The last few days have been mostly peaceful and relaxing. We’ve pampered ourselves with an experience at the old Roman baths in Baden-Baden, spent a day driving the Black Forest and visiting a clock museum, which sounds boring but it actually wasn’t, and did a day trip to Strasbourg in France where Justin experienced beef tartare. On top of all that we did a lot of autobahn driving.
Driving here in Germany has had it’s quirks but overall has been manageable. I guess it’s a good sign that we didn’t have to stop and ask for directions anywhere! Between our Deutschland highways map, close reading of signs, and occasional help from the iPad, we’ve been doing pretty well. However, two things have caused some detours and retracing of steps: 1) construction has been in the way a few times and has forced detours, but more significantly, 2) highways are not labeled with the usual north/south east/west directions we would find in Canada or the US. Instead, you have to know what towns and cities lie in the direction you want to travel, which can be problematic if you don’t know where the town is in relation to where you are and can’t find it on the map quickly enough. I learned early on to scan ahead on my map to see what towns lay in the direction we wanted to travel so I knew what to look for! Thankfully here in the Black Forest there is a series of major towns running north and south by which we have been guided. When we were based in Staufen, we spent a lot of time navigating based on direction either away from Basel, Switzerland, or towards it, as it lay south of us right on the main autobahn.
One thing that’s great about driving in Germany: everyone actually obeys the “keep right unless passing” guideline. Whether this is because everyone is actually courteous to faster cars, or because if you don’t, you have a Porsche on your tail, I’m not sure, but it is refreshing considering how many people drive slow in the passing lane back home. Another amazing thing is that people obey altered speed limit signs. Everyone can be flying along at 130km/hour but once there is a construction sign posted with an 80 or 60 km/hour sign everyone slows right down. I guess that’s why the whole autobahn system works…
Our last day in Staufen we headed to Strasbourg for the day. It is a rather charming old city but I admit that I have enjoyed our time in smaller German towns more. For one, Strasbourg didn’t feel as safe. We saw what were possibly a few pickpockets at work in big crowds, which was interesting but also made us very cautious. Secondly, the crowds! I have gotten used to small villages and towns peopled by locals and German tourists on vacation from their busy lives. It was a bit of a shock to be in extremely crowded city squares with vendors pushing trinkets and sunglasses at tourists.
All that said and done though, I might have been a bit tainted in my experience by the fact that I wasn’t feeling very well that day. I mentioned in my last post I seemed to have a bit of a cold and it hit it’s peak that exact day. I couldn’t’ stop sneezing and my head felt extremely heavy and achy. We had to take it easy and take rests on benches and grassy areas where I would rest my head on Justin’s lap for a time. Thankfully I’m feeling much better now and ready to keep traveling!
Strasbourg did have it’s sights and charms though! First stop was at the massive cathedral whose north tower (the planned south tower was never built) rises 466ft. above the square below. It was finished in 1439 and held the title of tallest building in the world from 1647 to 1874, which is very long time! It is also one of the biggest churches in the world that was built entirely in the Middle Ages.
Inside is a huge astronomical clock, which at 18 meters tall, is also one of the largest in the world. Apparently it is extraordinarily accurate when it comes to keeping track of astrological events, indicating leap years and equinoxes and movements on planets and moons. The clock also chimes the usual hours of the day and includes figures that move and chime bells to mark the time. A little angel chimes a bell at the bottom, along with a skeleton (representing the inevitable march of time) who tolls a bell for the figure who passes in front of him at each hour. At 12:30 though, everybody gets into the action, including Jesus and the twelve apostles, and a rooster that crows a couple times. It is simultaneously humorous and solemn, as the little carved figures make their way on their path, marching through time. Definitely worth going to see.
Back out in the street, we went for lunch at a recommended shop called “La Cloche à Fromage.” It was pricey but well worth the experience. Basically a restaurant front for a cheese shop nearby, everything on their menu includes local French cheese and you can order things like fondue and raqulette in an all you can eat format. Right inside the front doors is a large table filled with all their cheeses under a giant glass bell, or cloche (hence the name of the restaurant). We shared a salad and a cheese tasting platter with fifteen different cheeses in seven different cheese families. The fantastic part about this experience was that the manager/owner came out to explain all the cheeses and their histories and how they are made. It was very fascinating. The first cheeses the plate (he gave us the order in which we were to eat and said it was important to follow it!), were the local goat cheeses that are in season right now. Some of them only mature for a few weeks and thus are available in the spring when the goats are milking. These were the best cheeses on the plate by far and I’ve rarely, if ever, had cheese that good. Here is the dome inside.
After lunch we meandered down the canal and visited the Alsatian Museum, dedicated to what life was like in the Alsace region from the Middle Ages up until the First World War, which was fascinatingly full of old ceramic tile stoves, furniture, clothes, and tools. From there it was more wandering along the canal, watching boats go up and down the locks, and a dinner under big oak trees in a town platz (square). Justin was brave and ordered the beef tartare, which is basically seasoned raw beef that has been cured in lemon juice. It was actually quite good but the portion was a little large, so he says he doesn’t need to have it again anytime soon.
The next day consisted of driving through the Black Forest with a stop at the German Clock Museum in a little university town called Furtwangen. It may seem unremarkable to some but it nicely finished off our education in time and clocks that began at the Royal Observatory in London. This one was more in depth about the transitions in how time was developed and measured, from sundials, to the development of the pendulum to increase accuracy, all the way to atomic technology (with of course a big section dedicated to cuckoo clocks).
From the clock museum it was to Baden-Baden, which is a relatively quiet resort town built on the history of the hot springs and the Roman baths situated there, and a long history it is. The original springs of Baden-Baden were known to the Romans as early as the first century AD, and simple soldiers bathes as well as more elaborate marble baths have been discovered under the modern city. After the falling into disuse, the town was rediscovered as a spa town in the 1790s and it’s popularity grew, reaching a peak in the 1850s and 60s. At this time it was nicknamed the European summer capital, attracting high profile guests like Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, and the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, among many many others. The rich and famous came to Baden to relax, enjoy the casinos and horse racing, and of course take part in the health-curing spas and thermal baths.
All that said, we of course had to try the thermal bath experience at the old Roman-Irish bath which first opened in 1877 to pamper the well-to-do of Europe. Now it’s a steamy world of marble columns and tropical tiles painted with lily pads and herons. It also sticks to it’s traditionally nude and sober 17 step bathing ritual. Yep. Nude. As in no clothing or bathing suits. I have a hard time imagining the Victorian English taking part in this but I suppose they did.
On alternating days you can either bathe in gender separated facilities (meeting briefly in the middle in two common pools), or you can go through the whole thing with everybody all together, which is what we did. Thankfully it was a rather quiet day with only a few people silently gliding through pools or contemplating life in the steam rooms and hot air rooms. All in all, I felt pretty comfortable. Everybody kept to themselves and eyes were averted when needed, not out of embarrassment or shame, but simply a gesture of privacy and respect.
I really can’t remember the last time I have felt so clean or relaxed. The rooms work by taking you through steps to slowly heat up your body temperature, and then cool it off, with a drastic cold plunge at the end. We started with a shower and then a rest in a hot air room, followed by an even hotter one. This went directly into a steam room that is one of the last of it’s kind in the world. It is still heated solely on thermal energy and the natural hot water found in the ground there. The water runs through old circular pipes coated in mineral build up and emerging from the wall. From there it drips out, causing steam, which heats the room. It really was amazing. This was followed by a very hot steam room and then through a succession of ever cooling pools, the main one being under this dome.
Of course, no photography was allowed so I grabbed this off the internet. Finally came a cold plunge and then immediately into a warm towel to dry. To finish, another warm towel and a bed where you got cocooned in a blanket to rest and relax some more, followed by a sunroom and a cup of tea. Ahhhh. I could do that again.
Another couple highlights of Baden-Baden are the: Lichtentaller Allee, a long beautiful path running between the little river that goes through town and a large park (which includes a free public riding rink for horses. We saw it used many times); the publicly open rose gardens, beautiful little cafes and restaurants, and of course the shopping and markets scattered throughout town. All in all, a great place to spend a day relaxing.
Sorry I don’t have more pictures this time, just a lot of writing, but it’s getting late so it’s time to get to bed! We dropped the car off today at the Frankfurt Hahn airport and the morning takes us to Finland! Can’t wait. We have loved Germany but are also ready for a new country so let the traveling continue. One more leg of the journey left!