freiburg, colmar, strasbourg & tübingen

On our most recent quest to see more of Germany, we got really ambitious and went to France! Ha. Actually, we rented a car and went westward for 3 days, making a little round trip through Baden-Württemberg (the state next door to Bavaria) and crossing over into the Alsace region of France to see a couple of towns there as well.

First stop on our list was Freiburg. Freiburg is just about as far west as you can get in Germany and sits at the foot of a mountain and on the edge of the Black Forest in the Rhine region. Like many of the other towns we’ve visited, the old town dates back to the Middle Ages, and the center is filled with beautiful, well-preserved (or restored) medieval structures. Freiburg was bustling with life on the Tuesday afternoon we spent there – quite a few people were out and about darting across the streets to avoid the noisy cable cars that run a bit chaotically throughout the city. While it felt lively, I thought it had a nice friendly pace in contrast to Munich.

The red building on the left is the Historical Merchants’ Hall of the 16th C.
Famous is the Freiburg Münster – a beautiful cathedral built in the 1200s. It survived the 1944 bombing that destroyed all of the houses surrounding it. In one museum, we were able to see some of the original sculptures from the cathedral up close, which have been removed due to the wear-and-tear of time and replaced with replicas.
Entry portal to the cathedral – the painted carved figures were fun to look at and try to identify from our knowledge of Bible and saints. Unfortunately, you see the net in the picture, which keeps the pigeons away.
A view out of the bell tower of the cathedral’s roof and the town.

One of the things that made Freiburg interesting for me was the mosaics in the sidewalks all over the old town. I eventually stopped taking pictures, but every shop or house had a corresponding mosaic set into the ground outside it’s entrance.

I thought this little girl was cute.
We spent a lot of time just walking the alleyways and “window shopping.” 
After the long day’s journey from Munich to Freiburg, we prepared for more driving and sights on Wednesday, when we headed the short distance to France.
An aside about one thing that made this trip unique: driving in Germany! Julius has his driver’s license, which isn’t to be taken for granted here. Unlike teenagers in Kentucky, who often practice driving before their 16th birthday, sail through their permit test, then are let loose six months later after proving their ability to parallel park (the trickiest!), Germans must wait until they are 18, are required to take dozens of lessons, a first aid course, and theory and practical tests. The whole process costs hundreds of euros. So not everyone even goes through the complicated and expensive process to get their Führerschein. Most of my friends here do not have cars, which also casts a new light on the freedom and responsibility associated with auto ownership for me.
To help with the cost of auto rental, we registered with Mitfahrgelegenheit – an organized car-pooling process by which we were able to off-set the cost of our trip. You post your plan online, receive contacts, organize pick-up and drop-off points with the individuals, and they pay a few euros to ride along. It costs much less than a train ticket for them, made our trip cheaper, and is generally an environmentally-friendly arrangement too. Everyone wins.
It wasn’t too complicated, but we did feel like an amateur taxi service at times. And our trip does look a little more indirect than it could have been given the slight detours we took here and there for our passengers…
Our journey, point for point.
Luckily, Americans are able to drive with their licenses for the first 6 months of their stay in Germany without getting a German license. Since I’m just within the half-way point of my time here, I got to get behind the wheel and revel in the “Fahrvergnügen” – the joy of driving (although our little rental car was not a VW). We named her Frieda, and she carried us faithfully over 1000 km on about a tank and a half of gas. It was fun to drive on the Autobahn, and I did a pretty good job of picking up on the rules of the road without (too much) stress.  
Riding shotgun as we made our way across the border into France.

Enough about driving. Our first stop across the border was Colmar, France. The town was pretty, but we really just swung through to visit the main attraction there, Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.

A corner in Colmar.
One view of the Isenheim Altarpiece – the crucifixion scene is really stunning.

After our short time in Colmar, we drove farther to Strasbourg, France. Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region of France (or Elsass in German), which used to be part of Germany before the war, and has indeed passed between the countries’ control many times. After WWI, the region became French and all-things German were expelled. In WWII time, Nazi Germany conquered the region, then control was reversed in 1945. This makes for a tenuous relationship on one hand (seen in a slight unwillingness of the people there to speak German with us). But on the other hand, creates a culture that is both French and German and neither German nor French… or rather, uniquely Alsatian. While the French language is dominant, they still have a German dialect there, and one can see the German cultural influences in the names of the towns in the region, in the architecture, in the traditional dress, in the presence of a Lutheran church. We were, however, undoubtedly somewhere “other” than Germany. The region’s role in European history and proximity to France, Germany, and Switzerland also make it a key location for European cooperation in political and institutional activities – Strasbourg is the seat of the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and its European Court of Human Rights.

As far as I could tell, this district in Strasbourg called “Little France” was, architecturally, the most quintessentially Alsatian we saw, with its timber-framed houses on the River Ill.

Strasbourg is well-known for its gothic “Cathedral of Our Lady.” The cathedral did not disappoint – soaring arches, the enormous organ and astronomical clock, the stained glass and elaborate sculptures. Really stunning.

A really impressive rose window.

I’m convinced that almost every town or city worth visiting in Europe sits on a river. (That’s because the oldest cities were built on rivers for transport, I guess.) But really. Munich has the Isar. Frankfurt is on the Main. Salzburg sits on the bank of the Salzach. London is famous for the Thames. Paris, the Seine. Bamberg straddles the River Regnitz. The Danube flows through Regensburg. This week we were in Rhine country – and one of its tributaries, the Ill, runs through Strasbourg. There is something simply lovely about a town on the water (and I expect even lovelier when the weather is a bit warmer).

A shot from a bridge in Strasbourg.

After traipsing through the city all afternoon, we drove back across the border to Germany to our Jugendherberge – or youth hostel – in a small town called Ortenberg. There are hostels all over Europe, but the youth hostel system in Germany is really great. You have to pay a fee to be a member, but for very inexpensive rates, you are guaranteed a clean place to stay, bed linens and breakfast without an extra charge, and (from my experience so far) a friendly staff. The hostels host school groups and families as well as individuals, often offering educational programming. Not luxurious, but definitely the “family friendly” alternative to some of the rough hostels filled with drunken Euro-trippers I’ve experienced elsewhere. This hostel in Ortenberg was EXTRA special because it is in an old medieval castle that has been restored over the last three centuries!

A view of Schloss Ortenberg, home to our youth hostel.
Julius and me at the castle gate.

On the final day of our trip, we drove to Tübingen, by way of Karlsruhe and Stuttgart (due to a Mitfahrgelegenheit). Tübingen is a hilly university town, with pretty, traditional houses on a river (of course), an old medieval quarter, and a history as a stronghold of the Protestant Reformation. The Stiftskirche there was one of the first to convert to Protestantism, and the Protestant Faculty – the Tübinger Stift – has been in existence since 1535. That’s just 18 years after Luther hung his theses!

The Stiftskirche rises in the background above the traditional houses on the river.
One of the gates to the Schloss, which is now a university building.

On the way home, we took a dude to Augsburg, then made it into Munich. It was a lot to see in 3 days. The more I travel, the more I enjoy learning about the history and culture of this land. So far, we’ve been to a lot of old pretty places with medieval histories, architecture and art. I’m looking forward to the next journey in a couple of weeks, when I’m off to a place with a most-interesting modern history – Berlin! My friend Ashley will be my first visitor from the States, and I couldn’t be more excited to get to share travel adventures with her!

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