for the Kaiser's constructions. Interestingly enough, the centrally-planned city of Karlsruhe served as one of the inspirations (alongside Paris) for the construction of Washington, D.C.

Map of how Karlsruhe was originally constructed in the 18th century
I met many of Nadine's friends over the course of the weekend, and to my surprise they were all super friendly and very eager to chat in English with me! This was a much welcomed change, as French students are very reserved and don't go out of their way to talk to foreigners. We got together almost every night and I had a really fun time with them all!

My new German friends!
On Friday, we went to one of Nadine's classes. It was a lecture on some sort of engineering given over the course of an hour and a half - and I'd have to say that math is the only universal langauge, because the equations and diagrams drawn on the board were about the only things I was able to follow! After class, we biked downtown int Karlsruhe to check out the city's castle. Everyone here rides bikes, which is a nice change from Paris' crowded, stuffy metro, except that it was freezing cold outside and rained all weekend - definitely put my coordination abilities to the test!!

Nadine and I at the castle
The castle's museum and tower are free on Fridays, so we spent some time inside looking at all sorts of cool objects from Karlsruhe that have been found over the years. I couldn't decipher any of the exhibit signs, but it was cool to look at everything and provided a nice break from the rain and wind outside!

View from the top of the castle's tower, with the Black Forest in the background
We climbed 300 steps to the top of the castle's tower - what a view! The city radiates from the front entrance to the palace, and the backyard opens out onto a big lawn and lots of woods. From this side, you really get the sense of the whole hunting lodge aspect of the castle's history.
The castle grounds
Saturday morning, we went back downtown to see the Weihnachtsmarket (Christmas Market). It was really neat - so much more festive than the ones here in Paris! In Karlsruhe, all of the stands were decorated with pine branches and lights and it really smelled/felt like Christmas. They sell lots of hand-made things here - candles, ornaments, decorations - and so much food!

Karlsruhe's Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market)
Of course I had to taste test the glühwein (hot wine) in order to make an expert comparison with its French counterpart, vin chaud. I'd have to say the German version is stronger, but the French one has tastier spices added to it - both are delicious though!

And we can't forget about bratwurst! This was a cheap, tasty lunch - I couldn't get over how everything here was 1/3 of the price it would cost in Paris! Definitely a nice change of pace after spending last weekend in London where we payed through our nose for everything!

We then went to watch Nadine's basketball team play their last game of the season - they won! - and the coach let me sit on the team's bench to watch. All the players would run by and give me a high-five every time they were subbed out, and they thought it was cool that they had an "international" audience.

The city of Heidelberg lining the Neckar River
Sunday morning, we woke up early and took the infamous autobahn to the city of Heidelberg to tour its castle and see the Christmas markets there. The highway has no speed limit, and so it is a bit frightening to see how fast the cars whizz by to pass you. We were going about 90 mph, but Nadine told me that some people drive as fast as 200 kilometers/hour (about 125 mph!!). It was a little crazy, but a cool thing to experience nonetheless.
Ruins of Heidelberg Castle overlook the moat
We happened to arrive 2 minutes before a guided tour in English was going to start, so we tagged along and learned a lot about the castle during our hour-long tour. Much like the Louvre in Paris (which used to be a royal palace), Heidelberg castle was added on to each time a new king came to power. Consequently, there is quite the mix of architectural styles present.

View from the Castle's inner courtyard
The castle has one tower, the "Thick Tower," which measures 7 meters (21 feet) thick, making it impossible to blow up. In addition, one of the fortress' exterior walls is 31 meters (93 feet!) thick and was surrounded by a 50 meter (150 feet) deep and 50 meter wide moat- let's just say it was one well-protected castle. It was funny to see the little pieces of the wall and tower which were missing, evidence of failed attempts by invaders to lay siege to the castle.
The other half of the Castle, from the courtyard
Deutschland! Ja!
In the basement of the castle sits the world's largest wine barrel (Großes Fass). The barrel is 18 feet tall, holds 220,000 liters of wine (about 58,100 gallons!) and was directly connected to a large pump upstairs in the kitchen. Wine makers in Heidelberg were required to give 10% of their wine to the King every year (essentially taxes paid in wine), and so all of the "donations" (both red & white) would be collectively dumped into this one barrel. In the 18th century, the water in the river that flowed through the town was not safe to drink, as raw sewage was dumped into it by the townsfolk, so the royalty "resigned themselves" to drinking wine instead... to that, I say "Prost!" (pronounced 'proost,' meaning 'Bottoms up!')

Heidelberg Tun
We quickly headed to Heidelberg's Weihnachtsmarkt to get some food and attempt to dodge the raindrops for a bit. I ate some delicious spaetzle (German egg noodles mixed with onions and cheese) and we looked around a couple of shops in between downpours.  

A giant Weihnachtspyramide
I thought this was pretty funny - in both Karlsruhe and Heidelberg there were huge versions of the traditional Weihnachtspyramide, the German Christmas Pyramid that spins with the aid of heat from candles below the fan blades. My grandma has one in her house and I remember being completely fascinated with it when I was little, so you can imagine my surprise when I saw one big enough to hold a restaurant!

Over the Neckar River
Our umbrellas nearly flew away as we ran across the bridge to get a better view of the castle overlooking the town. Unfortunately, the clouds and fog had moved back in, so we didn't get very many good pictures, but in the one above you can see the castle above part of the town. 

Overall, I had an amazing weekend! It was great to see Nadine again, and even better that we were able to pick up right where we left off the last time we saw each other 5 years ago! Despite the weather, I loved exploring Germany and it was cool to see it from the eyes of a local and her friends! Definitely a great "last hoorah" trip before I head home in less than 2 weeks.

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