31 August 2009

A Culinary and Sight-Seeing Tour of Brussels

From last Friday to Tuesday I found myself, for the first time, in the Belgian capital city, enjoying the sights and the food. After arriving I met my French friend Julie in the train station, where Julie's friend, Emily, greeted us. We would stay with Emily at her apartment and with her two roommates for the next four nights.

When most people think of Belgium they can instantly find connections with chocolate and waffles, but beyond these things general knowledge of this small Western European country remains lacking. Located between France and the Netherlands, the Belgian nation of roughly 11,000,000 citizens is essentially two cultures living together. The southern half of the country is known as Wallonia, home to the French-influenced and French-speaking Walloons. Flanders consists of the larger northern half and the Flems, who speak a dialect of Dutch called Flemish. The national capital, Brussels, rests in the southern portion of Flanders. The city is the only officially bilingual region of the country, but French is actually the primary language in Brussels. In contradiction to this, the Flems constitute the majority of the Belgian population.

As most people's initial thoughts of chocolate and waffles would hint, Belgium has a strong food culture offering several specialties, but there is of course more to the country. For example, Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated, lies outside the capital. More to the present, several European Union institutions and agencies have their main offices in Brussels, making the city and region of one million residents the unofficial "capital of Europe."

The apartment of Emily, who is in the city temporarily to conduct an internship in the offices of the European Union, was in the allegedly posh neighborhood of Brussels located south of its center. The neighborhood was also younger than the city center, though judging by the buildings this distinction was clearly in the relative sense. The following several photos show views from in and around Emily's neighborhood. The first one is looking out the window of Emily's apartment building. In the second you can see an example of Brussels' strong sidewalk cafe scene.

Most of Brussels' main sights are located in the city center, a masonry wedding cake with layers of architectural styles. At the very center lies the Grand Place, a medieval public square framed with early 17th century guild halls and Brussels' Gothic city hall. When a French army bombarded the city in 1695 most of the buildings around the Grand Place were leveled; the city hall remained standing with relatively less damage, an ironic outcome considering that this building was actually the French's intended target. A couple photographs of the Grand Place follow, but the city hall is not seen in either.

Branching out from the Grand Place are several narrow lanes and twisting streets. Open air markets selling goods and antiques abound, as do the pedestrians strolling from the stalls on the streets to the shops along them. In the picture below you can see Emily and Julie walking past the art galleries lining this alley.

In short walking distance from the Grand Place are two more of Brussels' most popular attractions, both seen below. The first picture shows the internationally recognized statue titled the Manneken Pis. This bronze depiction of a urinating boy is only about a foot tall, but the fountain's edge is usually crowded with camera-toting tourists. Slightly north of the Grand Place can one find the landmark seen in the second image, the Galeries St Hubert. This shopping arcade was built in the mid-18oos and still houses some of Brussels' up-scale stores.

As said earlier, Brussels and Belgium are both well known for their food offerings. Here are some looks at the foods we tried during our visit.

As an appetizer for one lunch I ordered the escargot, though as a dish I had eaten several times before it was selected more for its taste than its novelty. Of course, in the end, prepared snails are associated more with French cuisine than Belgian.

The main course that followed however was as traditionally Belgian as possible. Moules frites consists simply of steamed mussels in a white wine sauce and French fries, and can be regarded as the national dish of Belgium. An image of the meal is seen below. Emily explained that the proper way to eat the mussels is to use one emptied mussel shell as a utensil to pull out the meat from another shell. Additionally, as one would in do in most European restaurants anyway, the French fries should be brought to one's mouth with a fork. We agreed that it was a simple, yet tasty meal.

When it comes to Beglian cuisine, most people would likely call to mind sweet concoctions before meals of mussels, and rightfully so. Belgium is the birthplace of chocolate pralines; Belgian chocolate in general requires no introduction. In Brussels, the city's main chocolatiers operate multiple stores near the main shopping and tourist destinations. The stores emit a refined ambiance. Associates, for example, wear white gloves when picking up the chocolates. One of these chocolatiers is Neuhaus, which was established in 1857 and is allegedly where the chocolate praline (chocolates with a flavored filling) was invented. Neuhaus' flagship store in Brussels, pictured below, is located in Galleries St Hubert. From here we purchased a small sampling of their pralines, including such flavors as caramel, rasberry, and champagne. All met my approval.

And who could forget Belgian waffles? There actually is not one type of Belgian waffle, rather local varieties that differ from regions and cities in Belgium. That said, the two most popular versions are those of Brussels and Liege. The waffle of Liege, a city in eastern Belgium, is made from a rich batter that contains small chunks of sugar, which essentially gurantee that every bite will be sweet and crunchy. Liege waffles are commonly sold from street vendors and in bakeries, and eatten plain.

The Brussels waffle is the kind that most Americans are likely more familiar with. Served mostly as a dessert, this version uses a yeast batter lacking the sugar chunks. Multiple toppings, such as whipped cream, fruits, sauces, or ice cream, are placed on the warm waffle. Savory versions also exist, but are ordered less commonly. One of the incredibly sweet Brussels waffle that I tried is the subject of the following photograph. Indeed, under the strawberries, chocolate sauce, powdered sugar, and two types of ice cream is a waffle. After trying both the Brussels and Liege waffles, I decided that my preference lies with the latter, which was evidenced by the fact that I ate at least three a day.

From waffles we arrive at the last Belgian culinary specialty that I will take time to exhibit: the French fry. Though the reason for the misconception remains uncertain, perhaps it deals somehow with the fact that part of Belgium speaks French, the truth is that French fries are traditionally Belgian, not French. Belgians proudly claim that their small country is the home of this now world-wide side dish, and they demonstrate it by accompanying many meals with the fried-potato slices. This may inevitably lead one to ask what the Belgians call French fries. The answer would be the same names that the French use, pommes frites or, simply, frites. These are the French words for, respectively, fried potatoes and fried (Technically the French name for potato is pomme de terre, apple of the Earth). Whatever the origin, the Belgians do indeed offer some quality French fries.

Emily brought use to a street vendor that was a fifteen-minute walk from her apartment. After asking around during her first weeks in Brussels, she had learned that the title for the best Fench fries in the city usully goes to either this vendor or another north of the city center. The line of customers in the first photo attests to the popularity of this stand and its fries. After waiting at least ten minutes to place our order, we waited a little longer for the cook to prepare the fries fresh. Clearly, no bags were being pulled from a freezer. You can see the final crispy product in the second following picture.

Considering that I've had an incountable number of portion of French fries in my lifetime, I probably can't say with certainity that they were the best I've had, though I am tempted to do so, but I can definitely report that they were the best from recent memory. The golden slivers of potatoes were consistently firm, yet never over-fried. Not one came close to being soggy, and traces of oil didn't exist. The salty seasoning was light enough that it didn't overpower the taste of the potato or cause one to reach for his drink. Though quite a number of dipping sauces were offered on the side, I chose the Belgian favorite of mayonnaise. The pairing is recommended.

The European Quarter north of the city center, where several of the European Union offices are located, is likely less of a destination in Brussels for most tourists (espeically those outside of Europe), but ranked as my favorite experience in the city. Europe is in the midst of a great democratic experiment, and this experiment is known as the European Union.

The E.U. is a unique, original goverment body that is changing the face of Europe. Unlike the United Nations, the E.U. is not merely a stage for international cooperation or a collection of government representatives to discuss common issues. Likewise, the E.U. is not a federation like the United States of America because its independent member states retain levels of sovereignty in multiple areas. In other areas where the member states have decided that a regional approach is better, such as trade and environmental protection, they have pooled their sovereignty together to create European law. For simplicity's sake, it may help to think of the E.U. as a confederation of European nations. An additional result is that member states are able to have greater world influence together than they would alone. But the E.U. is not simply an invisible bureaucracy, as it has grown stronger, its presence has been seen and felt more and more across the continent.

What started as the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 with six member states, has become the European Union of 27 members. As the name accurately describes, the E.U. has worked hard to unify Europe. Bridges, highways, high-speed rail lines, and tunnels have been built and funded to better connect member states. The euro was introduced as a common currency to additionally facilitate trade, and is used by most member states. Every five years an election throughout the E.U. takes places for its 500 million citizens to choose their representatives in the European Parliament. The E.U. has a flag (twelve blue stars on a blue background) and an official anthem (Ode to Joy, based on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony). It would be inaccurate to label the E.U. as a country, but with integration continuing and pushes for the E.U. government to hold greater power strengthing, that may one day in the far future be more of the case.

In many senses, the E.U. now is similar to the U.S.A. in its beginnings. For several decades even after the first goverment of America failed, the Articles of Confederation, member states held greater power than today and fought for "states' rights." Residents of the states described themselves as citizens of their respecitve states first, then as Americans, partly because American citizenship didn't officially exist until after the Civil War. As time passed, the states united physically and emotionally. The parallels with the E.U. exist, and because of this, at least for me anyway, the evolution and shaping of the E.U. is interesting and entertaining to follow.

Due to reasons too complicated to discuss here, many of the E.U. law-making institutions and supporting agencies have their main offices in Brussels. The photograph below shows one building in the European Quarter, the walls of which are labeled with public messages reminding people to vote in the recent elections for the European Parliament.

The main sight to be seen in the European Quarter is the European Parliament. This is actually one of two locations where the parliament meets. The other seat is in Strasbourg, France, and the reason for this is, again, too complicated for this post. Free tours are held inside the parliament building to allow European citizens to see the meeting chamber and better understand how the body works. In the first picture below is a sign on the parliament building indicating what it is in each of the E.U.'s 23 official languages. The second photo shows a larger perspective of the building.

On the tour, I learned many interesting things, but most fascinating for me were the details involving the language interpreters. On the front circular wall of the meeting chamber, seen below, are rooms for the interpreters who represent each of the 23 E.U. languages. As there is a room for each language and there are three interpreters in each room, at any moment during a parliament meeting there 69 interpreters listening to the discussion. Each interpreter can speak four foreign languages fluently, meaning that each language room has the capacity to translate only twelve languages, which clearly isn't enough. To solve this problem, whenever a more seldom language is spoken, like Estonian, it is first translated byan interpreter of a far more common language, like English, and then the interpreters of the other languages use the English version. In this manner a double translation of the speaker's words takes place.

Because a parliament session lasts from nine o'clock in the morning until midnight, the interpreters work in several shifts. The result is that nearly 600 interpreters are needed for one parliament session. Due to this high number, parliament sessions must be planned with consideration for the meetings of United Nations' General Assembly, which uses slightly more languages than the E.U. A meeting of both bodies can not take place simultaneously, otherwise there would not be enough qualified interpreters in the whole world to attend both.

The time limit for how long a representative can address the parliament ranges from one to two minutes, depending on the circumstances. When the allotted time expires, the representative is warned, if he continues to speak the microphone is turned off. In most national parliaments this would do little good, as the speaker could simply raise his voice and continue to hold the floor. In the European Parliament though the time limits are rarely exceeded. Once the microphone is turned off the interpreters can no longer hear the speaker, and, as such, no longer translate. If a representative were to continue past the time limit, most of his audience simply wouldn't understand him.

One last major sight for Brussels, and a landmark for all of Belgium, is the Atomium. This bizarre structure resembling a giant model set from chemistry class is pictured in the last image. Inside the Atomium is a restaurant, exhibition space, and a viewing deck. As a remnant of the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, the landmark today is an attraction for tourists and visitors to the city. Apparently, some of the spheres are currently closed due to safety concerns.

On Tuesday we left Brussels, and I returned to Germany for my last week before leaving for my visit home. Though it may not receive as much attention as the other capital cities of Europe, Brussels should not be forgotten or overlooked. Many new experiences await one with a visit to the so-called "capital of Europe."

27 August 2009

Straubing's Festival

Small city, large festival. This describes Straubing and its famous Gäubodenvolksfest, another vibrant Bavarian festival, but a cut above the rest.

Straubing lies in eastern Bavaria. The train connections from Eichstätt are less than ideal. As such, a trip that would take no longer than a couple hours were it direct, requires closer to four. The city of 45,000 rests on the banks of the Danube. It has all the features that one would expect of any other Bavarian, German, or, for the most part, European city of similar size: an attractive old town center, a scattering of medieval churches, and the occasional watch tower left over from another time. Were this all that Straubing offered the community would likely only receive visitors from its immediate region; however, for two weeks in the middle of August every year there is something else, something that attracts attention to Straubing from across Bavaria and Germany. This is of course the Gäubodenvolksfest.

The festival is not only a classic example of a Bavarian Volksfest, but additionally Bavaria's largest after only the world-renown Oktoberfest of Munich. As a reminder, a Volksfest is essentially the equivalent of a German fair or carnival. The word can be litterally translated to "people's festival." Whether large or small, a Volksfest has the similar atmosphere of a county or state fair in the U.S.A. Vendors sell all sorts of fast foods and comfort foods; amusement rides and carnival games line the midway. Though most towns of decent size in Germany hold at least one Volksfest a year, the festivals in Bavaria usually host a slightly different flair. The most noticeable difference is the beer tents, which I'll get to in more detail later.

As said above, Straubing's Gäubodenvolksfest is the second largest festival in Bavaria. Considering that the first-place holder is arguably the most visited annual festival in the world, second place is in fact saying something. The roots of the festival deal with celebrating the local harvest, but aside from some decorations and a home, garden, and agriculture show that takes places next-door that fact can be easily overlooked. Except with its size, only one major difference from Oktoberfest exists.

For Bavarians the Gäubodenvolksfest has become a more authentic, not commercialized version of its cousin in Munich. The residents of the state joke that nowadays one has a better chance of talking with Americans, Japanese, Austrailians, or other foreigners at Oktoberfest than with actual Bavarians. Because of its obscurity outside of Bavaria and Germany, foreign visitors to the Gäubodenvolksfest remain rare and the exception. The festival's official slogan proclaims it as Bavaria's prettiest Volksfest, but for many that adjective is code for most unspoiled.

Wanting to personally experience the Gäubodenvolksfest, I traveled to Straubing two weekends ago and, better yet, visited the festival with my friend Eric, whose home is in a village outside of the city. Most of my questions could be answered with a local at my side. In the picture below both of us attempt to smile for the camera while the late afternoon sun beams on our faces.

After arriving at the festival we ate dinner with Eric's mother, stepfather, and brother. As an employee of the local health department, his mother must inspect the kitchens of the beer tents at the festival. As a "gift" during these inspections, the beer tent opperators usually present her with several food and drink coupons. We made use of these with our meal, which consisted of giant pretzels, halves of roasted chickens, and liter mugs of beer. Among other things, they explained to me that the cooks in the beer tents add extra salt to the roasted chickens in order to grow a customer's thirst.

After dinner and too soon of a ride on some spinning amusement contraption, Eric's parents returned home and his brother went to work, but we naturally stayed to enjoy the festival. We stopped in another beer tent as an Elvis impersonator sung from a boxing ring in the middle of the tables to mark the anniversay of the King's death. Soon after boxers took to the ring and Eric told me that it's a typical event for the festival. Exactly as it sounds, the beer tents are cavernous tents where festival-goers can enter for a place to sit, eat, and drink. At the larger festivals where there are multiple tents, each one usually caters to a different target audience. In some the bands play traditional Bavarian music, while others perform covers of favorite pop songs. The tents are usually owned by a different brewery and serve their respective beer, which most of the time can only be ordered in the one-liter mugs. The next photo shows Elvis performing in the ring.

We eventually left to discover the offerings of the midway, part of which is seen below.

Having worked up a small hunger since dinner, we looked over the menus and counters of the several food stalls. I mainly wanted to try something sweet, but when we passed one stall something savory caught my eye. Intrigued, I asked Eric if its name was only that, or if it accurately described the item. He confirmed that the name was as literal a description as possible. Always open to a new gastronomic experience, I ordered one Pferdewurst: horse sausage. Most customers were simply taking the short but thick red sausage by the hand and dipping it in mustard. The meat was surprisingly tender and moist, and delicious. Eric also explained that the sausage was actually a mixture of 50% beef and 50% horse; 100% horse meat would give the sausage too watery of a consistency. Rather than a picture of the sausage, here's one of the chocolate-covered strawberries I had for dessert.

When the festival started to shut down a little after midnight we rode bikes to Eric's house and slept for the night. The next afternoon we returned to the city center, seen below, and caught a train heading back to Eichstätt. In the end, Straubing's Gäubodenvolksfest had indeed offered an atmosphere like Oktoberfest but without the throngs of foreingers. Some of the festival's features, like an Elvis impersonator, boxing, and horse sausage, likely rate at different levels on a scale of authenticity, but they definitely all come together to make the Gäubodenvolksfest a distinct and worthwhile event to visit.

20 August 2009

Bike Ride to the Lakes

Since the beginning of August I have been almost alone in Eichstätt, only a couple German friends remain in town during the summer break. I spent the first several days of the month enjoying my peace and solitude, but restlessness eventually set in. To help cure this ailment, this past Saturday I set out on a bike ride that I had been wanting to do for a while.

From Eichstätt I rode west, following the Altmühl River upstream. Bicycle touring is a popular activity in the nature park around town and the proper infrastructure for it is well on hand. In fact the Altmühl Valley rates as one of Germany's favorite bicycle touring areas, and in the summer caravans of bikes descend on the park and the towns within its borders. The main bike route in the park follows the Altmühl River from its source in the west to its mouth on the Danube River on the east, a meandering path of about 160 kilometers. Eichstätt lies at the halfway point of this trail. I was determined to take the trail westward in order to see the source of the Altmühl River.

Along the way I passed through the refreshing landscape of the river valley. At times massive stone formations jutted out from the green fields and forests, as seen below. Most of the route consisted of paved or gravel paths intended for cyclists and hikers, but occasionally the directional signs guided me over country roads.

The trail similarly led me through scenic towns and by occasional fortresses that turned obsolete long ago.

The goal of my trip awaited me near the town of Gunzenhausen. A little over halfway to this community was Treuchtlingen. Until this point the valley was realtively narrow and created an enclosed world of fertile greenery along the trail. The bike route had also been fairly crowded with other riders who likely had spent the night in Treuchtlingen or Eichstätt and were now continuing their journey. After Treuchtlingen, however, these conditions changed.

The valley and its forest covered slopes, along with the other cyclists, all but disappeared. With the frequent thickets of trees replaced with endless crop fields the sun burned brighter. The fact that I rode through only one village during the last 30 kilometers to Gunzenhausen helped the ride to quickly develope a lonely feel. Worse still, for much of that distance the trail paralled a set of tracks that brought the screeches of freight and passenger trains. The picture below shows a view of this poriton of the trail and a sign pointing the way to Gunzenhausen and the village of Aha.

After about 80 kilometers and a quarter less than five hours I reached Gunzenhausen and the source of the Altmühl River: the Altmühl Lake. Though the river was originally a naturally flowing body of water, the lake was created in the 1970s and 1980s through the construction of a rather simple and unimpressive dam. Therefore, the lake is technically not the source of the river, but suffices so in my mind. Together with other man-made lakes in the area, the region is today known as the Franconian lake distirct. In spring and summer the lakes attract large numbers of tourists to their sand beachs and recreational activities. The next photograph offers a view of a couple of the numerous sail boats and other watercraft that were floating on the lake that day. After that you can see the Altmühl River beginning at its modern source and flowing toward Eichstätt and the Danube.

Following a relaxing rest on the lake and a few snacks, I decided to ride a bit farther. The bike trails radiated out from the town in all directions; it is indeed possible to pedal completely across Germany while rarely riding on car-shared roads. From Gunzenhausen I chose to continue 20 kilometers eastward to the Brombach Lake and the town of Pleinfeld.

Brombach Lake is the largest of the Franconian lake district and the last to be completed. The trail mostly led through pine forests and over gentle hills. The closer I came to the lake, the more that vactioners rode ahead of and behind me. I could start to see for myself how popular the lake is for people from the region. After reaching the lake I rode past a few beachs crowded with Germans enjoying their vacations.

By the point I shot the photo above, my bike ride had turned into a game of dodging the hundreds of vactioners crossing my path. I was relieved to reach Pleinfeld soon after.

My complete ride strecthed along 100 kilometers of road and trail, approximately 60 miles. Six hours after first pedaling away from Eichstätt my bike and I boarded a train in Pleinfeld and returned home.

19 August 2009

Beilngries' Adventure Park

Classes were over and the month of July nearly was as well. My paperwork had been turned in and my vacation had actually started. A couple weeks before I had celebrated my birthday, but the timing at the end of the semester brought any commitments to most creative ideas out of the question for my friends preparing for exams. Instead of the usual special activity I normally try to find for and undertake on my birthday, we marked the day with more mundane techniques--dinner in a restaurant followed with a couple bar stops. Now that my vacation had arrived, I could find another activity to additionally, though belatedly, celebrate my birthday. In the end, a couple friends arrived at the idea to treat me to a day at the adventure park in Beilngries.

The small town lies northeast of Eichstätt in no more than 20 minutes by car. Beilngries is still with in the borders of the nature park that encompasses the region around Eichstätt. Likely due to this location can one find the adventure park in this otherwise quite but attractive community. As a high-ropes course, the park itself has nothing to do with amusement or theme rides, rather tree-high challenges that push visitors to overcome their physical and, mostly, mental limits.

This was actually my first time at a high-ropes course, but the concept is not so difficult to grasp. At the adventure park visitors begin by climbing a ladder to the starting platform resting several feet above the ground. From here the visitors set out on the course, crossing to the next platform or station one at a time. The park offers six separate courses that range from easy enough for small children to challenging enough for adults only. Each course consists of six to ten stations. To pass from station to station one must cross the divide with the presented method, including simple ones such as an unstable foot bridge or monkey bars to more challenging ones like tire swings or tight ropes. At the end of the course the most common way to come back to earth is by zip-gliding to the forest floor. The picture below shows me crossing to a platform using two steel cables, one for walking on and one for holding.

Safety is of course a major concern. My friends and I started our visit with a introductory lesson that explained how to properly use our harnesses. Attached to the harness are two ropes that must always be connected to the overhead safety lines from the minute of stepping on the starting platforms. As one goes from station to station he must disconnect his ropes from the safety lines of the previous station and connect them to those of the next, one after another. Thus the reason for two ropes on one's harness, should the visitor fall in this process one rope will always be attached to the safety line. Additionally, visitors must wear helmets at all times. Several stations include a swinging mechanism that could, if utilized incorrectly or clumsily, send the visitor headfirst into a tree or the next platform.

Never even attempting the children's course, I successfully completed the other five. The two most difficult were restricted to adults only, and at times, as best as I can guess, ranged from 40 to 50 feet off the ground. The picture below shows me crossing a station on the brown course, the most difficult. The station involves several individually hung logs that descend to the next platform.

A couple videos were taken during our visit, but most last too long to post on the blog. This one though was short enough, even if the action seems to be missing somewhat. Clearly, the video starts after my sled ride has already begun on one of the intermediate courses. What you don't see is the very beginning. I had to first retrieve the sled from the next platform by pulling an attached rope. After it reached my starting platform, I buckled the sled into a recycled seat belt fastener attached to the platform and carefully maneuvered myself onto the wobbly seat. Once I was ready, I leaned back and pushed the button on the fastener, thereby sending me on my way. Toward the end of the video you can see that my gravity-driven sled ride ended before reaching the next platform and that I had to pull myself along.

During our visit the park hosted several other visitors from all age groups. When we arrived a large elementary school group was spread all around. Several adult and teenage visitors were also there to share the courses with us. Judging also by the fact that I have seen advertisements for many other high-ropes courses and heard others' stories, this activity seems to be much more popular in Germany and Europe than what I have noticed in America.

After our thrilling adventures in the park, we rested and picnicked along the banks of the Altmühl River in a calm Beilngries. With full stomachs and drained adrenaline, we eventually returned to Eichstätt.

14 August 2009

And the Festivals Go On

Eichstätt was able to rest for a few days until the next big event on July 16. This time it was the Hofgarten Fest, a festival held on the campus of the university. More specifically the food stalls, music stage, and revelers spread themselves over the central gardens that long ago were part of the bishop's summer residence. Where the bishop and his staff once strolled, students and townsfolk partied until the late hours of the night, though not too wildly of course. Several of the vendors who had set up shop at the Altstadt Fest on the previous weekend had simply moved their belongings east through town. The Hofgarten Fest was actually supposed to take place on the Thursday before that other festival, but rain forced a last-minute rescheduling. Here's a view of the dance floor at the festival.

On the following Sunday a couple friends and I traveled to Landshut in order to join another festival. The city of 60,000 inhabitants, seen below, rises along the banks of the Isar River in southeast Bavaria. Lying a short distance northeast of Munich's rurally-exiled international airport, Landshut heavily relies on this facility as its modern economic engine. For a few summer weeks every four years the citizens of the city take a break from their work and reward themselves with Europe's largest medieval festival: the Lanshuter Hochzeit.

Translated, the festival's appropriate name is the Landshut Wedding. The celebration commemorates the wedding of a Polish king's daughter and the son of the Duke of Landshut in the year 1475. The pair married in the Curch of St. Martin, which you can see in the following picture, and then paraded through the city. Though the honoring festival has only taken place since the beginning of the 20th century Landshuters take great pride in it. Thousands from the city participate in the reenactments of the original newly weds' parade held on every Sunday of the festival and the other continuous medieval pageantry. Landshut's old town is thrown back a few centuries or so with extensive period decorations. Men from the city are known to start letting their beards grow out months before the festival begins in order to more accurately represent the historical period.

Unfortunately we arrived a little too late on that Sunday and missed the parade reenactment. By the time we arrived the main street of the old town and the parade route was already being cleaned. The festive atmoshphere still hung in the air though as we sought the rest of the party.

After nearly half an hour of walking through the old town we had started to doubt the tales of the Landshuter Hochzeit. This was supposed to be Europe's largest medieval festival, and yet not a food both or festival beer garden was in sight. Landshut's old town offered an attractive face, but the streets and squares were empty of emotion. Eichstätt's Altstadt Fest had apparently surpassed the entertainment quality of this festival. Where were the bearded and costumed men from Landshut? Where were the jousting tournaments? Where was the festival itself?

As it was the last day of the festival, we decided that the parade must have been the final and closing event. Dissapointed, we had started to leave the old town in route back to Eichstätt when I spotted a geography professor from the university. Some of his first words to us were, "Isn't this festival great?" I responded with a polite lie. He next asked if we intended to watch the jousting tournament. Now intrigued, we asked for and followed his directions to the event.

Just beyond the old town we came to an expansive parking lot seemingly filled to capacity and to a set of gates. A tall and solid wooden fence next to the lot blocked any views to see the other side, though we assumed we would find the jousting tournament. While discussing if buying the entrance tickets was worth it, as if on cue, a German family approached us and presented their unused tickets to us. Better yet, they wanted nothing in return. With no excuses left we passed through the gates and realized that we had arrived--here was the festival.

Suddenly the tales were proven true. There were the throngs of people at what could indeed be Europe's largest medieval festival. There was the jousting tournament. There were the food and drink stands. Costumed individuals were all around, nevermind that only a few appear in the photograph below.

We stayed at the festival for a while before eventually returning to Eichstätt. On the next day I would start my last week of classes for the semester. We had found the festival, but missed the parade; maybe I'll be able to catch it in four years when the Landshuter Hochzeit comes again.

05 August 2009

Celebrating America and Eichstätt

The first weekend in July pushed on into the festival season with several parties and celebrations. From the third to the fifth days of the month Eichstätt held its annual Altstadt Fest, or Old Town Festival. In this case the use of "old" is a bit of an understatement; Eichstätt celebrated its 1,100th anniversary last year. Rather you would prefer old or geriatric in describing the town, the festival has far less to do with remembering nostalgic times than with throwing a bash for local residents and visitors from the region. The three-day party winds through the squares, lanes, and back alleys of the town center. Dozens of vendors sell a dazzling array of foods and drinks, from sausages and pizza to pork knuckles and pad thai, from ice cream and beer to roasted almonds and frozen daiquiris. Normally calm public squares transform into raucous beer gardens. The relaxing sounds from babbling fountains are lost in the competing cacophony of music, laughter, and lively conversation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is my favorite festival in Eichstätt.

As you likely realized though, the dates of this year's festival coincided with America's birthday. In my first year here I did not want the day to pass without some sort of special recognition, and the same applied to this year. Luckily I was in good company to put together a small celebration for the Fourth of July.

At the end of June my friend Dylan had arrived in town from Salzburg. He had just spent the previous academic year in that Austrian tourist city studying abroad. With his semester at an end, he would stay in Eichstätt until his return to the U.S. in mid-July. In order to celebrate America's holiday we decided to hold a grill out with a few friends, but it was by no means new territory for the two of us.

Invited freinds were asked to bring drinks and meat for the grill, while Dylan and I prepared side items like potato salad, guacamole dip, baked beans, and a Fourth of July cake. For the potato salad I tried to explain to the non-Americans that the reason it looked and tasted unlike the German version was because it was the American style, but I think most of them mistakenly thought this was a joke. However, many did ask for the guacamole recipe.

The previous week had also happened to be America week at the nearby Lidl grocery store. Because of this I was able find American flag napkins, hot dog buns, and other themed items.

One of the friends present was Daniel. Take this coincidence as an example of how small the world has become. Daniel and I actually went to high school together. I didn't know that he would study abroad for the semester in Eichstätt; nor did he know that I was living there. Only until a random encouonter on the university campus, which was likely inevitable to occur in small Eichstätt, did either of us learn that the other was here.

Most of the other friends at the grill out were French. Their presence was fitting in a way; France did help America gain its independence after all.

Here are some pictures from that Saturday.

After grilling and marking the Fourth of July, and like we had done the previous day and would do the next day, we headed to the Altstadt Fest. Saturday was the high point of the festival with the most activities and the largest crowd. In addtion to the rows of vendors, there were four stages dispersed around the town center, each with a different type of music and targeted demographic. The southern most stage catered mostly to teenagers and pre-teens with a DJ playing house, hip-hop, and techno music. North of that, and after a large building to likely shield the noise, came a smaller stage occupied by a live band with wind and string instruments playing traditional Bavarian music. Not unexpectedly, at the tables in front of this stage were mostly elderly individuals. The stage near the cathedral hosted bands that played dancing and drinking songs that appealed to a diverse crowd--the typcial pop music found at Bavarian festivals. From the fourth stage at the north end of the festival one could hear more foreign sounds, like those from a salsa band or even a band from Nashville, Tennessee.

As the following photographs show, by the evening hours the festival had become fairly crowded.

Festivals like these are excellent places to witness Bavarian traditions alive and well. For example, take the image below. Here you see two lederhosen-clad waiters delivering liter-mugs of beer to a table. While the lederhosen was the work uniform for these two men, countless festival-goers from teenagers to senior citizens wore the traditional dress of Bavaria.

Due to strict noise laws in Germany, on Friday and Saturday nights the festival came to a close a little after midnight in the public areas. However, several official after-parties organized alongside the festival in differnt bars and venues assured that the celebrations could continue for those so inclinced.

Pictured from left to right below are Daniel, Eric, Dylan, and I enjoying the festival on Saturday evening.

By Sunday afternoon I believe that most of Eichstätt had had its fill for at least a week, and the festival took on a much more subdued atmosphere. I was already looking forward to Eichstätt's Altstadt Fest when it comes around next year, but the festival season for this year was still rolling on.