Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Panda Survival Expedition

Our tour of the "Deutsche Weinstrasse" in the Rhein Valley got off to a disspointing start as we discovered that we did not have the option of renting a Smart Car, but instead were forced to rent a Fiat Panda. Not a total dissapointment mind you as the Panda definitely offered up high chances of death on the Autobahn. After picking up the go-kart, he followed Frommer's suggestion to head to the tourist office in Worms to pick up a map of the Deutsche Weinstraße (ß = a double s for those not in the know). Unfortunately, we only had directions to Worms, but figured the tourist office would be located next to the Hauptbahnhof (central train station). Turns out, all you have to do to find anything in Worms is drive around in a circle around the giant Schloß (un-fortified castle) in the middle and your destination will magically appear. We were immediately relieved and inspired by our luck of finding it so easily. Those sentiments quickly changed as the staffers in the tourist office had no idea what the Deutsche Weinstraße was and just loaded me up with maps and directions to Mainz - been there, done that, not too much to see.

Armed with Frommer's and not ready to condemn Arthur, we headed for the first town on his description of the Weinstraße and actually found it. Fortunately, we ran into the Deutsche Weinstraße information point - Unfortunately, the staffer did not speak any english, but at least loaded us up with more brochures and maps - in English! Our first stop was at a Weingut (not sure what this means exactly, but they appeared to be little shacks where you could taste the wines of a specific vintner) owned by the Dr. Bürkliner-Wolf family. A very nice woman told us all about their vineyards and offered us generous pours of many different vintages and qualities of Rieslings and even a Gewürztraminer. We met the owner and he promised to look Hans and I up during his trip to the US this fall - a very nice man who produced some great wine.

We moved on from town to town, beginning to think it was a holiday as nothing appeared open. The towns themselves were very picturesque, consisting of narrow, winding streets bordered by black and white wood houses, all in the middle of vineyards sprawlling into the hills on one side, and into the plains on the other. We quickly realized that it wasn't a holiday, but it was still before noon on a Monday and most of the Weingut's probably did not anticipate visitors. We stopped at another Weingut owned by Dr. Deinhard which was not nearly as friendly and whose wines could not compare. The Weinstraße ends at the French Border about 60 clicks north by northwest of Strasbourg and Hans and I were determined to make it to the border so that I could set my feet in France for the first time ever.

To do so, we raced south in the Panda, trying desperately to follow the Weinstraße, but fortunately, the German's inability to post signs in useful places led us on many scenic sidetrips - none more so than our excursion into the hills near Hambach Schloß. We nearly killed the Panda as we encouraged it to keep climbing the graded and windy roads to the Schloß that never appeared. Magically, upon our descent, we re-discovered the Weinstraße and continued south to another Weingut - a roadside shack that was actually being visited by other people. We sampled more Rieslings and Gewürztraminers and also sampled some of the craptastic German reds and a fabulous (I'm talking about wine so it is perfectly acceptable for me to use that word) Eiswein (Icewine). They offered tasteless wines in special world cup packaging but neither Hans nor I was drunk enough to be suckered into such a touristy buy.

Realizing we were running short on time, we made a panda-line towards the border so that we could check out Frakenstein's Burg (a fortified castle) on the way back to Mannheim where we had to return the car. We finally figured out the roads and plowed through the border, which is marked by a giant wooden gate, marking the end of the German Weinstraße and the beginning of the giant sprawls of vines that take over so much of France. We put out feet in France and headed north to the town of Frankenstein, which would require Hans to surgically execute the guesswork route that I tried to piece together from our pile of maps. We succeded, but unfortunately, Frankenstein's Burg - which is said to have inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - was in ruins and did not offer any access by vehicle. The closest we came to exploring it was a view from the straße below.

We did make our mark though and we returned the car just 3 minutes before our deadline. Overall, the day was a success.

I attended the Germany-Italy semifinal yesterday and I am going to the France-Portugal halbfinale in about 20 minutes. I will post my thoughts on them tomorrow after I am able to fully digest them. Of course, that is conditioned on me surviving the night I have planned on the floor of the München train station. Allianz Arena, here I come! Allez les bleus! Go Portugal (I don't speak Portuguese but I do wish them luck - hoppefully this will be as exciting as last night.)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Zie last few days

Mick, Ethan and Ranjan left Germany on Friday, so Hans and I figured we had to give them a proper tour of the Berlin nightlife. The day started, however, with a sightseeing expedition of Berlin and we visited the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz and took in the cityscape from the Berlin TV Tower. Obviously, there were no matches on Thursday. We also paid a visit to the Addidas World of Football which sits right outside the Reichstag. Addidas has built a 10,000 seat replica of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin which has live broadcasts of all matches. We were on hand to witness the unveiling of the Gold, Silver and Bronze boots, which are given to the top goal-scorers (in obvious order). I provided the highlight of the day with a superb free-kick which I bent up and over the wall at the Free Kick demonstration exposition pavillion - yeah, it was boss.

So, the nightlife tour. During our last visit to Berlin, we discovered the Schlemmer Pavillion and some of the Berlin clubs. Because we were all still reeling from our club-night in Cologne, we decided to opt for the bars. We started out at FC Magnet bar, a football themed bar that Hans, Roger and I unsuccessfully tried to locate on our prior visit (that same expedition also saw me take a massive digger as I rounded the corner of an alley trying to chase a cat - Jäagermeister). Unfortunately, we found it this time and it was a massive dissapointment. We made our way back to the Schlemmer for some road sodas but stopped off to have a ping pong match with some kids from Israel. After the Schlemmer, Ranjan's friend advised us to go to White Trash, where we met up with Ethan and Ranjan, and Brent and Nate of ESC fame, and Andy and Matthias - our new mates from Cologne who knew even less about Berlin than us, but did know that the Schlemmer was the best Kebab in town. We ended the night dancing the night away again at another club - coincidentally named Magnet club. It only took Mick 33 minutes to have his shirt off. On the way home, chaos ensued. Hans apologizes to the owner of the 2001 Jetta. I apologize to all of mankind.

Hans and I split ways from the group and headed to Hamburg for the Italy-Ukraine match. We stayed at a true Youth Hostel which was overrun with 14-year olds. Not as sweet as it sounds. We tried to watch the Germany match at the Fanfest, but the Polizei closed the doors as we approached, instead directing us to "the alternative fanfest on the Reeperbahn" - Hamburg's answer to the Red Light District. We only lasted for the first half as the 50,000 people that were packed into a space for 20,000 and the sweltering heat were enough to convince us to retreat to the air-conditioned confines of our Hostel. The school kids and teachers alike erupted when Lehman made the save that allowed Klinsmann to keep his semi-finals or bust promise.

At the match, I cheered for the Italians for about 20 minutes before I wanted to kill all of them. Diving sissies. An Italian guy behind us was awesome though. He videotaped himself signing the national anthem while he sang it into his cell-phone. He would also yell "Shame-O!" and "Handball-O!" whenever the diving italians fell over or the Ukrainians chested the ball. Hilarious. I think his name was Mario and he only spoke the broken english.

After the match, we returned to the insanity of the Reeperbahn where a massive street party had broken out. Thousands of bottles had also been broken in the streets - not flip-flop weather. We partied for a while before being forced back to the Hostel because of their draconian 2 am curfew. We didn't leave before enjoying more Mexican Doubles. In fact, the day should be titled: the Mexican Octouple as we ate 2 Mexican Doubles each!

We woke up severly hungover with no place to go so we headed to the train station and made a platform decision to jump on a train to Heidelburg. We caught the England debacle and watched Les Bleus dismiss the Selecao (as I had accuratley predicted). This morning, because it is again a footy-free day, we visited the Schloss castle in the hills of Heidelburg. We took the train to the Königstuhl and attempted to hike down to the castle, only to find ourselves completely lost after only 20 minutes. We marched back to the start and then took the express stairs down and found the castle in no time. The castle is magnificent, very much intact despite the wars, which begs the question: which bombing ace missed his target? The castle also contains a pharmacy museum and a dwarf that never refuses a drink - explains why he's turned to wood.

We leave for Mannheim today and we pick up a Smart Car tomorrow. We're going to visit some vineyards as we race around the hills of the Rhineland in our glorified smart car. Chances of death - high.