Monday, 31 December 2018

Some highlights from my year of travel


[Liberec, Czechia]

My work for the Identity Project and my volunteer commitments to the National Writers Union left me relatively little time to write about my own travels this year, which included two months bicycling in Germany and several nearby European countries, and a week in Athens.

As I've sometimes done before, I'd like to share a few of the places I stayed, ate, and visited, with an emphasis on those that are (a) especially good value for the price, and (b) at least a little bit off the beaten path.

The Hasbrouck Uncertainty Principle of Travel says that sufficiently widely-read writing about a place inevitably changes it (and that travel changes the visitor as well as the place visited). But my readership isn't so large as to put a hotel, restaurant, museum, or small town on the Lonely Planet or Rick Steves trail if it isn't already on its way there. My point, though, isn't to tell you how to get away from the crowds, but to suggest some places and areas you might not have known about or considered, but that might be worth a stop if you are passing through, or a small detour if you are nearby:

Hotels:


[Schlosshotel Rühstädt]

  • Schlosshotel Rühstädt, Germany
    Imagine staying in one of the best bedrooms in a palace -- renovated to add all modern conveniences while retaining and restoring the craftsmanship and details -- for less than 75 Euros (US$90) per night including taxes for bed and full breakfast for two people. You can't do that in France or England, where chateaus and mansions that take in paying guests charge what the traffic will bear. But you can fulfill your aristocratic fantasies much more cheaply in some places east of the former Iron Curtain, where -- reversing Communist land reforms -- the descendants of former noble families and landlords have reclaimed estates in locations lacking major attractions for moneyed tourists. Rack rates here are higher, but prices (as at all of the lodgings mentioned below) are variable depending on occupancy, and likely to be negotiable if you are talking directly with the owner and they know they will have empty beds that night. Bicyclists are welcome and there's a dry, secure bicycle garage below the grand front steps.
  • Pension Seestern, West Fehmarn, Germany
    An equally good, but very different, bargain: Here, for the same EUR75/US$90 a night, even in the summer, we got a large, skylit, oceanfront loft with expansive views across salt marsh and low dunes to the beach a short walk away. There was a good restaurant next door, but only a handful of houses nearby, and none between us and the water. Fehmarn Island has few year-round residents and pleasingly little fixed tourism construction. There are RV parks along much of the coast, but substantial portions of the shore, and much of the interior, remain "undeveloped" farmland or wildlife habitat. It's an unpretentious summer holiday destination for a mix of families with children, retirees, and nudists/naturists ("FKK" in German acronym) of all ages in some well-defined sections including entire clothing-optional campgrounds, RV parks, and beaches.


[Entrance to the Hotel Praha, Liberec]

  • Hotel Praha, Liberec, Czechia
    Rounding out this trio of bargains with a sampling of "faded but still comfortable colonial grandeur", the Hotel Praha offers rooms for CZK1450 (US$66) per night in what was once the best hotel in what was then the capital of the German province of the Sudetenland. You won't find anything like it, for anything like the price, in Praha (Prague)! But little of the money and few of the foreigners who flow though Prague make it to the rest of Czechia, and certainly not to this formerly industrial region in a hilly corner of the country near the present-day triple border of Czechia with Poland and Germany. The location of the Hotel Praha remains unbeatable, fronting on the city square catty-cornered and overlooking the impossibly ornate and imposing city hall, which is sometimes rented out as a movie set. By train, it's a slow but scenic half day across several ridges from Prague to Liberec. By bicycle, it's a mostly downhill day's ride to Zittau, Germany, at the southern end of the Oder-Neisse river "radweg" (cycle path) that runs the length of the Germany-Poland border.


[City square, Liberec. Hotel Praha with cupola at left rear, city hall at right.]

  • Best Western Hotel Bremen City, Germany
    A comfortable and well-managed but otherwise unremarkable hotel, the Best Western Hotel Bremen City earns my mention for being the most cyclist friendly hotel I have ever seen. Through a separate locked door next to the pedestrian entrance to the lobby are a self-service laundry room, a bicycle storage room with a work stand and tire pump, and a bicycle cleaning room with a large sink, faucet with sprayer, rags, bicycle cleaning detergent, and mechanics' hand cleaner. Best Western is a marketing franchise for independently owned hotels, and there's more than one Best Western hotel near the main train station in central Bremen. At one of the others, the staff at the front desk looked at our bicycles askance!
  • Hotel Topas, Frankfurt, Germany
    Just far enough toward the red-light district around the corner from the main train station to be much cheaper than most hotels in slightly more prestigious downtown locations, or near the airport, but not so far on the wrong side of the tracks as to be uncomfortable for women travelling alone. It's only a few minutes by train from the Hauptbahnhof to the airport, so this is also a convenient place to stay if you are in transit or have an early or late flight -- quicker and easier to get to than some hotels with airport shuttles that run less frequently than the S-bahn. The shopping arcade in the Hauptbanhof is open long hours, even on Sundays, when most German shops are closed.
  • Apartment rentals in Athens
    Increased numbers of bargain-hunting European "city break" visitors are driving Athens hotel prices back up toward what they were before the economic crisis that began in 2007. And there's a class of Athens visitors and expats, like the owners of the 100+ foot yachts in the harbor at Piraeus, who can afford to pay cash and for whom price has never been an object. But a decade into the crisis, many of those who still own homes in the city -- perhaps especially owners of upper-middle-class condos in the center-city neighborhoods most attractive to tourists, including retirees on reduced incomes -- are still struggling to make their mortgage payments. As a result, many of them have moved in with relatives, back to the countryside or the provinces, or to cheaper apartments in the suburbs, and are renting out their condos to foreign tourists. Those who experienced Argentina 15 years ago, as I did, will be familiar with the phenomenon. If you don't like AirBnB, there are lots of apartments available directly or through Booking.com or other platforms.

    I spent a week in Athens in October, and got a large, immaculately maintained fully-furnished and serviced apartment large enough for two couples to have shared comfortably, in a prime location on a quiet block near a Metro station and with many shops and restaurants (mostly for locals, not for tourists), for less than the cheapest single room would have cost at the hotel around the corner where the conference I was attending was being held. If I hadn't wanted to be near my meetings, it could have been much cheaper.

    You may say that apartment rentals are always cheaper than hotels, and that's often true, but the price and value difference is especially large in Athens. Most foreign tourists (except the new wave of city-break visitors, who mostly don't stay long enough to want to rent apartments) go to Greece for beaches and islands, not for cultural or city tourism. As a result of the real-estate crash, there are too many Athens condo mortgages needing to be paid, chasing too few tourists who want to hang out in Athens for a week or more. Athens traffic is insane, and the sidewalks are a severe barrier for anyone with limited mobility. But you can get many places on the Metro, the air is much cleaner than I expected, and while the crisis is real, the civic mood still seems to be to enjoy life despite the financial and refugee crises. Go now. Unless something more goes wrong to scare off tourists, I don't think the current prices will last.
  • Honorable mention: Fjelde Guesthouse, Fjelde, Denmark
    A superb B&B in a former schoolhouse in quiet farm country off the main EuroVelo routes but still an easy ride from the ferry terminal at Rødbyhavn. A runner-up rather than a winner only because, while fairly priced, it was one of the two most expensive places I stayed all year.

    Scandinavia, like Switzerland, scares off some budget travellers with high prices. But sometimes -- perhaps more so in Sweden and some of the other Nordic countries than in Switzerland -- you get what you pay for. High taxes pay for quality public infrastructure and services: public transit, public health care, public child and elder care. Higher prices for labor-intensive tourist services like hotel lodging and restaurant meals are a corollary of higher minimum wages (maybe even living wages, unlike in the USA) for the people who provide those services.


[Men's Junior division of the Danish national road cycling championship race passing through Fjelde, 30 June 2018. The elite women's race on the same route was later in the day. The peloton divided around the traffic island I was standing on.]

Restaurants:

  • Tatáž Pakáž, Liberec, Czechia
    Czech barbecue. Who knew? An unexpected delight, as was everything in Liberec, a city we knew nothing about before our visit. But what's more Czech than beer, and what goes better with beer than barbecue? The pork fatback with mustard and horseradish was some of the best barbecue I've had in years (including what I ate in Argentina!), with its own distinctive style. The portions are enormous, so don't go overboard on ordering. We were staying on the main city square surrounded by some of the finest restaurants in town, but this place was hidden away up a ramp off an alley a few blocks away -- we only found it by the sound of happy eaters drifting down to the street.


[Border posts along the Niesse River. Germany on the near (left) bank, Poland on the far (right) bank.]

  • Miódmaliny, Zgorzelec, Poland
    My partner and I bicycled along the Niesse and Oder Rivers that form the border between Germany and Poland for four leisurely days, from the triple border with Czechia (where the stream was small enough for us to wade across to Poland) as far north as Frankfurt on der Oder, due east of Berlin and the main rail and road crossing between Berlin and Warsaw. The bike path was better on the German side, but the hotels and restaurants were better value across the river in Poland. So we spent a few nights and ate a few meals in Poland.

    Owners of hotels, shops, and restaurants on the German side of the border -- in the still relatively poorer part of Germany that used to be East Germany -- complain that they can't compete with businesses in Poland, where wages are lower. But while Germans are crossing the border to the East to shop for bargains in Poland, Poles are crossing the border to the West to look for work in Germany or other Western European countries where wages are higher. Meanwhile, business owners are moving manufacturing and other labor-intensive jobs from Western to Eastern Europe to reduce their labor costs (and to try to compete with cheaper-labor Chinese manufacturing). It's complicated, but interesting to watch and to talk about with local people.

    We didn't know what to expect of Poland, or of Polish food. (Yes, I lived in Chicago for a few years, long ago, but I didn't spend much time in the Polish parts of town and didn't have much money then for eating out.) What we found, at least in these border villages, far exceeded my hopes -- partly because, at Polish prices (even border-town prices), we could afford to eat at a higher caliber of restaurants than in Germany. Miódmaliny was our best taste of Polish food, not too elaborate but with hints of "European" and "international" fusion influences. There may have been an English menu as well as the Polish and German ones, but along the border even pigeon German was, naturally, more useful than English.
  • Le Zinneke, Brussels, Belgium
    The least out of the way or unknown and most expensive of the restaurants mentioned in this article, but still a find: Excellent traditional Flemish and Bruxellois cuisine (yes, including mussels) and seasonal locavore menus, prepared with great care and first-rate ingredients, at neighborhood bistro rather than tourist prices, just a short ride out of the center of Brussels by bus, tram, or bicycle. The room is small, so I'd make reservations before heading over. There's a hefty 25% discount on food (not drinks) for the first seating, if you make reservations to arrive before 18:30 (6:30 p.m.) and promise to be out before 20:20 (8:20 p.m.). That's still plenty of time for a leisurely meal, and a really good deal if you like to eat early.
  • Athens Central Market ("Dimotiki Agora")
    All manner of seafood, meats, cheeses, and preserved and prepared foods are for sale here, and many tourists visit just to gawk. There are also restaurants, some in simple stalls around the edges of the market proper, and more in the surrounding alleys. Let your eyes, nose, and taste buds, and the "happy eater test" be your guide: when you see people happily eating something that looks and smells good, find a stool nearby to sit down and try it. You don't need to know what it's called or what it contains. If the server doesn't speak English (most, but not all, do), just point. Most of these places, especially those actually inside the market, close by mid to late afternoon, so this a place to go for lunch, not dinner.

Museums


[Organ loft and ceiling of the Augustinerkirche, Mainz, Germany]

  • Gutenberg Museum, Mainz, Germany
    Tourists who hurry through, tick off "seen the Gutenberg Bible" on their bucket list or bus tour itinerary, and then move on, miss most of what this museum has to offer. There are two (very different, for reasons I'll leave as an edifying surprise if you don't already know) copies of the first Bible edition printed by Gutenberg on display here. But there's much more to see, more of it about printing, publishing, and journalism as technologies and businesses than about Bibles.
  • Museum of Inland Shipping, Duisburg, Germany
    Duisburg is the largest inland port (i.e. on a river or freshwater lake, not on an ocean or sea) in Europe. What does that mean, and what has that meant through time? You can get a sense of the importance of the history, technology, and sociology explored in this museum if you think of it as being to transportation within Europe what a museum of the Mississippi River system and its inland ports would be to North American transport and historical development.
  • Landscape Park Duisburg Nord, Germany
    More than half a square mile (180 hectares, 450 acres) of literally post-industrial landscape turned urban park, with the rubble and skeletons of former foundries and factories repurposed as everything from frames for light sculptures to climbing walls to skywalks to flower beds. Probably best explored by bicycle, on account of its scale. One of the highlights of the Ruhr Industrial Cultural Heritage Trail.
  • Saxon Industrial Museum, Chemnitz, Germany
    The Ruhr (see above) is the region of West Germany most associated with heavy industry. But Saxony, in what became the DDR (East Germany), had an earlier and in its time higher-tech role that is often forgotten or overlooked. It was one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution, along with the English Midlands, Scotland, and New England. And in the DDR period, it was the technical and manufacturing powerhouse of the Warsaw Pact. This fine museum has exhibits about both the technologies and the sociological changes that caused and were caused by industrial history. On the museum floor and in outbuildings, docents demonstrate generations of power tools, from waterwheels and steam engines to auto-body welding robots.
  • Grenzland Museum, Schnackenburg, Germany
    This summer was the first time I'd spent any time in the former East Germany, or along the "inner border" between the former West Germany (FRG in English, DFR in German) and the former East Germany (GDR in English, DDR in German), except in Berlin. That may be typical: When westerners think about the Iron Curtain, we think about the Berlin Wall, and East Berlin was and is the best-known and most-visited part of the (former) DDR. But there's much more to the Eastern portion of Germany, and to the "inner border", than East Berlin or the Berlin Wall. We bicycled along most of the course of the Elbe River in Germany, including the portion that had formed the "inner border", and zigzagged by train and bicycle through several other parts of the former DDR. This small museum on the east bank of the Elbe is interesting in its own right, and might help provide an impetus to explore more of the "inner border" and of Germany's east. The "inner border" and the differences between eastern and western Germany remain far more significant almost 30 years after reunification than I had realized. What lessons, if any, can the history of the reunification of Germany teach us for the prospects of broader European unification across the former Iron Curtain, or of integration of northern and western Europe with the Balkans or beyond to Turkey?


[Illustration from a training manual for East German soldiers shows how to handle suspicious bicyclists found too close to the border with West Germany. Grenzland Museum, Schnackenburg.]

  • Museum in der "Runden Ecke", Leipzig, Germany
    The iconic images of 1989 are of the fall of the Berlin Wall, But the movement that brought down the Wall, while it was a movement for freedom of travel across the lines drawn by government officials, was first and foremost a movement against the government of the DDR. It was primarily a movement against Stalinism and Soviet influence in the DDR, not for capitalism or for reunification with (or annexation by) West Germany. And it began not in Berlin but in Leipzig, incubated in Christian pacifist movements that were -- at first -- tolerated by the DDR government because it thought that they could be played to support propaganda against the Reagan Administration's nuclear weapons build-up in West Germany.

    The "Runden Ecke" in central Leipzig was the regional headquarters of the Stasi -- the East German secret police. As the DDR government collapsed in 1989, it was peacefully occupied by a citizens' committee that continues to operate it today as a museum and memorial. In contrast to some other museums that chronicle only the sins of the Stasi, the museum in the "Runden Ecke" also chronicles and preserves the memory of the largely nonviolent, almost entirely illegal, popular movement that brought down the government of the DDR and shut down (mostly) the Stasi.

    We have much to learn in the U.S. from these lessons and this movement, with respect to both our past and our present. In the USA, the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI exposed J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO program and helped inspire whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers. But the Citizens Commission didn't bring down the FBI, much less the U.S. government. Today, the DHS is building a new, higher-tech, system of control modelled in part on the Stasi and in part on China's Public Security Bureau. What sort of movement can hold that back or turn the tide?


[East Germans in the 1980s demonstrate for freedom to travel. Museum in der "Runden Ecke", Leipzig.]

  • Gedenkstätte Hohenschönhausen, Berlin, Germany
    One of several museums in former Stasi facilities in Berlin, this one in a former Stasi prison and interrogation center. As a former "political prisoner" under very different conditions in the USA, it was especially interesting for me to see how both the guides and the other visitors interpret the legacy of the Stasi and what it means today, as well as to see them try to imagine what it might be like to be a political prisoner.

Bicycling:


[Tourist information "office" along the Elbe River cycle path ("radweg")]

  • Copenhagen (Denmark)- Lübeck (Germany)
    Unlike many long-distance cycling routes in Germany that follow separate and inferior cycle paths, the route between Lübeck and Copenhagen is largely on quiet, well-maintained, paved country roads. There's little motorized traffic, and surprisingly little cycle traffic for what would appear to be the main route for cyclists between most of Scandinavia and most of central and southern Europe. It's flat (wind is more likely to be a problem than hills), with plenty of scenic coast and islands to explore in both Germany and Denmark. Towns and services aren't always quite as close together as in some parts of Germany, but we never needed to go uncomfortably far in a day, even without being prepared to camp. To be fair, we might have enjoyed this route less had we ridden it during more typically cool, wet weather, rather than during exceptional heat and drought.

    The Danish Cyclists Federation publishes a series of 1:100,000 cycling maps. Sheet 7 ("Kort 7") covers from Copenhagen to the ferry at Rødbyhavn. These maps are hard to find outside Denmark, even just across any of the borders. There's also an alternate new series of cycling maps of Denmark on the same scale that I haven't yet had a chance to compare.
  • Dresden (Germany)- Prague (Czechia)
    The most scenic and deservedly most popular section of the Elbe River "radweg" is upriver from Dresden, where the Elbe cuts a rocky canyon through the hills that form the border between Germany and Czechia. You can continue up the Elbe toward its source, but the vast majority of cyclists turn off up the Vltava, a tributary of the Elbe that flows down through Prague.

    The Czech government has recognized this cycle route in particular as a conduit to bring more foreign tourists, and their money, into Czechia. (Not that Prague needs more tourists, although it is worth at least a brief visit in spite of the crowds of tourists that have taken over the city center.) The signage was excellent, and many of the surfaces have been upgraded recently, although there are still some rough stretches. On one steep segment through a narrow ravine shortly before Prague where there was no apparent alternative route, the surface deteriorated to a jumble of large, sharp rocks that slashed through the sidewall of one of my tires. The next chance I had, I switched to heavier, wider tires.

    I've found the ADFC maps at 1:150,000 to be the best choice for long-distance bicycle travel in Germany. More detailed maps are available, but they get too bulky and heavy to carry for any extended trip. They are available in the USA from Omnimap, and in Germany at many bookstores including most branched of the Hugendubel chain. Sheet 14 ("Blatt 14") of the ADFC 1:150,000 series includes Dresden, all of the German side of the border with Czechia, and an inset of northern Czechia at 1:350,000 that extends as far as Prague. The inset doesn't have much detail, but it's adequate for planning. The Elbe Cycle Route Handbook has strip maps indexed to listings of cyclist-friendly accommodations and other services, including into Czechia and for the branch along the Vltava River between Prague and Elbe. You can order a free printed copy to be sent by mail, even overseas.

Family History


[Sunday music salon at the Mendelssohn House museum]

  • Mendelssohn House Museum, Leipzig, Germany
    The composer Felix Mendelssohn was known for the tradition he began of a Sunday "music salon" of chamber music concerts in his home in Leipzig. After his death, his youngest daughter, who married a professor at the university and continued to live in Leipzig, carried on her father's tradition. My Great-Grandmother Marguerite Scobie went to Leipzig in 1884, after she graduated from college at Berkeley, to study at the music conservatory as an opera singer. That same year my Great-Grandfather John D. Davis, after getting his college degree at Princeton, got a fellowship to study Hebrew and other languages at the university in Leipzig. And according to my mother, also a musician, my great-grandparents first met at "Frau Mendelssohn's salon".

    The house where Felix Mendelssohn and his family lived is now a museum, and has revived the tradition of the Sunday music salon. This wouldn't have been the house where my grandparents met, a generation of Mendelssohns after Felix. Still, it felt special for me to be able to spend a Sunday afternoon at the Mendelssohn House music salon.


[Bayard Rustin memorial, 340 West 28th Street, New York City]

Best wishes to all for a better 2019!

Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 31 December 2018, 23:30 (11:30 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

I haven't traveled in Germany for many years, but I'm surprised that the accommodations there do not have English-language options on their website (though I'm virtually certain their staff can manage English). I can handle German, but I expect that most of your readers cannot.

Posted by: Bernhardson Wayne, 2 January 2019, 09:29 ( 9:29 AM)

@Wayne Bernhardson -- I know only a few words of German. It's possible to travel anywhere I've been in Germany, including any of the places I mentioned in this article, without understanding any German.

At most hotels, even ones in the boondocks that get few non-German-speaking guests, someone on the staff speaks at least a little English. And if you walk into a hotel or restaurant, you really don't need to have a word of any language in common with the staff in order to be served: they show you a room (or you point to what another diner is eating), they write down a price, you pay that price, you sleep in that room for the night (or eat that meal).

If you phone a hotel to check prices and availability or make reservations, they will usually recognize that you are speaking English, and try to find someone to talk to you in English, although at a small hotel there may be nobody available at that moment who speaks English.

But not all German businesses, even tourist businesses, have bothered to create English versions of their Web sites if people who don't speak German are only a small fraction of their customers. Sometimes there is only one summary page on a Web site in English. Sometimes the site is robo-translated, and the booking engine doesn't function through the robo-translation. Sometimes the "static" descriptive content is translated, but the booking engine is in German only.

I generally prefer to make reservations directly with a hotel, if I can. Hotels prefer this too, and often give lower prices and/or better service if you book directly. Booking services take a substantial cut of the amount that guests pay.

But if the Web site of a hotel is only in a language I can't navigate, I will look for a third-party reservation service that has an English-language interface and lists that hotel.

In practice, the English-language interface to Booking.com or some other international online travel agency serves as the English-language portal for many European hotels. In China, a similar role is played by the English-language interfaces to Ctrip.com and eLong.net. You can make reservations through these services, in English, at hotels where nobody speaks or reads English.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 2 January 2019, 12:16 (12:16 PM)

Maybe I've gotten too accustomed to the Low Countries and Scandinavia, where English is almost universal. When I traveled in Germany, almost everybody my age (I was young then) spoke English, and they were shocked at my German skills. It would seem that hostels and upscale hotels would almost certainly see the need for English, but apparently they don't.

That said, I wouldn't let lack of language skills stop me traveling anywhere.

Posted by: Bernhardson Wayne, 3 January 2019, 20:48 ( 8:48 PM)
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