April 27, Wednesday — Train from England to Germany
We had an early train and needed to be at the train station a bit before 6 am. The train station was not far from the flat, but we needed to catch a bus to the subway, then the subway to the train station without error to get there on time. To help us on our way, Cathy got up early and rode with us to the train station to ensure we got there on time. It turned out that the bus would be late, so we walked to the subway. Cathy stayed until we headed into security and customs, then she waved us off on our way to Germany and was gone.
Our EuroStar train departed from the London St. Pancras International Train Station at 06:50 hrs. We made it through security, much like an American airport except you keep your shoes on, and through French customs (what happened to open EU borders?) where I got a serious pat-down.
We switched trains 3 times, always making the connection, but all were fairly tight. It is a good thing the stations were compact and the schedules are good. On the first leg, we sat in a 6-seat isolated compartment that felt like a fishbowl; I wondered what the other passengers thought as they walked past to take their regular seats. At one stop (there were few), a German guy got on and came in with us. He was friendly enough, but it was easy to see that he wanted a quiet compartment to sleep.
From London, we headed southeast towards Dover, where we’d been before, but on a slightly different route. At some point, I decided to take photos of the countryside before we descended into the Chunnel (the tunnel under the English Channel). I shot one, then we went into a tunnel as we had done before to cross under rivers. However, after several minutes, we realized that we were inside the Chunnel, and after about 20 minutes, we emerged into the sunlight on the rolling plains of coastal France.
From London, it took about 2-1/2 hours to get to Brussels, Belgium, and the day had gone from sunny to heavy clouds and cold. In Brussels, we had 15 minutes to find our next train, and fortunately it was fairly easy to find our way.
Departing Brussels towards Köln, Germany, the weather went from cloudy to rainy, to snowing. It was unseasonably cold in all of western Europe — the climate is changing here too. It took 2-1/4 hours to get to Köln and when we could, the engineer didn’t waste any time. The fastest speed I noticed on the GPS was 143 mph, but it recorded speeds to 192 mph in France (many miles in the 180+ range) and 196 mph in Belgium. In Germany, the train didn’t go faster than 120 mph, and most of the trip was below 100 mph.
In Köln, we had a relaxing 30 minutes to catch the next train, but not speaking the language, we hustled through the station and got on the next train as soon as it arrived. From there, the route turned more northeast and ran 3 hours to Hanover, Germany.
By the time we got to Hanover, we had figured out the patterns on our German-language train ticket, finding the proper trains, the proper cars, and the proper seats. However, in Hanover, we apparently switched from the continental trail system to the commuter train system, and the text on our ticket made no sense this time — and we only had 20 minutes to figure it out. We checked the signs and got to where we thought we were going, but we weren’t sure. We asked a few fellow passengers if they spoke English (none did) or if they could read our ticket and help (none could).
While Liz and I were fretting about where to go, I noticed one of the men I’d asked staring at us. When he caught my eye, he pointed vigorously towards a woman standing nearby. I wasn’t sure what he intended, but as I moved towards the woman he grinned in approval. I asked her if she spoke English, and she said only a little, and I showed her my ticket. She looked it over and said “Yes, this is my train; follow me when I get on.” When the train approached, she looked over to make sure we were paying attention, then she stepped on while looking back at us.
We got on the train, which was crowed with commuters, found seats, and started looking at route information inside the train. The train left the station and before too long the same lady came walking by — checking everyone’s ticket. She was the conductor! When she said “This is my train,” she really meant it.
The train made several stop on the way north towards Walsrode (vals-ROW-day). On this slower train, we had better opportunity to see birds, and the birds of the day were White Storks foraging in a farm field. When we arrived in Walsrode, Anita and Jürgen were waiting for us on the landing and Anita was so excited when she saw us get off–it was quite a warm welcome.
Walsrode is a town of about 25,000 people with roots dating to before 986 AD. Much of the old city structures were destroyed during the 30-years War (1626) and a big fire (1757), but some older structures remain. The city is surrounded by forest and agricultural lands, and Anita and Jürgen live about 15 minutes west of town in the village of Hamwiede (Hum-VEE-day).
We saw few birds along the way, but we did see five White Storks in a field. Anita and met us at the train station in Walsrode and took us to their home in the village of Hamwiede.
The house is great, a converted 180-year-old barn, and they feed the birds! An ancient apple tree in the backyard is slowly dying – with a rotten trunk where the birds fly in for food and cover. We got to see Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Bullfinch, and European Greenfinch right out the window. Three cats live with Anita and Jürgen; the princess Paulina, Emma, and young Footsie.
April 28, Thursday — Hiking in the Local Moor
Anita and Jürgen took us for a nice, 3-km walk around the local moor, Grundloses Moor, an area of peat bogs and lakes. The area was entirely peat bog, but they mined the peat for fuel in the old days, and the areas where they removed peat became ponds. The peat probably is reforming on the bottom and edges, but in the mean time, the landscape provides a nice mix of timber, boggy flats, ponds, and one larger lake, Grundloser See that is a residual ice age lake.
It was pretty cold, but we had a nice mix of sun and light rain, and it only snowed a bit. We saw several species of birds, but didn’t really take the time to birdwatch. With her bionic ears, Liz located the best bird of the day: Eurasian Treecreeper. Other new birds we recorded were: 10 Willow Warbler, Common Chaffinch, Common Wood-Pigeon. We also saw 15 Barn Swallow, 3 Green-winged Teal, and 1 Mallard, all of which are the same species we have in North America.
We liked the creative “symbol signs” along the trail (and elsewhere along our travels). One here showed a squirrel with a flaming tail, which we interpret to mean “don’t light squirrel tails on fire,” but the inscription read ‘Waldbrandgefahr,’ which means “forest fire hazard.”
Back at the house, the bird feeder entertained us endlessly: 2 Common Wood-Pigeon, 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 2 Coal Tit, 5 Eurasian Blue Tit, 5 Great Tit, 1 Eurasian Nuthatch, 3 Eurasian Blackbird, 2 Eurasian Bullfinch, 2 Hawfinch, 2 Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
April 29, Friday — Hamwiede and Walsrode
After a great breakfast, Liz and I walked around the village (Hamwiede) for two hours and had mixed sun (warm) and clouds (clouds and wind). The habitat was a diverse mix of farm fields and woods, and the birding turned out to be pretty good. We saw lots of species, including: Eurasian Marsh-Harrier 1, Eurasian Sparrowhawk 1, Common Buzzard 2, Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Barn Swallow, Eurasian Blue Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Wren, Willow Warbler, Eurasian Blackcap, European Robin, Eurasian Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, European Starling, Dunnock, and White Wagtail.
Later, Anita took us to the main town (Walsrode) so she could mail out some work that she’d finished up. After visiting the post office (inside a hardware store like is often the case in the US), she took us on a tour of town that included walking around the historic parts of town, an urban park, and in a wooded park with lakes. The day remained cool, breezy, and partly cloudy with some drizzling rain.
The bird list for the trip included: Graylag Goose, Gray Heron, Eurasian Coot, Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), Common Wood-Pigeon, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Common Chiffchaff, Eurasian Blackcap, Eurasian Blackbird, European Starling, White Wagtail, Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Bullfinch, European Greenfinch, Hawfinch, House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
April 30, Saturday — Harz Mountains in the former East Germany
Today is May Day Eve (Walpurgisnacht, May Eve), so May Day celebrations started today. We made a long day of it and drove about 140 mi to the Harz Mountains in the former East Germany where we made two main stops. The first stop was at the cross-roads town of Torfhaus (ski resort area) where we walked around a bit but mostly had a look at the former Soviet radar instillation atop the highest peak: Brocken Mountain (now a resort hotel). The second stop was in the town of Schierke where we attended a Renaissance Festival featuring the Medieval period costume, crafts, games, music, and foods. Also, peculiar to this region, the witches and devils came out — making great fun for everyone.
We departed Hamwiede heading south on the Autobahn where, traffic permitting, Jürgen drove at about 90 mph to keep up with mid-paced traffic. We passed trucks, but we were passed by lots of vehicles traveling very fast.
We eventually got off the Autobahn and took regular highways into the mountains. We passed through the historic town of Goslar, which was founded in the 10th century after the discovery of silver deposits in the nearby mountains. We didn’t stop, but some of old town remains, and about 50,000 people live here now.
We continued up into the mountain where at about 2,000-ft elevation, we started seeing snow along the road–winter had not yet released its grip on the land up here. In the forest, it was interesting to see large areas of conifer trees killed by bark beetles. Large outbreaks of these beetles in recent years is attributed to a warming climate that no longer freezes enough of the beetles during winter.
We stopped for a few minutes in Torfhous at the Visitor Center for Harz National Park where it was cold, partly cloudy, and breezy. We didn’t actually go inside, but we walked around a bit and looked at the outside exhibits. We also saw in the distance the former Soviet radar installation atop the highest peak in this part of Germany: Brocken Mountain. With powerful radar, the Soviets could look out over much of northern Germany from the summit. After unification, the radar facility was shuttered, and now it is a resort hotel with a weather station, natural history exhibition, and botanic garden with plants of the higher mountain regions. The whole area is a nature reserve, and we could have spent the day hiking to the summit, but decided instead to continue our journey.
We continued towards the village of Schierke and because we didn’t understand the signs, passed a memorial and crossed into the former East Germany (GDR) without realizing it. I’m not sure if something was lost in translation or if nothing was said because it was a traumatic reminder of family history for Anita and Jürgen when they were young. On the way home, however, we stopped on the west side of the former border for photos, but we learned later things that might explain why we didn’t stop the first time.
We eventually made it to Schierke where it was cold, calm, and overcast with some snow remaining in the shadows. Schierke is an ancient town, as these mountains have been inhabited by humans forever, although the first written records date from the late 1500s AD.
May-Day Eve (Walpurgisnacht), or simply May Eve (Walpurgis), is an important tradition in the Harz Mountains where the local culture celebrates a Halloween-like springtime event when witches and devils gather for the night in Schierke. Witches weren’t always celebrated here, and in 1589, the ecclesiastical authorities sentenced 133 so-called witches to death in an effort to end pagan traditions. Link to a detailed history of Walpurgisnacht, see: Season of the Witch: Walpurgisnacht in Germany’s Harz Mountains.
Today, Walpurgis in Schierke is a festival with medieval roots where witches and devils come to celebrate the expulsion of winter. According to old traditions, many witches gathered on the Brocken to dance and bring in the spring. In the layer cake of northern European mythology, Queen of the Witches: Frau Holle, is the main character. During song, we engaged in a traditional chant to encourage Holle to return and vanquish winter’s cold grip on the land.
For a village with witches-and-devils roots, it is interesting to note that the coat of arms for the city, granted in 1939, is the skull and antlers of a stag (elk) on a field of yellow.
Part of the modern Walpurgis celebration here is a full-blown Renaissance Festival featuring Medieval period costume, crafts, games, music, and foods. With a long ways to get home, we stayed until early evening, and as we were leaving, the witches and devils really started coming out — making great fun everywhere.
Schierker Feuerstein (Schierke Fire Rock), a herbal liqueur and digestive (35% alcohol) that was patented in 1924 by a local chemist, is now a celebrated item in the area. We each tried a bottle (20 ml [0.7 oz] Miniatures), and indeed, it was tasty, but one miniature bottle was enough. Link for details and ordering.
On the way home, we stopped on the west side of the former “internal German border” for photos. I ran back to the east-side monument, and Liz got out to see the west. It was interesting to realize later that neither Anita nor Jürgen got out of the car.
One final treat for the day, when almost home we saw 1 White Stork and 2 Gray Herons feeding together in a farm field.
May 1, Sunday — May Day Celebration
Nice trip around the area. We tried to participate in a May Day celebration in a local town, but they scheduled the May Pole raising for 2 PM and we left because we didn’t want to wait all day. We went to a living history museum in a nearby town that was also holding a May Day celebration. Liz was thrilled because the local spinning guild was there.
On the way home, we stopped and walked a short distance along a river where 4 CAGO were present and 2 Egyptian Geese were breeding (4 goslings). 3 E. Blackbird, 10 House Sparrow. Then, just coming into Hamwiede, we saw a couple of Eurasian Jays. At home, Anita fixed steak while Liz and I relaxed in the yard listening to bird songs that we didn’t know.
May 2, Monday — Hamwiede and Bennetzer Moor
A nice sunny day, Liz and I helped Jürgen clean out his pond. Mostly we watch, but we help where he gives a clue about that he is doing. His English vocabulary is extensive, but his accent is thick, and it can be hard to follow him. He does tell great stories about life on the sea.
Yard birds: 2 White Stork, 1 Common Buzzard, 5 Common Wood-Pigeon, 2 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 1 Eurasian Jay, 1 Eurasian Magpie, 3 Carrion Crow, 8 Barn Swallow, 5 Eurasian Blue Tit, 2 Great Tit, 1 Firecrest, 6 Eurasian Blackbird, 8 European Starling, 1 Dunnock, 2 White Wagtail, 5 Common Chaffinch, 2 Eurasian Bullfinch, 5 European Greenfinch, 5 Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
In the afternoon, when it was warm clear and calm, Anita took us to another moor area with big, open ponds: Hüttensee Park at Bennetzer Moor. We walked a several-kilometer loop around the biggest pond and saw lots of fun birds, including Graylag Goose and Canada Goose (both with fledglings), Mute Swans, and Common Shelduck. On the way home, we saw two White Storks feeding in a freshly plowed field and stopped to watch for a few minutes.
Birds of Bennetzer Moor: Graylag Goose 10 plus fledglings, Canada Goose 15 Plus fledglings, Mute Swan 20, Common Shelduck 4, Gadwall 2, Northern Shoveler 2, Red-crested Pochard 6, Tufted Duck 6, Common Goldeneye 4, Great Crested Grebe 6, Great Cormorant 20, Black-headed Gull 35, Black Tern 1, Common Wood-Pigeon 1, Eurasian Jay 2, Eurasian Magpie 1, Carrion Crow 3, Barn Swallow 3, Great Tit 1, Eurasian Reed-Warbler 1, European Robin 1, Eurasian Blackbird 8, European Starling 5, White Wagtail 1, Common Chaffinch 2, Eurasian Tree Sparrow 1.
May 3, Tuesday — Hamwiede
Liz and I slept late, still trying to overcome jetlag, and ate breakfast late. We stayed in as a storm with a fair bit of rain passed, and I got caught up on geotagging photos. Soon it was time for big lunch (dinner).
Liz and I eventually went for an afternoon walk from the house heading north and visited the town swimming hole, a nice sand-bottom sculpted depression with grassy edges and picnic tables with benches. During the walk, it was sunny, but a breeze brought cold temperatures. We saw some good birds, including Eurasian Kestrel kiting, a Buzzard, Common Swifts, a pair of Lesser Whitethroats, and two Black Redstart.
When we got home, we helped Jürgen with a project to replace an old canvas awning with a new one- a great patio cover.
The rain today might be the last of the trip, but the cold front brought cold air from the North Sea.
After dinner, we did laundry for a second time here and watched soccer (football) as Germany and Spain played a championship playoff game. Unfortunately, Germany won this match, but got eliminated from the payoffs.
Birds of the day: 1 goose sp., 2 Common Buzzard, 8 Common Wood-Pigeon, 2 Common Swift, 2 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 1 Eurasian Kestrel, 2 Eurasian Magpie, 5 Carrion Crow, 10 Barn Swallow, 2 Common House-Martin, 8 Eurasian Blue Tit, 4 Great Tit, 1 Firecrest, 2 Eurasian Blackcap, 2 Black Redstart, 12 Eurasian Blackbird, 8 European Starling, 5 White Wagtail, 2 Common Chaffinch, 2 Eurasian Bullfinch, 10 House Sparrow, 10 Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
May 4, Wednesday — Hamburg
Up and out fairly early today, Jürgen took us to a friends farm where they grow Spargel (asparagus), which is an important crop in the local area. Unfortunately, his friend was out and therefore not available for a tour of the operation, but Jürgen told us about it. He also showed us his friend’s pair of captive Eagle Owls that his friend maintained on the property because they couldn’t survive in the wild. The birds were beautiful, but the male had a bad eye. The female didn’t like us much, but her three nestlings didn’t seem to mind us.
Unfortunately, about a month after our visit, we learned that the female owl killed the male perhaps because of her protective instinct for the babies. It is sad, but maybe even a relatively good cage is against nature when one of the parents needs to escape from attacks of the other.
On the way back, Jürgen drove backroads through the woods looking for deer and hogs. We saw Roe Deer and Red Deer, and not Russian Boar. Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) are relatively small, reddish and grey-brown deer. Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), are larger and similar to our elk (or wapiti, C. canadensis). We saw both elsewhere, but not today.
After lunch, Anita took us north to Hamburg, about an hour drive from Hamwiede, for an overnight excursion to meet her daughter and see the city. On the way, we spotted 1 White Stork, 1 Eurasian Green Woodpecker, and 8 Hawfinch from the car.
Hamburg is also an old city, first mentioned in writing in the 2nd century by the Greeks, and is now the 2nd largest city in Germany (8th largest in the European Union) with a metropolitan-region population of about 5 million. Situated on the Elbe River (at the confluence with the smaller Alster River), Hamburg is the 2nd largest port in Europe–even though it is located some 60 miles from the North Sea–and is the largest deep-sea port in the region for container shipping. Hamburg is a major trading center and commercial center, and has become affluent as a result. This is evidenced in the wonderful and stylish architecture seen all over the port region.
Upon arrival, it was warm, clear, and calm, which was fortunate because we had to drive into the suburbs to find free parking, then took a train downtown to the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, busiest railway station in Germany. Walking out the back, we got on a tour bus (about $15 each) for a 2-hour tour of the city. We sat upstairs in the front of the bus where we got a great view, although it was sometimes hard to hear and understand the guide over city noise. Nonetheless, she did a pretty good job of switching between German and English.
The Alster River flows through town following scenic canals. Tour boats, long, narrow, and low, now ply these tidally influenced waters.
The Reeperbahn, the red-light district, it a tourist attraction during day, and watched over by staff in this Polizei (Police) station during night.
There is some really interesting architecture in Hamburg. The Dancing Towers, so called by city fathers, is located at one end of the Reeperbahn. The architect, however, called his structure something like: Prostitute Leaning Against the Wall. Other interesting buildings include the Philharmonic Hall (looks like a wave crashing on the shore), Dockland, a building that looks like a ship on the edge of the harbor, and the Kebab Tower, a building that resembles the rotating piece of meat on a skewer from which one cuts kebab.
After the tour, we retrieved the car and drove over to Karola and Caro’s flat located near the harbor. Karola is Anita’s daughter, but by marriage, Anita gets to have two delightful daughters. We found them to be gracious hosts, and they fixed a great lasagna for dinner, complemented by an excellent Spanish wine.
After dinner, Karola and Caro took us on an evening walking tour to the port area and then to the Planten un Blomen (Plants and Flowers) Park where during summer nights they do a fountain and lights show that is played live to recorded music. On our night, they did a classical piece. The show was reminiscent of the water fountains at the Bellagio Casino back home, but this show was performed live .
In our time driving and walking around Hamburg, we saw Graylag Goose, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Common Merganser, Great Crested Grebe, 15 Great Cormorant, Eurasian Coot, gull sp., Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), Eurasian Blackbird, and a rat.
May 5, Thursday — Hamburg
Without getting up too early, Karola and Caro fixed us a great breakfast, after which we all started off on a foot tour of the harbor. The day was warm, clear, and calm, and lucky for us traveling at this time of year, we happened onto another major cultural event: the annual “Port of Hamburg-Birthday.” This was a huge event and tens of thousands of people came to the harbor for the festivities.
Karola and Caro took us down to the harbor on foot with Karola keeping up a running commentary on everything we saw. Karola speaks very good English, only stopping to search for words now and then. She learned English in school and practiced in the U.S. two years ago when she and Caro came to the States on their honeymoon. They came through Las Vegas, but for some reason, they decided to stay in a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip rather than say on a stranger’s futon (after all, we are just her mother’s friends). They said, however, that when they come back to the States to visit Karola’s brother Bjorn, they won‘t book a hotel for Las Vegas and would be delighted to stay with us.
Caro also spoke some English, but she was bashful about speaking. She said she could understand what we were saying, but that she had trouble forming words in English. I can relate, my use of Spanish is similar: I can carry on a simple conversation in my mind, but when it comes to speaking, I just can’t get the words out. By the end of our second day with them, however, Caro was more comfortable with us and did talk with us.
At any rate, we walked down to the harbor, which was crowded with booths and people. Town, and thus the harbor, is situated along the Elbe River some 60 miles from the ocean, but there are several feet of tidal influence here. The city side of the harbor is mostly homes and business, while the far side is built up with huge container ship facilities and industrial buildings.
Knowing what the day would be like, Karola and Caro directed us onto the water taxi before the crowds got too bad, and Caro found out how to organize a cheap ticket for all 5 of us to ride the ship-on-ship-off loop. We rode down the harbor with some time to just watch the sights and some running commentary. The route for this taxi was down one side of the harbor and back up the other, so towards the far end of the loop, we got off to walk on a path below interesting historic homes and overlooking the river and the sandy Hamburg Beach. We walked out, then dropped down to the beach and walked back along the water.
We walked back to the taxi and continued our loop around the harbor area. Towards the far other end of the loop (near where we first got onboard), we got off again to walk along the harbor.
It had been interesting on the water taxi watching old ships moving up and down through the harbor area. The main event at Harbor Birthday is the boat parade, and it was getting close to starting time. The city side of the harbor was packed with people, and Karola thought that it might be better to escape to the other side, and she knew a good place to go.
On foot, we headed for the Elbe Tunnel. The tunnel used to be a roadway, but now it just handles foot and bicycle traffic, and on this day, there was a lot of traffic. I don’t care much for crowds, and being in a long, crowded tunnel under a river wasn’t my favorite place to be. It was interesting, however, that as with so much architecture in Europe, there was artwork built into the design, and I tried to focus on that while keeping pace with the flow of the crowd.
After coming out of the tunnel, it turned out a crowd had the same idea we had (get away from the crowd on the other side of the harbor), but Karola knew of yet another place. It was a long walk, but we eventually came out on a nice, sandy beach were we could sit and watch the parade. We didn’t get there any too soon, as the parade started within 10 minutes or so.
The parade started with a fire boat spraying water in every direction, and when the angle was right, we got a nice rainbow in the mist.
Following the fire boat, the real parade started with a massive, modern warship coming up the channel.
Up until that point, a large 3-masted sailing ship moored across the river had been blaring rather loud and raucous music that sounded rather eastern block to me. As the German warship moved up the river, much to my surprise, the 3-masted ship started firing cannons at the warship. The bombs burst in mid-air, and I’m not sure what it all meant, but it was a curious show. I learned later that the shots were in salute of the warship and in honor of the Harbor Birthday.
After that, the parade consisted of a curious mix of ancient (replica) and modern sailing ships, modern boats, and warships, and the grand finale was a historic cargo ship that was unbelievably huge.
After the giant ship passed by the main show was over, although lots of other ships were still coming up the river. Even so, we departed because Karola feared the huge crowd would all try to squeeze through the Elbe Tunnel at the same time. We weren’t the only people to think that, but it was nice to be out with people who knew the area.
We walked back to the flat, but not directly, and finished a grand day with new friends and ice cream.
While in town and on the water, we saw some nice birds, including: Graylag Goose, 3 Common Shelduck, Mallard, Great Crested Grebe, Great Cormorant, 1 European Shag, 1 Gray Heron, Eurasian Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Mew Gull, Herring Gull, Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Blue Tit, Eurasian Blackbird, House Sparrow.
We departed Hamburg, and because the days are so long at this northern latitude, we had sunlight to stop at one more point of interest along the way back to Hamwiede. Anita took a short detour to see an historic windmill in the town of Sprengel that was build around 1877. Everywhere you turn, there is history in the country.
May 6, Friday — Walsrode and Bremen
In the morning, Anita had a translation job to do at a wedding in Walsrode, so we went to town with her. While she worked, we birded a city park and walked around town.
In the park, we saw about a dozen Fieldfare, which was surprising because we saw none elsewhere during the trip. One Fieldfare was collecting mud to build a nest, but most were collecting worms and carrying them off into the trees to feed nestlings. It was interesting to learn that Fieldfare nest semi-communally, with individual nests in close proximity so that the community of adults can mount a group defense in response to predators.
After birding the park, we walked around town. Liz found a fabric stores to investigate, and we found an ATM, but otherwise we just wandered until it was time for Anita to finish up. We got a table at an outdoor cafe, but couldn’t communicate that we would be three and wanted to wait to order until Anita arrived. So we just ordered. “Coffee” sounds the same as “kaffee” in German, and “cream” sounds the same as “creme” in German, so that that was always easy. Eventually, I got up, got a chair from another table, and set it at ours–that worked for “party of three,” but of course, we already had our coffee.
Before too long, Anita returned and got a cup too. On the way home, we stopped by the grocery store, which always is a special cultural event for Liz.
Birds in Walsrode: Warm clear calm. Common Wood-Pigeon 5, Common Swift 3, Marsh Tit 1, Eurasian Blackbird 3, Fieldfare 12, House Sparrow 5.
After lunch, Anita took us to Bremen for a tour of the old town. On the drive, Anita told us about Jürgen’s time growing up in East Germany. As a young boy he was allowed to travel to West Germany to visit family, and that gave him a lust for freedom that he never out grew. He was a rebellious youth and was captured by East German boarder gurards while trying to escape to the west. He was accused of subversive agitation against communism and imprisoned for several years. The trial was secret and he was without a lawyer, and upon conviction, there was no right of appeal. He even had to sign a confession because if not, he would be given an additional 5 years in the penitentiary.
Conditions in prison were very difficult (Anita used the word torture), especially for victims of political prosecution. He was forced into slave labor in an iron smelting factory. Conditions were so bad that a friend jumped into the hot furnace to escape his pain. It is a very sad story, and these things are still close to the surface.
This explains why Jürgen didn’t like to have his picture taken–fears remained for a long time about being followed and documented by the GDR state security service before Germany was reunited. In fact, several years after he got out of East Germany, he got official letter from West German authorities warning that he should never enter GDR territory because he would risk being captured and detained again for a long time.
Anita said that the only place he felt comfortable, where he could escape memories of the past and feel free, was on the high seas. He studied and finished an Engineering School for Marine engineering, the worked in the merchant navy for some 30 years, first as an engineer and later chief engineer.
In Bremen, we parked in a garage and walked into the historic market square, which is dominated by twin towers of Bremen Cathedral. Anita and Jürgen had lived here some 30 years ago, and she knew the historic part of town well. The first church was built here in 789 AD, but as usual, fires, building collapse, and wars took their toll over the centuries. It seems the current form was built about 1050 AD, but the building was completely destroyed during WWII, and reconstruction wasn’t completed until 1981 AD.
Bremen is interesting for its architecture and artwork, some of which are based on medieval fairy tails. We stopped to see the bronze statue of a pig farmer, his dog, and his herd of pigs where children of all ages come and ride the animals. This commemorates the history of this medieval market street where after the farmer’s market was done for the day, pig farmers brought their herds in the evening to clean up the spoiled produce. The street here, Sögestrasse (Pigstreet) is a main shopping street in Bremen with lots of high-end shops. The street was first mentioned in 1261, but by 1306 it was named Sögestrasse.
One thing I found interesting about being in Germany was the relationship of geography and fairy tales. Growing up in the States, fairy tales always happened in some far off land across the sea, so no matter how scary, they didn’t really apply to me because they were from a land literally “far far away.” I started thinking about this relationship between geography and fairy tales in the Harz Mountains with the witches and devils.
Over lunch before we left Hamwiede, Jürgen was telling us what to expect in Bremen, where he and Anita had lived for some years and the statue of the “Musicians of Bremen” is an important landmark. Over meat and cheese, he told us the fairy tale: Grimm’s Musicians of Bremen. In the story, a old donkey being cast off by his master starts off from the countryside on the road to Bremen. Along the way, he picks up an old dog, an old cat, and an old rooster, and they all go off to become musicians in Bremen and make a better life for themselves.
In this story, however, the donkey doesn’t start in some far-far-away place, he starts two villages over from Hamwiede! He then meets up with the dog near Hamwiede, and they continue on towards Bremen picking up the rest of the crew. As it turns out, they never make it to Bremen, but that is beside the point. So here, at the lunch table, I actually find myself in the land of a fairy tales.
The Musicians of Bremen are important characters in the local lore because, in part, the troop was heading to Bremen because it was an enlightend town where personal liberty was held as a virtue. We saw several examples of the quartet in arts-and-crafts shops, and in one place, they were made into a political cartoon. The animals stacked up in the fairy tale according to their talents and abilities (donkey at the bottom, rooster at the top), but in the political cartoon, they were reversed. The text translates to something about lazy politicians riding on the backs of ordinary people. Here, as in so many cases, we learned that people the world around suffer from the same hopes, fears, and tribulations.
German: Die Wahrheit über die Bremer Stadtmusikanten: in Hierarchien sitzen die größten Esel oben!
English: The truth about the Musicians of Bremen: in political hierarchies, the big ass sits at the top!
We finished the tour by walking through some of the old parts of Bremen, although at this point I’m not sure how much was old and how much was rebuilt after the war to look old. Regardless, it was fun to wander through the warrens of narrow streets, window shopping, poking into the odd shop. We also walked along the river front, Bremen Harbor, which was another commercial port. We saw some historic 3-masted ships, a few large modern ships, and bomb damage repaired in a way that left a reminder of the war.
In the evening, after some beers or something, Jürgen began talking and told a story of how his father had fought in the German army. He survived fighting on the eastern front (Russia), then was called back towards the end of the war to help defend the western front. He was killed two days before the end of the war when Jürgen was only 5 years old. At that point, Jürgen fell uncharacteristically silent with that far-away stare that one gets when they aren’t really here for a time. I think the 5-year-old Jürgen was spending a few moments with his father.
Some days earlier, Anita had told us her story of survival during the war. If I recall correctly, her father was a land owner and banker in Poland. He remained in his job during the war, but was called up for duty near the end of the war. He said he would join the effort, but needed to settle things at home with his family: “I’ll be there in the morning” he told them.
They tried to escape with 50 horse wagons equipped with the most necessary food stuff and warm clothes taking almost all people from the village with them and managed to cross the Oder river before the bridge was blown up. The family remained in Eastern Germany – at first in the British zone, but reorganized into Soviet occupied zone, for 4 years. In 1945, in the night under cover of darkness, the family fled towards the west. A neighbor saw them leaving, and they were terrified that they’d be killed if that person spoke; fortunately they did not. The family stopped in West Berlin and were sheltered by a Jewish family who hid Anita and her family in their home for three months. Apparently conditions were difficult and food was short. As the war ended, the family tried to get out of allied-occupied Berlin to West Germany. It was made possible by the American airlift (supplies into West Berlin; passengers out). I didn’t press for details, and being sheltered in West Berlin by a Jewish family raises questions, but it was a gripping story. We were grateful that they shared such intimate details of their lives with us.
May 7, Saturday — Heath Hills of Lüneburger Heide National Park
On our last full day with Anita and Jürgen, a warm, clear, and calm day, Anita took us to hike in the Heath Hills of Lüneburger Heide National Park. We walked several miles in low rolling hills to the highest point in the region at an elevation of 555 ft. Along the way, we actually heard two Common Cuckoos, which actually sound exactly like a cuckoo clock!
We first climbed onto Bolterberg Peak at 526 ft elevation. We relaxed, ate a trail snack, and enjoyed the view. The summit was marked with a carved boulder that included the name of the peak and elevation, plus the German version of a Leave No Trace message: “prevent wildfires and pick up your trash.” The use of carved boulders for signs is common in this part of Germany, and interestingly, they are glacial erratics, stones carried here from elsewhere by ice-age glaciers and left behind when the ice melted.
We then hiked down into a valley and up to the main summit, the highest point in this region of Germany: Wilseder Berg Peak at 155 ft.
Back at the trailhead, we stopped at an outdoor cafe to relax with a beer, which was a nice way to end things.
Birds of Lüneburger Heide National Park: Common Buzzard 1, Common Cuckoo 2, Eurasian Green Woodpecker 1, Sky Lark 8, Barn Swallow 6, European Pied Flycatcher 1, Black Redstart 1, Eurasian Blackbird 8, European Starling 8, and House Sparrow 2.
Back home, we packed, ate a late dinner with too much wine, and stumbled off to bed with the window wide open because it was so warm in the house.
May 8, Sunday — Travel: Bus to Frankfurt
I must have been excited to be on our way because I awoke early, about 5:15 am, and stayed mostly awake just listening to the birds singing in the yard for more than an hour.
After a last great breakfast with Anita and Jurgen, we departed Hamwiede about 8 AM as they took us to the bus station in Hannover, about an hour away. We arrived early and mostly relaxed enjoying each other’s company for a last few minutes. Anita did think that I should get a SIM card for my phone, but we couldn’t find one in the station so early on Sunday morning. It would have been easier in an international airport, but not so easy in the bus station.
Anita and Jürgen saw us off at 9:55am. They had been very good to us and treated us like family (or perhaps the children who have left the nest empty), and everyone was sad at the departure.
We rode the bus south from Hannover to Frankfurt, making several stops along the way. This was an express bus, so we only stopped a few times. We stopped in Göttingen for lunch, and we found tasty sandwiches and a pastry in the bus station. This was a curious place with traditional monuments, an odd structure associated with the stars (especially the zodiac), and apparently was a major hub for bicycle riders who were taking the bus somewhere. It would have been nice to chat with a local to understand the story.
We made a short stop in Kassel, an interesting town centered on a large, castle-like structure, the Hercules Monument (Castle), atop a mountain that is visible from everywhere. It would have been fun to get off and explore — something for next time!
We made it to Frankfurt am Main (just Frankfurt to westerners) a few minutes early, so the driver pulled into the bus maintenance station, which seemed really confusing to everyone. In German, the driver invited everyone to get off and relax outside while she gassed up the bus. Then she was amused when I became concerned when someone else drove off in the bus. I guess this is how they clean busses here, but it seemed rather odd. About 15 minutes later, the bus came back and we drove another 5 minutes to the main bus station, where Liz and I got off.
The main bus station is also the main train station, so Liz and I went downstairs to the train, which we needed to get to the airport. After some confusion and helpful staff, we figured out how to use the machines to buy a ticket and found our way to the proper gate. After what we had seen elsewhere, this seemed harder than it should have been, but we found our way.
We rode the train to the airport, and again with the help of locals, got off at the right place. Inside the airport, we needed to find our way to the hotel shuttle busses. This, however, was particularly difficult, as signs and maps in the airport were particularly bad. In particular, they directed us down hallways to a T-intersection, with no relevant information at the T. We went back and eventually found another way — but more by trial and error than anything definite. Eventually we found the shuttle bus zone and our bus.
We had reservations at the Meininger Hotel, which was conveniently located just across the main highway from the airport. Staff at the check-in desk spoke excellent English, and we got a nice room on the top floor with a view away from the airport and highway.
We asked about dinner at the hotel, but there was some issue with the kitchen and all they had was pre-packaged sandwiches, but the check-in lady said there was a nice cafe within walking distance “behind a gas station.” She even said that it was pretty good and we’d “thank her to the recommendation.”
Well, the area around the hotel was a construction zone criss-crossed by highways, but we made our way around and found the gas station (not before walking under an underpass with a homeless camp where one thirsty guy had nearly built a house out of green beer bottles. The gas station had a sandwich shop inside (not unlike a Subway sandwich shop inside a gas station in the States). Assuming we were in the wrong place, we walked out past the gas station into the woods.
Back in the gas station, we bought sandwiches and beer for the night and tasty looking pastries for breakfast. Walking back, we realized that it probably was good that we walked back during daylight rather than after dark if we’d enjoyed a sit-down dinner. It turned that the sandwiches were as good as any we’d eaten in Germany, and the pastries didn’t last past dessert.
May 9, Monday — Travel: Frankfurt to Las Vegas
We were up and out of the hotel pretty early and caught the 7:30 shuttle bus back to the airport. This time, things were easier as we’d seen everything yesterday.
At the check-in desk, we expected to just turn in our luggage and get boarding passes, but it turned out we got a full interrogation by the ticketing agent. The lady was nice and we talked about birding in Germany, but to us it seemed odd.
After talking with the ticketing agent, we made it through immigration and into the duty-free zone. We had planned to eat breakfast in the airport (to avoid 11-euro [$15] breakfasts at the hotel), but the choice was between a Burger King and some high-end restaurant. Liz suffered a BK burger (they had no breakfast food — not even coffee), but I refused. If I was going to Europe, the last thing I was going to do was eat at a BK. My ace-in-the-hole was an old bagel in my pack.
After “breakfast,” we got through security, which was pretty easy and into the gate area. We were pretty sure we’d get on the flight, as there were a moderate number of open seats, but I find these things nerve-wracking as people pour into the area. The plane arrived with some mechanical issues, and they kept standby people outside the waiting area until after we were supposed to have left, adding to the nerves, but eventually we were called and assigned seats.
As we went into the gate area, the ticketing agent was keeping the gate and recognized us from earlier. She double checked our tickets to make sure her colleague had given us good seats, and happy with our assignment, let us into the seating area. We waited for a long time, but eventually we all got on the plane and took off headed for Dallas.
We departed late and expected to miss our connection in Dallas, and Bill was there to visit and help us along the way. As it turned out, our flight to Las Vegas also was late, and Bill talked to the gate agents and got us on the flight. We were disappointed to spend so little time with Bill, but it was great that he smoothed our way home.
In Las Vegas, we made the first flight, but our luggage made the second. Fortunately, by the time we figured that out, it was only 45 minutes before the next flight arrived, so we just walked around trying to stay awake until it arrived. After that, we caught the city bus back to the carpark, collected our car, and drove home where Mom and Mocha were waiting.
They say that travel opens one’s eyes to the world and helps people understand that everyone the world around faces the same issues in life. In so many situations, Anita and Jürgen would say something about the difficulties of life in Germany, and in virtually every case, we would say that we have the same issues back in the States. By the end of our visit, it almost became a joke: everything is the same everywhere; everyone has the same struggles in life; people everywhere are just people.