Monday, July 30, 2012

Speyer Bretzelfest

A couple of months ago I was looking for information about festivals in and around Stuttgart. I tend to love festivals and regional events because they're usually a great look at local culture. One of the ones that jumped out at me was the annual Bretzelfest that takes place in Speyer. If you know me, you know that I have a few things, including butter cakes and pretzels, that I'm obsessed with. It sounded like heaven - A PRETZEL FESTIVAL!!! I put it on the calendar and waited for the day like Christmas was coming.

Speyer's about two hours away via train (or an hour via car) and is right near the Hockenheim Ring that I went to about a month ago. It's a cool little town with a bunch of "classic", southern-German architecture. This clock tower is the gate to the old part of the town:

Speyer almost looks like it was created by Disney because it's so similar to what I have in my mind for what a southern-German village "should" look like.

This is the main street that leads from the clock tower to the Romantic church at the other end. We were lucky on the day we went because the weather was nice and not too hot or rainy.

There were little hints all through the town of what was to come at the Bretzelfest (in case you didn't guess, Bretzel is pretzel in German). With each Bretzelfest banner and random art, I was getting even more impatient. These are kids pretzel drawings that are hanging in the window of an eyeglass shop:

Speaking of food obsession, I found a really good butter cake at a bakery in Speyer. Even though it had a great, buttery flavor, it wasn't runny.

Some more pretzel and Bretzelfest-related things: each white square has the logo of a past Bretzelfest. They've been holding this classic for over 100 years!

The town of Speyer was scenic and fun to walk through. You get to see a lot of the town of it as you walk from the train station at one end to the fair grounds at the other. We arrived at the fairgrounds right around 2:30pm and I was almost giddy...until...we went inside.!!! Complete with people yelling at you to try your luck on some game of skill. Yep, bumper cars, giant swing thing, and a bunch of other carnival attractions.

What was lacking at this pretzel festival was, however, any trace of pretzels or pretzel-related things. It reminded me a lot of the National Coffee Park in Colombia. When I went there, I expected to learn, you know, about coffee and have a chance to see coffee and coffee-related culture. Nope. It's an amusement park. Well, Speyer's Bretzelfest is pretty much "just" a carnival. No pretzel culture, no crazy pretzel-based foods to try. Like, for example, if this event was taking place in the United States, they'd have deep-fried pretzels, pretzel casserole, cheese pretzels, chocolate-covered pretzels, pretzel mascots, pretzel-themed gifts -- you get the idea. The only pretzel-related thing that I could find in the entire place was this one small booth selling pretzels:

Oh well, kind of a bust. We did go on Saturday and it seems like there was a parade and some other events scheduled for Sunday that might have made it better. Who knows.

We decided to go check out more of Speyer, which was definitely not a bust. On the way, we walked through a park that had a particularly-cool kids' jungle gym. I should put together a post with photos of the amazing variety of playground installations here. They all seem to be highly-engineered and interesting designs that have great potential for broken bones. This one is a spider-themed one that includes a "spider-web" climbing area that leads up the back of a giant spider. I'm sure they're safe though. In the four minutes we were there playing, only one kid walked away crying.

I couldn't leave Speyer without buying at least one pretzel so I got one from this woman who was clearly taking advantage of Bretzelfest to sell some of her carb-loaded wares. She had melted-cheese pretzel "knots" (as we call them in Philadelphia) as well as the trad heart-shaped ones that are sold everywhere in Germany. It was a decent consolation prize for the day's activities.

So, Speyer's Bretzelfest wasn't the quite the cultural experience that I had hoped for but...wait...I think I'll google Butterkuchenfest. That'd be good, right?

Funny. I just googled the term and looked at the first result. About 25 photos of a festival and, guess what, I found just one lonely piece of cake in all of the photos. If I went to a beerfest, I think that I'd expect to find beer. Maybe it's just my German???

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Stuttgart's Hamburger Fish Market

So a couple of weeks ago, they started setting up a festival area in the plaza right behind my German school. A few days later, instant Hamburger Fish Market. No, it's not some sort of fish sandwich or something. Our teacher told us that it was a fish festival that is brought down from Hamburg once a year. To me, it seemed more like a carnival-style event that probably travels around Germany for the summer stopping in a bunch of cities. Regardless, it was an event. It had food. It had alcohol. It was for me! :-)

Our class all went together on the first day and it was fairly empty. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me so there's no pictures with those guys.

I liked the bar that was shaped like an old tall ship:

Really, the fish market wasn't all that exciting. I would have only gone once if it hadn't been right next to school and the fish hadn't been so damn good. There was some entertainment though, like these older, crusty, (and seemingly) drunk dudes playing some (I'd have to guess) classic, seafaring German music. It's possibly the first "authentic" German music I've heard in the five months I've been here...

Some of the vendors were hawking their wares with a microphone like they were Billy Mays selling Oxiclean. This booth had the Billy Mays of meat:

The highlight of the whole event for me was this faux lighthouse where they were making deep-fried fish like what you'd get when you order fish and chips.

The people upstairs were cooking the fish and, as each new batch was ready, they'd ring a bell and announce over a loudspeaker that "Backfish" were coming. The fish were then sent down a metal chute to the peeps waiting below. Those guys'd then drop a piece of fish on the plate with a bit of (expensive) potato salad. Other than the wine, it was the best thing at the festival.

Yep. Deep-fried fish, some potato salad, and a white wine. Not bad for an after-school special! Yes, you're allowed to be jealous...

Two things that are worth mentioning. First, Germans seem to love potato salad. It's everywhere and served with everything. I wouldn't doubt that someone's doing potato salad desserts somewhere. Also, at festivals like this one, you have to pay a one-to-two Euro deposit on your dishes. The plastic plate in the photo above "costs" one Euro and the wine glass two. You get the money back but it's something new for me. It'd be cooler if the glass had the event logo on it so that'd it be worth keeping, especially for a couple of Euros.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Blink 182 In Germany

In case you've missed the other 310+ posts (!!!) on this blog (can you believe it?), I grew up in Philadelphia but spent the second 20 years of my life in San Diego. San Diego's an amazing place to live, not only because of its beautiful scenery and weather, but also because a small, local band named Blink 182 just happens to call it home. I've been fortunate enough to see them play a bunch of times so I jumped at the chance to see them here in Germany.

Blink has been playing shows all over Europe recently and I had really hoped to see them play in Berlin. Unfortunately, the show sold out before I could get tickets. Okay then, how about seeing them in Barcelona? Nope. The airfare alone to get there and back was way too expensive. So, my third choice, which was to go see them in Prague didn't happen either because the organizers canceled the show. What to do? How about something easy like seeing them at their closest-to-Stuttgart show up in Frankfurt. It's just under two hours away via train and we could make it up and back in the same afternoon and I wouldn't have to miss German class. Also, there's a side benefit of getting to hang out with our friends (who don't want to be named on the interwebs) who live up there. (Remember my coolest of cool trip when I got to go to the Frankfurt maintenance facility for (the I'm-not-allowed-to-say-whom) international-airline company? It's got to be one of the coolest things that I've done.)

On the big day, we boarded the train up to Frankfurt and arrived at the Hauptbahnhof there at around 2pm. It's another very cool Euro-style, steel-and-glass train station.

One of our friends met us at the train station and we went for a walk through the center of the city. We passed by the headquarters of the European Central Bank where's a large Occupy presence camped out on the front lawn.

One of the newest trends in the United States is high-end lunch trucks. Philadelphia and New York have always had lots of them so they're not that special for me but people dig them. What I saw in Frankfurt kicks the asses of all those wimpy "I work out of a truck all day" people. This hot dog vendor reminded me a lot of the coffee carts that you see all over Colombia except that he's carrying everything:

It's funny how you start to see the same sorts of things everywhere you go. One of my top traffic-from-google-searches stories is about the Locks of Love on a bridge near Notre Dame in France. I've now seen love locks in quite a few places and here they are on the Untermainbruke pedestrian bridge that crosses the Main river:

After a late lunch, or what'd be considered dinner in Germany, we made our way to the Festhalle Frankfurt for the show. Because I'm old, I got tickets with seats. It was still open seating but we got there pretty early and ended up in the balcony at the end of a row next to an empty section. It gave us a full, unobstructed view of the stage.

One thing that was extremely weird for me was going to a Blink show at such a large arena. I'm guessing that there were at least 5,000 people at the show and probably a lot more. The last time I saw them was with my sister and brother in Philadelphia a few years ago. That show probably had 2,000 and it seemed big. Most of the times that I've seen Blink in San Diego, there were less than 500 people at the show. Blink 182: rock stars!

Let's just say that the arena didn't help them. The large stage and the way that they were all far apart really made them seem like tiny people lost in a big world. Another difference is that almost every time that I've seen them, they were at home and probably slept in their own beds the night before the show. In other words, they were full of energy - almost crazy. The band seemed very tired and they played with relatively low energy on some songs. Don't get me wrong, they were awesome but just didn't do the back-and-forth joking around that they're known for. They're still, hands down, my favorite band and I cant wait to see them again. Hopefully, it'll be back in San Diego at the Casbah or something. :-)

I took about eight or nine videos that night and most suffer from extreme cases of shakey cam. I chose the two videos that I'm posting here because the quality is not embarrassing and they are a couple of my favorite songs. The first is called After Midnight and it's off their newest album, Neighborhoods:

The other video is for a song called First Date and is in my top three-or-four favorites that they do.

Just writing this post makes me want to see them again. Coincidentally, they are playing in Barcelona as I write this story. So sad! I wish I were there... Oh well, next time for sure!

A special thanks to our great, not-to-be-named, friends up in Frankfurt for the nice lunch and visit. Let's do it again soon down our way!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Schloss Ludwigsburg

There are a ton of different castles and palaces spread all over Europe. I've gone to some in Spain (like the Alhambra), in France (like Mont Sant-Michel and Carcassone), and there are a bunch in Germany too. I really want to go see those castles you've seen in pictures that are perched up on some precarious cliff-side mountain but those will have to wait. For now, something a bit closer to the city and easy to get to will have to do! One of the palaces that's close to Stuttgart is the Schloss Ludwigsberg, which is just north of the center of the city:

The palace, built in the 1800s in a Baroque style, has been used over the years by the Baden Württemburg royalty. Today it is mostly a museum where you can walk through and see what life was like for its residents. You can't take any photos inside so these two outside ones will have to do. Anyway, it was interesting to of old furniture aren't that spectacular anyway...

So, why write about it? Funny you should ask... Well, it still ended up a fun day and there were four things that were unusual. For one, the day we went there was an antique car show that was super cool. People were dressed in period costumes and the cars were amazing. Check out this guy in costume working on his car:

Another thing that was special was that we went with my friend Kijung, who's from South Korea and takes German with me. We ended up with a bunch of photos of Diana and me instead of just our normal photos of each other or one of those "self portraits" that we love.

It was fun to see the day from another perspective. This one's nice too:

Next, I got to see a car up close that I've only ever seen in photos. I've always been a huge fan of the old, air-cooled Volkswagen Beetles. I've owned three of them including one convertible (for 20 years) that I just sold a few years ago. Most of VW's convertibles were built by the better-known Karmann (remember the Karmann Ghia?) but there were some that VW had built by Hebmüller.

The car below is a 1950 Hebmüller convertible. In both cases, VW shipped just the mechanicals and each company built their own version of the car. Although you'd be able to identify a Karmann-built convertible, the Hebmüllers are incredibly rare - less than 700 were ever built - and this one was in really good condition. I just love the shape of the trunk on this A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. car:

Finally, we got to see a Benz Patent Wagon in action. According to Mercedes, it was the first automobile ever made and I had seen a museum-quality one at the Mercedes Classic Center, but a guy was driving this one around. They still make them and you can get one for about 50,000 Euros (~$61,000 U.S.) if you're interested. Here's Diana on the living museum:

But wait, it gets better, SHE GOT TO GO FOR A RIDE!!! This is like getting to see a dinousar live or perhaps eating with Julia Child or maybe hanging with Picasso while he painted Guernica... Enjoy:

Pretty cool, huh? So, all in all, a fun day checking out the local sights. Thanks to Kijung for being a very cool guy to hang out with and making a good day even better! Come to think of it, I've met some great people from South Korea in the last year and it really makes me want to go. I'll have to add that to my to-do travel list. Oh yeah, another in the mandatory self-portrait series...this time with three!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Hockenheim Ring

I've always liked driving. Some see it as a chore or just something that needs to be done to get from A-to-B. Not me. I even worked as a pizza-delivery guy for about five years and I loved it because I was out in my car driving around. Even driving in the rain and snow were often a treat. About 5 years ago, I was in the market for a new car and had decided on a MINI Cooper after driving it and a few other similar cars. Nothing compared to it and I've never had so much fun driving as I did with that car, especially when I got to do things like driving in the San Diego back country with my old MINI club, Auto-Cross racing, or going to a bunch of track days at places like Laguna Seca (near Monterrey, California).

Right around the same time, I started getting interested in Formula1 and have followed it on and off over the years. It was a natural fit with my love of cars and, for me, it's infinitely more interesting than NASCAR, mostly because of the track and car designs. Two years ago, I went to see Formula1 in person in Barcelona, which was pretty amazing. Well, here Germany, they also have an annual Formula1 event. It's held at the Hockenheim Ring located about half-way between Frankfurt and Stuttgart. A friend of my roommate's mom scored some VIP tickets to a recent race weekend so we loaded up the whole family to watch a track day...

It was very cool because the VIP tickets gave us open access to all areas of the pit and track. The weekend was a mixed-car-type event and included a Lotus Cup Race Series as well as a bunch of Formula-V cars (race cars built with the old-style, air-cooled VW Beetle motors) like these:

It was fun to walk around the pit area to see the cars being worked on and to be able to smell the brake dust up close. These pits are the ones that run along the main straightaway and are used by the Formula1 teams during the annual race weekend.

This is the pit that's used by Mark Weber of team RedBull Racing:

The cars that were being driven that weekend was a pretty amazing, and extremely expensive, collection of serious hardware. Here are some nice gull-wing Mercedes race cars being race prepped in one of the pit bays:

At one point, we got a not-so-famous celebrity sighting. Apparently there's a German former Olympic ski jumper that's made "the jump" to car racing and he was driving that day. I have no idea who he is but he's the one on the left in the white racing suit (note that he drives a tricked-out Corvette):

The highlight of the day was getting to visit track control for an in-depth tour.

Race control staging a new group out on the track:

...and then monitoring the race:

At one point on the tour we watched the track announcer doing the voice over. It's amazing how fast he talks. You don't notice it when you're watching the racing but when he's in front of you - it's fast! The whole thing was extra-special since I know that in just a short time that this year's Formula1 event will be here and that it'll be packed. The TV control room reminded me of when I visited my friend John John at Fox Studios in Los Angeles, where he works.

It was also very cool to get to hang out along the long, straightaway wall and take photos. I'd like to say that this older Mini Cooper was so far ahead of its group that it's all alone but you'd probably know better. Also, the scale of this photo looks crazy. The Minis are either really, really tiny or the track suddenly got verrrrrrrrrrry wide!

It's places like Hockenheim that make me really miss my MINI. I miss driving that fun, little car. A special big thanks to Martin for providing the tickets and driving us up to the track. I had a great time!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Weinwanderwege - Stuttgart's Wine Trails

Stuttgart's a fairly small city with less than 700,000 people. The size, terrain, and the weather remind me of Portland, Oregon, and/or Seattle, Washington, in the United States. Back when I lived in Oceanside, I used to laugh at the numerous German tourists that we'd get each winter. You could always tell them by their small bathing suits and the fact that they were having beach picnics and swimming in the ocean without wetsuits when the locals were bundled up for winter. I now know that June in Germany is a lot like January in San Diego!

Anyway, one benefit (side effect???) of the climate and terrain is that there's a thriving, local wine industry in and around the city. In the photo below, the #1 is the center of the city right near where my German classes are and we live in Vaihingen neighborhood near to where the #2 is. To give the map some scale, it takes about eight minutes in the metro to get between the #1 and #2. It's pretty small. The #3 is the Bad Canstatt area of the city, which is right on the Neckar River. As you go southeast from the #3 towards the #4, you'll see that there's more and more green. (If you look carefully about half-way between #3 and #7, you'll see a white doughnut-shaped building. That's the Mercedes Benz Area.) Where the numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7 is one of the large wine-growing areas right in the city.

From the main train station in Stuttgart, it's only three metro stops to arrive at the Obertürkheim station (#4 on the map above). It's located just a short couple of blocks from the first vineyards, which you can see on the hills behind the station building.

There are a few places where you can tour the vineyards near public transportation in Stuttgart. In this case, you get off the metro and walk between some houses until you're at the start of the vineyards. While walking from the train station, I saw the perfect house for Diana and me. It's a little small but it has classic architecture and is quite airy. You can see it between the two more-modern houses below:

Our first stop of the day was at the Collegium Winery. They are a local grower and wine producer that does a lot to support the local wine-growing industry. They have a couple of locations in the area where you can go to try some wine. I was particularly happy because our roommate had gotten a bottle of wine from Collegium as a gift and it was the best German wine I have had so far.

The building interior and attached wine cellar have interesting architecture (not quite as beautiful as Codorniu, but then again...) and the folks working there are exceptionally nice. The woman we talked with had pretty good English, she patiently explained the different wines they produced, and she even gave us a few free samples.

I didn't buy any wine that day because we were just starting our walk and I didn't want to have to carry a bunch of wine in my backpack. Just call me lazy I guess! I did buy two bottles about three days later in one of Stuttgart's central food markets so their niceness and free samples definitely paid off for them.

From Collegium, we walked to the village of Uhlbach (#5 on the map above), which is where the wine-walk tour goes up into the hills. Before beginning our "strenuous" climb, we stopped off at a lemonade-and-cookie stand run by some girls. I really enjoyed having the chance to speak German with them since most of the questions were within my ability (where are you from, what kind of cookies, and so on). The even explained some things about the area. Sehr gut!

Oh yeah, I almost forgot, we passed a table with some bags of fresh-picked cherries (yep, Stuttgart's full of cherry trees!!!) and an honor box. Diana's first experience with an honor box was when we were visiting the Amish area in Lancaster County outside of Philadelphia. She was waiting for someone to come out to help us with our purchase until I told her that you take what you want and you leave the money in the box. She still dies every time she sees them since, in both Spain and her native Colombia, the cherries AND the money would be gone in less than 60 seconds. Did I mention how much I love cherries? I ate pretty much the whole  500-gram (just over a pound) bag in about 20 minutes...

The scenery was beautiful as we started walking up through the hills. This view towards Uhlbach, with the church, houses, and hills, is sooooo Europe to me.

From Uhlbach, the trail winds its way around the vineyards and hills in the area. This particular walk could probably take about two hours, maybe less, if you don't stop anywhere for too long. Our goal was to walk up to the Würtemberg Mausoleum (Grabkapelle auf dem Württemberg)continue down the other side, and end our walk at another metro station nearby. You can just make out the round mausoleum between the trees on the hill in the center of the photo.

The Würtemberg Mausoleum (#6 on the map above) was built by William I of Würtemberg (the area where Stuttgart is located) in the early 1800s. The building , and especially its interior, reminded me a lot of the Pantheon in Rome.

The reward for making the climb up is the view of the Neckar valley below and Stuttgart off in the distance. Oh, and there's also wine for sale to go with your great view! In the photo below, you can make out some of the industrial area that runs along the river along with the Mercedes Arena, which is a white-roofed, doughnut-shaped building just about 1/3 of the way into the photo from the right side (you can also see it 1/2 way between the #6 and the #7 on the map above).

From the mausoleum, we walked down the other side of the hill to the Obertürkheim metro station (#7 on the map above). The Weinwanderweg was a fun few-hour outing on a nice afternoon. This route was fairly well marked (there were one or two spots that we needed to pay close attention), easy to get to via metro, and not too tough of a climb. The views alone make the trip worthwhile. Diana and I had a great day and, surprise, I even remembered to wear sunblock so, look ma', no sunburn (for once)!

I've been pleasantly surprised by the wine from the Stuttgart region and having the chance to walk through some of the vineyards was a bonus. I think I feel a story coming on about my wine-sampling experiences here. Stay tuned!