Friday, 27 February 2009

Germany - Day 4, Across the border into France

This was the last morning of the visit to Baden-Baden and the Black Forest and a big German continental breakfast was a good start to the day and shortly afterwards we cleared the bathroom of all of the complimentary shampoos and shower gels and packed ready to leave. Now, I know that it is sad but even though I have quite enough money to buy my own toiletries I still get excited by collecting up all of the colourful little bottles of free goo and taking them back home. I never use them of course and its all the same low quality stuff anyway but I find them simply irresistible even though all they do is clutter up the bathroom as travel souvenirs

We left Baden-Baden on the 500 road, which went back to the Black Forest and some of the places that had been missed on the first visit. What was rather startling was that the snow that had covered the trees and was piled up by the side of the road then had thawed rather rapidly and it was necessary to go much higher into the mountains before there was any today and although it had looked rather permanent on Saturday what was absolutely certain was that it wasn’t going to be around for very much longer. At about a thousand metres there was a ski slope at Hundesect and so we parked the car and went off to the slopes to watch the people enjoying their winter sport.

Because recent years have seen the warmest winters on record every year the number of days of snow cover in central and southern Europe is steadily reducing and the snow line is retreating and climate projections predict even higher temperatures in the future. Scientists say that this is due to global warming and some warn that within twenty years skiing will not be possible below two thousand metres. It was interesting that there was quite so much snow here but the answer was that there were artificial snow machines on the ski slope because most ski resorts these days tend to rely on snow cannons to create simulated snow. They achieve this by pumping thousands of gallons of water into the cold air that turn into ice crystals to provide an artificial skiing surface. Unfortunately, these machines use so much energy and consume so much water that they are also contributing to environmental damage and this solution to the no-snow problem may in the long run be self defeating.

Today was bitterly cold with a raw wind that cut right through to the bone and the view over the Rhine valley was in total contrast to two days ago. It was bleak and grey and the clouds looked decidedly threatening and angry. For a short while it started to snow but it was blowing about in the wind sort of snow and not the thick settling type. If on Saturday this had been the White Forest today it really lived up to its name and the sides of the mountains looked dark and mysterious under a dense cloak of conifers.

We were heading now for Strasbourg and followed the road to the border town of Kehl where shortly afterwards the road crossed the Rhine and passed into France through an immigration control without any sign of activity. The Rhine is one of the longest and most important rivers in Europe, it begins in the Swiss Alps and flows for one thousand three hundred kilometres to the North Sea. That’s only about half as long as the Danube and it certainly doesn’t make the top one hundred longest rivers in the world, coming in at only one hundred and eleventh but is still very impressive. From the very earliest times it has been an important trade route and today it remains a vitally important transport link that serves the industrial cities of the Rhine through France, Germany and the Low Countries and today, just like every other day, it was busy with huge freight barges transporting raw materials to the factories along its banks.

All of a sudden there was absolutely no mistaking the fact that we were in France. The river is about three hundred metres wide and in that short distance there was a total and unmistakable transformation from one country to another. The architecture, the language, the dog crap and the French grunge was in total contrast to the clinically clean German towns and villages that had been left behind on the other side of the river. Strasbourg is the seventh largest city in France in the region of Alsace and is regarded as the cultural cross roads between Germanic and Latin culture. In the recent past Strasbourg has been passed between Germany and France like pcae the parcel at a childrens birthday party. Before the French Revolution it was a free city but the fanatical Jacobins siezed it for the Republic. In 1870 after the Franco-Prussian war culminated in the creation of modern Germany and it was ceded to Berlin but after the First-World-War it returned to France. In 1940 the Nazis siezed the city and it was liberated again in 1944 and has remained French thereafter.

I have often wondered about national boundaries and how people stop being one nationality and become another and speak another language just because there is a line on a map but here it was easy to understand because the River Rhine creates a very discernable boundary between two very different cultures. Because of this I expected to be a mixed up sort of a place but actually not a bit of it, Strasbourg is definitely French.

There was a very typical French bistro next to the car park where we enjoyed a very gallic lunch that was in total contrast to the teutonic hospitality that we had become used to over the last few days and it felt strange to be trying to communicate in basic French rather than the basic German that I had been finding so difficult, vin rouge and bier grande seemed much more natural than rot wein and bier vom fass.

There wasn’t a lot of time available to explore Strasbourg which was a bit of a relief really because it was really, really cold and if one thing was absolutely certain then there was going to be no blue sky and sun today. The historic centre, the Grande Île was classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988, and this was the first time such an honour was placed on an entire city centre. There were some grand buildings here with lots of medievial half timbered houses that once again had avoided destruction during the two world wars but the best building of all was the mighty sandstone cathedral which dominates the whole of the city. At one hundred and forty two metres, it was the world's tallest building from 1625 to 1874 and it remained the tallest church in the world until 1880, when it was surpassed firstly by Cologne Cathedral and then Ulm Münster. Today it remains the sixth tallest church in the world and was described by Victor Hugo as a "gigantic and delicate marvel”.

We liked Strasbourg very much and would like to see it again with better weather. One thing that did let it down was quite a lot of dog shit because the French don’t seem to have a problem with, or a conscience about, letting their animals take a dump on the pavement thereby causing maximum inconvenience for other pedestrians, and it pays to keep a watchful eye on where you are walking in France! The French authorities are trying to tackle the problem but are making little progress and even heavy fines (€440 for a first offence) has had little impact. In Paris they remove sixteen tonnes of dog excrement every day, which causes four thousand five hundred accidents a week. Removing it costs €15m a year!

Leaving Strasbourg was a lot more straightforward than I had imagined and back in Germany there was an easy drive back to Baden-Baden along what has to be said was a featureless road that followed the east bank of the Rhine along a straight and easily navigable route back to the town. After a final glass of beer at the traditional bar and an excellent meal at the German restaurant it was time to go back to the airport, return the little Fiat Panda and to settle back for the short flight back to the UK.


Anonymous said...

I like your blog and found your observations quite interesting. I live in Baden-Baden and can only confirm your appreciation od this city.

Markus Hesselmann said...

Hi Andrew, interesting stuff. Living in Berlin again (after returning from two years in London) I particularly liked the bit about "clinically clean German towns". Funny how that cliché about Germany still works. I was always at pains to explain to my British friends that Germany is not at all clean and law-abiding any more. There is as much dogshit on the streets of Berlin as there is in Strasbourg, if not more. And London is definitely cleaner than Berlin. All the best, Markus

John said...

Sounds like you really enjoying yout trips. aOk I will check back ina few days to see where your jouurney has taken you next.Until next time my friend,Be Safe