The Way to a Country’s Soul …

I don’t tend to watch travel programs, quite like I don’t tend to read travel blogs. For some bizarre reason, consuming anything that falls into the very genre I tend to write about, or at the very least enjoy partaking in, in practice, doesn’t appeal. In fact, quite often, it annoys, as does, I would assume, my blog for those who suffer from a similar mentality. I realise this means I am missing out on legions of travel blogs and sites that I’m sure would be endlessly inspiring, but I have tried to jump on board and enjoy them all, or at least a handpicked few, but I struggle. In a similar vein, I imagine, to the way I struggle reading things about writing. Save for this excellent site that really isn’t writers talking about writing, so much as writers writing, I don’t tend to like reading about other people writing.

Look at that, two of my great loves, writing and travel, and I hate reading about them. This has obviously nothing to do with those producing material about travel and writing and everything to do with me. I am reassured only by the memory of one of my lecturers during my MA in creative writing, herself a notable Australian writer, saying ‘I hate writing festivals. Why would I want to go and listen to other writers talk about writing?’ I suspect that is my own problem.

But what does have quite the precise effect a travel blog should have on me, is food. Food shows, food blogs, preferably those that do photos, recipes and little snapshots of the places from whence the dishes came. I think food lies so much at the heart of cultures – what they eat, how they eat it, how they source it, make it, pass it down from generation to generation, when they eat, who they eat with, what they choose to celebrate and honour occasion with – all of it is hugely revealing. Through it all we see ritual and value, etiquette and socialisation. It is as much the stories that come with food, and the people telling these stories, as the food itself that reels me in. I suppose what I’m saying, to borrow and alter a classic, is the way to a country’s heart and soul is through its stomach.

Since the lovely, internal discovery I am ready to head back over the ocean, I have been thinking about future European trips. Spurred on by gorging on Food channel programs like Rick Stein’s Mediterranean and Cheese Slices, I have been indulging in daydreams of jaunts to Sweden and Denmark, drives through France, trips to Istanbul and northern Italy. The renewed vigour with which I am daydreaming about stuffing my little face full of wine and cheese in various different countries is directly proportionate to the vigour with which my lust has returned. It was only a few months ago not even the thought of running through a field of lavender in Provence with a glass of wine in one hand and a wheel of goat’s cheese in the other, could rouse me from my slump. But now, now I see myself in little brown boots, skipping down Scandinavian streets, I see myself sauntering through the markets of Istanbul and I definitely see myself running through a lavender field, wine and cheese in hand. I see it all.

I should, really, stop getting so ahead of myself and see myself doing something far more concrete and just as exciting; showing the SG my country. Feasting on December’s smorgasboard of the Great Barrier Reef, Melbourne, Hunter Valley, Central Coast, Sydney and the Blue Mountains. Six weeks of eating, swimming, sunning and seeing. And eating. Although a lot of the rest of the world doesn’t know it – otherwise they would stop asking ‘what is a typical Australian meal’ and save me the awkwardness of saying ‘lamb? A barbecue? We eat a lot of Thai and Italian and Greek and Chinese and Japanese and Lebanese. And seafood. We eat a lot of seafood. And fruit. We have great fruit.’ – we have some of the best food going. It’s fresh, it’s diverse, it’s infused with both tradition and progression. It’s as innovative or authentic as you want it. And it comes with bloody good wine.

Quite like us Aussies, really.

‘I Always Cry on the Bridge’

Just last night, I was talking with a friend of mine who lives in Hong Kong and had popped back to Sydney this week for a little surprise visit. She said she was finding Sydney this time round quite irresistible, that it would be harder than ever to leave it. She said she cried driving over the bridge and I assured her I had a moment too, when Mum and I drove back from the airport a month ago. Another friend said when she came home after a year away, she was driving around her neighbourhood and when she came to a particular spot that just happened to be home to a speed camera (immaterial)  but more notably was a dip in the road, a momentary haven of great peace, lushly furnished by Australian bush, she burst into tears. I said I always cried, no matter where I had been, nor for how long, at Sydney airport when you walk out to the arrivals lounge underneath the big sign saying ‘Welcome to Sydney.’ I also cry if the QANTAS pilot says – after a bloody long, delirium-inducing flight, mind you –  ‘and for those returning home to Sydney, welcome home.’ This time round, I cried when I walked into my bedroom, two days after I farewelled my little flat in Weiden and SG at Frankfurt airport, put down my 27kg bag and thought, ‘I’m here. And you’re so far away.’

When I was in Germany, I missed – as well as the more obvious things – the funniest little things. Things like eucalyptus trees. Movie dates with a big caramel muffin and a large latte. Birds, big colourful ones, ones with loud, rambunctious song that wakes you up in the morning. My old handbag collection. High heels. Rice crackers (I know, odd). Good Thai food. A glass of Australian white wine. I suppose it is no different then, to have the funniest little things make you cry, when you are reunited with them at long last. I can’t get enough of the birds that chill out in my Mum’s garden, tilling the toil with their little beaks for seeds and wherever possible over the past month, I have gotten a big take away latte. We all had dinner last night, a big group of us, at a Thai place in North Sydney and the sweet chilli, basil and coconut chicken tasted unbelievable. So did the wine. Walking back to my car, I crossed the road to stand at a spot which has the most perfect view of a city I will leave again soon, but must love hugely while I am here. Standing, framed by trees was the huge, lit-up Sydney Harbour Bridge. I didn’t cry, but I did just stand there a while and take it all in. There’s no Sydney Harbour in Germany.

And because I promised to do this weekly in my quest to really appreciate my time in this city – which may not be as long as initially planned – here’s what is around me at the moment.

And finally, to all the new followers who have found their way to this blog of late, HELLO and thank you for thinking this is worth your while. 

The Fairy Tale Town of Rothenburg

Upon deciding we would journey to Kupferzell this past Wednesday, SG promptly planned a second ‘surprise’ element to the day. We would drive to another place after Kupferzell, one I would love and one that was going to remain a secret right up until the moment we arrived. I was forbidden from Googling, poring over maps to see what important cities lay between Weiden and Kupferzell, lest I ruin the surprise. I am not a good person to surprise and impatient to a fault, so I peppered SG with questions (can I eat it? Is it something I love? Does it involve a person? Is it in Germany? Is it to do with history? Wine? Do I know it?) all the way up until I spotted an increasing number of signs for Rothenburg ob der Tauber and then one, indeed, announcing we were entering Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

Prone to confusing taube and traube (pigeon and grape respectively) and similarly prone to getting my plurals wrong all the time, I briefly wondered aloud if Rothenburg was famous for its pigeons (or indeed grapes … wine …) until I was informed the Tauber is the name of the river Rothenburg sits upon. Nothing to do with pigeons. Or grapes. Or wine.

‘Do you know Rothenburg?’

‘It rings vague bells.’ I flicked furiously through my German historical town knowledge, waiting for louder bells, annoyed they weren’t coming. I hate not knowing towns of significance.

‘Rothenburg,’ SG said, turning into a carpark that appeared to be just outside a big, old, fortifying town wall, ‘is probably one of the most famous Medieval towns in Europe.’

Really?’ Few things put a spring in my step like well preserved Medieval towns or ancient ruins do; I nearly died of pleasure overload when I made it to the Acropolis and I love a cobbled lane.

‘Really.’

And he was right. (I Googled it over my schnitzel for lunch.)

Rothenburg ob der Tauber dates back to 950AD, when work on the castle’s garden began and just over one hundred years later, the castle itself. It was one hundred years after that, in 1170, that the city of Rothenburg was founded, upon commencement of building the Staufer castle. The walls went up in the 13th century, fortifying the town and in the century to follow the famous St James Church, St Jakob in German, would be built and the town would prosper as a free Imperial City (Freie Reichsstadt). An earthquake in 1356 destroyed the Staufer castle, but seemingly undeterred, the citizens thereafter decided to keep working on St Jakob (the church would not be fully completed until 1485) and make it the official ‘city church’ – Stadtkirche – and, at the same time, begin work on the city hall. Rothenburg was rolling headfirst towards being one of Germany’s most populous and prosperous towns of the Middle Ages.

The Thirty Years War halted progress considerably. Defeated by the Count of Tilly in Ocotber of 1631 when attempting to close the city to his 40,000 troops, Rothenburg was plundered and left with very little when the winter was over. Only a few years later, the town would lose even more of its population to the Black Death. The following two hundred years were defined by border changes, Bavaria’s imperial debt, the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, industrialisation and access to the train system. Courtesy of the latter three Rothenburg’s economy began to slowly improve and its population expand.

Interestingly, Rothenburg avoided total destruction in WWII because of its reputation as a town of great historical importance and beauty. Rothenburg was bombed in 1945 by Americans, but when it came to taking the town, within which German soldiers were stationed to defend it, The US Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy ordered US Army General Jacob L. Devers not to use heavy artillery. Aware of Rothenburg’s significance, McCloy was reportedly anxious to avoid destruction beyond what had already occurred due to the bombing. Although Hitler had ordered German troops to fight to the end, Major Thömmes, stationed in Rothenburg, defied these orders and gave up the town. His actions, along with McCloy’s, saved Rothenburg  ob der Tauber from ruin.

Today Rothenburg is one of Germany’s most well preserved Medieval towns and a hub of tourist activity. Its fairy tale houses and picture-book lanes contained within 13th century walls, all sitting high above a grassy gully and the Tauber itself, draw millions of visitors a year. But it is worth joining the tour groups and students clutching worksheets to step back in time, to a Germany of centuries ago.  There are schneeballe to eat, a sort-of-creepy-sort-of-cute Christmas shop that has all the traditional (and rather expensive) decorations you could wish for, the Criminal Museum which showcases a torturous past, the gothic Rathaus, the Tauber valley and the magnificent Stadtkirche St Jakob. And beyond all the things to see, as listed on the tourist map, there is a beautiful, old, magical town to wander through, a slice of genuine Germanic history.

And just to make it that little bit cooler, Rothenburg was used to film scenes in the final two installments of the Harry Potter films. So, really, what’s not to love?

What Would You Be Doing If …

The other day, Silke, my wonderful friend from Münster, asked me what I thought I would be doing if I had never travelled and, as a consequence, never moved to work abroad. Now while I know the old ‘what if’ is nigh on impossible to entertain, because the fact of the matter is when the time comes for decisions to be made, we make them and that quite simply negates all other possibilities, rendering them nothing but feathers that float on the breeze and slip through our fingers every time we try to catch them. But – perhaps because I have been quite consumed by the notion of choices and plans lately – her question did make me think about the specific moments in time, the specific choices we make, that put us or keep us on a particular path.

And it took me back, five years ago, to the months before I was about to take off for my post-BA-around-the-world-adventure. I was 22. I had graduated from my BA Psychology, booked my 12-stop ticket and was working in a fragrance shop to save money (and populate my bathroom cupboards with hundreds of bottles of perfume). One afternoon, one quiet afternoon, I was flipping through a stack of weekly magazines to pass the time – I also, on several occasions and under several different names, submitted salacious ‘true stories’ that paid a few hundred bucks a pop, about affairs gone wrong and sleeping with my mother’s toyboy – and came across a competition. One of the ghastly weekly tabloids that haunt our news-stands was searching for an intern, Ugly Betty style (this was at the peak of the show’s popularity) and asking for people who wanted to work in magazines to tell them why they would be the perfect intern. On a whim, I whipped up an entry, showcasing an alarming amount of celebrity knowledge, and sent it off, using stationery from out the back. I knew, as I posted it, should anything come of it, it would conflict directly with my round-the-world-trip, and in a way I wonder if I was orchestrating things to test myself, to force a choice or a result. I wanted to work in magazines, I was putting pressure on myself to get started on the career ladder as soon as possible, I felt mild ‘maybe I should just stay home and start working’ guilt, guilt I wish I had never felt at 22 years of age. Perhaps I thought that by throwing this out into the universe, something would come of it that would light the way a little more clearly.

What happened, of course, is that I got a call informing me I was a finalist and I had to spend a night in a hotel with the other finalists, do a photo shoot and then an interview in front of the cameras … because, that’s right, one of the ghastly current affairs programs,  in some sort of incestuous, cross promotion, had gotten on board and wanted to film the entire process of the rag’s search for an Ugly Betty. I stayed in the hotel with the other finalists, I studied the magazine, I did the writing test, met the staff members, had an interview about celebrities, did my photo shoot and, at some point, pulled someone aside and said, ‘look, I have to be honest, I have a ticket booked for LA. If it comes down to it, I have to choose between the possibility of this internship and travel.’ My memory fails me with that the precise response was, but it was something along the lines of, ‘that’s your choice to make’ and the day progressed. I went into the boardroom for an interview in front of the cameras, and, cameras rolling, a woman with a very loud voice said, ‘so I believe you have a ticket booked for a round-the-world-trip. Want to tell us about that?’

Long story short, they tried commendably hard to get me to cry on camera, berating me for wasting their time, demanding I reach a decision immediately, asking me if I knew how many hopefuls entered the competition and how I had dashed their dreams as well. I explained, as best I could, it was a decision had to make and I was aware of that and it wouldn’t be reached lightly. I didn’t cry in the boardroom -lest I give them the emotional arc to their filming they so wanted – I cried in the bathrooms and I cried in the stairwell when I called my Mum.  But I made a decision. I would travel the world and I would never work for a shitty, cynical, dumbed-down weekly magazine despite how impressed they were with my trial article on Nicole Ritchie’s eating disorder.

So I flew to LA with my best friend. The issue with our photo shoot came out, they never ran the segment on the current affairs TV show and a lovely girl from Sydney won the position.

Looking back, that day changed a lot of things. I made a decision, one that took me around the world, introduced me to so many countries and people and cultures, one that enabled something I had hitherto enjoyed to blossom into full-blown, holy-shit-this-is-what-it’s-all-about love. I never applied for a job on a magazine again. I wanted to write but I didn’t want to do it in that environment, with those people. Perhaps, despite wanting Andie Anderson’s life in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, I wasn’t cut out for it. I still don’t think I am.

Maybe I would have won the competition, maybe I would have been the tea and photocopying girl. Maybe I would have hated it – the people, the system and what the publication stood for – so much, I would have quit. Maybe I would have penned a warts and all paperback about being a celebrity rag’s intern, or maybe I would have ascended the ranks and joined Sydney’s social pages off the back of working for a shitty magazine. Maybe I would have met a slew of famous people as I perpetuated a dumbed-down cycle of immoral celebrity worship. Maybe I would have risen through the ranks at that publishing company and become Editor in Chief of a woman’s glossy by the age of 30.

Maybe, maybe. But I didn’t.

I travelled the world. I wrote for smart, independent magazines like lip and innovative web start-ups like Matador NetworkI came home, besotted with the world, sure I wanted to dig my heels in and write stories for the rest of my life. I did my MA. I spent my first summer working in Greece. I started my own online magazine because the magazines I had seen in such romantic, glossy light, suddenly seemed boring and condescending and … stupid. This site spoke to thousands upon thousands of readers a month. I moved to Europe, started teaching, kept writing for smart, independent publications like Peppermint Magazine, became even more besotted with the world. And here I am. Drinking tea, sitting in a sunny little room, surrounded by photos of people and places, looking out at Bavaria in the Spring time.

Would I be here if I had cashed in my round-the-world-ticket and tearfully accepted an internship on camera, with a weekly magazine that reports on cellulite and baby bodies? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not. Because I wouldn’t have visited Münster as an excited, impressionable 22 year old and made the friendships I did. I wouldn’t have gone to Santorini and met an English lady who threw the towel in on London life and opened a bar on a Greek island. I wouldn’t have spent the following summer on that island, nor been visited by a very dear friend who would turn out to be my flatmate  in Münster, when I eventually moved there in 2010. And I wouldn’t have met the SG. Which means I definitely wouldn’t be looking out the window at Bavaria in the Spring time.

So, Silke, I don’t know what I would be doing if, all those years ago, if I hadn’t made the decision to keep my ticket. I do know I probably wouldn’t have met you or your beautiful family. You wouldn’t have helped me so much with that whole hospital stay thing. We wouldn’t have had endless cups of coffee discussing the ins and outs of our languages. And I wouldn’t be writing this, quietly certain now that five years ago, I made the right choice.

So, what would you being doing, if you hadn’t …

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Main image credit

Everything is better when the sun shines

A sunny Friday led to a vanilla frappe and walk around what I have now taken to calling Weiden’s Central Park, despite it having the perfectly good name of ‘Max Reger Park’.  It has this perfectly good name because Weiden itself is called the Max Reger Stadt because the composer lived in Weiden for some time in the late 1800s. The town, bless it, seems fiercely proud of Reger’s time spent here as evidenced by numerous tributes in the form of street names, sculptures and my beloved Central Park. On the theme of fierce pride, there is a plaque on one of the old buildings in the Altstadt that marks the occasion Goethe slept in one of the rooms for the night.

But before we hit the park, we hit the bustling Altstadt. And this is what we saw:

The Rathaus is slowly going green. Finally. He has been naked far, far too long.

In fact, everything is going green in the Altstadt.

Weiden’s Maibaum (May Tree) which was created during a big celebration in the city, to welcome the month of May.

Weidenites love the sunshine.

 So do the buildings – they look even CUTER in the Spring sun.

 

 A little alley.

My first visit to Weiden was in early December last year. It was rainy, cold and the hemisphere was knuckling down for Winter. My second visit was in February of this year. It was -20, so cold it felt the city could crack. Ice was everywhere, the trees were stripped and stark in their nakedness. Seeing the town now, in full bloom, is like being in an entirely different place. Everything feels better. The city seems to move with the trees. Everyone takes their coffee outside, the weird little fountain-sculpture spurts water at kids and the ice cream stores do a booming business. Life is so much better when the sun shines and the flowers bloom.

I am sure these little guys agree.

Last night, a bunch of us went out for pizza, after which there was a call for ice cream. Fittingly, the ice cream shop we strolled to lives right underneath this guy – who also looks pretty sharp by night.

What This Santorini Summer Will Bring

Today I am taking you to Greece. It feels utterly perfect to write that because there is the warmest breeze drifting in through my window and the sunlight today is so clear, everything drenched in it has been thrown into sharp, colourful relief*. You want a photo? Oh go on then, this is the view outside my office window.

Blossoms, a church and a whole lot of grass. Weiden is covered in long, green, Dandelion-riddled grass at the moment, it is absolutely carpeting the place. Either I have forgotten what green looks like, after a winter of naked trees and dead grass, or this town really is the greenest place I have ever seen. It even smells green right now because there are people across the road mowing their lawn and I may or may not be inhaling nostril-fulls of mown-grass-scent because there are few better smells in the world.

So with that Bavarian vista in mind, let’s go back to Greece.

In two months, I will be back on Santorini, this time for a two week summer break – my days of being a bar girl for drunk English tourists and offensive Australian backpackers are over. This time, I am meeting  my parents on the island, where I will have the privilege of being a tour guide for a week – I am hoping like mad my Dad rides a quad bike because only hilarious things can come of it. Thrilled as I am to be able to share it all with my parents – stomach-swelling Greek feasts at my favourite restaurants, sunsets, Amoudi Bay, Atlantis Bookshop, wineries, donkeys, Vlychada, the ancient towns, my favourite hotel in the world and the lighthouse – the other day bought news of something else; the ruins of Akrotiri have reopened.

The ancient town of Emporio

The entrance to a classic cave house in Emporio

A teeny stall on the waterfront of Akrotiri

That’s right my friends. Santorini isn’t just beautiful, delicious, friendly and somewhere I possibly lived in a former life which would obviously explain our spiritual connection, she has history.  A massive volcanic explosion in around 1500BC  blew a huge hole in her middle, creating the crescent shape she has today (with the minuscule Thirassia floating off to the side). The volcano destroyed the settlements – although lack of skeletal findings indicate the people were successfully evacuated – and covered the island in ash, preserving, amongst many things, a site that would be excavated in 1967 and named for the nearby village of Akrotiri. What they found, stunning evidence of the Minoan civilisation – frescoes, jars, paintings, staircases, housing structures, pipes and water closets – has put Santorini second only to Crete in terms of the best known Minoan sites.

Most of the findings were put in a museum in Fira, Santorini’s capital, with some of the famous, full colour frescoes also sent to Athens, and the actual site remained open to interested visitors. In 2005, two years before I first visited the island, the roof of the protective structure in Akrotiri collapsed, killing one person and injuring seven others. The site closed down and every single time I have zipped past there on my quad bike, on the way to a tomatini filled lunch at The Cave of Nikolas, the gate has been padlocked, the sign explaining its closure firmly in place. So it has been a constant frustration – a lover and student of Ancient History and a soul of Santorini and not once have I been able to fuse the two. Which is why I was so bloody excited to hear that in April, the ancient, Minoan site of Akrotiri opened once more to the public. Santorini, she of the sunsets and donkeys now has her most famous historical offering open once more. Despite people saying there aren’t enough signs or maps or information for the uninformed, I plan on standing on that ground and breathing in that ancient dust until someone removes me or I develop sunstroke.

But there are a few things I won’t be seeing this summer, namely most of the beautiful frescoes salvaged from the site. Whilst some are on display in museums in Athens and on Santorini, most have been locked away because the government cannot afford to hire security to protect them. Engineer and Santorini local, Klearchos Kapoutsis, wants to change this. You can learn more about the excavation of Akrotiri (and indeed anything you ever wanted to know about the island) on his site – English translations are at the end of the posts. Klearchos is also a sensational photographer and has documented the reconstruction of Akrotiri as well as daily life and cultural events on the island. I warn you photographs will not let you go.

For now, enjoy these photos of the extraordinary, 3500 year old Akrotiri frescoes, locked away until further notice.

The Saffron Gatherers, photo by The Thera Foundation
One of the two young fishermen. Neither are on display. Photo The Thera Foundation
The Rosettes. Photo by The Thera Foundation
River. Photo by The Thera Foundation
Two Ikrion – none of the Ikria will be shown. Photo by The Thera Foundation
The Flotilla. Photo by The Thera Foundation
Flower Vase II. Photo by The Thera Foundation.

Click here for more photos and stories from my Santorini summers.

* I wrote that yesterday. Today it is grey and drizzly. So, also a good day to go to Greece.

Sweet Surprises

Weiden seems intent on worming its way into my affections. It just gets cuter by the day. It could be the infectious happiness Spring brings with it or it could be that my eyes are now deliberately open and peering about me, intent on juicing this place of all its nutrients. It could be that Weiden truly comes into its own in Spring, with its abundance of lush green trees laden with blossoms and old, vine covered buildings. Or it could be a happy union of infectious Spring, open eyes and Weiden enjoying its prime season – whatever it is, this little town of questionable haircuts and brightly painted buildings has been delivering day after day of sweet surprises.

As it turns out, there is a large park right next door to the Altstadt. In fact all you have to do is turn down any number of charming little side streets and you will arrive at any number of charming little bridges that will take you across a very thin, grassy-banked canal and deposit you in a big, tree-filled, dandelion covered park, complete with a few knolls, a big outdoors chess set and benches for respite. This discovery thrilled me. I love parks. I have a favourite park, a smaller, far more modest one, but I always have room for more favourites. Life should be filled with favourites. This new park is already a favourite. I plan on spending a lot of time in it, with books and coffee and white wine (God I love the German support of outdoors drinking at any time).

Hansel and Gretel, are you in there?

I have officially challenged SG to a game.
Perfect for my picnic blanket.

Another little discovery awaited post-park. In an effort to avoid the Spring Fair madness happening in the town’s centre, we stuck to the side streets, the winding, stone paved paths that would occasionally come to a little quadrangle of benches and blooms. It was sort of like stepping back in time while simultaneously discovering where Weiden’s well-heeled come to roost. The apartment buildings, old and well-kept had discreet doorbells and no graffiti (which seems to blight far too many buildings here). There were restaurants that fronted the park and views of both church spires. It was quiet and old and a whole other side to this little town I just hadn’t yet seen. And I love it. It felt like what the Weiden of centuries past would have been like, when the huge-hardware-and-outlet-store-filled-surrounds would have been precisely what this town was named for – pastures.

We started here and turned left, away from cars and people and market stands.

A view of both churches.
I will be bringing coffee and books here, mark my words.

So the obvious question is … what else does this town have hiding up its sleeve?