Sunday, April 13, 2014

Banana Beer & Religious Relics in Germany's oldest City

Guten Morgen aus Trier, Germany! 
(In case your German is even weaker than mine...'Good Morning, from Trier!')

We have plans to meet below the Porta Nigra to begin our day with Wilhelm’s Tante (aunt) Elisabeth and her husband, Albert. (To clarify, Albert is, in fact, Wilhelm’s uncle. It's just that Elisabeth is always referred to as “Tante Elisabeth” and Albert is always, simply, Albert.) Due to health complications they were unable to make it to the states for our wedding, and I have been dying to meet them! Every story involving these two is always larger than life; they are two of the most beloved relatives I’ve ever heard spoken of!

As we wait, Wilhelm explains this fortress-wall type structure that we’re standing below - the Porta Nigra. He tells me the city of Trier was once a colony of Rome and was protected by great stone walls. This ‘Porta’, or gate, was built around 180 AD. It is the only part of the wall that remains as the rest was pillaged for materials. The Black Gate (so-called due to it’s dark colored stone) also served as a monastery and as a church before being deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As Wilhelm finishes gushing stories about the Roman Trier, I look up and see just what we’ve come here to find..

I would know that smile anywhere. Though I’ve never met Tante Elisabeth I see her coming from a mile away. She’s got a stunning, mega-watt smile. Just like my father- in-law and just like my handsome husband! She is a glowing, vibrant woman full of life and excitement. She has a contagious, beautiful spirit about her. Albert is nothing short of charming. He doesn’t speak a lick of English but his cheery smile and big hugs speak volumes!

After an exchange of “hellos” & “guten tags”, Elisabeth asks if we’d like to stop and get some wine - for breakfast. My kind of lady. 

We head from the Porta Nigra to the ‘Hauptmarkt’, the market square. There are people buzzing about, the shops are open, the bakeries are packed and the lovely smell of flowers floats through this open space with the breeze. In the center of it all are kiosks of sorts – some of which are wine kiosks. They have industrial wine coolers inside and modern glass racks hanging above. We order four glasses of Riesling, of course. It’s handed over in delicate stemware for us to enjoy as we stand in the middle of the town, chatting and laughing. When we’re finished we return the glasses to the counter and go about our day. Brilliant!  

Next, we’re on to see the city. Elisabeth comes to Trier often to shop and happens to know all of the ins and outs – she’s offered to show us the highlights and we are thrilled! 

If you read yesterday’s post you’ll know a bit of history on the Trier Dom (also known as St. Peter’s Cathedral). Today, as I’m walking into this medieval structure I find it more beautiful and full of mystery than I could have expected. The first things I notice are the black imported marble accents - I’ve never seen anything like them. Next on the standout list is the organ – it sits high in the rafters and looks as if it’s floating. Elisabeth explains it is a swallow’s nest organ and she remarks on how stunning it is, as well.

We are able to see the famous nail, rumored to have been used in the crucifixion, but no such luck on the holy tunic of Jesus. About twenty feet ahead of us.. up some stairs.. on an altar and through some glass we can see.. the box which holds the holy robe. A few times year they do have it open and the tunic itself on display - which is when Christians make pilgrimages to view this piece of holy history. Though I’m innately skeptical of the authenticity of the relic, I find myself quite disappointed that I’m unable to get a look at it!

After seeing the Church, Cathedral and even the archbishops’ tombs beneath them, we rove about the city talking with Elisabeth and joking with Albert. Humor, apparently, has no language barrier. He keeps us (me, at least) cracking up! I am incapable of putting into words how darling of a man he is - an absolute gem.

Tante Elisabeth knows not only which boutiques are fashion hotspots here in Trier, but she knows all the intriguing history of this town, too..

Legend has it that Trier was founded in 2000 BC! According to this local lore, Trier is over 4,000 years old. To put that in perspective…Trier would have been inhabited during the time of Abraham and Noah! For the record, though: Trier was (officially) founded by Augustus in 16 BC – and even by this measure, is still likely the oldest city in Germany!

We round the day off with a hearty German meal and a new (to me) German beverage. I enjoy the worlds creamiest, most indulgent tomato soup with a freshly made, giant pretzel dunked in spicy mustard. The rest of the crew (clearly more German than I) enjoy potato salad and enormous beef roasts - flavored with caraway and complimented by sour cream and tomato sauce.  I do join in on the cultural experience by ordering a Bananenwiezen..

Yep! You read that right. Banana. Beer. Banana nectar added to hefe wiezen (wheat beer), served in a tall wiezen glass is the perfect cold drink for a warm day. Perfectly sweet and refreshing!

As we chow down and drink up, we also enjoy an album of old photographs Tante Elisabeth has saved of her adored godchild - she's made us a book of these memories to take home! Hearing childhood stories and seeing photos of W as a chubby little tot in lederhosen melts my heart. I’m one happy newlywed and I am feeling particularly blessed to have gained Elisabeth and Albert as family.

Prost (cheers), to adventures! Especially to those involving beautiful, historic European cities, with delightful, European relatives! 

First Taste of Germany - The Mosel Valley & Trier

My first view of Germany is that of the stunningly steep, cliff-side vineyards lining the Mosel River. Some 5,000 winemakers take advantage of the ideal sun exposure and intensified heat provided by the cliffs and the water’s reflection. These beautiful, unique vineyards characterize the Mosel region and boast world renowned grapes.

The Riesling wines cultivated along the Mosel are rich in minerals and delicately fruity – they are unlike any other, the epitome of their kind. The grapes that thrive in this warm zone are late ripening and must be manually harvested due to the precarious placement of the vines. The extra effort put into these grapes is well worth it. They consistently produce wines with low alcohol content and exceptionally elegant flavors - perfect for regular enjoyment.

Need I say more?
Our destination, Trier, is the perfect place to sip my first taste of Deutschland.

The Mosel Valley is the cradle of German wine culture and I, for one, am ready to dive right in! After dropping our bags by the apartment we’ve reserved here in Trier, we head straight to the town center where just around a quiet corner we find a bustling wine pub – the Weinstube Kesselstatt.

This weinstube is nestled into what was once a manor of the palace that stood on this square – with exposed beams, cozy seating and eclectic d├ęcor it is a busy but inviting scene. It’s a self service pub and as we approach the counter I’ve apparently forgotten that weinstubes are outlets of individual wineries. I try to order a “House Riesling”. The attendant gestures to a full-wall chalkboard with white scribbles from ceiling to floor - They are all house Rieslings.

Every wine on this extensive list is a product of the Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt estate! The excitement of so many incredible options trumps the brief feeling of stupidity that has washed over me.

Wilhelm and I enjoy a bottle of the perfectly crisp, yet sweet, ‘Sommerpalais’, and then another. We order “Das Beste der Region” in hopes of getting a good, local snack - a wooden board full of fresh, regional cheeses, breads and hams finds its way to our table. We eat, we drink and we even make a few friends (or at least we think so - our German is sub-par, after all!). All of this whilst sitting on the terrace under the emerging stars, staring up at some of Trier’s most beautiful and mysterious attractions.

Before us sit the Dom zu Trier (Saint Peter’s Cathedral) and the Liebfrauenkirche (The Church of Our Lady).

Not only is Trier Dom the oldest church in Germany but it is also home a few significant Christian relics. According to legend, Saint Helena returned from a trip to Jerusalem, in the 4th century, with the robe Jesus wore at the crucifixion. She also brought back a nail that is believed by many to have been used in the crucifixion of Christ as well. Mention of the robe was discovered in historical documents in the 12th century at which point the cathedral altar was opened up in search of the holy relic. The robe was found, and remains, in Trier where Christians from all corners of the world still come to view it.

^ Regardless of your religious affiliation, this is certainly an interesting bit of history that Trier lays claim to!

The Dom and its neighboring Liebfrauenkirche are on the itinerary for tomorrow. For now, we head back to rest up for a true-Trier-tour, given by none other than Tante Elisabeth – Wilhelm’s beloved aunt and godmother!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

European Train Travel

Our travel plans for the next month revolve around our wonderful wedding gift from my in-laws: A Global train pass. This is a pass available to non-European citizens and is offered from 10 days to two months with unlimited train travel fully included.

This afternoon is our first trial of the train system and as we stand wide-eyed, staring at the departure ticker in the center of the enormous Rome Termini Train Station, I can't help but wonder if we may have bitten off a tad more than we can chew!

Fortunately, I soon discover my worry is unfounded as our trip to Venice has started off oh-so-smoothly!

So far, train travel is significantly more convenient than travel via airplane. One can simply arrive at the station 10 minutes prior to departure, heave your luggage aboard your assigned train car, locate your seat number and settle in for the ride. (*I do advise making reservations as the trains fill up and though they'll still sell you a ticket, you may be standing the duration of even a 3 hour trip!) No need to check in at the counter, or even go through the ever-agonizing security check -a questionable practice in my Americanized opinion, but a delightfully convenient one!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Capuchin Crypt: Unusual Art

Our very last stop in Rome is to a location that's a bit grim - no warm and fuzzies like the story of the loving Roman Cat Ladies. This tale initially comes off a bit morbid, but don't judge this crypt by its decor too quickly!

Though a lesser known attraction, the Capuchin Crypt is a highlight of Rome and an absolute must-see. At a minimum, I can promise this site is unlike anything you've ever seen before.

Descending into the crypt, we find ourselves in the midst of an eerie art piece. The strangeness of this place is first frightening and then wildly fascinating. There is opulence in the decay, extravagance in the darkness. The chandeliers are artfully composed of human vertebrae, and the wallpaper of skulls. 

This crypt is the final resting place to the remains of 4,000 Capuchin Monks. The brothers of this order who died between 1528 and 1870 are all laid to rest as pieces of this riveting work. While it appears to be one of ghastly macabre - this sect of Catholic Monks claims it is anything but. This work is intended not to revere death, not to idolize the darkness but to embrace it in a manner which speaks to those still earthbound. This crypt has been created over hundreds of years to be a reminder of life's impermanence.  

Pelvises are arranged into flower-like sculptures, leg bones pinned to wall creating frames, and full skeletons clad in the hooded robes of the Capuchins find eternal slumber in small niches about the crypt. Everything in sight is shriveled and bizarre, but somehow the collection, and care with which it is arranged, makes an incredibly stunning and stirring work of art. It is rumored that an artist (and subsequent madman in the opinion of many), who took refuge in the basement of the church for some time, began this project and that the tradition was then continued by the Order as brothers died over the subsequent 200 years.

As we exit the crypt, a small plaque reads:

"What you are, we once were. What we are, you someday will be".

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Torre Argentina: Roman Sightseeing for your inner Cat Lady

On our final day in Rome we’re abandoning our vampire-like tendencies and we’re venturing outside during daylight! There are two activities on our list that can only be experienced during opening hours and we've planned accordingly.

As we’re grabbing our sunnies and lacing up our shoes in preparation for what will surely be a sweltering day, my husband discovers a surprise that absolutely makes his morning (he’s easily amused you see..). His face lights up as he wields his camel-colored loafer in the air, pointing at a tiny pebble wedged into the ridges of the sole. He surprises me with his enthusiasm as he explains the significance of the tiny rock.

Last night, on our lost in Rome adventure, we stumbled upon an opportunity too sweet to resist – a section of the Roman Forum that was only modestly blocked off to visitors. Slipping beneath a metal-link chain and stepping over a low-profile iron gate, I couldn't help but think – if it’s this slight of an obstacle, and there is no ‘Do Not Enter’ sign in sight, this gate is really merely a suggestion, right?

Wilhelm explains that on our mildly-illegal stroll through the ancient religious and cultural center of Rome a pebble settled itself amongst the creases in the sole of his shoe and he had since been hopeful that it might stay lodged there until we returned home. He goes on that he is excited to take home a piece of Roman history, a piece that even Caesar himself may have walked on at the height of the Roman Empire. All this from a tiny rock! Alright babe, that’s cool…just don’t list the pebble on our Customs & Immigration paperwork!!

After a moment or two reminiscing on the previous nights’ Eternal City adventures we start out on our final day. First stop: Torre Argentina…or more accurately: The Cat Sanctuary.

“Et tu, Brute?” The very spot at which (in the year 44 BC) Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by his rivals - today acts as a safe haven for the abandoned cats of Rome! This archaeological gem, known as Torre Argentina, is seemingly sunken below the happenings surrounding it as modern Rome is built about 25 feet above the ancient city. If one doesn't know what to look for, they might look down and see nothing more than another pile of old rocks dug up in the 1920’s and forgotten as the world grew up around them. 
As we take a moment to look into the ruins rather than simply at them…the silhouettes of over 250 four-legged creatures begin to take form!

 Funded and staffed entirely by volunteers and donations, this little shelter renews my faith in people. As the world buzzes on throughout time, it often appears as though people become callous, forgetting to care for their fellow man or beast – but the “gattare” (or Cat Ladies as we’d call them) who provide these cats with hearty food, safety and even vet care are a shining example of the good that is out there.

I’m refreshed and inspired by the simple acts of kindness between these people and the animals they protect…and while I am trying vehemently to convince my husband we should adopt one (it could just ride in my purse on the plane home I'm explaining...), I’m quite certain he isn't going to give in. So, a donation to help the shelter in some very small way will have to suffice for today. 

(Wasn't able to get a great capture so photograph credit here belongs to Thanks!)