Archives for posts with tag: Germany

P1020477I’m just back from two very enjoyable weeks in Southern Germany. This time, we travelled through France; starting in Cherbourg and passing by Rouen, Paris, Metz, Strasbourg, Karlsruhe and Stuttgart: a journey of 13 hours. On the way we encountered violent rainstorms, beautiful rainbows and a wonderful “supermoon” as it rose over the fields of Verdun.

A big highlight of the trip was our trip to the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart. It’s a wonderful place to go, even if you are not a big car lover. Daimler AG has an amazing history. In 1885, they developed the first automobile: a contraption that looks more like a horse carriage than a car; and in short order they were manufacturing everything from motorcycles, to tramcars, busses, vans and trucks. It’s a company that is still going strong after 130 years: an incredible achievement.

Next up was Ulm, the birthplace of Albert Einstein and the city with the world’s tallest steeple, the view from which is superb, if a little unnerving. As for Einstein, his family left Ulm while he was still a baby and the apartment itself was destroyed in the War. All that remains of Bahnhofstrasse 20 is a nondescript memorial not far from the railway station.

A day later we were relaxing by the shores of Lake Constance, the great alpine lake shared with Austria and Switzerland. We spent the day between Überlingen and Meersburg, finally taking a ferry back to Friedrichshafen.  Above us, a lonely Zeppelin meandered across the lake – a relic of a bygone era.

The weekend gave me a chance to go up in a glider: taking off from Berneck, high in the Swabian Alps. It was wonderful, and not a bit uncomfortable. In Germany, kids as young as 14 can get a gliding license. It’s often the first stop on the way to becoming a pilot.

Next up was Nuremberg, a city of great fascination to a history enthusiast like me. It was here where Hitler’s great rallies were staged, and here where the remnants of his monstrous regime were picked apart for all the world to see: his henchmen called to account for their crimes. I wish I could have spent more time here, as the city itself has so much to offer, from a grand medieval castle to a fascinating transport museum among many other things. Next time.

The next day I went to Tübingen, a famous university city just south of Stuttgart, home to many intellectual heavyweights such as Kepler, Hegel and Alzheimer. With its many alleyways, nooks and crannys, it’s wonderfully picturesque and captivating.

And then it was over and I was driving back across the German and French countrysides, heading once again for home. The night we left Cherbourg, I caught the most arresting sunset of my life to date. A fitting ending to an marvellous trip.


Here is a short video of our road trip to Germany this year, condensed into three minutes. Just because.

Walking into the hotel was like going backwards in time. The wood panelling, the cubist picture on the wall, the brown leather sofas. All perfect. All preserved like an ancient fly in amber. Here, the 1970’s were still alive. Little consideration was given to the peculiarities of our present age.

We had not expected to stay here. We were in this hotel because our car was undergoing emergency surgery. While driving through the Palatinate forests east of Pirmasens, we heard a bang from the engine. A battery light appeared on the dashboard and I lost power steering. We ended up in a petrol station waiting for the German AA man to arrive. He quickly diagnosed the problem. The alternator V-belt had broken. This was not something he would be able to fix by the side of the road. A trip to the garage was called for. The repair would be neither fast nor cheap. Our plans had changed.

An elderly man was waiting for us when we went downstairs for breakfast the following morning. He was dressed in an impeccable but dated waiter’s outfit. He reminded me of the butler in that perennial German favourite “Dinner for One”. The lady of the hotel, presumably the architect of this situation, was of a similar vintage. She wore a bright orange dress with her hair tied up in a beehive. Clearly, she was a beauty to behold in former years. As we were coming downstairs to check out, we could hear her tapping away at an old typewriter. I wondered to myself what had happened to cause her clock to freeze in time some forty years ago.

The train came to a grinding halt just outside Aulendorf. I instinctively thought that someone had pulled the emergency brake. Two attendants ran past with somber looks on their faces; something very serious had taken place.

In Ireland, a canned statement would follow an hour later, about an unavoidable delay “for operational reasons”. But this is Germany. Here, in this railway line between Ulm and Friedrichshafen, we were told what happened almost immediately. Someone had ended his life, throwing himself in front of the train. When the engine came to a halt, his body was some distance behind the carriages, in a state I dare not imagine.

Sitting opposite us was a rather odd man. He was somewhat elderly. A few long whisks of grey beard intermittently jutting out of his wide chin at strange angles. A few times during the journey, he would turn to us and declare “Es regnet” (It’s raining). Most of the time he spoke quietly to himself. Occasionally he would take out a book, seemingly a yearbook of 2009, read a few lines, then replace it back in its bag. While disconcerting, we paid little notice.

When the train stopped, he abruptly became animated, asking us what had happened, as if we had some special insight into the accident that he did not possess. After being told about the suicide, the man asked us if the criminal police would interview all of us. He seemed perturbed by the prospect.

The train attendant quickly became his object of attention. This young woman, clearly upset by the incident herself, was harangued by the man every time she passed by. He wanted to know when the train would go again. He had to have lunch, you see, in Friedrichshafen. Then, he wanted to know if the train back to Ulm would be on time. No comprehension in his eyes that someone had just died.

Emergency workers and police were now making their way down the track to photo the body and determine the circumstances. He started banging on the window. “When do we continue our journey” he would shout. At one stage, an official pointed to his watch, intimating that we would be going in 20 minutes. It wasn’t enough for the man. He got up from his seat and followed the beleaguered train attendant down the carriage. “But I have to eat in Friedrichshafen”, he would say.

The train finally got underway and we finally arrived in Friedrichshafen. Descending from the train, he started shouting at other passengers. “Out of my way” he would yell, at one stage adding an racial expletive to a black man ascending the steps. He barked another order at an elderly woman in crutches at the doorway of the station.

Then he was gone, presumably to eat a rushed lunch, harassing some unfortunate waiter or waitress in the process; oblivious to what had happened or to how other people might perceive him. A strange man indeed.

This blog entry was written to accompany my podcast for the September 5, 2010 broadcast of the 365 Days of Astronomy. The podcast can be listened to here.

One of the high points of my stay in Germany recently was a visit I made to Nördlingen on the border between the provinces of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. It’s a beautiful place. It is enclosed by a defensive wall that dates back to the 14th Century – there are only three towns in Germany with this claim to fame. All the buildings are full of character. The town was the site of two battles during the Thirty Years War and were it not for the cars and the shops, you could easily imagine yourself in another time, another era.

But beautiful and all though the town is, this is not the reason I went there. It’s Nordlingen’s surroundings that interested me the most. The town is located in a region known as the Ries: a round, flat plain with an approximate diameter of around 23 km (15 miles).  This area is quite different to the surrounding countryside as the following scale model clearly indicates.

For many centuries, the prevailing idea about how this geological feature came to be was that it was an ancient volcanic caldera. The trouble was that much of the boulders and debris surrounding the  region were of non-volcanic origin. Many ideas were presented as to how this material got there, but it’s didn’t fully add up. The origins of the Ries remained controversial until fifty years ago.

Enter Eugene “Gene” Shoemaker. Gene was an astronomer and he had a few questions. When he looked at the Moon he saw a landscape quite different to the Earth. Everywhere on the Moon he saw craters. Big craters, small craters, enormous craters. Why then was the Earth practically devoid of them? Was it credible that the Moon could be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous impacts while its larger sister, our planetary home, missed them all? He was convinced that the evidence for impact craters must exist on Earth, but where were they all? Gene had a good idea what kind of material would be created when a large object hit the Earth. It was just a matter of finding it.

Gene found the answer in Nordlingen. During a visit to the town in 1960 he became fascinated by the stones of St Georg’s Church in the centre of the town. He immediately realised that the church walls contained coesite, a material only created as a result of a massive meteorite impact. The rock had been mined locally from the Ries. This lead to a simple, stark conclusion. The Ries had been formed as a result of a gigantic meteor impact. “It was the first big impact crater on the Earth that we could prove was an impact crater, and that just changed the whole ballgame”, said Shoemaker.
Here is what we know. 15 million years ago, two large objects, one measuring up to 1km in diameter, crashed into southern Germany. The large object hit Nordlingen. Hitting the ground at a speed of 45,000 km per hour, it punched a hole 4km deep into Earth’s crust, vaporising on impact. The surrounding rocks were compressed to a quarter of their size by the impact and they responded with an explosion measuring 18,000 megatonnes of TNT, hundreds of times larger than the greatest nuclear bomb ever detonated on this planet. An enormous shock wave killed all living things for a hundred kilometers in every direction with devastating effects felt much further afield. A mushroom cloud 30km high was generated. Much of this cloud, composed of melted rock from deep within the crust, subsequently fell back to earth, covering the crater and the region around the Ries with a material known today as Suevite. The church of St Georg in Nordlingen is built from this material.
A massive amount of bedrock was ejected ballistically, forming rocks known as Bunte Breccia. The deepest rocks landed close to the impact zone while rocks close to the surface were hurled over great distances. Some limestone blocks have been found 70km from the crater while glassy rocks known as Moldavites have been discovered 400km away in the Czech Republic.
The 1km deep hole left by the impact became a lake and life returned to the Ries. Over time the lake itself became clogged with sediment and subsequent glaciations flattened out the region into the wide plain we see today.
A particularly good place to see the crater expanse is the Daniel, the steeple of the aforementioned St. Georg’s Church. From a height of 80 metres you can see in all directions the flat, fertile countryside with the hills forming the outer crater in the far distance.
A smaller meteorite simultaneously hit the region of Steinheim am Albuch, 40km away from Nordlingen. While the resulting crater was much smaller – just 3km in diameter – a distinct central uplift remains. Steinheim is a village well worth visiting. There is an excellent little museum in the hamlet of Sontheim im Stubenthal and plenty of well marked trails with wonderful views of the crater.
Rieskrater Museum
Hintere Gerbergasse 3
86720 Nördlingen, Deutschland
09081 273822-0
Hochfeldweg 5
89555 Steinheim, Deutschland

Lake Constance lies at the far southern tip of Germany. It is one of Europe’s “great lakes”, a major stopping point for the Rhine river as it meanders its way from the Alpine peaks to the North Sea. We started our trip today in Lindau, a pretty island town on the north-eastern shore of the lake. From there it was a short boat journey to the city of Bregenz in Austria. We took a cable car to Pfander – a mountain that provided some wonderful views of the entire lake.

Short video below:

Hochgrat is a mountain in Bavaria, 1800 metres high. A cable car takes you to a restaurant close to the summit. The summit itself is a short scramble away. As well as the cable car, the mountain is accessible via a number of well defined walking routes. It was my first encounter with the Alpine Chough, a bird related to our own red-beaked sea crow.

Yesterday I visited Ulm Cathedral in Germany. At 568 ft high, its steeple is the tallest in the world. The sense of space inside the building is quite breathtaking, and the view from the top is, well, you’ll have to judge for yourself how well I coped with it..

I’m finally back from my world travels, having flown a distance of 18,000 km in the past ten days. My travels took me to Texas and Germany with a short stop in London. It’s been quite an experience. I have learned many things, such as:

1) To be very careful when booking flights with British Airways. If you try to change your booking within 24 hours of travel (even if the reason is legitimate, such as a freakin’ snowstorm), they will do everything in their power to stonewall you. I arrived in at 7.30 am into Heathrow and when I tried to get an earlier flight to Stuttgart than the 18.45 flight I was booked on, I was met with indifferent shrugs, middle-distance stares and a definite feeling that I was the bad guy for even daring to ask. I was happy to travel on standby, but that option was shut down straight away. I’m pretty certain that neither of the two earlier flights to Stuttgart that Saturday left with a full complement of passengers, but how could that possibly be their problem? That would be penetrating the bureaucracy, now, wouldn’t it?

2) Texans (at least the ones I met) are mindbogglingly polite and helpful. You could go nowhere without a “Can I help you?” or an “I beg your pardon” coming from somewhere. I have to put in a special mention to the American Airlines ground staff in Austin, who worked from 4 am to 7 pm on Thursday to ensure that all their passengers were taken care of. Almost every flight to Dallas had been cancelled and stress levels were stratospheric, but nevertheless these people worked wonders while keeping their sense of humour intact.

3) German people speak to each other in lifts, even if they don’t know each other. Now that’s just plain weird. Elevators are designed to make you feel enormously self-conscious and inadequate. This talking thing just isn’t playing by the rules.

4) When flying there is only one true currency: access to an electric power outlet. The more gadgets we carry around, the fewer chances we have to recharge. Methinks books are very safe.

5) I can now sleep on transatlantic flights! Actually, I can sleep on all sorts of flights! All they need to do is turn on the engines and pfffft, I’m out. This can mean only one thing. I’m getting OLD.

This morning, at an ungodly hour, I am heading out to the airport to fly to Austin, Texas. I’m excited about it, despite the fact that it’s a work trip and I will be busy in meetings and other work activities for most of my time over there.

Although I have been to the US on dozens of occasions, I have never been to Texas, or anywhere near it. It’s a place that fascinates me no end. Maybe it’s the size of the state, or it’s natural beauty, or the unique personality of it’s inhabitants, I’m not sure. Austin is meant to be a particularly nice city, so I travel full of anticipation.

The journey itself is lo-ong. First of all London, then Chicago, then Austin, which means I will be spending most of the next 24 hours in planes and airports. I will be thoroughly wrecked by the time I arrive in the Lone Star state.

Following my trip to Texas, I head over to Stuttgart for a few days. I hope to visit the site of a huge ancient meteorite impact while there, as well as a small amount of skiing, perhaps. I’ve even discovered a pub there, (Biddy Early’s) that will be showing the Ireland vs France match next week.

So it’s all very busy and international and fascinating over the coming days. Hopefully I’ll have a few updates to share.

Catch y’all later.

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