Switzerland From Top to Bottom: A Day Above Zermatt

Nestled at the foot of Switzerland’s tallest peaks is the small mountain village of Zermatt, famous as a starting point for the adventurers and mountain climbers on their way to the iconic Matterhorn. Its appeal to hikers and skiiers alike has granted it special notice on the blogosphere, and while most focus on the infamous alpine skiing, there are some that take a look at the village in summer. Follow their advice and catch a train in summer (cars are banned) and village opens up to beautiful scenery, excellent hiking, and the added bonus of much smaller crowds than the rest of Europe. Whichever time of year you go, though, Zermatt is the perfect place for unique and unforgettable experiences, not the least of which is a day hike through the southern Swiss Alps under the shadow of the Matterhorn.

In Zermatt, I dedicated an entire day to hiking the Gornergrat ridge. A handy cograil takes you to the top of the mountain, though if you are made of the same steely stuff as the Swiss, you’re welcome to hike (or jog) your way up instead. Either way, panoramic views and St. Bernard rescue dogs (which do not, unfortunately, fit easily into suitcases) wait for you at the top.

Even in the heart of summer, the altitude makes sure a couple of feet of snow sticks around.

Once you’ve had your fill of the view (which is, admittedly, hard to do), it’s time to begin your descent. The cograil does offer a faster way down, but for the more adventurous traveler it’s hard to imagine a trip into Switzerland’s alps without any actual hiking involved.

Of course, there are a couple of things to consider: atop the peak of Gornergrat, over ten thousand feet in the air, keep in mind that there will be plenty of snow on the ground, even in the dog days of summer (we went in June, and the first part of our hike was through a good three feet of the stuff). Even more importantly, don’t forget your sunscreen unless you want to spend the rest of your trip roughly the same color as a lobster. Snow glare is an evil thing, and as much fun as peeling the underside of your chin sounds, it’s really not.

Past the snow, it’s an easy hike through some of the best scenery Switzerland has to offer.

As you begin your descent and drop below the high altitudes, it’s also important to remember that while you are not actually in Rohan (as that is, in fact, located in New Zealand), it is still more than acceptable to pretend that you are on the pursuit of an evil party of rampaging Uruk-hai.

Rest assured: rugged as it seems, it’s actually incredibly difficult to get lost up here.

About halfway down the mountain, there’s a convenient rest stop if you need to rest your legs, check the map, or use the facilities. Don’t worry about getting lost; there are plenty of signs, marked paths, and other hikers, joggers, and tourists to help point you in the right direction. Just follow the narrow dirt road, pass under the treeline through a forest worthy of Thoreau’s Waldeinsamkeit, and Zermatt will open up before your feet before you know it.

All photos by Rachel Alvord

Manhattan to Mainhattan: An American Introduction to Frankfurt am Main

Apartment buildings in Frankfurt am Main.

Apartment buildings in Frankfurt am Main.

Summer’s rolled around, bringing vacation time with it. Your passport arrived weeks ago, your suitcase is open and ready to be packed, and now there’s just one question remaining: where to go?

For the burgeoning traveler, Frankfurt am Main is the perfect location.

Located, as you might guess, on the Main River in the German state of Hesse, Frankfurt am Main is a modern city with lots of history. Rebuilt in modern styles after extensive bombing during World War II, Frankfurt is now famous for housing the most skyscrapers of any German city; further benefiting from American occupation and the new found isolation of post-war Berlin, the city quickly grew into a commercial metropolis that only narrowly lost to Bonn as capital of the BRD. Sixty years later, the resulting development of the city offers a blend of western modernity and European cultural history — the perfect mix for someone still testing the waters abroad.

Herzliche Willkommen

Haus der Jugend

When I visited Frankfurt, I stayed in the Haus der Jugend youth hostel, which is conveniently located for seeing much of what the city has to offer. For a quick introduction, however, there are two options for acquainting yourself with the city: the Main Tower, or via river tour. Personally, I found that it’s more than worth it to fork over a couple of euros to hitch the 200m ride up to the top of the tower; with beautiful panoramic views of the city and surrounding country, it’s easy to feel like you’re the Main Tower provides an amazing introductory experience that quite literally lays the city at your feet.

For those less comfortable with the height, however, it’s also possible to stay closer to the ground and cruise the city on a river tour. A warning, though: if you, like me, take this tour soon after arriving early in the morning, after a ten hour flight across the Atlantic, you do run the risk of the warm summer sun, tranquil river, and soothing scenery lulling you to sleep.

 

 

Something Old

Once you’ve gained a feel for the city, the city offers a full list of museums, restaurants and pubs to explore and relax in. Many of them are located close to the aforementioned Haus der Jugend, and the meticulously rebuilt old town (Altstadt) is a great place to get a bite to eat and try some of Frankfurt’s famed Apfelwein (I’ve heard a lot of people describe it as a love-it-or-hate-it drink, but to me, it just tasted like a somewhat sharp white wine. Römerberg Square is also a site of festivities, such as it was when I first visited Frankfurt, having arrived on the morning of Ascension Day. If you’re looking for some of that aforementioned culture shock, I can safely say there’s nothing quite like a couple of drunk Germans standing on tables giving celebratory speeches while you enjoy your first bite of authentic German beer and bockwurst.

Many of the buildings on the square have themselves been around since the early days of the city in the late eighth century, but just around the corner there stands another must-see of Frankfurt: the famed Kaiserdom, the Imperial cathedral in which Holy Roman Emperors were crowned for more than two hundred years.  Admission is free, and if you’re lucky, the cathedral might be hosting a choral concert for you to listen to as well. This church holds a special note of interest for me, as it was the first European cathedral I’d had the pleasure of visiting; it’s not the most magnificent of the churches Europe has to offer, but even so, you can forget what you learned from Hunchback of Notre Dame — seeing the sturdy Gothic architecture and listening to the echoing choir in person is something you can never quite appreciate without experiencing it for yourself.

The famous facade of the Römerberg Square in Frankfurt’s Altstadt.

Something New

In the modern world, Frankfurt has made a name for itself as a banking capital, and while it still pales alongside cities such as London (though not for lack of trying), it still has a strong economic presence. The twin towers of Deutsche Bank stand as an eternal reminder of this fact, as does a monument built to commemorate the introduction of the Euro in 2001. My group had the pleasure of being invited inside the DB towers for a lecture on banking, but as an Arts & Sciences major, I can assure you I remember very little of it.

The city itself is a constant reminder of modernity as well. With roughly thirty structures reaching heights of 100m or more (a massive feat in an of itself, given the swampy, unstable ground the city stands on), streets full of modern apartments, and a heavy emphasis on business and economics, Frankfurt am Main is far from being Germany’s busiest tourist trap. Even with all of that corporate mayhem, though, the city has plenty of its own kooky European quirks which have noted on the web by natives and tourists alike (Faces of the City, anyone?), but even so, when I finally left the city, I couldn’t help feeling a little homesick for it (not bad for someone who had been out of America for less than a week at that point).

A handful of the towers that make up Frankfurt's famous skyline.

A handful of the towers that make up Frankfurt’s famous skyline.

* all photos taken by Rachel Alvord

From Right to Left: Is History Repeating Itself?

Dagmar Bazzoni was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1943. Shortly after the end of World War II, she and her family moved to a Red Cross station in Aschaffenburg, Germany, before relocating again to Frankfurt am Main in 1951. Ten years later, she moved to America where she learned English, started a family, and settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where she still lives today. 

Although she remembers very little of the war itself, Bazzoni’s childhood was defined by its consequences. In this interview, she talks about some of what she does remember, and her fears that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin may be following in the footsteps of Adolf Hitler, the man who led Germany to war in the first place. 

 

Rachel Alvord: Do you remember Hitler and his time in power at all? What do you remember from after the war?

Dagmar Bazzoni: It’s like learning from what your parents talked about, and people talked about, and when I went to school, people talking about it at school. I was pretty young. I was only about three years old, so I don’t remember anything. I was maybe… four years old, in my first good memories. I do remember it was just really bad after the war, there was nothing available and they had to build Germany back up. There was hardly any food available. We were lucky because my dad worked for the Americans, so he was able to bring food home that was stale, that the Americans didn’t want to eat. Stale doughnuts, bread, things like that.

I know, the reason people at first thought Hitler was so great was because he provided a lot of jobs building the Autobahn and so on. And once they realized he just wanted more and more, they started turning against him, but they couldn’t do anything by then.

Do you remember what people said about Hitler when you were living in Austria/Germany?

Yeah, that he just was going crazy, that he just… just wanted power. He wanted to conquer the whole world. More and more people lost their lives, and they just realized it was not going to be a good world, and that they weren’t going to be able to win that war. And then there was what he did to the Jews… that was just horrible. And you know, a lot of Germans tried to help the Jews, and the French, the French helped them too. But you know back then the French, they really didn’t like us. I don’t know about the British, I think they just wished the Americans had done something sooner.

They didn’t talk good about him, I know that. I know my parents didn’t, I know my other relatives didn’t. I know a lot of other people, from what I remember, said if it had been like it was in the beginning it would have been okay, but they said he just wanted more power, more countries, and he didn’t care how many people got killed. They didn’t speak highly of him, let’s put it that way. They really hated him. And I guess that’s why they tried several times to assassinate him. But it didn’t work. Now the people who were higher up, they of course liked him because you know he gave them power. They thought he was God. But the average person did not like him.

Do you think that’s how Putin is now?

He might even be worse, because he’s more sneaky. I really think that he’s gonna be worse, unless somebody stops him. I don’t think Hitler was as sneaky. He was pretty much out in the open, and he didn’t care if people liked him or not. He did what he wanted to do. But Putin is more sneaky about it, and all of a sudden he surprises people with the things he does. So I really think he’s worse. But how much worse can he be than the things with Hitler? You know?

What does Putin do that reminds you of Hitler?

He wants the power, he wants to take more land, and more land, and more land. That’s what makes me think, why can’t he just be satisfied with everything being at peace and having his country and letting it go at that? I think he just wants more and more, and the more he can get, the more he’s gonna take.

How do they differ? Do they differ?

I don’t know, but they’re pretty much the same about having the power and doing what they want to do. It doesn’t matter what other nations think or say, it doesn’t matter. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. I think what’s holding him back now is the sanctions that were put on them, but I doubt that will hold up. I think as long as we get all those other nations together on our side, he’s gonna be a little more cautious. But once there’s a few more countries he can get away from us, he’s going to be like a loose canon.

Hitler did a lot of good things for Germany after WWI, and public opinion of him in 1925 or 1935 was obviously very different from public opinion of him in 1945. Do you think it’s a similar situation in Russia, or do you think Putin’s regime is entirely negative?

I’m not sure about that. I was very surprised, but I think a lot of people were surprised… well, he must have put a lot of people to work with the Olympics and so on, but now I dunno what’s happening. I dunno. I don’t really know how to answer that, because… I don’t know. I think he’s greedy, and he’ll do anything he thinks he can get away with. What surprised me, he waited until the Olympics were just about over, and he started doing this with the Ukraine. It was just planned, it was planned. And the way he went about it was very sneaky, and of course it was wrong. But I dunno how to answer that question. I dunno, he’s just unpredictable, and I don’t trust him.

Do you think Putin has any goals that expand outside of Russia? Do you agree with the claim that he wants to reconstruct the Soviet Union, for example?

Oh yes. Definitely yes.

Hitler used the excuse of Lebensraum and claimed to be working for the sake of German people and so on. Russia obviously doesn’t have the same space problems that Germany did/does, so why do you think that about Putin? What excuse do you think he has?

It’s greed, number one. He probably can come up with any excuse he wants to, of course, but greed is number one.

Is there anything that can be done to prevent Putin from going to the same lengths that Hitler did?

Yeah, our nations sticking together and putting sanctions on him. Now what I really think, I better not say, but… you can put two and two together on that one. Convince him… I think he’s so far gone, he’ll do anything he can get away with. I don’t think there’s any real way to stop him. The only way of stopping him is putting our nations together and putting sanctions against him, unless we go to war, and nobody wants to do that.

Do you know if other people see Putin the same way you do, or is this just a personal correlation you’ve found?

Oh yeah, people I’ve talked to in my German group*, and pretty much all fourteen of us agree on that. It’s just… it’s not good, not good. If we can strip him of his power, that would be a good thing, but how do we go about it? We really don’t know the full story, what’s going on over there. Is he killing people, is he jailing people… who knows? We only hear really what he wants us to hear. We don’t know exactly what’s going on. What he does to people over there… I’m surprised that so many people in the Ukraine signed up to be part of Russia again, that they were so willing to be part of Russia again. There’s gotta be something behind it, some other force, I dunno.

Bazzoni routinely meets and spends afternoons with a group of friends made up of other German-American women to chat, catch up with each other, and apparently, gossip about international politics.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I wish that we could get the nations together and strip him of his power, if that’s possible. He won’t give up his power easily, I know that, but it’d be a solution. I dunno, I just don’t trust him, he’s just too sneaky. And he wants power, he definitely wants power. And he did say something – or I read something in the news about that – that if he wanted to he could bomb North America. So that means he has something there, and I just thought ‘oh, where did that come from, something’s not right there.’ But he knows that if he does too much, there’ll be sanctions and Russia will suffer. If that’s what’s holding him back, I dunno, but to make statements like that? He’s just got something planned, and that’s scary.

Bazzoni and her friends are hardly the first people to draw comparisons between the two political leaders. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble drew a direct line between Putin’s invasion of Crimea and the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938. Though his statements made news everywhere from Germany itself to (perhaps more significantly) the state of Israel, he himself made the connection almost a month after Hillary Clinton did, highlighting the fact that these sentiments are not new. 

It goes without saying that calling Putin the next Hitler is a strong accusation, but the parallels are clearly there for people to find. So what do you think? Do you agree that history is in danger of repeating itself, or do you think Putin’s ambitions will follow a different road?

Unter den Linden: Memory Lane or Path to the Future?

News flash: Berlin is old.

The famous TV Tower and World Clock of Alexanderplatz.

The famous TV Tower and World Clock of Alexanderplatz.

Though far from being the oldest city in Europe (or in Germany, for that matter), this capital still has nearly eight hundred years under its belt. And after standing as one of Germany’s most important cities through all of those centuries, it’s no surprise that some of that history is still clearly visible for those who know how to look.

Some of it is spelled out through architecture. There are the museums on the aptly named Museum Island, home to Berlin’s ancestor city of Cölln (not to be confused with Köln, aka Cologne); the oft redesigned city center, Alexanderplatz; and of course, one of Germany’s most famous landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate — which is itself the entry to an equally historic street, Unter den Linden.

The Berlin Wall was unable to escape Berlin’s obsession with street plaques.

There are also the intentional nods to Berlin’s history, whether it’s the numerous Holocaust memorials, the brick path tracing the location of the Berlin Wall, or the survival of the iconic East Berlin Ampelmann in all of his various forms.

Finally, there are the specific reminders from World War II. Even today, seventy years after the fact, many of the cities older buildings are riddled with bullet holes, or bear larger scars from grenades and bomb strikes. Some of the lesser damage remains untouched as a rough, bullet-riddled facade. In other places, bright new brick, half-finished detailing, and poorly disguised plaster patch-ups stand as stark reminders. And in yet others, Berliners have apparently decided their city is best repaired with Legos.

But even when surrounded by so much of it, are today’s Berliners actually that focused on history?

With it’s status as “the most hipster city in Europe,” plus its vivid nightlife and a strong Jugendkultur (youth culture), the answer appears to be no. In fact, as is the case across the country, most Germans are more interested in the reality of today than they are with the bullet holes of yesterday. It’s a subject that doesn’t appear often in the media — and that lack of media representation is telling enough by itself.

When Berlin’s architectural history does appear on the newsreel, it seems to be more focused on opposition to modern reconstruction of war damage. Reports from Der Spiegel, for example, admittedly describe a populace who are concerned with losing the history, but simply because reconstruction is expensive, disruptive, and in many cases, not really all that necessary anyway.

Even the city of Berlin itself describes itself as an entity which is mostly viewed as having combined the old with the new, with very little time for reminiscing on history. With today’s political and economic environment, Berlin in particular has bigger things for its media culture to focus on. Instead, the city has become a European landmark whose citizens walk among reminders of their past, while keeping their eyes firmly fixed on their future.

So even with all of that history quite literally standing around, there’s really only one type of media that pays any attention to it — and most of those travel blogs aren’t being written by Germans.

Street Wars: Bombing Germany

train

When I first went to Europe, one of the highlights of my trip was the graffiti sprayed liberally across walls, buildings, train cars, and every other feasible surface. Impressive as the completely redecorated Swiss train stations were, the most beautiful and detailed street art was without a doubt in Germany.

Trier: ancient cultural home of Romans and giant beavers.

As German-Way Expat blogger HF points out, it’s no surprise that Germany should be so decorated; it was, after all, home to one of the biggest graffiti canvases in history for almost thirty years. But with the loss of the political and ideological focal point that was the Berlin Wall, modern German graffiti has taken a somewhat different turn.

“Street art is about the audience,” says Graffiti Action Hero. “Graffiti Tagging is about the tagger.” Unfortunately for modern Germany, the latter has, without a doubt, become the more pervasive. Trains in particular seem to be popular targets, with German railway Deutsche Bahn reportedly doling out millions annually to graffiti removal.

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A little owl tag hanging out on a wall in Trier, Germany.

That said, das Bombing (as the Germans say) has begun to develop its own new culture entirely.

Groups such as Graffiti Research Lab Germany (GRLG) have found ways to combine the activism of graffiti with the simplicity of tagging by using technology to intervene in public space. Instead of writing on rooftops, they make their mark through digitized “light-bombing”, or through so-called “throwies.” As the name suggests, these are small adhesive objects found in various forms, and may be thrown at buildings and city structures, as opposed to more traditional spray paint bombs.

Whatever form it takes, bombing Germany doesn’t seem like it’s going to end any time soon. As the New York Times points out, “Graffiti may be vandalism, but it is also celebrated as street art and even regarded as an integral component of Berliner Strassenkultur.”

Kindred Spirits in Sochi… As Long As They’re Traditional

Plagued by everything from exorbitant corruption fees to terrorist threats, the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi have already focused plenty of attention on Russia, for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps most inflammatory, however, was the passage of a bill banning poorly defined “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors;” in essence, Putin has institutionalized homophobia in Russia by passing legislation which criminalizes gay rights advocacy. Although he signed the bill over seven months ago, the resulting fall out has yet to settle, and in many ways, has taken up even more of the limelight than the games themselves.

German National Team — Sochi XXII Winter Olympics

The new law has understandably garnered an outcry from across the globe, with most of the responses being firmly on the side of gay rights. Within Russia, protests have been made by everyone from 14-year old schoolgirls to professional activists; outside the country, they have taken the form of everything from Germany’s fabulous new uniforms to calls for an outright boycott of the games (such as those made by the Russian politically-minded punk rock group Pussy Riot).

To be fair, it hasn’t been an entirely uphill battle for activists. Despite Russia’s assurance that any foreigners can and will (and have) be fined, jailed, and/or deported if found violating the law, international pressures have ceded some acquiescence and the opening ceremony itself ironically featured the work of tATu, a Russian pop duo who gained their fame by feigning homosexuality.

Svetlana Zhurova, mayor of Olympic Village and former Olympic champion

Of course, some are asking what Russia’s political policies have to do with an international sports competition. Former Olympic champion and current Olympic Village Mayor Svetlana Zhurova, for example, has begged spectators and athletes alike not to protest the law. According to her, “we are going to applaud the straight people and the homosexuals just like the previous Olympic Games,” and Sochi is neither the time nor the place for activism.

The Olympics, however, have always represented much more than a medal. Our friends at Google perhaps posed the best argument by pulling up the Olympic Charter itself, and reminding the world of the true heart of the Olympic games: a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play — a spirit which has thus far been sadly lacking under Putin’s tightening iron fist.