Good things come to an end, Part Two

We are about to give up the greatest ground-transport deal going in Europe: Our beloved SwissRail half-pass cards.

These blue translucent pieces of plastic have been with us on all our travels, halving our transportation costs, thereby giving us the endless impression of getting a great deal, and so travelling even more. And more.

In fact, we have been to so many places that my achilles are in a permanent state of near-rupture and my knees are filing complaints daily – because along with train-transport comes trekking a la foot once we arrive at our destination. We love walking, but in this case, the saying “love hurts” applies.

The half-pass, available to Swiss citizens and foreigners bearing a residency card, costs 165 CHF for one year. We handed our 330 Francs over (U.S. dollar equivalent $589,000)* for two cards on April 2nd last year, and through the magic of a rigorous touring schedule, quickly recouped the cards’ cost.

Those happy days are coming to a close as our cards expire in three weeks. To quote Prince Charles: Gloooooom.

As an example of how lovely this card is, our four-hour trip through France’s countryside to Paris cost about 600 Francs for two comfy first-class seats with an elegant supper service. Without our cards, the cost would have been 1,200 Francs. The card extends to bicycle rentals as well, so when we go out for a pedal, it costs us 25 CHF for the pleasure of a day on the bike trails instead of 50 CHF each. Not bad. A quick zip to Bern costs about 30 CHF return for the two of us, instead of 60 CHF. I have not tabulated how much we have saved over the past year, but it has been considerable.

The card can be renewed, but only in 12-month or greater increments, so it is a wash as to whether we will make up our costs by the time we depart this lovely continent in a few month’s time. But if the above math creates this air of sorrow, maybe some more math is the fix. **

Our little town is only 40 km from Bern, about the same distance as Sooke is to Victoria back in Canada, which we used to drive in about 40 minutes.

Biel to Bern via train:             $20 x 2 passengers = 1 return trip @ $30

Sooke to Victoria via bus:     $5  X 2 passengers  = 1 return trip @ $10

Sooke to Victoria via bike:   $0 x (infinite number of pedaling passengers) = $0 return trip ******

Sooke to Victoria via car:      $40 for a tank of gas x (1 to 5 passengers) x (8 to 10 return trips) = Feathers! The Swiss are ripping us off!

Now I feel better.

$589,000 is a joke. All other figures in this post are real.

**All currency in Canadian dollars as it is near par with Swiss Francs at the moment.

*** CHF is Swiss Francs. How do you get a “CH” from Swiss? By calling Switzerland’s currency by one of the country’s many names, in this case, the Confederation of Helvetica. Yes, Swiss Cheese, Helvetican Cheese – go on, make your cheesy jokes. 

**** Switzerland – German: die Schweiz; French: Suisse;  Italian: Svizzera; Romansh: Svizra; in its full name the Swiss Confederation (Latin: Confoederatio Helvetica, hence its abbreviation CH). 

***** In high school history classes, our teachers often lauded Switzerland’s neutrality as though it were the only well-behaved child in a class of fractious European nations. As usual, it turns out closing the geographical gap between us and Switzerland reveals that maintaining neutrality was not a given, but a hard-earned negotiated position. Switzerland shot down both Allied and Axis fighter planes during WWII, and at one point were so sure the Germans were about to invade that they were preparing to literally head for the hills, that is, a portion of the Swiss Alps that they were more likely to be able to defend from attack. There are still people alive here who remember that. 

****** Bicycle travel drawback: It takes five hours to cover the 100 km/h trip, which is a lengthier Sooke-to-Victoria trip through Vancouver Island’s Galloping Goose trail, a trip that is so enjoyable that it is one of the first things I plan to do when I get back to Victoria.

******* I just like asterisks. 

Leaving Leipzig

Leipzig Nikolaikirche, the birthplace of the teardown of the Berlin Wall.

Some bad things have happened to my family in Germany, like European airlines extorting money from us in $500 chunks to let our dog or a bike pass through Frankfurt airport, and then my Dad was arrested there for refusing to be an informer for the Soviets. Tough luck, that.

The Berlin "Wall" as it appeared around the time my father tried to cross into West Berlin.

But none of those things occurred on this trip to Leipzig, so hopefully our bad run with Germany is over, which is a good thing because, gosh, their food is much better than expected, and certainly better than what they fed my Dad in that jail.

Leipzig has some sadly decomposed old grand buildings, such as the Astoria, which are almost as interesting to look at as the medieval quarter of town. The city’s northern outskirts are somewhat depressing, stretching out in decayed old industrial zones perhaps still lagging behind due to Communist rule even 30 years after the Germans gave the Soviets the boot. Nevertheless, the city centre outside of the historic quarter is lined with beautiful old architecture.

Leipzig's Astoria hotel, a grand old dam now in serious disrepair.

Less well-known to North Americans (but very well-known to Germans, I imagine) is that Leipzig was a beachhead of sorts during the Second World War. The Brits and Americans were busying themselves with bombing Berlin, when one night the Germans launched a significant concentrated counterattack, punching a big hole in the Allied Forces air fleet. The next night, the Nazis readied their forces for a repeat performance only to have the Allied fighter planes skirt around Berlin and hit Leipzig hard. It was a shock to the Germans, as the Allied Forces had never gone that far into Germany, and in fact, it was thought at the time that such a distance was out-of-range and safe from airstrikes.

Leipzig also housed a concentration camp. As the Allied Forces moved in, 12 Nazi guards torched a bunker with 500 prisoners in it, many of them Russians and Czechs. As some prisoners escaped the flames, they were gunned down by the 12, and those that escaped the bullets died in the electric fencing. Very few lived to relate the story. It’s the sad and shocking history of Germany, and another testament to the fact that there is no army so savage as a defeated one.

Hard to believe the culture that nurtured those 12 guards is the same one that was home to Bach, Mendelssohn, Goethe, as well as being the birthplace for Schuman. Leipzig still has a vibrant arts community, a university and parks, although I only walked into one park and immediately turned around as it seemed to have a derelict population. Probably nothing wrong, but why take a chance?

Bach statue outside of Thomaskirche where he is buried.

Bach's burial site in the austere Thomaskirche. We hung around outside the building one night, listening to an organ playing. Most of the lights were out, and the church was dark. It was beautiful and haunting.

If I had learned German instead of French, I would know what this inset statuary is all about at Thomaskirche. As it is, I don't know a thing.

Leipzig, a past that is dark and light. An amazing place, and worth the trip.

Lovely affordable Leipzig

I was a little harried after a few hours on Germany's warp-speed highways, but my nerves would soon be settled by fabulous German/Italian cuisine.

European travel tends to have an eviscerating effect on the wallet – it can be very pricy, however, our limited journeys thus far have taught us that getting off the beaten track changes that.

In France, we choked on Paris’s restaurant prices, but in Besançon, a small French village near the Swiss border, we found the architecture stunning and the food just as good at only a smidgen of the Parisian cost. We have not seen enough of Germany to draw the same conclusion, but our three days in Leipzig suggests the trend might continue there.

Along Leipzig’s lovely cobblestoned avenues are scores of open-air cafes. It is possible that some of them served substandard food but we did not find any such establishment.My restaurant advice to anyone visiting Leipzig is this: Dive in. The food will be lovely. If you find a lousy restaurant, let me know. I don’t think you will, though.

San Remos vegetarian ravioli

I dined in the San Remo street pavilion under a towering heater and square umbrellas during a brisk windy day and didn’t feel the bite of the cold at all, so enchanting was the meal, the second-best ravioli I’ve had over the past 40 years (the best was at a Winnipeg Folklorama festival pavilion in a Grant Park arena, where scores of Italian mammas slung out homemade ravioli to die for, this was back in the mid-1970s – since then, I’ve not found any pasta that rivals it).

At San Remo (why are so many good restaurants named San Remo?) at Nikolaistrasse 1, (www.sanremo-leipzig.de), for the meagre price of 8-Euros, you get a fetching plate of vegetarian ravioli with a butter-cream sauce. The pasta’s filling suggests squash, a hint of garlic, and some kind of lentil, although the waiter informed me with his limited English that it was probably chopped carrots that offered the slight crunch.

This restaurant boasts that it won Germany’s best ice cream in 2010, although it is not clear to me what contest gave them this title. Nevertheless, more convincing was the endless line-up that formed at this restaurant’s outdoor ice cream kiosk all day long, no matter the weather. I walked past the restaurant kiosk numerous times in the days that we were there and never saw it wane. And so naturally, I tried out their ice cream for dessert, even though the generous plate of ravioli had left little room. The ice cream had a soft homemade texture and supported the “best of” boast. It was delicious.

We dropped in twice at Bitt-burger, which I think is also on Nikolaistrasse, but might be one block west. It’s famous for its beer and has a distinct Germanic look and name, but has fabulous Italian food. Give it a go. You’ll love it.

Night dining in the rain at "Barf Street" - my translation of this Germanesque-tagged avenue. It is absolutely fabulous. Do not miss this spot if you're in Leipzig.

The entire lane that is regrettably named Barfußgäßchen is packed with restaurants of many types. We had a lovely evening meal there at a place I cannot name, but you could probably safely land at any table and come away gastronomically content.

As always, watch the other patrons to see whether they have any food in front of them, or if they wear peeved expressions – we did see at least one restaurant over which the clientele were casting a foul mood, so we assumed the service would be slow there and kept our distance.

This brings me to a piece of Dave-advice on selecting a restaurant. Besides the above (checking for the demeanor of patrons, as well as making sure there are patrons to start with), he favors going to restaurants populated with middle-class middle-age-and-older clients. He said they’re old enough to not try to impress anyone, they know good food and they’re not inclined to overspend just to say that they did.  It’s a method that has worked for him so far.

Leipzig Zoo, better than you’d think

Two giraffes vie for a choice mouthful of greenery within a few feet of the viewing deck. Zebras and other ungulate species as well as ostriches shared the sweeping pastures..

I’ve been to the San Diego Zoo, the Sydney Zoo, too many aquariums to mention, and all kinds of fun places, none of which makes me an expert on how to rank a zoo, but if I were an expert, I’d rank the Leipzig Zoo way up there.

It is the first zoo I’ve visited that was as intriguing for its landscape and architectural design as it was for the critters that live there. To begin with, taking a quick glance up and down the pathways, you wouldn’t be sure that animals do live there.

That’s because all the enclosures are shielded from the walkways with bamboo and forest greenery. To see the animals, you have to step off the trail and into an auxiliary path, or an enclosed hut that features a soft bed of bark mulch to quiet your footsteps. In many instances, the humans seem more enclosed than the animals, as they view the animals through glass windows, which further dampens the sound of human traffic.

The thoughtful set-up of the enclosures doesn’t end at the viewing platforms. The enclosures themselves are well-treed, and often you see the animals peeking around the greenery, and I’m sure they like it that way.

The giraffe and African plains enclosure differs, and reasonably so. Here the giraffe feeding troughs are placed at elevated heights, putting the giraffe’s heads just a little below a wide viewing platform and restaurant, giving everyone a great close-up of these lovely graceful creatures. The giraffes didn’t seem to mind the gawkers at all and moved about lazily, occasionally “fencing” with their necks over the meal which appeared to be large bunches of parsley. I could be wrong about that, but it sure smelled like parsley.

The Leipzig zoo is worth a visit, even if its pricey. It has endless structures for children to climb, plenty of coffee and food kiosks, lots of benches, shade, and abundant parking one block over.

Adult price: 17 Euros, ouch. That said, by the time I finished walking through the zoo (by the way, I got lost and had trouble finding the exit, so make time for that when you’re planning your day) I did not feel ripped off. It is worth every penny.

Children price: 10 Euros.

Food prices inside the gates: Reasonable. No need to pack a lunch.

Washroom facilities: Plentiful, clean and some are done in funky hut styles.

Time to walk through whole site and see almost everything if it’s just adults going through: 1.5-2 hours.

At an all-out sprint: 35 minutes

With children under the age of 8: Three days (okay, seriously, it is an all-day zoo trip. Plan to be there for 3-5 hours).

Special tip for elephant fans: Line up at the zoo gates before its 10 a.m. opening and sprint for the elephant enclosure once you get through. Do not stop to look at the weird bearded bears. The elephants bathe/swim at about 10:15 a.m. You can watch them either above water or below. It is very cool. They might bathe more often in the summer, but in October, when I was there, they skipped their afternoon bath.

How do I get there? Click here for the map, and scroll to the bottom.

A word to the wise: The zoo features a huge jungle greenhouse called Gondwanaland. Do not go inside unless you don’t mind walking in a slow river of humanity for upwards of 45 minutes through jungle heat and humidity.

Do not turn your camera on, the humidity will mess with its lenses. The path winds through the forest where monkeys swing loose, and if they land on you, don’t make a fuss, just wait for the monkey to move along. There are plenty of signs warning against feeding or trying to interact with them.

Also, beware of dropping bird poop.

The path eventually winds up to the rooftops. It is very cool, but also very hot so I put on my reporter-face and zoomed through the crowd to get the heck out of there. It also features a river boat ride, which looked good if you wanted to melt off about 17 lbs. in 30 minutes.

It all looked amazing, but the only drawback is that it’s difficult to find a shortcut out, although I eventually did do just that. If I had not, my estimate is it would have taken 1.5 to 2 hours to make it through the building.

My only criticism: There should have been more staff in Gondwanaland to direct the crowds. Sometimes it wasn’t clear which way they should go, and certainly it was nigh unto impossible to find an early exit.

You can learn a lot more about the zoo by clicking here. Get your Google page to translate it if it turns up in German or Ukrainian.

Click on a gallery photo to get an enlarged view. 

Morning in Leipzig

When prayer meetings go viral .....

When prayer meetings go viral ...

I’m just back from a two-hour stroll through Leipzig, now seated in our rather functional and tiny hotel room at the Ibis on Bruhl, munching on fresh strawberries purchased at the local open-air market for the amazing price of 1 Euro – about 1/5th of what I pay in Switzerland for strawberries of a similar quality. They are delicious.

A Syrian sold them to me. He runs what looks like a very profitable produce stand, his name may be Mr. Lofo, but I’m not sure about that. He was a friendly chap. Told me he had been in Germany for 15 years, and that Syria is in a bad way. That’s an understatement.

Does he miss home?

Yes, he said.

Would he go back if he could?

Not even a heartbeat passed and he said yes.

Although, he looked very healthy, very well-fed and by the line-up of customers, I would say he’s doing brisk business. His produce was the best stock I’ve seen anywhere. There wasn’t a bruise in the bunch.

I visited St. Nicholas Church – a place famous several times over, first for its association to Johann Sebastian Bach, whose work played and premiered there, and then more recently in 1989 and 1990 when it hosted Monday night prayer vigils at 5 p.m. An innocuous sounding hour and day of the week, but they prayed and prayed about freedom and East Germany’s political oppression.

More people gathered every week, until the authorities did not know what to do, the numbers were so large – reaching as high as 320,000 with some reports saying 500,000, from a city of 600,000. It happened shortly after Tiananmen Square and the possibility of a wide-scale slaughter of the citizens loomed, but the military held back, with there now being some debate on who ordered the troops to withdraw and just watch.

Churches all over reportedly started Monday night pray meetings and the crowds were huge, eventually leading to a spectacular goof-up where a reporter asked an Eastern Bloc bureaucrat when movement restrictions would be loosened and the bureaucrat mistakenly said, “Immediately.”

Next thing you know, Tom Brokaw, U.S. television journalist gets a message that the Berlin Wall is opening, and he broadcasts that erroneous message, which was picked up by the Eastern German population who then flooded and overwhelmed the checkpoints. The soldiers, unsure of their orders did not shoot.

At least, that’s what I’ve gleaned from various sources (media, etc.).

Standing in the alabaster pews of St. Nicholas Church where it began with a prayer meeting, I was struck by a song I heard a long time ago with words that went something like this,

“Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.”

Indeed, not a bullet shot and the wall fell, freedom was achieved. An amazing testament to the power of God.

Christopher Hitchens, my favorite atheist curmudgeon who claims that the world is the worse for having religion in it, can put that in his pipe and smoke it.

Photos to come later in the week. Leipzig is lovely.