Sunday, February 15, 2015

Luxemburg: das Land der Treppe // Luxembourg: The Country of Stairs

Photo credit: Deanna
February 7-8, 2015

I'm about a week behind on blogging; I apologise. I have no excuse other than every time I sat down to write I got distracted by something else (government registration forms, overdue library e-books, new Florence + the Machine song...) so I am finally using my day off to catch up. Last week was a bit of a crazy one, involving another little trip to Heidelberg, the end of Winter Academy, an influx of new international students, and a weekend trip outside the country. 

Last week marked the official beginning of the semester though classes didn't start until this week, so the normally quiet Schloss and UniMA offices were suddenly buzzing with new international students. I had to turn in some paperwork at the International Office and the little space was crammed with confused twenty-somethings asking for directions to various bank branches and health clinics. Last week also marked the end of Winter Academy, which was met with equal parts relief and sadness. Four hours a day, five days a week, four weeks in a row practicing a single language can get repetitive and mind numbing at times. But it was how I'd met all my friends and how I saw them every day, and with the start of the semester I wasn't sure how often I'd see them anymore (it has thus far proved to be a false worry as I still see them almost every day). 

One of the new students I met goes to University of South Carolina, and one day she, Claudia (another USC student), and I went to Heidelberg for a break from Mannheim's greyness. If there was a theme for last week, it would have been transportation issues. We got on a train at the Mannheim Hbf that we thought would take us to Heidelberg Altstadt, two stops past the Heidelberg Hbf, but once we got two stops past the Hbf we realised we had no idea where we were. After getting off on the next stop and looking at a map, we discovered we'd ridden the wrong train and had to wait twenty minutes for the next one to come. Forty-five minutes past when we thought we'd get to Heidelberg, we finally arrived. 

We stopped in Schmelzpunkt, a little cafe on the main street that Claudia had discovered the last time she'd been in the city. It has incredible dark hot chocolate which I tried along with an interesting ice cream & waffle combo (pear ice cream with chocolate drizzle... who would've known?). After eating we walked around the city for a while and enjoyed the view from the bridge before deciding it was too cold outside to enjoy ourselves any longer and rode the (correct) train back to Mannheim.

On the weekend I took a trip to the little country of Luxembourg, one of Germany's neighbours, with a group of fifteen Winter Academy students. We split into two groups based on travel arrangements and left early Saturday morning. Again, transportation was not my friend. Our train was supposed to leave the Hbf at 7:39a so I my plan was to catch the 7:10a S-Bahn, which takes 15 minutes to get to the Hbf from my stop, giving me 15 minutes to find the platform when I got there. The tram ran late and didn't reach my stop until 7:17a, reducing my extra time to 7 minutes.

Everything seemed fine after that until we were two stops away from the Hbf when the conductor decided he needed a 5 minute break and stopped the tram in the middle of the tracks. I panicked because I only had two minutes to find the platform and get on the train. Luckily Cara Beth texted me the correct platform, which was fortunately the closest one to the Hbf entrance, so as soon as the tram doors opened I sprinted to the train and got on with 30 seconds to spare.

We had a calm ride through a hilly/mountainous part of Germany before switching to a bus in Saarbrücken, a town right near the French/German border. We drove through France for a bit before crossing over the Luxembourg border, where we immediately encountered traffic that didn't ease up until we reached Luxembourg City.

Lux City isn't actually very big but feels huge because of the valley in the middle. It's similar to most cities in German - old palaces and churches stand next to modern offices and stores - to the point where the only way I remembered I wasn't in Germany anymore was that everything was in French. Thankfully the people we talked to could also speak English and/or German so we didn't have any problems, though I do wish I had at least a basic knowledge of French. The local businesses also have a French-like feel to them as nearly all of them closed at 4pm.

As soon as we arrived we went to the Chocolate House, a multi-story bakery and sweet shop that also serves breakfast. Several of us bought slices of cake and we shared them amongst the group. I chose a white chocolate tiramisu which did not have a strong coffee flavour but was nonetheless heavenly. We sat on the second floor by a window that had a fantastic view of the Duke's palace and the guard walking around "protecting" it.

After checking into our hostel we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the city. The city center is not laid out like a grid and so it easy to get lost, but it's such a beautiful city that I didn't mind losing myself in some of the alleyways and squares. As I previously mentioned, the old and new are intermixed, and I loved seeing old statues and historical landmarks next to the more touristy street vendors and shops. Underneath the bridge that stretches over the valley are the Bock Casemates, a series of 17th century catacombs that stretch for 17km. Unfortunately they are closed during the winter due to hazardous weather conditions, but we were still able to walk through the aboveground sections and a bit of the Grund, one of the city's most picturesque quarters. 

Cara Beth and I decided to split from the rest of our group for the evening so we could enjoy a quiet evening while the others went out and enjoyed the nightlife. We went to a little one-man-show of a restaurant off the main market square called Peter's Soups & Juices, where the only employee was the owner, bartender, waiter, and chef. We tried Bouneschlupp, a traditional Luxembourgish soup made with pork sausage, potatoes, and green beans, which was delicious. After dinner we walked around town a little while longer but nearly everything was closed so we headed back to the hostel. The rest of our Winter Academy group had a room across the hall from us, so even though we originally planned to room with the group we travelled with, we decided to sleep in the second group's room. 

The next morning the entire group hiked up one of the hills to an old fortress. Unlike the remaining forts in the States, there was no entry fee or visitor's center, just the fort with a few signs to explain a bit about the site. Also unlike the American forts, there wasn't a clear design pattern as to why the fort was constructed the way it was and I'm still a bit confused as to how the fortress was helpful in any way. Next to the fortress was a modern art museum called Mudam that had free admission for students, and our group again split in two with most people staying to explore the museum while the rest went back into the city centre. 

I'd only ever seen a few modern art exhibits before as it's not my favourite style but this museum was amazing. Instead of mixing together similar ideas in each space, each room was designated to one artist. Some were painters, some were sculptors, some did film work, others did symbolism, some were photographers, and some had pieces that didn't seem like they should be considered art at all -- specifically one exhibit that was just wooden rulers dipped in different paint colours. My personal favourite piece was a fountain filled with black ink.

We spent the afternoon walking around the Grund and the nature areas in the valley, both of which have a million stairs. I know I keep saying this, but it is such a beautiful city. I would love to visit again when the weather is warmer just to walk around and spend a day on the riverside. 

We left in the evening, when we encountered our final round of transportation problems. Cara Beth and I wanted to leave on the 5:30p train so we could arrive in Mannheim at a reasonable hour, but because we had a special kind of ticket we had to stick to our itinerary, which meant waiting in the train station for an hour until our originally scheduled 6:30p train came.

We were then supposed to have changes in Trier and Saarbrücken and make it back to Mannheim at 10:40p. Instead, our first train ran late and we missed our connection by a mere 15 seconds. The next available train ran all the way to Mannheim with no changes, but it meant waiting for an hour in the Trier Hbf, and because it was a slower train, it would take us an extra 40 minutes to travel. We did eventually make it back to Mannheim around midnight, and I am so thankful that I travelled with a group as it would have been a nightmare on my own.

Some final thoughts/reflections from the week -
  • Day drinking does not always bring out the best in people.
  • Spontaneity on trips sometimes leads to the best memories.
  • I'm yet again thankful to have come to Germany with Cara Beth. We are always on the same page when traveling.
  • People in Europe have the most well-behaved dogs.

An actual parking lot? Above ground?!

L'Air du Matin

Photo credit: Cara Beth

Many Spoken Words -- a fountain filled with black ink as an homage to literature

I have no idea what this is or what it's supposed to represent, but the security guard got very angry when we tried touching it.

No picture could accurately show just how steep this hill was.

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