Our European Adventure – part II

October 13, 1979

Our night trip from Koblenz, Germany to Paris, France was somehow challenging. Although our Eurail Pass was for traveling in First Class, the train had only Second Class compartments when it left Koblenz, so Marité and I, thought that we were very lucky when we found an empty one and had it for ourselves. It was a beautiful night. The moon reeled over the Rhine and we were at peace. Shortly after our departure, we felt sleepy and each of us, laid down in one of the two seats. However, after about an hour later, our sleep was rudely interrupted when the door opened and a family (three or four adults and three children, one a toddler) of loud speaking Frenchmen entered. We tried to explain to them – in English, of course – that the compartment was intended for six passengers, not eight or nine as we were now in the room. They gave us a very French shrug, murmured something in their language and squeezed their baggage on the bins and themselves into the seats. Marité and I, pressed in by the windows, looked at each other and tried to make the best of the situation.

Sleeping was impossible, besides the adults talking among themselves loudly, the children were very restless and vivacious. Marité asked me to look if there were other compartments free, and I went to see. No luck, the train had filled up. I returned and trampling over packages and bodies I reclaimed back my narrow seat. And so, we continued for several hours. We tried to make the best of it during that time, but the loud talk and the kids fidgeting were unbearable, and we couldn’t get a wink of sleep.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, the train stopped at a station for a long while. We heard movement, felt train cars shaking and we tough that perhaps they were adding more cars to the train. So Marité, went out to investigate. After a while, she came back very agitated signaling me to get our luggage and follow her. I did, and lo and behold, after crossing eight or ten cars, Marité pointed to a compartment with only a single somnolent occupant. We opened the door, tried to be as quiet as possible, took a sit and fell in slumber ourselves. A few hours later, around six or seven o’clock in the morning we arrived at the Gare de l’Est, in Paris.

The city welcomed us with it one of its usual cloudy skies. We left our bags at a station locker and started to walk. We had a breakfast of café au lait with croissants in a café near the Opera. Went to the American Express office to exchange some travelers’ checks into French francs, and phoned Carlos, an Argentinian friend we had in the city. He was about to leave for the office, but promised to pick us up after work, so we could stay with him that night. We had a full day to kill…

We were tired like dogs and a light drizzle started to fall over the city. We sat in a side walk café, and while Marité wrote some letters and postcards, I snoozed. For lunch we had a hamburger with pommes frites in Wimpy’s a fast food restaurant that was established in Paris in 1961, a decade before McDonalds open its first restaurant there. Then, again a café became our refuge, until it was time to meet our friend.

We went back to the train station were we met Carlos. He took us to his apartment in Montmartre. It was a five floor walk-up, very bohemian, but clean. We had a refreshing shower and Carlos treated us with a dish of chicken, baked on top of a layer of salt, which, eventually, we also learned to make and is still one of the chicken dishes that I prepare. The best part was that we ended the day in a very comfortable bed and slept for eight hours.

Napoleon's Arch
Napoleon’s Triumphal Arch

The next day we started our sightseeing: a walk around the neighborhood, Montmartre, a visit to the basilica of Sacre-Coeur, then Napoleon’s Triumphal Arch, a walk on the Champs Elysees ending at the Place de la Concorde, and continued our stroll toward Saint German des Pres and a final rest at Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxemburg Gardens).  

Barge on the Siene
Interior of Duncan & Vernon’s barge

That night – for some reason I can’t remember – we couldn’t stay at Carlos’ place, so we had a taste of real Parisian “bohème”. A friend of a friend, named Vernon, was living with her English boyfriend, Duncan, in a barge on the Seine and we went to visit them that evening. We had to cross over two other barges in order to board theirs. There, we had a delicious dinner in the small front cabin, then we went to sit on the stern, where we had coffee and cognac. It was a gorgeous night and we watched the tour boats and other vessels pass on the tranquil river, and enjoyed the lights of the other bank (I don’t remember if it was the left or the right), as well as stimulating conversation with our new friends. Finally, time came to go to bed. We went below deck and our Duncan showed us where the portable “potty” and our bed were. The bed consisted of a mattress, set on a pile of old books, covered with sheets that probably had been used many times before and hadn’t been changed in months. The night had cooled down and a look at the bed made us shiver. Marité and I didn’t take out our clothes, put out the light, went under the sheets, embraced and prayed that there were no mice running around the boat and tried to sleep. The wine and the cognac helped us to fall into a slumber…

Victory of Samothrace
Louvre: Victory of Samothrace

The next morning we said good bye to our gracious hosts and continued our tour. That day we visited La Samaritaine. An imposing Art Noveau and Art Deco department store, near the Pont Neuf, which we had seen from the barge, and with at a terrace that had impressive views of the city. (I understand that the department store closed more than ten years ago and the building has been renovated and is now a mixed use complex.)  The rest of the day we spent mostly in the Louvre, where we were delighted to see paintings like Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, Delacroix’s, “Liberty leading the People”, and sculptures like Michelangelo’s “Captive”, and anonymous masterpieces such as a the “Venus de Milo” and the “Winged Victory of Samothrace”. Thereafter, we rested our feet at the Tuileries. That night we were able to return to the apartment of our friend Carlos and took a hot shower to get rid of all the “bohème” of the previous one.

The next few days we continued with our sightseeing: walks along the Seine, visits to Notre Dame, Fontainebleau, the Musee Jenn de Pomme, – dedicated to the impressionist painters – and finally, Versailles. With respect to the last, I had never seen before so much richness in decoration and furniture. And the gardens were also truly magnificent. 

Versailles Palace Park
Versailles Palace Park

After a few days, we decided to make a side trip to Tours, an hour away from Paris. A charming city on the banks of the river Loire, and said by many to be the most “purest” French town in France. We admired the gothic Saint Gatien cathedral, the “Belle Époque” Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and the Grand Theatre, and we took long walks along the scenic Loire, enjoying the laid back atmosphere of a provincial French town. 

Tours
Tours

One of the delights of our stay in France, were the scrumptious baguettes that we would buy almost every day, and eat – usually for lunch – with jambon and fromage, accompanied with a bottle of vin de table, seating in some open space. Heaven!

After spending a day and half in Tours, we returned to Paris and took another train ride. Our first on a TEE (Trans-European Express), which were first class trains that connected many countries in Europe, reaching speeds of 150 miles p/hour. (That particular service was discontinued in 1995.) Our destination: the Swiss city of Lausanne, on the shores of Lake Geneva. We stayed two nights in a Youth Hostel and spend the days walking the streets of the medieval quarter, the shores of the lake and visited our first Roman ruins. (Lousonna was a Gallo-Roman merchant port during Roman times.)

Lausanne
Lausanne

We continued our journey east to our next stop: Zurich, also on the shores of a lake (Lake Zurich.) We left our baggage at the train station and launched on our favorite activity: walking the streets of the old quarter. Zurich has a lovely Altstadt, or Old Town, and charming waterfront promenades. However, we didn’t stayed long. Mid-afternoon we took another train to our next destination: Stuttgart, Germany.

Waiblingen
Waiblingen

At the train station in Stuttgart we met another Argentinian exile, Alfredo, better known as “Yuyo”, who took us to his home, were we got to know his family, dinned and chat until the wee hours of the morning. The next few days, we spend our time with the family, some of their friends, and visiting the typical German suburb – Waiblingen – where our new acquaintances lived.

Tübingen

Through our work for human rights in Argentina, we had contacts with several Amnesty International offices, one of them in the university town of Tübingen, about 20 miles south of Stuttgart. We were invited to visit the AI workplace and meet the staff. One of the workers was a Mexican young lady, named Lourdes, who insisted that we stay the day to get to know the town and meet other South American folk that were studying in the University. We had a grand time visiting and spending hours in a student pub, having wine and sandwiches, smoking and taking about anything that would come to our minds, with an enthusiastic and eclectic group. That night we didn’t get to bed until 5 am. We got up around noon, walked some more around town and returned to Stuttgart – Waiblingen.

In route to Berlin
In route to Berlin

We spend one more day in Waiblingen, where we picked apples in an orchard near our friend’s home. Then, we boarded again a train, in direction Berlin. I had friends from my childhood in Argentina, who had immigrated to Germany many years before, who I hadn’t seen for more than 30 years, and lived there. In order to get to Berlin, we had to cross the border between West and East Germany. A boundary marked by concrete walls, barbed wire and guard towers. The train stopped before the border and East German guards that looked like movie Gestapo types, boarded the train and checked our tickets and passports very deliberately, comparing our faces and our document pictures several times. After a while, the inspection ended and the train continued its voyage. Most of the land, we could see from the train windows, looked bare and somehow desolated and, compared with what we had seen so far of West Germany, very depressing. The train didn’t stop in any of the stations we passed and about an hour later we arrived at West Berlin, where my friend’s (nicknamed Putzi) husband (named Gerhard) met us. We stopped at Putzi’s and Gerhard’s home and then they took us to her mother’s apartment. Her mother, Hertha, was away for a short vacation and we had the place for ourselves.

Marité had caught a cold and she stayed in bed during the next couple of days, while I nursed her, did the domestic chores and rested as well. Hertha’s apartment was not far from the wall that surrounded the city. We could see that wall from the wide window in the living room and at nights the sight was surreal, when powerful floodlights illuminated the wall and guard towers were outlined in the distance. I almost felt that I was in a gigantic prison. Next day, I asked Gerhard if he felt the same way, living in a city surrounded by a wall, and he said “no”. He explained that the city had many open spaces, parks, wide avenues, a vast transportation system and highways, trains and planes that could take him (or anyone else) anywhere that he liked, so that, unless, one lived near the wall, one didn’t even notice it was there.

Kaiser Wilhelm Church
Kaiser Wilhelm Kirche

When Marité felt better and was able to go out, and we started our sightseeing of West Berlin. It was a cloudy and drizzly day, but we walked the streets anyway. We strolled the Kurfürstendamm, a modern thoroughfare that could compare with 5th Ave of NYC, and visited the Kaiser Willhelm Memorial Church, which had been badly damaged during the war in 1943, but rebuild in part between 1959 and 1963. However, the damaged spire of the old church has been retained and its ground floor has been made into a memorial hall.

We also visited Charlottenburg Palace, a magnificent rococo palace, build at the end of the 17th century and named after Sophie Charlotte the wife of the Friedrich III the first duke of Prussia, who had her summer residence in the premises.

Charlottenburg Palace
Charlottenburg Palace

The following day we went to Ost (East) Berlin, then still a point of contention in the Cold War. We went through the famous Checkpoint Charlie. It took half an hour to go through it and we had to exchange our Deutsche (German) Marks for East German Marks (and when we returned we had to leave any change left at the border and were not allowed to exchange it back into D marks). The first impression we had of the Communist side of Berlin, was that it was a desolate and depressing place. The streets looked unkempt and unclean, there was litter everywhere. Very few vehicles on them and few people walked the sidewalks. Nevertheless, there was a unique site that made the excursion worthwhile: the outstanding  Pergamon Musem, that housed monumental structures such as the Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, the Market Gate of Miletus reconstructed from the ruins found in Anatolia, as well as the Mshatta Facade, a part of a palace of the caliphs that ruled in the Jordanian area in the 8th century. We had something to eat in the drab cafeteria of the International Hotel in Alexander Platz. Long wait, rude service and bad food. We took the U bahn (subway) with its old, probably pre-war, cars to Checkpoint Charlie, and then we returned to the West, with a sigh of relief.

Pergamon Altar
Pergamon Altar

The next day was Saturday and Gerard and Putzi, picked us up in their car and gave us a tour of some of the parks in Berlin. I understood then what Gerhard had meant when he said that he never felt claustrophobic in the city.  We visited the Forest of Spandau, the Wannsee Lake and Grünewald (the largest green space in Berlin that spans an area of 3,000 hectares [7,400 acres]). I remember that at that time the University of Berlin had an Institute in the Wald, and a large field of wheat was ready to be harvested. So, how could one feel confined in a city that so many vast green spaces?

Grunnewalt
At the Grünewald (Green Forest)

Our stay in Berlin ended next morning, when we boarded another train that would take us to the district of Braunschweig, to the town of Osterlinde, where I had cousins from my father’s side. They were very hospitable and we got along well. Next morning we had a complete German breakfast: cold cuts, cheese, eggs, bread, marmalade and, of course, coffee.

My mother lived in a small town in Argentina, Villa General Belgrano, in the province of Córdoba, which had some roots with the German Community. A year back then, a choir from the town of Goslar had visited Argentina, and came for a performance in Villa General Belgrano, and some members, the Sturm’s, had stayed in my mother’s house. They had left their address and asked her to visit them if she came to Germany. She couldn’t make it, but she made sure I got the address and asked me to visit them in her name. The town of Goslar is not far from Osterlinde and we did decide to visit my mother’s acquaintances.

The couple picked us up at the station and showed us around. Goslar is a beautiful city, at the foot of the Hartz Mountains, with a well preserved medieval old town and traditional half-timbered houses. We spend a delightful day with the family and returned that evening to the house of my cousins. We passed the next few days visiting with them and other relatives. One afternoon we visited the cemetery where my “Oma” and “Opa” (Grandma and Grandpa) were buried. I had never met them, and it was difficult to connect with their resting place.

Our next destination is München (Munich), with a stopover in Hanover. We take a room at a hostel in front of the station and start to walk around. It is a cold day, but we don’t mind much. We are hungry and enter a beer garden, the Augustine Keller. We have some substantial German food (sausages, potatoes, etc.) and a couple of ½ liter beer mugs. We meet a couple from Georgia and exchange experiences and addresses.

Later that evening, we continued drinking in another famous Beer Hall:  the Hofbräuhaus am Platz, an establishment that has been serving beer since the late 16th century. Mozart lived nearby and it’s said that he frequented the place. We shared a long table with other tourists, and the robust waitresses, dressed in dirndls – the traditional southern German dress – kept bringing 1 litter mugs, five on each hand, to the table. I don’t recall how many I had, but I remember sleeping very deeply that night.

Detail of shell decorations at the Grottenhof

The next day we moved to a guest house recommended by Frommer, where we had access to the kitchen and could prepare breakfast and cook meals. The house of Frau Strauman, was across the Residenz Palace, which had been the Bavarian seat of government from 1508 to 1918. We did visited it and were impressed by a gallery that houses more than 40 bronze statues, a collection of porcelains and the Grottenhof (Grotto Courtyard), richly decorated with shells. We visited also the Frauenkirche, (Church of Our Dear Lady), with its double towers, visible for miles around Munich. The view from the entrance reveals high columns that hide the lateral windows. The spatial effect, is connected with a legend about a black mark, at the portal, which resembles a foot print that is called the “devil’s footstep”.

Nearby is Marienplatz – Munich’s main square – and the Rathaus (City Hall), a neo classical building that flanks the northern side of the square. On the front of the building is the famous Glockenspiel, which twice or three times a day chimes, as its figures recreate two traditional Bavarian stories. The show last about 12 minutes and it’s a very popular tourist attraction.

  If you like to see and hear the Glockenspiel click this link:
  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsfxTyhCzr8)  

We continued our site seeing visiting the Deutsches Museum, dedicated to science and technology. In the afternoon, we stopped in a supermarket and picked up some food stuff. That night we had home cooked dinner, prepared by Marité.

The following day we took the S Bahn (Suburban train) to the terminus at the town of Tutzing, a suburb of Munich, on the shores of the Starnberg Lake, with beautiful views of the Alps. Although the day was rainy and cold, we had a good time walking the picturesque town and the park on the lake. We also, had an excellent lunch on a restaurant next to the water. We returned to Munich, and as the weather had improved we took a long walk in the neighborhood.  

Royal carriage at Nymphenburg

On our last full day in Munich we visited the vast Nymphenburg Palace, which is a large complex that includes the main palace, some small palaces and magnificent gardens. We spent all day roaming through the place. We returned to our lodging, prepared our baggage and went out for our last German dinner at the Weisses Brauhaus.

Next morning we boarded the famed Orient Express: our destination Vienn (Vienna). We were a bit disappointed when we realized that the train was like many other trains that we had been taken during our travels, even it was dirtier than most of them. (The current Orient Express Trains, with vintage restored cars that evoke the luxury experience of the 1920s and 30s, are run privately and periodically by a tour company.)

Frau Winter's House
Frau Winter’s House

When we got off the train at the West Banhof (train station) in Wien, we were practically assaulted by middle aged ladies offering accommodations. We were able to dodge them, without being tackled, and went to the Tourism Office, somewhere in the station, where they recommended a smiling lady who was sitting in a bench. We approached Frau Winter, and agreed to the terms and conditions. We took a taxi to her building, which she explained was built in the 17th century. When we arrived the front of the house showed its age, but the inside had obviously been restored and looked very comfortable. After a tea with kuchen, that our hostess prepared, we went out for a walk in the neighborhood and had dinner in a Winerwald restaurant.  (At that time there was a Winerwald Restaurant in New York, with a similar menu, which we had frequented before our trip).

Rehearsal at the Spanish Riding School
Rehearsal at the Spanish Riding School

The next day it was a cold one, but we took a log walk downtown to the American Express office, to change traveler’s checks into shillings, after which we visited the Spanish Riding School, to watch the training of the riders and their Lipizzans (a breed of horses). We continued by visiting the apartments of Beethoven and Mozart, while they lived in Vienna, and continued our musical tour with a visit to the Vienna Opera House. That night we had dinner at the Zwolf Apostelkeller (the Twelve Apostle Cellar), with a medieval atmosphere and a decent menu and wine.

Hall of the Vienna Opera House
Hall of the Vienna Opera House

On our last day in Vienna, we took our luggage to the Südbanhof (South train station), where we locked it and went for a walk downtown. We spend many hours touring the St. Stephen Cathedral , a catholic church which was started to be built in the 13th century, almost fully destroyed during WW II and rebuild between 1948 and 1962. The spire south tower stands 137-meters high and is considered the most beautiful Gothic tower in German Europe. Also worth visiting were the catacombs, where the bones of over 10,000 Viennese citizens were buried between the 15th and 18th centuries. After this macabre tour we headed to the shores of the Danube, which I didn’t find blue, but more like muddy brown. Still, we had a pleasant walk along the river. After dinner in a neighboring restaurant, we went back to the train station, and boarded a night train that would take us to Venice.

We had been traveling Europe for two months…

 Click here for Part III