Day 1: Baden-Baden and Staufen
Mike flew out to Germany first to present at a conference in Frankfurt, Germany. He was there for about a week, then I flew out to join him on Friday, September 16. I arrived in Frankfurt around 6am on Saturday, September 17. We successfully found each other in the airport around 7am. (We had worked out a meeting spot just outside baggage claim, but without cell phones, we were both a little nervous about this; thankfully, everything worked out just fine!) We made our way downstairs to the long-distance train platform (which is conveniently located right in the basement of the airport!), found a bench and caught up with one another while we waited for our train.
I'm going to pause here to say a few words about the trains in Germany because we rode the trains almost every single day of our trip. Train lines cross the entire country of Germany making it possible to get just about anywhere by train. Trains (including inter-city subway systems) and the occasional bus were our exclusive means of travel within Germany. We never found it necessary to rent a car or even take a taxi ride. We both thought traveling by train in Germany was fantastic! The trains were clean, comfortable, and on-time. Even though neither of us can speak German, we had no problem figuring out the platform signs and which stop to get off at (well, we made a few mistakes, but nothing too serious). When we did need help, the employees were so nice and helpful. We did the math and found that for our plans, the passes would actually cost more than just purchasing tickets individually (I think largely because we rode mostly regional trains, which aren't too pricey). But we did save a lot of money by purchasing our tickets online in advance. The Deutsche Bahn website was so easy to use! I actually bought most of our tickets at home before we left, printed them out, and brought them with us.
I also think this would be a good time to talk about our luggage. This trip was our third vacation to Europe together, and each time we've tried something different as far as luggage. On our first trip, in 2007, we each took a duffel bag. Those ended up being pretty inconvenient to tote around because they were heavy and difficult to carry. On our next trip (our honeymoon in 2010), we decided to share a large rolling suitcase. That worked ok whenever we were able to roll it, but was very heavy and difficult to load on and off of public transportation, on stairs, or on cobblestone streets (of which there are many in Italy). For this trip, we wanted something different. Knowing we'd be changing locations every two to three days, and riding lots of public transportation, I immediately thought of backpacks. I was nervous that we wouldn't be able to fit everything we needed for 16 days (me) and nearly three weeks (Mike) in a backpack. But after some discussion, we decided we could make it work.
I found these bad boys for a great deal at the REI outlet online:
Ok, now back to the trip. Our first stop was Baden-Baden. This is a town in the Black Forest (in German, "Schwarzwald") region of Germany that dates back to the Roman era. The Romans built bath houses to take advantage of the thermal waters present here. Today, Germans still believe these waters have healing powers (I read that the German national healthcare system actually covers one trip every decade to the baths) and thus the town and grown into an upscale resort town. We picked it as our first stop mainly because of convenience (trains run directly from the Frankfurt airport to Baden-Baden every two hours) and because I thought a relaxing day at the spa sounded perfect after a long international flight. :)
|Baden-Baden, center of the "old town"|
|Friedrichsbad, the Roman-Irish bath house|
Now I'm not overly prudish, but still, the idea of a bunch of strangers seeing me butt naked made me slightly uncomfortable. But the truth is, Europeans view nudity very differently than Americans. For example, it's just fine in their eyes to sunbath nude in a public park. Everything I read about these baths said it was a serene, respectful experience, free of leering. So I decided to be brave and give it a try.
There are two almost identical sides to the bath, and on certain days of the week it's either separate for men and women, or mixed. I was actually hoping to go on a mixed day so that Mike and I could go through together, but we ended up there on a separate day. However, there's still one pool in the middle which is always mixed. We were able to time it right so that we got there at the same time and had a least a short time to talk and compare notes.
The bath house is really an incredible place. The website is here if you want to see some pictures of what it looks like inside. It's done in a very grand, elegant, Roman style with lots of marble, pillars, and a large domed ceiling over the center pool. It almost felt like stepping back in time!
The bath experience consists of 17 steps. On the wall in every room, there's a sign that explains what the room is and how long you're supposed to stay there. If you stick to the schedule, you will finish in 2.5 hours. You begin with a shower, then a dry sauna, then a hotter dry sauna, then another shower (different temperature), then a soap brush massage, then another shower, then a steam sauna, then a series of pools of different temperatures. You pay a little extra for the soap brush massage, but it was totally worth it! They use a soft bristled brush and a nice olive-oil soap and scrub you all over.
The entire experience was soooooo relaxing. True to what other said, I didn't mind being naked at all. Even in the pool where it was men and women together, I never felt uncomfortable. No one stared. Everyone was just doing their best to relax, usually with their eyes closed or staring at the ceiling. I was surprised how comfortable I felt the whole time! The only time I felt nervous was stepping out of the changing room naked. Mike said the same thing. But as soon as I saw other women walking around naked, I felt a lot better and was easily able to relax as soon as I reached the first shower.
The last step is a quick dip into an icy cold bath followed by drying off off using a warm towel. Then you rub lotion all over yourself and go into a quiet room where they wrap you up in a cocoon of blankets and let you rest for 30 minutes.
Now, at this point, I had been up for well over 24 hours, and I'd been fighting jet lag pretty well up until this point. But after 2 hours of relaxing hot tubs and massage followed by being wrapped in blankets in a quiet room, I caved in and fell pretty soundly asleep. Really, it's a small miracle I woke up at all! If you stay too long, they charge you extra. Seems like kind of a dirty trick to me... ;) But thankfully, I made it out before my time expired. Mike was a little nervous though. He'd been outside waiting for me and was about to ask someone to go find me because he was concerned I was sound asleep!
After that, we wandered the old town a little bit.
|Gastehaus Kaltenbach, in the daytime|
|This is the hill we had to walk up to get there. You can imagine in the dark...it's really dark!|
First we tried this pizza-style dish. It had a thin crust, some kind of cream sauce, white cheese, with bacon and mushroom toppings. They cooked it in an old-style brick oven and served it to you nice and hot. It was delicious! After that, I was longing for a big Bavarian pretzel, while Mike got some ribs that were being slow roasted over a hanging fire. And of course, we both got a beer.
We were just eating and wandering around, when all of a sudden, a parade started! We stood and watched as a band marched through town, followed by over 100 people in different medieval costumes, all singing and carrying torches. There were knights, ladies, friars, peasants - all marching through town by fire light. It was really, really cool! Way better than any Renaissance festival I've ever seen in the U.S. (but perhaps that's to be expected when you're actually in a town that dates back to Medieval times, I don't know).
After the parade, things seemed to be wrapping up, and we were truly exhausted, so we headed back to our B&B and crashed. But the food was so good, we ended up coming back to the festival the next day for dinner, so I was able to take some pictures in the daylight:
Day 2: Freiburg
On Sunday, September 18, we took a day trip to another small Black Forest town - Freiburg. There's really not much to Staufen that isn't in the pictures above. It's truly a very small town. But it's cute, quiet, non-touristy, inexpensive, and conveniently located on a train line, so really it's the perfect place to stay while you see the southern Black Forest. It does in fact date back to medieval times (as the medieval festival would suggest) and there are these cool castle ruins high above town, today surrounded by a picturesque vineyard:
Freiburg is much larger than Staufen. It has both a busy, modern part and a much quieter, historic Altstadt, or old town (where we spent our time). The main attraction in Freiburg is a grand medieval era cathedral. We actually learned once we got there that the pope was coming to visit the cathedral on the following weekend! Hence the poster you see here above the entrance:
|Medieval city gates|
|This is Freiburg's bächle - tiny streams flowing along the main streets that date back to the medieval times when they served as fire prevention and street-cleaning system|