Thursday, July 24, 2014

Benediktbeuern and a new cousin

Could it be, could it be--the last Wadlstrumpf post of the 2014? I close with photos from two quick southern Germany side trips.

First up, Benediktbeuern. We made the 45-minute drive on a Saturday to meet up with friends from home--another American mom-German dad family--and friends and family of theirs. They've been visiting Benediktbeuern for the past several summers, and we can see why: a pretty Kloster, a train station, and hiking trails that are kid- and parent-friendly out the wazoo (a trail of wood and stone sound sculptures; a trail that rewards an hour's hike with an eco-playground, zipline, and raft hidden in a wooded marsh; and a "barefoot path" that encourages you to take off your shoes and feel the textures underfoot).

This worm was longer than a 7-yr-old's shoe
The day began with sunshine, and then a storm swept through in the afternoon. We returned from our walk just as the skies opened up. 

Finally, a quick trip to meet the newest member of the family.

Baby L is E's first cousin once removed
We enjoyed dinner in an award-winning establishment...
...that is part of the "nice toilets" movement. (We thought that was funny, until I looked it up online: new public toilets are expensive to build, so participating establishments post the sticker to let the public know they're welcome to use the toilet for free. Smart, and very German.)

Monday, July 21, 2014


We arrived in Steinebach on Monday afternoon (6/23) and commenced our ritual of hanging out and eating. We did build some local excursions into the mix, including a trip to Herrsching for big-town errands and gelato.

Three generations of post-gelato smiles
Back in Steinebach, the ginormous cat appointed S "Assistant Royal Tummy Scritcher"

We also took a trip to nearby Fürstenfeldbruck to go to our favorite kitchen gadgets store to gawk--but apparently the kitchen gadget store closed a few years ago. I guess we should have gone more often than once every five years. We did find a new kitchen gadget store that had bannetons (which we had forgotten we were looking for) and a special slicer for making Prinzregententorte (would that be cheating? We didn't get one, although we did try a piece of PRT at a bakery and decided it couldn't possibly be worth all the effort).

Fürstenfeldbruck city center appeared to be entirely under construction, with cranes and bulldozers and torn-up streets and sidewalks everywhere. With the old kitchen gadget store gone, the streets seemed unfamiliar. While crossing one street, we saw this memorial statue:

The plaque reads, "Hier führte in den letzten Kriegstagen im April 1945 der Leidensweg der KZ-Häftlinge aus den Todeslagern Kaufering/Landsberg vorbei ins Ungewisse" (Here, in the last days of the war in April 1945, the suffering path of the concentration camp prisoners from the death camps Kaufering/Landsberg passed into the unknown). The memorial, by Hubertus von Pilgrim, was erected in 1994 and is one of 22 copies commemorating towns along the KZ-Dachau death march; the first was erected in Gauting in 1989 (copies are also at the Dachau KZ museum and the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem). These close-to-home reminders are sobering, but a good thing. Even after coming to Germany regularly for the past 24 years, I still sometimes find it strange to see or meet folks of a certain age; the common thread is that no one knew yet everyone knew, no one participated yet everyone participated. And we say "Never again," but these sorts of things nonetheless continue around the world.

We saw the memorial in a relatively quick crossing of the street; the rest of our afternoon was spent at the FFB Kloster, which we had never visited before.

Organ info and up-close photos are here
Music notation on the ceiling! "Veni sponsa Christi."
Random happy dog

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Five countries in one day

The day after the Gran Fondo Giordano, we drove from Aprica, Italy, to Steinebach, Germany, via Switzerland, Austria, and--because we could--Liechtenstein. It turns out that driving across the Alps with stuffed sinuses leads to serious eardrum pain. To minimize sneezing, I had my eyes closed most of the time. S let me know when there were views worth sneezing for. 

Looking back as we headed up Bernina Pass
Bernina Pass
Beyond St. Moritz
Julier Pass
We aggravated Das Navi by needlessly crossing into Liechtenstein
Liechtenstein looks like Switzerland
Appeasing Das Navi: crossing the border from Liechtenstein back into Switzerland


We spent summer solstice driving from Volterra to Aprica. I remember passing Carrara, looking at the mountains, and wondering why there was so much snow--until we realized we were looking at mountains of marble. Most of the rest of the time, I had my eyes closed to avoid sneezing. Our chipper E turned 13 that day and cheerfully put up with our failure to adequately celebrate his transition to teenage-hood.

We went to Aprica so that S could ride the Gran Fondo Giordano. After riding the Medio Fondo section (155km, 3600 height meters, over the Gavia and Mortirolo passes), the dude decided he'd had enough, and he skipped the Gran Fondo's last 20km and 1400 height meters.

A few of the 2000+ riders getting ready to start
And they're off! Can you spot S?
Atop the Gavia Pass. Hooray for professional race photographers!
Atop the Mortirolo Pass. Doesn't look like much in this photo, but it's one of the most strenuous passes in bike racing, with a gradient that maxes out at 18%.
Coming back down into Aprica
A band played at the start of the race. The players spent the next several hours hanging out enjoying drinks near the finish line; as the first, second, and third place finishers of each race (Fondo, Medio Fondo, Gran Fondo) approached, the band regrouped to play a few measures of celebratory music (the cyclists passed by pretty quickly--why play longer?).


Lucca, Pisa, San Gimignano, where to go, where to go? Rick Steves wrote that Volterra is his favorite small town in Tuscany, so after Siena, E and I went to Volterra--with all the other tourists who have discovered this formerly not-overly-touristy hill town.

Now a beautifully preserved small town atop a big hill, with a bazillion shops selling alabaster jim jams, Volterra had a city-state territorial reach during the Renaissance that extended all the way to the Mediterranean and included Siena. Centuries before that, the city was the last Etruscan holdout against an expanding Roman Empire.

Growing boy enjoying much-needed bruschetta carbs under an olive tree 
Window decor--best looking Schlumbergera ever
In the 4th c. BCE, the Etruscans were trying the keep the Romans at bay, and they built a wall around Volterra that was about 4 miles in circumference. A millennium later, when Volterrans were trying to keep other aggressors at bay, they reduced the circumference of the wall to a more easily defended 2.5 miles. In the process, they eliminated all but one of the original gates. The remaining Etruscan gate is one of the oldest known (if not the oldest) half-round arch (~2500 years old). The Romans added some busts to it that, as Rick Steves writes, "show what happens when you leave something outside for 2000 years."

Toward the end of WWII, about three weeks after D-Day, the German soldiers occupying Volterra made plans to beat a hasty retreat. The plans included putting obstacles in the way of approaching Allied troops, so they posted signs warning Volterrans to stay away from the arch because it would be dynamited the following morning. Volterrans spent the entire night blocking up the arch with stones--a risky move, since the Germans had guns and a demonstrated willingness to use them against civilians. In the morning, the Germans decided the gate was suitably blocked and they could better use their dynamite elsewhere. The American troops that arrived to liberate Volterra expected the German occupiers to still be there, so spent a few hours bombarding the town, killing 8 residents, before they noticed the lack of return fire. There's a plaque outside the gate commemorating the effort to save the arch.

Just outside the town wall on the North side of Volterra are the ruins of a Roman amphitheater (ca. 40 BCE). Around the 4th century CE, residents decided they needed nice new baths more than they needed an ancient amphitheater, so they recycled the stones. Eventually, the theater site became the town dump. In the 1950s, archaeologists started digging up the dump, with help from convalescents at the local mental hospital (for whom the digging was considered therapeutic), bringing the amphitheater back to light.

Zig zags
Duomo exterior detail
Medici Fortress in the Archaeological Park, now used as a maximum-security prison.
At about 6pm on our first day in Volterra (6/19), I was felled by the sudden onset of a common cold that stuck with me for a long week, followed by a sinus infection that I finally conquered in an airplane flying over the Atlantic on July 3rd.

S joined me and E in Volterra midday on the 20th. We went to the fabulous Etruscan Museum together after lunch, but I bailed early and went back to our B&B to sleep. What little of the museum I saw might best be described as "abundant Etruscan artifacts meet 19th-century catalogers"--or, for readers familiar with the University of Illinois, "Etruscan artifacts a la Altgeld Hall display cases." S and E also climbed the tower of the town hall and took some photos to prove it.

Hill town Volterra

Monday, July 14, 2014


From Florence, E and I took a bus to Siena, where we stayed at the Albergo Benini, which had been recommended in Rick Steves' 2014 Italy guidebook. Rick Steves must be a very powerful man in Italy, we figured, given the number of American tourists we saw carrying his books around Tuscany. Indeed, a tour guide in Volterra (whose walking tour we took because it was recommended by you know whom) told us that something like 70% of all tourists from the U.S. use his books.

The view from our room was jaw-droppingly spectacular. I recommend both the hotel and the Rick Steves book.

We spent two nights in Siena, and enjoyed its easy walkability, beauty, and relative quietness. The old-town section was full of tourists, but at only a small fraction of the density as in Florence. Siena also had far less automobile traffic and exhaust. And while it lacked the iconic art punch of Florence, there were more than enough frescoes, sculptures, museums, towers, and gorgeous buildings to keep us ogling.

On our first afternoon, we visited churches: San Domenico, which was a block from our hotel, and the Duomo sites (museum, baptistery, and Duomo including Piccolomini Library). Just below our hotel was the much expanded house where St. Catherine grew up, so we visited that too.

San Domenico

Duomo. The Duomo museum was a highlight, but no photos allowed.
Duomo interior. Notice the pope head sculptures looking down from the wall.
Slaughtered innocents in the marble floor of the Duomo.
Two frescoes in the stunning Piccolomini library (commissioned in 1494 by Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini to house the books of his uncle Enea Silvio Piccolomini. Enea became pope Pius II; Francesco became pope Pius III. 
Piccolomini library ceiling
A fresco in the sanctuary: Enea Piccolomini becoming Pius II
That evening back in our hotel room, we heard drums, and when we looked out the window, we saw a pair of flags flying up over the roof line of the St. Catherine house below. We scrambled outside to watch flag throwers from Siena's Oca Contrada (Goose neighborhood) practice (presumably for the July 2 Palio, which was about two weeks away).

Our second day began with the Thursday market, a crazy busy couple of city blocks crammed to bursting with stands selling clothes, shoes, books, sewing supplies, kitchen gadgets, potted plants, and other assorted jim jams. There was breathing room next to the plants, which is why I have photos of plants.

We had room to turn around here, so I took a photo...

We headed to City Hall and the Piazza del Campo midday, followed by the amazing museum Santa Maria della Scala. The museum was practically empty while we were there, which was nice but surprising. Over 1000 years old, the building was built into the hill in front of the Duomo and descends for a total of four cavernous stories. It's main use was as a hospital for the ill and a hospice for the poor and abandoned. Photos, of course, were not allowed; see the museum website for a sense of how its 200,000 cubic meters are used today.

Siena City Hall
Given the scruffiness of this guy, I'm pretty sure he's supposed to be John the Baptist
Climbing up, looking down

Duomo to the left, San Domenico to the right
I used to think the detailed landscape backgrounds painted into small windows in assorted Renaissance "Madonna & Child" paintings were there to look charming and painterly, until I learned that that's what distant landscape backgrounds actually look like in Tuscany.
A hair salon hung a bunch of cardboard wigs in an alley with a sign saying "take photos and post them online!"