Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday 25th October, Camping Municpale, Chalons-en-Campagne, France

Our last entry was just a week ago, the morning after we’d arrived in Schwangau, the heart of German Bavaria, a day in which we caught up on chores and home school, and gave George and Charlie time for an afternoon playing down by the lake – when Frances and I visited them to see what they were up to, we discovered they had been hard at work building a shingle jetty which stretched out into the lake. In the afternoon, we put the tent up for the kids to give them a bit of a breather from us! We ate dinner in the cosy warmth of the caravan, looking out over the mountains across the lake which turned a magnificent shade of purple as the sun set.

Refreshed and re energised, we set off early on a cold, crisp but beautiful Wednesday morning for our tour of Schloss Hohenschwangau and Schloss Neuschwanstein. Both castles appeared straight out of fairy tales, with their keeps, battlements and towers facing each other across the valley. Hohenschwangau had been extensively re-developed by King Maximilian of Bavaria and his wife Maria, who very sensibly had a second smaller castle built immediately next door for the kids, Ludwig and Otto. The main castle was beautiful from the outside, resplendent in yellow with blue and white striped window shades to keep off the morning sun – and ornately decorated inside, although, in truth, the many rooms were all a bit pokey (perhaps cosy would be kinder) and the art was….well, let’s just charitably say that King Max was from the ‘more is more’ school of art appreciation! The castle is still owned by the descendants of the important Wittelsbach family.

Max and Maria’s influence clearly rubbed off on son Ludwig, who had Neuschwanstein built on the ruins of a former castle high up on a hill overlooking Hohenschwangau, a decent walk away from his parents as we discovered. He wanted to create a romanticised  Romanesque homage to Richard Wagner’s operatic works  Lohengrin (the only guest who was permitted to stay within the castle), and the castle he created certainly lives up to his ambition.  Sadly for Ludwig, he died within a year of its completion (in fact, much of it was never completed) in mysterious circumstances – found drowned in a lake – and so the castle was opened to the public. What they would have discovered is much as we did – a real fairtytale castle rising up from the cliffs, which when overlooked from the high footbridge spanning a gorge and waterfalls below brings to mind images of princesses in turrets and noble knights charging around on white stallions. In other words, as described by critics of the era as I’ve just read on Wikipedia, all a bit kitsch! Here’s what Ludwig said about his plans in a letter to his pal, Wagner (source Wikipedia):

“It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights' castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day (in 3 years); there will be several cosy, habitable guest rooms with a splendid view of the noble Säuling, the mountains of Tyrol and far across the plain; you know the revered guest I would like to accommodate there; the location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world. It will also remind you of "Tannhäuser" (Singers' Hall with a view of the castle in the background), "Lohengrin'" (castle courtyard, open corridor, path to the chapel); this castle will be in every way more beautiful and habitable than Hohenschwangau further down, which is desecrated every year by the prose of my mother; they will take revenge, the desecrated gods, and come to live with Us on the lofty heights, breathing the air of heaven”.

Ludwig never married – he broke off his only engagement after six months, again without explanation, although Frances has inferred a theory about his devotion to Wagner!

Inside, the castle is ornately decorated in romantic style again, full of romanticised images of daring knights and devout disciples. Every conceivable surface has works of art – many painted directly on the wall – and sadly, none of which (in this Campbell family’s humble opinion) are very good! Notably absent by comparison to other great noble houses and palaces we’ve visited around Europe, however, are any paintings by the great masters or, for that matter, artists of any renown. On enquiry of our rather peculiar tour guide, it transpired that Ludwig had hired a few art students from nearby Munich to create all of the artworks – following in his father’s ‘more is more’ footsteps!

We walked back down the hill to the car in rapidly descending temperatures as alpine fog rolled down the mountains towards us. As we drove back to the caravan we stopped at the supermarket, and while Frances shopped the heavens broke in a huge hailstorm – within a couple of minutes the car and road were covered in a layer of ice. Back at the campsite, a small sprinkling of snow had fallen and settled around the tent. In the evening, Frances, George and Charlie went to the Krystal Therme spa, which, despite George’s anxiety about there being nudey-rudies wandering about, proved to be very pleasant and fun. Much to George’s relief there were no nudey-rudies but there were wonderful outside hot thermal pools (heated to 36⁰) full of healing salt water with fabulous views through the steam rising from the lakes of both castles lit up in the night sky.

It rained hard overnight, and we woke on Thursday to discover that there had been heavy snow in the mountains just a few feet above the lake and campsite. The rain drops on the tent had frozen, and George and Charlie emerged in the morning like arctic explorers in search of the cosy warmth of the caravan.

We made an early start and headed off towards Munich (Munchen) to Dachau, site of the infamous Nazi concentration camp. We’d just missed the start of the English speaking tour, so scurried off in pursuit, catching them up just as Steve, the guide completed his overview. He then took us on an absorbing and sobering tour of the camp, brought to life by his incredibly comprehensive and detailed knowledge. The camp was liberated by the US army and preserved as a result of the efforts initially of survivors and subsequently the authorities as a lasting reminder and lesson – all German school children of a certain age must go on a tour of a concentration camp during their schooling. As we passed through the intact gates, the sense of foreboding was chilling. The camp was established in 1933 at the very start of the Third Reich as one of the first initiatives of the new Nazi regime, initially for dissidents and political prisoners. It was immediately a place of torture and death, which rapidly developed on a highly organised and industrial scale and was used as the model on which all the other camps were based – it was here that on-site crematoria were first built to circumvent the need to rely on external crematoria and the necessary awkward accompanying paperwork, for example. And here were developed the Xyclon-B gas chambers for the ‘industrialisation’ of genocide, although there is some doubt as to whether they were actually put into use at Dachau.  In the first years, the camp was orderly in extremis – the slightest infraction (a bed not perfectly made, a blade of grass out of place) resulting in torture or death for the perpetrator. But in the later part of the war, it became the centre of a massive slave labour scheme, and it became clear that it was more productive to work prisoners literally to death on farms or in munitions factories than to have them worry about the state of order, cleanliness or hygiene in the camps. Steve’s insight and knowledge, based on clearly extensive research helped answer our many questions – were prisoners ever released? (yes, but most were released as ashes in urns); did people know they were going to their death? (perhaps not initially, especially in the west – but in the east, in Poland, rumours were widespread); were their huts heated? (yes, in the day-room, but not in the dormitories, where they were not allowed to sleep in their meagre uniforms which had to be folded neatly away even if wet, and where they would have to have slept naked on straw beds in freezing temperatures). That any survived these terrible conditions is incredible, and testament to the determination of the human spirit. The camp lives on as a monument to those who suffered so much at the hands of tyranny – and as permanent lesson about the importance of democracy and dissent, and against the perils of blind consensus and cultism. In an era when people seem less interested and prepared to actively engage in ideology and the pursuit of progressive social change, where plurality is increasingly overwhelmed by consensus and personality-led leadership, where the motivation of individuals and society seems focussed on personal material gain rather than social development, and where recent conflicts in the Balkans, the middle east and Africa continue to expose tyranny and the darker side of human nature on both sides of each conflict, these lessons seem more relevant than ever.  It was a valuable and indelible lesson for us. We made our way back to Brunnen in reflective mood.

We left Schwangau on Friday and headed west, winding our way through Southern Germany and past the Bodensee, Lake Constance through Fredrichshafen towards Freiburg in the Black Forest, arriving at a river-side site in Staufen, a small historic town.  We were efficiently marshalled into our pitch by the site manager, and headed straight for a swim in the gloriously warm water of the site’s own pool. Our site fees included a free rail pass allowing us access to Freiburg and on to Basel in Switzerland, so on Saturday morning we ambled into Staufen and hopped on the train to Freiburg. We had a mooch around the old city and the market which was packed with stalls selling beautiful fresh local produce and thronging with locals doing their weekly shop. Entertainment was provided by a number of buskers who, like those we’d seen in Dresden, were very talented and seemed to be from Russia and Eastern Europe.  These included a quartet in Russian army uniforms playing traditional instruments and singing well known Russian songs, and an accordion player who, with one’s eyes closed could easily have convinced that he was a full orchestra. In the afternoon, we headed back to Staufen and sat in the beautiful historic market square eating Shwarzwalder Kirschtorte and admiring the beautiful old buildings, although noticing with some anxiety that several of these had large cracks in them. Back in the campsite, this was explained by a neighbour in faltering English to be caused by some kind of mining – he advised I look up the Staufen town website. It transpires that the refurbishment of the Rathaus (town hall) in 2006 included the installation of a thermal ground water heating system, involving the drilling of bores to a depth of 450m to access the naturally occurring hot water. As a result, this water has leaked into a layer of plaster-like rock which has caused it to set and expand, causing the land above to rise by up to 1cm per month, with devastating effects on the listed buildings in the old town.

On the advice of Jed and his wife, a retired English couple we met on the site who have sold-up in the UK and taken up residence in their caravan on the site for the winter before they buy a house in Staufen, we took further advantage of the free and brilliant train services and headed into Basel on Sunday. Roger Paisley, Charlie’s godfather and our great friend from Sydney living now in Hong Kong, gave us a number of Basel top-tips by text as we travelled on the train. Basel was so quiet on Sunday morning you could hear a pin drop – but rest assured, the rattle of the kids’ scooters on cobbles (an ever present cacophony on this trip) shattered the peace as we made our way across the Rhine into the old city. We visited the cathedral and marvelled at the hugely powerful organ as the organist rehearsed for an evening performance; we wandered through the town and saw the ornate Rathaus with its very beautiful courtyard paintings; we window shopped past the fortunately-closed shops with their displays of fabulously expensive and luxurious watches; we inspected the menu of a typical and traditional Swiss café….and beat a hasty retreat! And we found and boarded the small ferry plying across the Rhine on a fixed line like a zip wire suspended across the river, propelled across by nothing more than the current of the river. It was fascinating – and unlike the café, very inexpensive. And that was it for Basel – we headed back on the train to Staufen for a delicious, tasty and inexpensive late afternoon lunch in an old restaurant in the market square.  This left time for us all to visit the Vita Classica spa in Bad Krozingen – another large scale multi-pooled thermal baths which, to the kid’s great relief, was clothing-mandatory for the pools. Frances and I left George and Charlie to the pools and headed for the sauna, returning somewhat redder in the face (it was hot in the saunas!) to find them completing an hour’s non-stop lap swimming!

On a foggy Monday morning we rather reluctantly packed up and headed off to leave Germany for the second and last time on this trip. We like Germany – the orderliness, the efficiency, the warm welcome of the people, the emphasis on tradition – and the wurst und beer! We hit the autobahn heading west towards Strasbourg and drove on, the fog enveloping us to create the sensation of driving through a tunnel. Without fanfare we slipped into France, the only tell-tales being the slight change in road signs. In the afternoon the fog lifted, the sun shone, and we headed off the autoroute onto the N roads to wind our way through rural eastern France through rolling hills and woodland bursting with beautiful autumn colour and across the tree and hedge-less farmland, towards Reims in Champagne. We passed through many rather unattractive villages and towns, past Metz, all of which recalled Western Poland more than they did the beautiful towns and villages of Brittany and Normandy. We didn’t have a site booked, and were increasingly concerned as the afternoon wore on. So a last minute call to the Chalons-en-Champagne tourist information office pointed us in the direction of the municipal site in Chalons. We couldn’t reach them by phone, so keeping our fingers crossed, we followed the many clear signposts to the site and rolled in to a very nice, orderly, spacious, well equipped and leafy site – most unexpected! It had been a long drive – about 550kms, so we were tired and glad to set up quickly and head to bed early.

This morning, Tuesday, rain stopped play. We decided to spend the morning in the caravan catching up, and will head off this afternoon for a tour of the champagne wineries. Tomorrow we’ll head to Paris for the last leg of our trip. We have brought forward our return to the UK by a week so that we can head up to Lawn Cottage on Monday for Dad’s funeral later in the week on Thursday.

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