Savor Autumn

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Nature’s Decoration

I walked into our local Home Depot yesterday and was immediately accosted by a forest of pre-lit Christmas trees and animated Santa figures.  For a fleeting moment I panicked thinking , “Wow!  I haven’t finished (or even started ) my Christmas shopping.”  I felt strangely off balance, like I’d been whisked ahead into December.  For a split second I couldn’t remember the day, or the month.  Stopping in my tracks to pull myself together and check my calendar, I realized it was October 20th.  Not even Halloween yet.  My first response was relief.  Then aggravation.  Then outright indignation.

In an effort to get a jump on preparing for a future holiday, we many times miss the beauty of lingering in the present.  And presently, it is a sunny and crisp day in the Colorado mountains.  A few yellow aspens leaves cling with their last strength to the trees in front of the house and they shimmer in the breeze.  Today I will bake apple cake (see recipe below) and decorate the house with pumpkins and pressed leaves of yellow, orange and red.   I vow to not put up Christmas decorations until after Dec 1.  And I savor these moments even longer, by lingering over some of my favorite Autumn photos from near and far travels.

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Colorado Gold

APPLE CAKE WITH CRISP TOPPING

Cake Ingredients:
2 eggs
1 ½ C sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ C oil
6 medium Gala, Fuji or Honey Crisp apples
¾ C chopped walnuts or pecans
2 C flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

Crisp Topping Ingredients:
2/3 C rolled oats
2/3 C packed brown sugar
2/3 C flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ C (1 stick) chilled butter

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350. In a large bowl, mix the eggs, sugar, cinnamon and oil. Peel and slice the apples and add to mixture in bowl (coating as you go to keep apples from turning brown.) Mix together baking powder and flour and add to the ingredients in the bowl. Mix well until all of the flour is absorbed by the wet ingredients. Pour mixture into a greased 9×13” pan.

For topping:

Combine first four ingredients and cut in butter till coarsely mixed. Sprinkle over cake.

Bake for approximately 55 minutes.

Hidden Heidelberg

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On every leg of our journey, God gave us protection, provision and especially people who made our journey memorable.
The German people work hard and play harder. If there is a way to make a game of it all, they will figure it out – strict rules included, of course. They can be stoic and rigid but they know how to have fun. And they are more than ready to show you how, or just help you out before you even ask. The language barrier never stopped any of them from offering help with a smile. If it weren’t for their open willingness to lend a helping hand, we might still be wandering off the beaten path towards Croatia or stuck in a Bahnhof waiting for a cancelled train. We found most Germans to be very accommodating and self-confident especially when it came to fashion. Hairstyles of all colors and shapes were common especially amoung the younger set. Even the older conservatives could show a little leg and not be bothered in the least.FullSizeRender

The last leg (pun intended) of our biking tour was a short 40 km so we took our time to walk around Eberbach in the morning before departing.

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Eberbach town square

The town dates to the 12th century and the four towers of the fortifications are still intact. Across the street from the tower Rosenturm is an austere little monument dedicated to Eberbach’s Jewish population that was wiped out during WW2. The bronze carvings on a stone map depict the family names and their home locations throughout the town. It was a sad yet intimate portrayal of those who were forced to leave and never return to their homes in Eberbach.

As the Neckar River curved around to reveal the city of Heidelberg we anticipated the first sighting of the massive Heidelberg Castle. It had been over five years since our last visit to this city and the castle was just as impressive as the first time we laid eyes on it.

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Schloss Heidelburg

The streets were also just as crowded with tourists. Travel guru Rick Steves barely gives it a mention in his books except to say it is overrun by Americans (true fact mostly because until recently the American army base housing over 16,000 soldiers and their families was based in Heidelberg.) When the Americans closed up shop and left Heidelberg, it was nothing short of an economic crisis for the locals. But they have obviously bounced back because business is booming especially along the commercialized Haupstrasse pedestrian street filled with stores and restaurants.

We steered our bikes down the Haupstrasse to the Hotel Bayrischer where we were greeted warmly by pretty frauliens dressed in dirndls offering us glasses of cool sparking wine. Our room was spacious and very comfortable but we didn’t linger there very long. It was our last night in Germany and we were on the hunt for a cozy out of the way winehaus to enjoy our last supper. Walking around Heidelberg can be overwhelming with the sheer number of restaurants offering every type of cuisine so we finally resorted to consulting our faithful Lonely Planet. Score!

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Weinstube Schnitzelbank

We had a few hours to kill the next day so on a tip from our Stuttgart friends, we passed on the crowded castle tour (did that last time), and headed back over the bridge into the little visited Neuenheim district.. This mostly residential area of the city boasts some great local shops and beautiful mansions that dot the steep hillside. It is also where a mountain path called the Philosophenweg or Philosopher’s Path leads to the Heiligenberg area. Since our cycling days were over, we decided to hike the “hill.” We heard that the path led upwards along the side of the mountain and offered spectacular views of the old city and the river. Very true!

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View of Heidelberg from Heiligenberg

Our destination was at the top where the old St. Stephens monastery was in ruins but even more interesting was the stadium built by Hitler in honor of himself during the height of the Third Reich. The Thingstaette is an open air amphitheater with eerie roots. First hallowed as a magical place in the deep forest by the Celts, Hitler chose it as a local rally place and had the Heidelberg people build it for him. To this day, a local will usually tell you about it only if you ask and even then it’s with an apology. Every country has its own stain of shame. America had slavery and German had Hitler.

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Thingstaette in Heiligenberg

But at the end of the day, the sobering visit to Thingstaette made us appreciate even more the strength of the German people to forge a future out of the rubble. And as the greatest party of the year approaches, cities and towns all over Germany will once again redefine their national identity in a deluge of dirndls, lederhosen, bratwurst and beer. Prost Oktoberfest!

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Not your typical Macy’s

 

Biking through Wine Country

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The Freiburg/Marbach area of Germany is famous for its wines made from Riesling (white), Topplinger (red) and Lemberger (rose) grapes. The hills in this region are covered with terraced vineyards between small towns nestled at the water’s edge of the Neckar. One of our favorite stops was at Besigheim. It oozes charms of the old German style with cobbled streets, window boxes and timbered houses all within the old castle wall.IMG_6576

Between Besigheim and Lauffen, we decided to imbibe in some local wine at a conveniently located Weingarten right on the bike path. For some reason, the bike ride seemed more enjoyable after our stop.
Not too far down the trail, the Neckar River flowed through the town of Lauffen flanked by the old castle on one side and a 15th century church on the other.

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Neckarsulm was a welcome sight when we finally pulled into our hotel for our third night on the journey. We would’ve been happy to just lay our heads on a clean pillow anywhere but our accommodations far exceeded our imagination. It was easy to see why The Nestor Hotel had earned every one of its four stars. Our stay was beyond comfortable and the stellar breakfast the next morning made it hard to get back on our bikes.
But before we left Neckarsulm, we knew we needed to visit the famous museum dedicated to two wheeler transportation through the centuries.
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Our trip north towards Eberbach was highlighted by gentle paths, frequent castle sightings and quintessential little German villages with funny names like Zwingenberg and Bad Wimpfen. (Bad, pronounced “Bod,” actually means bath or spa.)
Our only complaint was the head wind we fought while those “cheaters” on e-bikes breezed past us. But once the path curved into the forest, the quiet enveloped us and we slowed down to breathe in the magic of the deep forest.IMG_6709

And no surprise, we found another little weingarten in a sleepy town that had our names on it. It was the perfect ending to another great day of riding a total of 55 km. Wish we could say the same for our hotel that night. Hotel Krone Post in Eberbach – Noisy room, tired food, grumpy proprietor. Enough said.

Navigating the Neckar River

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Today I celebrated my birthday in Eberbach on the Neckar River in southern Germany. We are five days into our bike tour and feeling stronger than ever. Two days ago I couldn’t honestly say that, but tonight I think I turned a corner. Or maybe I’m just in denial about being another year older. Either way, I’m thankful that I’m healthy enough to navigate the hills and valleys of life as well as the bike paths of this beautiful part of Germany.

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Unterensingen

We started out from Tubingen on Day One with 55 km of riding ahead of us. Cycling along the flat terrain of the Neckar River is a delight for these hardened hill climbers from Colorado. We actually felt like we were on vacation enjoying a relaxing ride through some pretty amazing countryside.

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But the best thing was stumbling across a quirky “miniature train park”. Little railroad tracks crisscrossed the park in every direction and it was packed with parents and their toddlers clambering aboard the little cars for a ride. But by far, we were most entertained by the size of the German men driving the tiny steam engines. In some cases, you could hardly make out the engine due to the size of the rump sitting on top of it. The engineers obviously took their job very seriously but we thought it was hilarious.

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We arrived at our destination late in the afternoon when the sun cast a golden hue on the old city. Walking across the the Innere Brucke into Esslingen am Neckar we could imagine why this bridge is compared to the Ponte Vecchio in Venice in that is covered with little stores and workshops and has been since Medieval times. The bridge is a welcoming entrance to a beautiful old city.

A great night’s sleep at the modern and very minimalistic EcoInn fueled our tanks for the next morning’s explorations beginning with 270 stone steps up to the castle heights above the city.

We headed out on our bikes later that morning towards Stuttgart. Our route to Freiburg was noted as 40-45 km for the day but navigating through Stuttgart turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Desperately looking for green bicycle signs pointing the way through the outskirts of this huge city was stressful even for seasoned bikers. Another American and his German girlfriend were having the same sort of trouble, so we stuck together until we finally got to the other side of the city. They continued on at a hurried pace while we stopped by a bakery and toasted our success with two strong espressos and a couple of fresh pastries.
We heard that there was a pumpkin festival at the palace grounds of Ludwigsburg just north of Stuttgart so we set our sights there for our next break. As we approached the ascent up to the castle grounds, we were happy to find a rest stop of sorts that included a small pool of cool water where travelers could soak their weary feet. We took full advantage of this luxury at the invitation of a German couple who were sitting by the water’s edge. They showed us how to do the walk properly – slowly with knees held high in a counterclockwise direction. Soon the four of us were walking in a line like slow prancing horses, laughing and enjoying the refreshing break from a long day’s ride.

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The pumpkin festival at the castle was impressive (sculptures, food, gardens all pumpkin themed) but it was the castle itself and the grounds that were amazing beyond description. We spent most of our visit in the pumpkin fest area but I did wander around to the back yard and discovered a full botanic garden complete with fountains, a carousel, an orangerie and flower beds still bursting with color.  (This is an unimpressive photo but it will be will be replaced as soon as I get my good ones off my nice camera!)

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We approached our night’s destination of Freiburg and discover it to be a sleepy little village. A perfect end to a long day’s ride included some great pasta at a local Italian cafe and a great night’s sleep in a quiet inn called Hotel Schober.

Wander, Linger, Savor Germany

Biking the Neckar (Baden-Wurttemberg region)

And we’re off – again!  The wanderlust kicked in and so did the itch to return to our home away from home – the island of Crete. Living abroad for five years in a place of such unpredictable joys and challenges comes with its addictions. We keep going back again and again because in some unexplainable way, Crete has wormed its way into our souls and every year or two we need another fix.
But before Crete, we will wander, linger and savor a small piece of Germany.

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View over Tubingen from the castle wall

A few years ago my husband RC and I did a self guided bike tour around the Bodensee in Germany. See my blog post about it here: https://cretanchronicles.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/biking-the-bodensee/
In spite of the consistent rain, we still rate it up there as one of our all time favorite wanders. So much so that we decided to do another bike tour in a different part of Germany.

We started this trip in Stuttgart and thanks to the hospitality and great company of our friends living there, we jumped right into swinging beers and tanking up on Swabian cuisine. Jet lag never had a chance to catch up with us. Which is a good thing because on the third day, we boarded a train and headed south to Tubingen, the departure point for our 250 km cycling tour along the Neckar River.

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Tubingen am Neckar

There are certain places in the world that are best seen from the saddle of a bicycle. The Neckar River region is one of them. Leisurely cruising thru a landscape filled with imposing castles, medieval towns and terraced vineyards is the best way to experience this land of fairy tale wonders.

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Neckar Radweg through the countryside

On our first day we wandered around the charming medieval city of Tubingen. Located on the river, the old city boasts a canal, a castle (schloss) and a university – think Copenhagen and Venice but with German roots.  The combination of healthy tourism and a vibrant college vibe serves the city well and it pulses with energy all day and into the night. Our hotel was nestled just outside the castle gate where a lively wedding reception was in full regalia. Our room in a medieval house had window boxes bursting with red geraniums, and we could hear the clatter of heels on the cobbled street below.

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We savored some delicious regional food for dinner, checked on our bikes that had been delivered that afternoon and packed up our panniers for an early morning departure to ride the Neckar River bike path (Neckar Radweg). Our first leg would be 55 km so we settled in early for a good sleep.  Luckily, the delayed jet lag came in handy, because we hardly noticed the party noises under our window that started at sunset and went until … who knows when.

ROME BY RAIN

 

Back street in Rome

It was our first trip to Rome. We had just moved overseas for a few years and were determined to see as much of Europe as we could. If we weren’t already on a trip, I was home planning the next one. Pondering over a map and endless internet searches for the best deals consumed me, and once the plans were finalized, I was off at a run with my husband holding on for dear life to my coat tails. And we never stopped. Like dedicated tourists, we hurried from one sight to the next, with our faithful Lonely Planet in hand, checking off the recommended Top Ten Sights to See like a couple of frantic school kids on a scavenger hunt.

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The Colosseum

And what did we have to show for it? Lots of good memories, hundreds of photos, some silly souvenirs and bone-tired bodies yearning for a vacation to recover from our vacation. It was fun, but somehow unsatisfying, because we had set ourselves up to see/do/experience it ALL. Impossible expectations.

But when in Rome…

Our first day we did a walking tour of all the major sights – the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain….and the list went on. It was amazing, and exhausting. So much so that the next morning we awoke with conflicting feelings about our plans for the day – the Vatican. Neither one of us wanted to admit that we were just too tired to take on another full day of sightseeing, but God knew exactly what we really needed – a solid day of rain to shake things up and challenge our creativity.

Our B&B was located in a predominantly residential area northwest of the Vatican. The cobbled streets were lined with charming stone buildings that housed apartment units above street level cafes and stores. Armed with one massive umbrella (compliments of the B&B – inclement weather wasn’t in our travel plan), we walked down the street in the drizzle to explore our neighborhood. We didn’t find any museums or monuments but we did run into an impressive fountain (those Romans and their water features!) and a few interesting stores.

We wandered in the truest sense of the word, with no destination or goal in mind. Just enjoying the day and each other under that big umbrella.

About 2:00 in the afternoon, the heavens opened and the romantic little drizzle erupted into a ferocious downpour. Ducking for cover into the nearest establishment, we shook ourselves off and looked around. We had run into a grocery store like no other grocery store I’d seen. This was a marketplace for imported delicacies from around the world. Spices, teas, coffees, oils and exotic canned goods and jars lined the floor to ceiling shelves like some kind of culinary library. The smell was intoxicating.

For the next two hours, we wandered around the store marveling at the variety of food stuffs, picking out an old balsamic vinegar (there were hundreds to choose from ranging from 25euros to 500 euros), and sniffing herbs and spices from exotic lands. The rain kept pouring and we took refuge in a corner table savoring the moment and a hot cup of espresso, a pastry and time.

We still took home hundreds of photos and even a souvenir from the market, but our best memory by far was that day reinvented by a rainstorm in Rome.

 

The Gem of Barcelona

One of our travels this summer took us to California where we visited the astonishing giants of the Pacific Northwest – the great Redwood forest. Anyone who has been there can agree with me when I say it fills you with awe as soon as you enter the shadowy depths of quiet. The air is suddenly heavy with the essence of moist moss and it almost seems sacrilegious to make any noise in this cathedral of green. The soaring canopy of branches and leaves supported by their massively thick trunks invites you to gaze upward and dares you to look away if you can.

Giant Redwoods
Giant Redwoods

I experienced the same feeling of awe and wonder when I entered La Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family) church in Barcelona, Catalonia (northern Spain). In my travels, I have ventured through the doors of dozens of cathedrals and churches in dozens of countries. But I was not prepared for what I saw in La Sagrada Familia. At first glance, the exterior is a complicated mass of ornate design that reminded me of the “drip” sand castles we used to make at the shore.

La Sagrada Familia - Nativity facade
La Sagrada Familia – Nativity facade

But step inside and suddenly, a person feels immersed in a stunning masterpiece. The first thing I noticed was the light – the play of colors on the walls from the strategically placed, enormous stained-glass windows. On one side (east) cool shades of blues and greens and on the other (west) vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. Our visit was timed for later in the afternoon so when we entered the whole cathedral was ablaze in an aura of glowing colors from the western sun.

Light and color
Light and color

This is the masterpiece, in fact, the lifelong mission of one man, architect Antoni Gaudi. His unique Art Nouveau architectural style has been both heralded and ridiculed through the ages. I’m the first to admit his whimsical and sometimes comical-looking designs leave me at a loss for words. But I didn’t fully appreciate his genius until I walked into this church.

Indoor forest
Indoor forest

Gaudi began the work on the church in the late 1800’s and soon it consumed his life – 40 years of working, managing and living on site at the cost of his time, energy and finances until his tragic death in 1926. (In route to the church, he was hit by a tram car.) He was mourned by all of Catalonia and the mission of finishing the church was passed on to them. The mere magnitude of the project was unfathomable for the times and as yet is still unfinished, financed by private donations and the Catalan people determined to complete Gaudi’s dream of a church that would stand above all the rest in terms of architectural beauty and religious devotion to the Sacred Family. Gaudi was a deeply religious man and a passionate lover of nature – both of these qualities are reflected in the design of the church. The giant doors of the east Nativity portal are covered with bronze leaves from which peek out tiny hidden insects and reptiles. The giant interior columns rise up to a canopy of trusses that mimic the giant redwoods. The spiral staircase reflects the fluidity of water and wind, and many of the small windows are reminiscent of the perfect symmetry of a honeycomb. It’s clear to see the evidence of Gaudi’s many hours spent in the country observing, drawing and categorizing the tiniest details of God’s landscape around him.

Spiral staircase
Spiral staircase

La Sagrada Familia has been and still is the object of disdain and devotion, controversy and commitment. But one thing can’t be argued…Gaudi’s passion for the natural world and the God who created it is etched in every corner and façade of this church. This was his service to God and his lifelong mission. In response to a skeptic’s criticism of the constructions slow pace, Gaudi replied, “My client is not in a hurry.”

Gaudi’s own version of “slow food for the soul” was the culmination of his talents, time and resources offered, sacrificed and used up to satisfy his passionate appetite for his service to God. He died a pauper but left a legacy of inspiration for many generations to come. I wonder… what are my own offerings of service to God through the gifts he has so generously given me? Although I may not build a glorious church, what can I leave behind to inspire generations to come? What beauty is there inside of me that would inspire and awe even more than Gaudi’s church? Perhaps the legacy is not in what we DO but who we ARE. I may never have an entry in Wikipedia, but my life well lived in service to God and others is better than any accolade I could hope for. God sees and knows everyone’s heart and that’s reward enough.