Thursday, November 9, 2017

Detour into the Principality of Liechtenstein

When I first started this blog some years ago, I began by committing to my own photos, stories and historical explanations of places located exclusively in Germany, beginning with Stuttgart, where I was living at the time. Well, although there are still hundreds of more possibilities within the state of Baden-Württemberg alone about which much can be written and photographed, I have decided that it is time to throw in a couple of locations not only outside of this state, but the Federal Republic altogether. 

So, I am starting this out by presenting a place I had always wanted to visit when I was a kid. A place that not only has its own princely family, but also a real castle in which they live. A postage-stamp sized place that can be seen all in one day if you really want to cram everything in - not advised. Is it Monaco, home to the late Princess Grace, or perhaps the co-principality of Andorra? (Did you even know Andorra had "co-princes"?) Nope, it's bigger than Monaco, Vatican City, and the most ancient Republic of San Marino combined, but smaller than Andorra. Ladies and gentlemen and other assorted readers, let's have a look at Liechtenstein, a sovereign nation so small yet rises rather suddenly a whopping 2599 meters (8526 ft.) from her river-valley capital below to Malbun, its only ski slope high above; a country clinging to the side of a small section of a central alpine mountain range nestled smack between Switzerland and Austria such that you could miss it altogether when driving by if not paying close attention. A land that becomes even more lovely the higher you climb.

I can't honestly tell you what got me interested in this little place, but the fact that it is so small and is famous for its postage stamps (yeah, I collect them) along with having that prince probably had something to do with it. Oh, and as mentioned above, it's location in the central Alps of Europe didn't hurt either. I had always been interested in faraway places, but at the same time I also had a penchant for places that were not particularly on the main tourist routes. Some people have been known to look at me like I have two heads when learning of some of the less-traveled places I have wanted to see. Yes, of course tourists do stop by Liechtenstein, but they probably don't go much further than the capital of Vaduz itself, and that just so they can say they've been there. However, I can go a couple of steps further by saying that I know a few lovely native Liechtensteiners who still live there, have had other Swiss friends from just across the border who worked in the principality, and I've been from the Rhine Valley at the bottom of the country to the very highest village of Malbun at the top and a couple of other villages in between without the tour groups. And, interestingly, there is actually much to see there, especially if you enjoy hiking and marvelous views of the Alps.

Now because I love to eat, I am just going to jump into describing one of the national dishes of Liechtenstein (I'm going to get tired of typing this country's name) and it is called Käsknöpfle, which is basically a Spätzle dish mixed with onions and cheese (a blend of Swiss Gruyère and Emmentaler, I think) with a side of applesauce. It is wonderful. I was served it up in the town of Triesenberg, high above Vaduz along with venison, I believe, and it was to die for.  Venison does not necessarily accompany the Käsknöpfle, but this plate did and I enjoyed every bit of it. The view from the restaurant was simply breathtaking, looking across the Rhine Valley directly at the Alps due west on the Swiss side of the border. The valley itself was completely socked in by fog (see main photo in this official Liechtenstein website to get an idea of what I am talking about), but up in Triesenberg, above the clouds and fog, the view was sunny and absolutely exquisite. 

In my photo above, you can see a brilliantly clear view of Liechtenstein. Of course photographs never seem to show the borders that we see on maps (go figure), so let me explain. I took this photo from the Swiss side of the Rhine River from the castle of Sarganz, neither of which you can see or make out in this photo. It is the river that creates the natural border between the principality and its Swiss neighbor. The mountains create the border with Austria to the East. If you look carefully in the very middle of the photo, you will see a very small, dark hill on which sits a white structure with a little tower. This is Schloss Gutenberg, located in the southern Liechtenstein town of Balzers. The castle is one of five in the country and has enjoyed a long history. It was once owned by the Habsburgs, former rulers of Austria-Hungary but originally from Switzerland. Today, the castle is a municipal museum. But back to "seeing" the country in the photo, Liechtenstein is up against those high mountains in the background and makes its way toward the left (north) in the photo and includes the mountains up against which the country sits. The other side mostly belongs to Austria. Perhaps you can make out houses on the mountainside in the far-left background of the photo? They belong to Liechtenstein. Everything in the green foreground is in the Swiss Confederation.

Okay, Schloss Gutenberg was in and out of private hands for centuries. I believe the last private owner had rights to live there until 2001. Check it out when you get there if you're interested.  

A lot of restoration has taken place there in the fortress over the past 100 years and some of the buildings around the castle itself were added during this time. But fear not, this place has basically been here in one form or another for over 700 years. So yes, it's old.

Balzers itself is a lovely town with its own nice church, which is not particularly ancient, as well as some attractive streets and neat houses that make for a nice residential community. A bus service runs between Balzers and the capital, just north of there, which is a good jog away (I mean that literally), and also connects the country via one of the several Rhine bridges into the canton of St.Gallen, Switzerland, more specifically the city of Sarganz, where Swiss rail service gets you easily to just about anywhere you may want to go from there. No trains cross into Liechtenstein, and no, there is certainly no airport either. Car, bus, foot, or bicycle are just about the only ways to get there.  

Oh, and be aware that as you look around and upward (or if you are high up in the country and looking downward), not all you are probably seeing in your line of vision is actually Liechtenstein. Remember, the country really is very small, so it is difficult to get but so many vantage points from which you will be able to see just the principality itself within your sight range. Either Switzerland or Austria or both are often in view as well. After all, Liechtenstein only, but proudly, boasts a whopping 160 sq. km. (62 sq. mi.) of territory. 

Some readers here may find it curious that there are no passport controls to get into the Principality of Liechtenstein. The country does not even have an official passport stamp anymore. I don't know further details on that, but since 1924 it has been protected by Switzerland, has used the Swiss franc, and doesn't even have to send conscripts into the Swiss army. Lucky them. However, for those wishing to get a passport-like stamp in their passports to record having been there, a "stamp" bearing "Fürstentum Liechtenstein" (Principality of Liechtenstein) with the princely hat can be purchased for the staggering cost of 2 Swiss francs at the tourist information center in the middle of Vaduz. You can see one of my stamp entries below, above the stamp for Andorra.

Let's talk a little, and I mean little, about Vaduz. One usually imagines that the capital of a country would either be the biggest city or at least pretty big in any case, right? Well, Vaduz is the biggest, um, "city" in the country, but it really isn't something most people from outside the country (and I dare say many within) would actually call a city. I mean, it's little. Like, really little. So for me, it would constitute more of a big town. Now, I don't mean any disrespect at all, but I'm just calling it as I see it. 

Vaduz Castle, Liechtenstein, residence of the Princely Family
Photo taken from Vaduz, directly below the castle

The princely family, headed by H.S.H. Prince Hans-Adam of Liechtenstein, resides in the castle that sits directly above Vaduz itself. It almost hangs right on the edge of the city, keeping an eye on what's going on below. Construction was begun in the 12th century, so it isn't exactly modern architecture. Certainly renovations have taken place over the centuries, and it is no longer used as a fortress to protect the country, but having been up to the main door myself, I can tell you that it still isn't exactly easy to break into.

The House of Liechtenstein is one of the oldest noble houses in Europe. It has considerable historical holdings in Austria, from which they originally come. Over the centuries during which they have had power or regional influence, they have done well in expanding their wealth in art and real estate, and of course more. Following the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and later at the end of World War II, palatial properties they owned in the former Czechoslovakia were confiscated by the state, never to be returned to the family until this day. Yet, the extended Liechtenstein family, with about 100 members, still owns beautiful estates and art collections in Austria, many of which are open to the public. That said,  interestingly they receive no income from the country/government of Liechtenstein in their role as head of state. They are funded by their own extensive family holdings. Therefore, no citizen of the country can exactly complain that the monarchy is costing the citizens too much to keep up. Besides, there isn't much pomp and circumstance there to add to costs. So, to sum up, the castle there above the town is the only residence the princely family uses as such in the country. 

There is a small and unremarkable pedestrian zone in Vaduz. The national museum there is modern and nice, but most of the prince's vast private artwork is, I believe, mostly in his Austrian palaces in Vienna, but don't quote me on that.  I would like to note here that to shrug off this historical family as just another rich, money grabbing noble house who are controlling oppressors of the common man would be most shortsighted. Having read histories of this ancient family, I have uncovered numerous sources of princely members donating altogether vast sums to charity and to the education of their subjects. Charities are still important interests of the family today, as is reported in public reports of their financial doings. By the way, I have no photo of my own of the princely family to share on this blog page for you to see. And for good reason: Every time I said, "Cheese!",  one or all of them would make a funny face, so I gave up trying. You can find a more suitable photograph of the princely family here.

The old Landtag, or parliament building, is small, traditional looking and attractive, but in recent years, a new and interesting addition has been built next to it for the workings of the government. You can see more about the Landtag here. In some ways, although Liechtenstein is a democratic and free country, the involvement of the reigning prince in government and external affairs can be quite strong. Sometimes I think of the principality as a modern quasi-fiefdom. It's almost like the country actually belongs to the prince as it did in the past, and he does in fact own some parts of it in addition to the castle. But since there has been no revolution to depose the monarchy, and the people have a fairly high standard of living and can come and go as they like, I rather think they are okay with it, so who am I to say?

The old Landtag building (right) and the modern one (center)
located on the pedestrian zone leading into the middle of Vaduz.
The prince's castle is perched above.

One of my friends in Liechtenstein comes from a distinguished family who owns a prominent home in the capital. I am not going to mention a name or location as they really are a private and lovely lot. When invited to their home for a spontaneous tour after dinner out up in Triesenberg one evening, I was pleasantly stunned when shown an extensive private art collection that lined seemingly every single wall and space throughout the residence. I had no idea my friend's family was so invested into art. And the history of the house itself and other contents didn't so much impress me in a sense of grandeur (as grand as the place indeed was!), yet I felt a clear sense of being in a living house, a home, not a museum. The artwork, beautiful furniture and even some of the threadbare showing on the edges of a few carpets demonstrated that the family was somehow as just a part of that house as the house was a part of them. Perhaps rather odd sounding, I confess, but I left that large, elegant and historical home with a cozy feeling rather than one of being overwhelmed by wealth. My friend's graciousness and modesty blended in to help really appreciate her and her family that much more. I dare say they are just one of a number of other such private families in the little country who enjoy and appreciate being able to live there quietly.

But Liechtenstein is not exactly a backwater. Small as it may be, it’s international reputation in banking, which has had its shady side over the years, and simply being a curious place have kept it from being unknown. Furthermore, the country does not only have native-born Liechtensteiners living and working there. Instead, in a population of just under 40,000 people (2016 statistics), nearly one-third of the residents are foreign nationals and by all means a large part of those residents are made up of non-Swiss or Austrian citizens. This indeed says something about their diversity. The princely family itself has also married well outside of its little borders, ranging from Germany to Panama, so diversity certainly sits around their dinner table too. No country is perfect in handling ethnic diversity and acceptance, and Liechtenstein is no exception in facing the potential challenges, positive and negative, which this can produce. 

The chapel at Steg
But let's get back into nature and head on back up toward Triesenberg and Steg, high above Schloss Vaduz. One of my favorite things to do when I get to visit Liechtenstein is to take a drive up to the tunnel through which one must travel to get all the way up to Malbun, at the top of the country. However, just west of the tunnel's entrance is the town of Steg. 

Now Steg is a popular area for sport and has a chapel located there which is often found in images commonly seen in national tourist brochures. Across the road from this little white chapel is a small café/restaurant called Bergstübli where you can sit outside and just look - at nothing and everything.

It is so out-of-the-way in the greater European scheme of things, that just being there, outside, having your coffee on a summer day, looking out across the road at the stream and chapel and alpine landscape in general can be heaven when you need peace and quiet. 

Looking down the road in Steg

Further back down the road from Steg, heading back through the tunnel toward the town of Triesenberg you pass more bucolic settings with what appear to Maiensässen in the fields. Now what on Mother Earth is a Maiensäss you ask? Good question.  You can always google it - that is if your German is good - or just allow me to explain it like this, in my own rustic attempt: A wooden mountain structure that is used for cows and anything associated with spring/summer grazing. Apparently these small, scenic alpine buildings were originally used starting in May (Mai) in the higher grassy regions in this part of the alps, and säss is local language for "seat", hence, where the cows are situated for the grazing months, perhaps beginning in May? In any case, they are often photographed or painted in alpine landscapes and easily associated with Switzerland, Austria, or in this case, Liechtenstein.  You can just park your car and walk along the paths found everywhere and enjoy the wonderful views. 

Everywhere you look, there are mountains and forests up here. Hiking is big in Liechtenstein; heck, just being out in nature is big, and rightly so. It seems to call for you. Yodelling anyone?

There are other parts in the northern part of the country where I have never visited. If you divide a map of the country almost right in half horizontally, it would seem that I have covered the bottom half pretty well, but the northern parts which include Schaan, Planken and Ruggell have yet to be explored by me. I have a friend who lives in Switzerland, due north of the country, right on the border with Austria. Maybe I need to give her a shout and make a detour that direction and then pop down into the northern part of the principality to discover what exactly is there to be discovered. 

I do know that the prince grows his own wines just north of Vaduz and also in Wilfersdorf, Austria. These make up the Hofkellerei des Fürsten von Liechtenstein (Court wine cellars of the Prince of Liechtenstein).  They and other princely estates are worth checking out, especially if you appreciate splendid, historical architecture in addition to possessing a palate for wine tasting. There is a tasting room directly in Vaduz.

Yes, Liechtenstein is a country with a few surprises which can be found within its small borders. From the medieval princely castle all the way up to the tree-trunk carved water troughs. If you’re in the area, that is Europe in general, be brave; take a detour and discover the place for yourself. And for heaven's sake try the käsknöpfle!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Eppingen of 'Fachwerk' Fame

The first photo in this blog entry is of the oldest Fachwerkhaus in Eppingen as well as the entire region itself. Built in 1412, this structure must have fascinating stories to tell from the past of more than 600 years, and it is still lived in today! 

It was such a pleasure to arrive in Eppingen and to find only then that this town was on the "Fachwerk map". I have long been attracted to this beautiful form of architecture so it came as a wonderful surprise to me when I encountered so many examples of it still shown in many of the town's buildings. And, to make things even more exciting for this Fachwerk enthusiast, I found myself on a walkway into town from the train station lined with specific examples and explanations of the craft, as you can see below: 

"Fränkischer Mann"
(Franconian Man)
"Wilder Mann"
('Wild Man')
Corner piece

When looking for somewhere interesting and historical to visit and take to photographs, I googled Eppingen, which is about 50 minutes away from me. Instead of reading anything, I just scanned the photos in various websites. Eppingen seemed to have more Fachwerk structures concentrated in one area than other towns, so I decided with that information alone to head on over there on the tram. Eureka!

(Christmas tree
(St. Andrew's Cross) 
"Alemannisches Weible"
(Little Alemannic Lady)
"Alemannisch Säule"
(Alemannic Column)

Without knowing how many half-timbered houses would be awaiting me, I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that Eppingen is quite known for its abundance of examples of Fachwerk, and I was not to be disappointed. It was everywhere. Unfortunately, the temperatures on the day of my visit were about -20C and my iPhone with which I take all my photos was freezing and shutting off. Constantly having to resuscitate the phone ran the battery down and I ended up limited to what is posted here. Alas, you will have to visit there on your own, and preferably in warmer weather, to see the rest of it. 

From outside the Epplingen train station, one sees immediately the peaked roofs in the town center which boast these decorative façades; therefore, a map is not required for anyone with opened eyes seeking such Fachwerk architecture. 

The house above with the green shutters on the ground floor really trips my trigger. The colors together with the un-uniform wood and plaster facade of the house make it unique and a pleasure to admire. 

View of the Piper's Tower, one block from the Market Place, which 
is located in the center of town.

D   O   O   R   S 


An odd favorite

For some reason, out of all the structures I saw in Eppingen, this house (above) attracted me the most. Why, I don't really know, except that maybe since it appeared un-restored, my imagination was able to play more with whatever historical version of the story I wanted to give it. 

The tall, church-like window on the upper section was intriguing to me. Why is it there? Was it original to the house? So often one can see sections that have been plastered over or bricked in where windows either once were or had been planned and not realized. But, this peaked window was curious to me. Perhaps doors had once been there for hoisting storage or goods into the upper floors. Who knows.

Together with the church (to the right, just out of the photo), these two houses make up a small church courtyard. The painting across the front of the house between the floors is the Totentanz, or Dance of Death. I would advise googling "Totentanz" or "The Dance of Death". You will find a variety of them. Perhaps even a version of the one in the photo above.

Note the odd-shaped windows (above) in the run-down plaster of the house in the background; they have curtains in them. People living there still? Is the outside worse-off than the inside? The gaps in the wall toward the top could have been intentional or not. Sometimes these floors were used for storage or drying purposes of everything from meats to tobacco. Primitive air vents such as these would have been needed for these purposes and perhaps simply created (improvised?) in later years following construction. Anything is possible.


Above can be seen the Catholic Church of Our Lady (Old City Church), built in 1435, expanded between 1972 and 1974. Part of the church was built in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Tower of the Church of Our Lady

Getting there

From Karlsruhe Main Station:

Local trains run from the front of the station or one of the platforms within the station. The S31/S32 runs from within, but you will need to transfer at the next stop which is Karlsruhe-Durlach station (about 5 minutes away from KA main station). 

If you leave on the S4 from outside the front of Karlsruhe's main station, you will not need to change trains, but the journey will take you 8-15 minutes longer, as it must go through Karlsruhe city and all stops in between to get to Durlach, where you would change trains if you take the S31/S32 from within the station. Your choice. The ticket cost is the same. 

In total, the trip is anywhere from 58 minutes to 1:15 minutes, depending on the local train you choose to begin the journey.

Get off at Eppingen station (Bahnhof), and the Old Town will be visible to you toward the left once you are out in front of the train station building itself. Not even a 10 minute walk.

By car: get a navigator or a good old map because I only travel by train, bus, plane, or donkey. 


Safe travels and make sure you have enough battery in your mobile phones to take all the photos you desire. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Ettlingen - that pretty town near Karlsruhe where Napoleon once slept

Ettlingen is approximately 10 kilometers by bike from my home in Durlach, which means little less than 30 minutes at my rate of pedaling. The bike path is clearly laid out with good signage, is quite easy (with a few minor inclines and fun dips) and altogether a lovely ride which takes me through wooded area and strawberry fields along the way. 

Together with Durlach and Heidelberg, as well as many other communities on the right bank of the Rhine River across from French Alsace, Ettlingen suffered almost total destruction by fire at the hands of Louis XIV's troops during the Nine Years War (known in Germany as the War of the Palatinate Succession). The town's most well-known patroness, the Margravine Sybille-Augusta von Baden-Baden, widow of the famed Türkenlouis, Margrave von Baden-Baden, had the town rebuilt following the war and made the palace at Ettlingen her seat of power in her dowager years. Much of the city owes its present-day charm to the late Margravine.

The Alb River flows directly next to the charming Old Town of Ettlingen

Marketplace with several restaurants and cafés next to the palace
Break from biking: on the wall along the Alb in Ettlingen

One of several bridges that span the Alb in Ettlingen. This is covered and also acts as a dam or weir.

The town of Ettlingen, which today boasts more than 30,000 inhabitants in its greater area, is definitely worth the visit. It doesn't require an entire day just to walk around and enjoy the charm and history, but if you are in the area, you shouldn't pass it up. You can visit Ettlingen and one of any other similar towns in the immediate area if history and early 18th-century architecture are your thing. You will find numerous outdoor cafés and restaurants and possibly also city events taking place in one of the two marketplaces or in the inner courtyard of the palace itself which hosts festivals and musicals.

The St. Martin's church, which is found not far from the Ettlingen Rathaus, was badly damaged during the Nine Years' War. The church predates many of the structures to be found in Ettlingen today. Under the church are what's left of a Roman bathhouse that dates back almost 2,000 years. 

St. Martin's Church is one of the oldest buildings
View of the Rathaus and tower gate.

Main walking street into and out of Ettlingen through the tower gate.

As someone who doesn't often make repeat visits to but so many places, Ettlingen is definitely one of the few destinations that I like to revisit time and time again, not only because it is so close to my home, but the charm and open atmosphere of the town attracts me to it. The clear water of the moving stream in the river is another draw for me and contributes to my feeling relaxed every time I go, even if for only an hour. 

Fountain found in the palace courtyard
Ettlingen Town Hall (Rathaus) on the Alb River

Since I also find half-timbered houses (Fachwerkhäuser) so fascinating, I enjoy biking around Ettlingen's  side streets in search of them and photographing what I find. The town, like so many in Germany, is certainly tourist-friendly, but it is also a living community which adds to its vibrancy. Just like in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, the dwellings are lived in which adds to the charm of these old houses. And as I confess I tend to do, peeking in windows through the corners of my eyes, I can register that these old wooden houses are still alive and are adding new chapters to their histories every day.

Another covered bridge and weir over the Alb near the Rathaus of Ettlingen. Note the birdhouses on the bridge.

A well cared for and restored half-timbered home in
Looking down the Alb River as it passes the Old Town

One of the charming oddities in town, a private home
that may have once been squeezed into any available
space. Zoning may have been lax once upon a time.

Ice-cream shops are rather popular throughout Germany in the warmer months, and it can get pretty hot in Germany these days. Numerous ice-cream shops are also found here in Ettlingen mixed in with the cafés and restaurants along such streets as shown in the photo above. 

Well-marked bike paths and bike-friendly cities are also found throughout the Federal Republic and Ettlingen is no exception.

The tower standing over one of the main entrance to Ettlingen. This gate leads north to the next town, Durlach.

A beautiful example of "Fachwerk" in Ettlingen
Dating back to 1494, the St. George Fountain, protector
of the market place and watering hole, sits in front of the
Rathaus, or City Hall.

If you were to remove the plaster from this building, you would find the original half-timbered structure that it was. 

As mentioned above, the Margravine Sybille-Augusta of Baden-Baden took great interest in the rebuilding of this Ettlingen following devastation from the long War of the Palatinate Succession. By this time she was a widow and would end up living here in the palace (shown below) that was also rebuilt. Roughly a hundred years later, the Emperor Napoleon would briefly call  Ettlingen Palace his headquarters when passing through with French troops once again as they crossed the nearby Rhine during his campaign to attempt to subjugate Europe into his empire. However, on this trip the town was spared destruction.

Entrance to the palace chapel
A side view of the square-shaped palace. This side 
boasts two round towers on its corners. 

A larger view of Schloss Ettlingen The inner courtyard hosts musical festivals.

Pictured above, you can see the beautiful baroque city hall of Ettlingen that was constructed in 1738.  It is made of red sandstone, which is common in the region. The tower to its right straddles the gate that leads directly to Durlach to the north.

Another view of the Alb River

The Market Place just outside of the palace walls, which were behind me when I took the 
photograph (and still are!) You can see some of the many outdoor cafés in town.

Of course, if you are a beer afficianado, then perhaps the Vogelbräu in Ettlingen is a place you shouldn't pass up. Visit all three Vogelbräu sites by bike with the Tour de Vogel (Ettlingen, Karlsruhe, Durlach) in one day, and whichever brewery is your final visit will give you a free beer. Check the link here: Tour de Vogel (only in German). 

This house with its odd roof dormer window has always
intrigued me. There are two floors in that peaked roof.
A later shot of the tower without the scaffolding.

A final shot of the Alb River taken from the other side of the river, with St. Martin's church tower in the background. 

How to get to Ettlingen: 

From Karlsruhe HBF (main train station) - The S1 or S11 tram leaves from out front of the train station roughly every ten minutes in the direction of Ettlingen. It takes about 14 minutes. No passenger trains run there.

By bicycle - Follow signs from the Karlsruhe train station or from Durlach or even from Baden-Baden, located to the south of Ettlingen. Asking the Tourist Info Center, or possibly just about any cyclist you run into, might also give you a good head start. The ride shouldn't be more than 30-40 minutes depending on your speed. maybe even faster? You might be able to lease a DB (DeutscheBahn) bicycle from out front the station as well.

(By the way, The Durlach to Baden-Baden bike route (roughly 40 km.) takes you directly through Ettlingen, and it is a good ride on relatively flat terrain passing through nice villages, ending up in Baden-Baden, which is another jewel of a town to visit! It is roughly the same distance from Karlsruhe main train station to Baden-Baden as well.)

By car -  get a map or use your navigator ;-) It isn't far at all. If it takes a cyclist less than 40 minutes to get there, you shouldn't have long in the car, save traffic problems.

Walking - I certainly do not see why not. You could easily get there on foot and after a nice morning of walking there, you can enjoy a beer at Vogelbräu or lunch at one of the nice outdoor cafés.