Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tobogganing in Oberammergau

While Lubbock has just experienced its own version of a blizzard, I am sitting feet away from a cozily blubbering stove in Freising while the snow continues to fall outside. Two days ago I was struggling up a mountain slope, two sleds in tow, on the way up to the Pürschling and its warming hut. It turns out, tobogganing is a favorite pastime of young and old in Bavaria.
I swear this was the only flat section in 2 hours of trudging uphill!
After my arrival back here in Germany last Thursday, Sabine and I left her home in Freising on Friday afternoon to drive less than two hours to the world-renowned hamlet of Oberammergau. World-renowned? Well, surely you have heard of the Passionsspiele that have been performed once every decade since 1634 thanks to a vow the town made in the face of pestilence. I have never seen a live performance of this passion play that chronicles the last weeks of Christ, and neither has Sabine—but we did catch somewhat of a glimpse when the landlord at our small guesthouse, Herr Otto Huber, turned out to have been in charge of dramaturgy for the 1990, 2000, and 2010 performances.
Gasthaus Otto Huber in Oberammergau
We couldn't have asked for a more comfortable place to stay in Oberammergau, a small town of about 5,000 souls of whom about 2,000 (!!!) form a part of the 50+ performances that take place every 10 years. (Otto told us that during the intervening years, the town produces lesser known plays and concerts. Ten years is a long time to idle!). The town's men grow their beards long and their hair wild (Otto looked 100% the slightly discombobulated retired high school professor that he is—literature, of course, no less), and even the women are finally allowed to make decisions regarding the casting of the many, many characters. Tickets usually sell out years in advance, and Oberammergau for one summer season is overrun with half a million visitors from all over. With a performance duration of six hours (and about 50 performances) I am wondering who actually takes care of all those guests in the hotels, restaurants, and shops.
Sabine approaching Graswang
Learning about the Passionsspiele was just an unexpected bonus for us. We had come to enjoy the winter scenery of the Alps, and we were not disappointed. On Saturday we went for a 26K cross-country trip on the skis, through the beautiful Graswang valley to one of Mad King Ludwig II's castles at Linderhof. Thanks to the lack of real ups and downs I managed not to bruise a rib after doing so on my two outings in 2011 and 2012. Yeah! The conditions were perfect, with powdery snow, some sun, and immaculately groomed trails. For a quick getaway from Munich, this part of the Alps is hard to beat.
Winter Wonderland in the Schleifmühl Klamm
On Sunday we borrowed two wooden sleds from Herr Huber and drove the four kilometers from Oberammergau (843 meters) to Unterammergau (836 m) where we started our laborious ascent of the Pürschling (1,566 m). Surrounded by families with children in tow, young couples and their dogs, and old folks like us, we slowly made our way up to the August-Schuster-Haus, which, two meters shy of the summit, is the perfect spot for a cold beer or two—in the summer! In the winter, however, the overcrowded "hut" was a sweat-soaked, moisture-laden beehive of red-cheeked children, beer-drinking and soup-slurping adults, and the occasional underfoot canine trying to stay out of harm's way. Finding a place to sit wasn't easy, but we somehow managed. After evaporating some of the sweat from our clammy layers of clothing we then headed back down: What had taken us two hours to climb up now zipped by in less than 30 minutes, while we were clinging on to the uncomfortable toboggans and trying not to bruise that rib, after all. (Sabine was still nursing a tailbone damaged during an outing earlier this month, so she really felt the ouch.)  By what was now mid-afternoon the trail was in such ill repair that we bounced around as if we were four-wheeling without suspension at 50 mph. Sorry, but I prefer the serenity of the XC skis.
I prefer the XC skis over the toboggan, for sure!
Once back in the valley we headed back to Freising, after returning our sleds. The traffic wasn't bad at all, and we made it home just shortly after it got dark. What a fine weekend! Yesterday we spent an afternoon hiking along the Isar here in the area, and this afternoon a visit to the pub at Weihenstephan beckons. We had first thought about a visit to one of the many glass and crystal manufacturing sites about 100K from here, but with the return of more snow we decided to nix that plan. Nothing wrong with staying close to home and enjoying another day with a Weizenbeer or two.
Monday we hiked along the Isar, just outside of Freising
With only two days left here in Bavaria, a good time is once again heading toward finality. It sure would be nice if this pretty part of the world were a bit closer to Lubbock, say, within driving distance. But that's not the way it works, of course, and so I have to start planning and looking forward to the next trip across the pond, whenever that may be.
That's ice in my beard ...

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Forty hours in Madrid

One of many statues and monuments in Madrid's city center
Obviously, this post should have been published a few days ago as I have been back in the US since Wednesday night. But immediately after getting back to the casa I had to deal with painters and their fumes and decided to run away less than 20 hours after getting home and spend two days with Mike and Candi in Midland. So, there's a bit of leisure time for post number 150.
Somehow I was reminded of New York's architecture when I took this photo
After four days together with Celia in Twyford, Howard and I took an easyJet from London's Gatwick to Madrid's Barajas on Monday afternoon. I hadn't seen his family since my last short stopover sometime last year, so it had just offered itself to fly an open-jaw itinerary to Europe and simply leave from Madrid (especially since Howard lives less than 10 minutes by car from the airport). With Howard having to work on Tuesday, I took the metro (2 euro) to downtown to spend a day roaming the capital of one of Europe's worst economies. And bad it is: The unemployment rate is soaring (about 50% of those under 25 have no job), and the prospects are dim for any kind of real improvement within the short term. Of course, I knew all that from reading the papers and magazines and watching the German news via the internet. but the reality still was quite surprising: The number of beggars was staggering, I saw two small demonstrations/strikes, and every store or restaurant seemed to have a firesale going with prices up to 80% slashed, just to attract customers.
"Magic" street artist seemingly hovering in mid-air on Plaza Major
If they don't beg, they offer "something" in return for a few cents: Musicians and street artists entertain the passers-by, many of whom probably could use extra money themselves. I was surprised by the number of folks who essentially just sit or stand around, whiling away the day. For a long time I have been telling my friends how inexpensive Berlin is, especially when it comes to food and accommodations (compared to places such as Paris or London, which are at the opposite end of the spectrum). But Madrid now has bargains that rival the 2-euro döner that you can find in Berlin: At the Museo de Jamon (really a delicatessen specializing in anything ham rather than a museum) you can buy a beer and a ham baguette with fresh tomato and olive oil for an amazing 2.20 ! On my last visit to Madrid that simply did not exist. In a swank street cafe I treated myself to four fresh oysters and a glass of sparkling cava for a mere 4 —and of course the taxes are already included in these prices.
2.20 for this snack—I was not the only one enjoying it
Most restaurants were offering all-you-can-eat buffets for 9.95 €, and that includes up to three beverages such as beer or sangria. Sure, you can still spend much more, and the snacks in the posh Mercado de San Miguel (just look at the exquisite goodies below) are priced quite a bit higher than my ham sandwich, but there are of course those who do have jobs and who are doing well. It's just that these numbers seem to have shrunk.
Seafood delicacies that fetch high prices
The Mercado de San Miguel attracts well-heeled urbanites
Prepared foods at the mercado
I had planned to visit the Palacio Real, one of those monuments that I have never seen from the inside, but because of some state function it remained closed on that Tuesday. Instead, I was treated to an interesting interaction between the mounted police and a homeless man who was using one of the fountains in the adjacent Jardines Sabattini for what must have surely been a very refreshing bath. Law and order must be maintained, after all, especially in such close proximity to the royalty.
The Palacio Real stayed off-limits ...
... as did the fountain for this homeless man
No visit to a major city would be complete for me if I didn't at least try to find some artisanal beer. Thanks to Google I had a list of pubs around the Plaza Santa Ana, one of which panned out as a true brew-pub. With the unlikely German name Naturbier this small establishments serves, true to its name, an unfiltered Helles and Dunkles. So much for Spanish Braukultur. The beer was excellent, and the accompanying free snack was more than ample. Cost per half liter: 3.90 € for the more expensive dark brew and 3.60 € for the other. Quite a bargain, if you ask this satisfied world traveler.
Madrid's only brewpub that serves "natural beer"
A huge plate of olives and savories, a basket of chips, and fine beer—all for 3.90 €
And thus I spent a fine day in the city, sightseeing, having a beer or two, enjoying oysters, and marveling at the architecture, whether real or just an optical illusion.
Better look twice: This building is not what it appears to be.
In the late afternoon I took the efficient metro back to Barajas and enjoyed my last evening in Europe with my friends. With a civilized departure time of 1 p.m. for the direct hop to Dallas, American has a super-convenient connection that, as an added bonus, does not require the ex-London "luxury" tax that one has to pay when upgraded to Business. As I say so often, life's damn good.
One of American's European hubs: Madrid's Barajas—modern and convenient
And now it's time to deal with paint fumes and the final three weeks of the remodel project in windy Lubbock. At least I'll have a ferocious tailwind driving home from Midland this afternoon.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Of walks and pubs, but mainly pubs

While most of the USA fevers toward another edition of Superbowl Sunday, I am recovering from serious rugby action (Six Nations Cup) that we witnessed in the Fox and Hounds pub in Caversham.
At the beginning of one of our walks close to Twyford
Since my arrival here in the southern part of England on Thursday morning, my life has been punctuated by swift walks and cozy pubs. For the uninitiated, I met my buddy Howard in 1975 while I was traveling in Israel, and in the years to follow our friendship grew and soon encompassed his entire family. While mum and dad passed away a few years back, his sister, Celia—whom I met in 1976 while she still lived in Paris—is as alive and kicking as he and I are. Howard now lives with his family in Madrid, and Celia continues to reside in Twyford, close to Reading.
Bucolic, almost Jane Austinish, scene on the river Thames, in Whitchurch
Many years ago I learned the true purpose of "going for a walk": It's a brilliant excuse to flee the house and end up for a pint (or two) in a pub. I'll never forget Judy's aha-moment when she, too, finally understood the significance of walking, back in the days when mum and dad still lived in the old Little Paddocks in Upper Basildon, just around the corner from the Red Lion and the now-defunct Beehive. (Neither Howard nor Edward ever thought much of the latter pub, but Howard worked as a barman at the Red Lion, pouring many an ale.)
Not much has changed in the Red Lion since my first visit in 1976
Usually I do not interrupt my writing on this blog because of what is happening around me at that precise moment, but this is worth it: Howard and Celia have just come inside from some "gardening." In the kitchen, Celia is wondering aloud what walk we could now take that is both "challenging" yet will end up at a nice pub! Howard opined that she should think of the nicest pub in the vicinity and then design the walk around it—and she immediately came up with a three-miler, she thinks. Oh, they are so British, so funny. It's like living in a TV comedy show from Britain, but then: I AM in Britain!!!
The three buddies
Hours later I continue. We walked about 2 miles, ended up at The Green Man, enjoyed two pints of Hobgobblin each (Celia had two halfs of Guinness), and then walked back home. How much better does it get? Now the roast beef is in the oven, and Celia has started the prep work for the Yorkshire pudding. We had a to make a mad run to the Waitrose before this local supermarket closed at 4 p.m. and we'd be left without proper supplies to carry us through the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Two miles of walking are rewarded with The Green Man
So far, the weather has cooperated as it has been dry. Yesterday was spectacular as we had beautiful sunshine, yet high winds and temperatures hovering just a few degrees this side of freezing. Today's been more typical, with grey skies but milder temps and so far no rain. Our excursion on Friday to famous Henley on Thames, where the annual rowing regatta has been held for the past 100 years or more, was blessed by a bit of sun as well. The narrow country lanes, the fertile greens of the (oft-flooded) meadows, and the small hamlets we drove through all look an extra dose of picturesque with the occasional highlight of sunshine. I am seriously entertaining the idea of a summer vacation on the bike in this part of the world.
Henley on (the currently flooded) Thames
I'm enjoying this trip more than I had anticipated. Not only is this about spending truly quality time with some of my very closest friends, but it is about seeing places and revisiting memories that 35 years ago gave me a first glimpse of the international life that I eventually would embark on. Last night's 60th birthday party of mutual friend Fred was an immersion into British culture as much as the visit to Pat and Ron for genealogical purposes on Friday afternoon. I wish I could keep track of all those idioms and descriptions that are so different and often seem hilarious, be it the shopping trolley at the Waitrose or the "full set" description that Ron used for my beard. I love being with my friends, and I love being in Britain.
Celia used to work in a small school in Crazies Hill
And so it will be a with a bit of tear in my eye when Howard and I will leave Celia tomorrow to back to the mines and slave away while we will fly to Madrid for another two days of my quick sojourn in Europe, to be spent with his wife and ever-so-lovely children. The good thing is, there are lots of planes to take me back to England with its wonderful idiosyncrasies and quirkiness.
The siblings
Alas, it is time for the roast beef and the Yorkshire pudding, and I better get started with my sauteed mushrooms. If you get a chance, plan a trip to the good old UK, and plan on lots of walking!