Thursday, May 10, 2007

Act 2 Interlude (Walking in Belgium)

My contract was coming to an end, and I had far too much holiday allowance left over, so I decided to spend four days of it to take all of a bank holiday week off. Three of these days I used for a little excursion into the borderland between Germany and Belgium, south of Aachen. Once again I've made a page of photos to illustrate the trip.

The week was beautiful, weatherwise. I started off on a cool but sunny Wednesday morning from Monschau (see posts passim). My intent was to follow the old Vennbahn railway line further south to its ultimate destination in St. Vith, about 50km away, on foot. After a bracing climb up to a rocky viewpoint, the Ehrensteinley, the path descended into the upper Rur valley. I was now walking the other way along the river that in October had accompanied me to Heimbach. This valley was simply fantastic, and possibly the high point of the whole walk. It was narrow, and green, and there was no road in the bottom, just a track suitable perhaps for cyclists or horses and a footpath. In fact, for those of you to whom this might mean something, it reminded me a bit of the Wye valley between Millers Dale and Blackwell Mill.

The valley soon widened out and came to an old monastery, Gut Reichenstein. Just before this I caught my first glimpse of the railway line as it crossed over a tributary on a small viaduct. soon after, the path joined the track and both met a road which crossed the valley. Here there was a tiny chapel, the Norbertuskapelle, with a little water fountain outside it. On the road next to it, just before the bridge, was a sign warning of "toads crossing" and advising drivers to proceed slowly.

Soon the railway descended into the valley and accompanied me to Kalterherberg, on the border with Belgium. This quiet village was pretty and very rural, and here I looped away from the railway before returning to cross it where it ran along the border. From Kalterherberg station you can hire a railbike, a cunning contraption that runs along standard gauge tracks and is pedal-powered. I'd been yearning to try this out, but sadly it requires at least two people to propel it. I sighed and moved on, rising up a hill and entering a deep swathe of forest. Somewhere within the forest I had my lunch and then progressed across an area of the Venn itself to Sourbrodt.

Sourbrodt had clearly been quite an important interchange for rail, with a large station and goods yard. Sadly the whole setup had fallen into disrepair. I could immediately tell I'd entered a Francophone area, because every yard had a snarling dog, the people regarded me with a surly nonchalance and there was a general air of uncaring decrepitude about the place. From Sourbrodt it was mostly road-walking as far as Waimes/Weismes, with a brief stop for an expensive ice cream and a lemonade and another to munch an apple and gaze over the Lac de Robertville.

In Weismes I stopped to orientate myself (and also to drink a beer). It was an interesting village. The area had belonged to various different countries (France and Germany, mostly) and had only been part of Belgium since the Treaty of Versailles. It also had a history of being sacked and burnt by almost everyone in Europe: the Lothringians, the Burgundians, the French, the Germans... the list goes on. By this point I was knackered, having walked about 28km, and so was not happy to be informed that the place I was staying in was in fact another 3km to the east.

I will not recount my dismal failure to find said place in any reasonable manner. Suffice it to say that I wandered back and forth across the French/German language border, enlisting the help of various locals, before I finally located it. One of them took me for a native speaker, though, so it wasn't all lose. Furthermore, the place itself was gorgeous. A cosy farmhouse in open countryside with incredibly friendly hosts. If you're ever in East Belgium, make sure to go out of your way to stop over there. The food was tasty and filling, the bedroom was welcoming and the prices were refreshingly low. for more info.

The next morning was less interesting, being shorter and mostly road walking, although there was a brief forest interlude. At about noon I rejoined the railway at a place called Montenau. The section of track south from Weismes to St. Vith has been taken up, and is now a footpath/cycleway, although it wasn't shown on my map, so I joined it and followed it south... all the way to St. Vith. I took a stop for lunch and a shorter gawking stop to observe the viaduct at Born, which was built in less than eight months in 1912 for a war railway linking the Vennbahn to the railway running from Luxembourg to Liège. It, too, is disused now, and is in a poor state of repair, but is still a fine sight. That afternoon I took it slow and visited a museum in the old station building in St. Vith, including a magnificent exhibition all about the Vennbahn itself, which was wonderfully illuminating.

I'd been planning to go further the next day, but decided against it, because I didn't have the map, the weather was changing, my foot was jiggered and I'd been sunburnt to a crisp. Instead I had a slow morning sitting and reading in St. Vith and then got the bus to Malmedy. This city, including its cathedral and treasury, was quite impressive, and I spet a pleasant afternoon there before getting another bus to Trois Ponts. Trois Ponts is in the Ardennes, and has many more than three bridges. It is also on the line linking Luxembourg and Liège, so I was able to catch the train I had originally been planning to catch, which turned out to be a loco-pulled compartment train. A waffle, a Thalys, a döner kebab and another bus later I was home.

No rest for the wicked, though, as the next day I had to be outside the company gates at 8:15am to get on the "KulTour" bus which was to take me around Belgian Limburg. (Yes, I know, it's a hard life.) We visited the castle complex at Alden Biesen, former seat of the Teutonic Order. Next up were the wine-makers at Genoels-Elderen, then we stopped for lunch at a restaurant. Our final stop-off was in the "white town" of Thorn, a lot further north. Here the church had been closed for the evening, there were no public toilets to be found, and the centre of the town had been cordoned off because there was an arty-crafty market going on. Visitors had to pay € 4 to enter. I was unimpressed.

All in all, however, it was a nice day out, and I returned tired but satisfied having made a couple of new acquaintances in the company.

Only four full days left at work, now... and I'm returning to England on the 22nd, so my next post is likely to round off Act 2. Yep, Act 2 consisted entirely of interludes. But remember: all work and no interludes makes George a dull blogger.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Act 2 Interlude (Family Visit)

So! Much, much later, I finally get around to blogging about the family coming to visit. Instead of posting the photos here and clogging up your connection, I'll just link you to this page, which contains some of the best photos of the week.

All in all, I think Germany did itself proud. I'm recovering from a massive excess of food intake during the whole holiday period - but it was good food. Big up to the restaurant of the Haus Press and indeed to many other restaurants. My swollen gut is now having to content itself with shrinking to its normal modest size.

The holiday in itself wasn't much. We went on a few walks and trips to nice local towns, saw what Aachen had to offer (its cathedral and Schatzkammer), and spent one day scooting round three countries on trains, visiting Maastricht and Liège, mainly because we could. But it was all well planned, relaxed and leisurely, and we ate well. The weather didn't disappoint, either. It was sunny, breezy and clear almost all the time they were here - just perfect, really. Thanks to the family for being so nice and accommodating, and also for buying me an immense quantity of food.

Nothing much else is happening here. Fourth interlude - and in about five weeks' time I'll likely be heading back to the good ol' U. K. of, erm, E. But the quiet, repetitive life over here still makes a break from the hectic Cambridge term, so I'm happy to live it out philosophically and return with renewed vigour in October.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Act 2 Interlude (Munich)

Another interlude: this one a visit to the lovely city of Munich, where I spent three months during my gap year (over three years ago now - shocking). This time was different, however, as I was staying in a youth hostel and meeting up with Fi, Munich being a sensible midpoint between Aachen and Kapfenberg. I set off early on Saturday morning, and was hoping that the four-and-a-half-hour train journey would provide me with beautiful panoramas of the German countryside. Sadly it was not to be, as the weather was persistently white all day. No rain, no sun, not even any noticeable clouds. Boring.

The ICE trains provide their own in-train entertainment, though, in the form of a little monitor at the end of carriages which shows you how fast the train is going. I was suitably impressed when it reached the 200kph mark, then my jaw dropped as it powered its way up to and beyond 300kph without even breaking a sweat. (Metaphorically speaking.)

Seeing Munich again on the approach to the station hit my memory like a double decker bus. I think the brain must work in different ways when observing things that it expects to see and when observing things that it expects not to have seen before. I must have travelled the stretch of track between Pasing and Munich Hbf at least 100 times, so it was firmly imprinted somewhere deep in my memory... and when I looked out of the window, expecting to be surprised, I felt the recognition wash through me in an instant. It's a strange feeling.

That evening me and Fi went and explored the town a bit.

This is the view into town from a rather weird building with a rather weird name: the Maximilaneum.

"It's a golden angel on a stick," as I so elegantly put it. Quite, George.

The next day we got on the S-Bahn and travelled out to the south, where there was a lake, the Starnberger See. We walked along it for a while in a leisurely fashion. Luckily the sun was out that day. In fact, it was generally lovely. On this journey Fi showed up my ignorance by asking what the S in S-Bahn stood for. I didn't know (I do now). Do YOU?

Me in a gate in front of the Schloss Possenhofen, next to the lake, where the Empress Elisabeth ("Sisi"), a much-loved figure in Bavaria, Austria and Hungary, spent her childhood.

View along the gangway to a house on stilts on the edge of the lake.

On Monday we tried and failed to visit the Pinakothek der Moderne art gallery. It's closed on Mondays. :( So we went and climbed a church tower instead, the "Alter Peter", in between flurries of snow.

The Frauenkirche and the town hall tower, viewed from the Alter Peter.

Fi on the top of the tower, with the Rathaus in the background.

Ritter Sport Ratings

Thanks to Fi for spotting this one, at the station as we were about to go our separate ways. It's the last of the new spring varieties.

Marc de Champagne Truffle: 6/10
Between Half Dark Chocolate and Amaretto Truffle. It was tasty, and particularly flavoursome compared to the other liqueur varieties, but I don't think champagne has the right texture to sit well with chocolate. I've tried this at several New Year parties with a tub of Quality Street and a few glasses of real champagne, and have always regretted it a short while later. Champagne is a light, uplifting drink, whereas chocolate is deliciously heavy and clogging. The combination of the two is trying to reconcile irreconcilable opposites, in my opinion.

So another wonderful weekend, all told. Thanks to Fi for being excellent company, and to all of you: join me next time for (probably) Act 2 Interlude (Family Visit) (if I don't get round to blogging earlier, that is) (and I almost certainly won't)!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Act 2 Interlude (Cambridge)

Yep, I went back to Cambridge. Nearly two weeks ago, now, in fact. I only stayed a short while, flying out on a Thursday evening and back on Saturday. Luckily it was sunny and pleasant almost all that time. Big shout out to Muso Dave, who put me up for two nights and with whom I went to see a film, Hot Fuzz. A film, moreover, that was damned good. Go to see it if you get the chance. I haven't seen a film as funny since The Patriot, and this one had the advantage of being intentionally funny. We also went out for a meal at a restaurant called the Ugly Duckling. Nice, but the prices were totally unjustified. You cannot charge £5 for a bowl of plain noodles. You just can't.

The next day I had a good supervision and a tasty pasty lunch, and in the evening I joined a group of techies for a meal. I felt a bit out on a limb, because I wasn't a Return To The Forbidden Planet lampie, unlike all but one of the others there, but that didn't stop the conversation being enjoyable and the food from being quality pub grub. The grease-fest was continued the next day, when I joined Omega for a buttery brunch and a good long chat. Finally, I wandered around the Backs for a while, then went to replenish my stocks of books.

The real winner was the transport system, who got my seal of approval. The whole journey went without a hitch, except the last stage, when the train got stuck 2 stations from its destination at 1am and stayed there for forty minutes. It did provide me with one of the more interesting passenger announcements I've heard, though. Liberally translated from the German: "Ladies and gentlemen, this train will be delayed indefinitely due to construction work on the line. If you look out of the windows to your left, you will see a lunar eclipse."

Ritter Sport Ratings

The spring varieties are out now. I've only had a chance to sample two of them, so far, and I figure that there are three... but there's plenty of spring left for me to track it down.

Egg Liqueur Truffle: 3/10
I must confess to never having heard of egg liqueur before tasting this variety, and I'm no better off for knowing. It really felt like drinking raw egg encased in chocolate. Bloody weird, and a bit scary. This one fits into the league table between Lemon and Coconut. Unimpressed.

Coconut Batida Liqueur Truffle: 7/10
Best liqueur variety so far, surprisingly (unless you count Rum, Raisin & Nut). The taste of coconut is very mild, and actually complements the liqueur and the chocolate quite nicely. It's more the texture of coconut that I really can't stand, so I was happy with this combo. Comes between plain Raisin & Nut and Vanilla Liqueur Truffle.

Join me next week for a third interlude upon my return from Munich! (Yeah, I know, too many interludes. But trust me on this one. I could describe the intervening time to you, but it would perhaps be even more boring than experiencing it first hand.)

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Act 2 Interlude (Paris)

Last weekend I scooted off to Paris to visit Jen 'n' David. The Thalys service was used, a rather ridiculous train service that goes directly from Aachen to Paris in just over three hours, only stopping at Liège and Brussels. A good time was had by all, I think. I stayed at David's wonderful flat, and we wandered about Montmartre, the Marais, the Champs Elysées, the Cité des Sciences, the Jardin du Luxembourg and Gare du Nord, as well as having a few rather wonderful meals. Here are some photos:

A door in the Marais. All doors should be like this.

The Geode. A really big, reflective ball at the Cité des Sciences.

David and Jen in front of a red Thing at the Cité des Sciences.

David and Jen being statues at the Jardin du Luxembourg. I also have a movie of this, taken by accident while fiddling with the camera, which is quite amusing. Email me if you want to see it (or, in the case of David and Jen, if you're prepared to pay good money to prevent me from sending it to anyone else)!

David and me looking "pensive" in the Jardin du Luxembourg. David seemingly trying to avoid actually sitting on his seat. There was probably water on it.

This weekend is the closing weekend of the Karneval, an event I mentioned earlier in my blog. Monday is Rosenmontag, a day where, instead of going to work, everyone in Nordrhein-Westfalen dresses up as pirates and Red Indians, gets completely rat-arsed and then lies paralytic on the streets waiting for the police to come and clean them out of puddles of their own vomit. There's also a parade involved somewhere, I'm told. Personally, I'm going to go to work and take my chances with a few translations. Yes, I'm a wimp.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

My Life (in multimedia)

Hello. Since I have no words for you at the present time, I'm instead going to present a view of my life through the media of sound and imagery. Sadly for you, I'm a crap photographer and have pisspoor taste in music. Hah.

First of all, here's a fun meme that I found on Facebook and will copy:

How to make the soundtrack to your life…

1. Open your library (iTunes, Winamp, Media Player, iPod, etc)
2. Put it on shuffle/random
3. Press play
4. For every question, type the song that's playing
5. When you go to a new question, press the next button
6. Don't lie and try to pretend you're cool...

Opening Credits:
Your Time Has Come - Audioslave

Waking Up:
Warm Tape - Red Hot Chili Peppers

First Day At School:
Wish I Had An Angel - Nightwish (haa...)

Falling In Love:
My Immortal - Evanescence (aah...)

Fight Song:
Where Do I Belong - Anastacia

Breaking Up:
Please Take Me Home - Blink 182

Day In Day Out - Feeder

Stadium Arcadium - Red Hot Chili Peppers

Mental Breakdown:
This Feeling - Puressence (oh, that's so appropriate!)

UR - Alanis Morissette

Something To Sleep To - Michelle Branch

Getting back together:
Yellow - Llama Farmers

Losing your virginity:
Cry of the Land - Skyclad (rofl!)

Rain King - Counting Crows

Birth of Child:
La Valse d'Amélie (Version Piano)

Final Battle:
Plasticine - Placebo

Death Scene:
Out of Exile - Audioslave

Funeral Song:
Brother Sleep - JJ72

End Credits:
Svefn-g-englar - Sigur Rós

So much for that. Here are the photos.

My house in Aachen. My flat is the middle balcony on the first floor.

A view of Aachen from the local high point. Although it's more a view of a lorry going along the motorway. Some day I'll figure out how my zoom works.

View the other way, across the fields towards the Venn.

View across the road from in front of my house. Again, need to figure out how to make the zoom work.

Again, view from the high point, this time towards my house across the old quarry that's been made into a sort of park. Finally, something completely different, taken at home on Twelfth Night 2007:

Next year we'll be getting a non-drop one.