France, Germany, and Spain

Place des Vosges

On Saturday the 24th, I flew to Paris. Like the March trip, I was pumped to be going – clearly, less travel means more excitement. I was getting over a nasty bout of bronchitis, but was mostly healed. We landed about 9:45 on a partly cloudy Sunday morning. I had not been to Paris for more than five years, and I studied some maps before leaving to get reacquainted (I traveled there a lot in the mid-1990s, when I worked on the International Planning team at American). The plan was to take the RER suburban train into the city, leave a suitcase at a train station, and rent a bike at a place I found on the Internet. I slept poorly on the flight, and was a quart low for the first hour in France. Then, as often happens on trips, a switch was flipped and I was back in the travel groove, thinking “this is easy.” I hopped the RER suburban train into the city, and walked a couple of blocks to Gare de L’Est (East Station). There was no good place to change shirts and shoes, so I did it in a corner of the station basement, under the watchful eye of French police toting serious automatic weapons (total elapsed time topless, under two seconds!). Moved my netbook and a bunch of other stuff into my suitcase, and stored it, then hopped the Metro four stops to the rental shop (high point of that short journey was a French kid asking directions, which I provided with a few words and pointing at the map of Metro line 5; I must look approachable and or knowledgeable, because I get asked a lot!). It was all clicking, and I was pedaling and smiling broadly by 12:10.

I brought a good map of the city (I’ve kept them over the years; that one said 1994), and from a start in the eastern part of the center city I headed out on a well-maintained “city bike,” narrow tires, comfy seat, great gears and brakes. I had never ridden in Paris, but had read that the city has worked hard to make it bike-friendly, and from the first minutes it was a joy to be there – special traffic signals at bike height, bike or bike/bus lanes, and respectful (though assertive) drivers.

First stop was the Place des Vosges, reckoned to be one of the loveliest squares in Europe. Then south to the Seine, and west along a road closed on Sundays to all but cyclists, in-line skaters, and pedestrians. Nice. Passed the Notre Dame and Tuilieres, looped around Place de la Concorde, crossed the Seine, and continued west then south, past the Eiffel Tower. Crossed the river again, down some very fancy residential streets in the 16th Arrondisement. Paused to admire a statue of onetime American resident of Paris, Benjamin Franklin, then north to the Arc de Triomphe.

Facade, Petit Palais

Statue of Benjamin Franklin, 16th Arrondisement; Franklin lived in Paris for many years

Everywhere you look in Paris, something spledid catches the eye; here, a bridge adornment

Along the brand-name Avenue des Champs-Élysées

Huge French flag, Arc de Triomphe

I had forgotten how visually delightful and stimulating the city is – truly a spectacle at every turn (the bridges, for example, are works of art). Rode east on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées , then back across the Seine for a good tour of the left bank, including the Sorbonne and other universities. Bought a tuna sandwich and a yogurt drink and had a quick lunch at a small triangular park on Rue Sevres.

Fountain, Place de Concorde

Along the Seine

Velib bikes, Paris. This bold experiment in urban transport allows you to rent and return these sturdy bikes for very little cost.

Stopped briefly at Notre Dame, teaming with tourists, then zigzagged and looped around, making my way back to the rental shop via the contemporary and odd Pompidou Center, and minutes before handing in the bike, a chance to remember: pure serendip put me on the route of an annual march, the last Sunday in April, to commemorate Parisian Jews rounded up in 1942. I could tell that the marchers were Jewish, and had a hunch about the purpose of the gathering, but a kindly older lady – was she a survivor, I wondered – who spoke English provided some details. She was pleased that I knew of a recently released French drama on the detainment and dispatch to Auschwitz and other death camps; be sure to see La Rafle (the Round-Up) when it comes to your city. I thanked her, said goodbye, and told her we would never forget. I was reminded at that moment of Faulkner’s sage words: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”

Detail, front facade, Notre Dame

In front of the Centre Pompidou, a work that reminds us that avant-garde is a French phrase!

It was a wonderful four hours on the two-wheeler. At the rental shop, I washed the grease off my hands – the chain came off just at the end of the ride – and thanked the rental guy for a great experience. Took the Metro back to the train station, and hopped the 5:24 TGV train to Strasbourg in the Alsace-Lorraine, the sometimes French, sometimes German region in the far east of the republic. Within 20 minutes we were rolling along at 180 mph, past bright yellow canola fields, hectares of pasture, and ground either fallow or not yet sprouted. In the distance were red-tile-roof small towns and villages, each with a church steeple. A nice ride, and reminder that France is a big country (we would cover almost 300 miles in a bit more than two hours) and a big farm country. At the places where the tracks followed the highway, we passed cars like they were standing still.

One hour and 13 minutes into the journey, we slowed enough to read the yellow kilometer markers beside the tracks – we had already gone 300 km. – 180 miles. We slowed because the last hour of the trip was on conventional, not high-speed, tracks. The last half-hour was especially scenic, through hilly country, along a pleasant, winding canal, through dense pine forests. The German influence became more pronounced, in place names like Stambach, in the names of businesses along the tracks (“Schmitz,” “Bierstube”), and in village and town architecture.

We arrived Strasbourg at 7:45, and I ambled a couple of blocks to my hotel, the modest Ibis, part of the Accor chain (booked it with the Accor app on my iPhone, way cool). I smelled bad, and the shower was tonic. Fortified, I got directions to Les Brasseurs, a microbrewery and restaurant, and ambled across the compact city center. In no time I was tucking into a slow-cooked pork shank (called a jarret in France), with choucroute (sauerkraut) and fried potatoes, supplemented with white (wheat) and brown beers. Struck up a conversation with a young Dutch guy and his French girlfriend at the next table, a nice T-t-S moment, and started reading a wonderful short story in The Atlantic fiction issue. Ambled back to the hotel, worked e-mail, and tried to clock out. Tried hard.


I must have been overtired or perhaps overstimulated from all that I had seen in Paris and rolling across France and ambling around Strasbourg, and the lingering cold was bothersome, but in any case I slept fitfully. Nothing that three cups of strong French coffee could not fix the next morning. Caffeinated and fortified with a good breakfast, I set off into the old town, specifically the historic district called “Little France,” built around a series of canals off the L’Ill River. A wonderful landscape of half-timbered buildings. It rained in the night, but cleared, and was a lovely sunny morning. One thing I quickly noticed was that people were much friendlier in provincial France – as they are in most provinces.

Scenes from the Petite-France district

I covered most of the downtown, including an amble in and around the red sandstone 13th-14th Century Gothic cathedral, with one of Europe’s tallest spires and some of the oldest stained glass windows in Christianity. Way cool.

Stained glass, Strasbourg Cathedral

Hopped a tram out to the European Parliament (people are surprised it’s there and not in Brussels). The fortified barriers were not welcoming, and indeed the place only admits visitors in reserved groups. I smiled at the news, thinking about North America in recent years – a stranger invited to sit in the Alberta premier’s chair, or head right into the offices of the governor of Wisconsin. The openness of the New World is a blessing.

The European Parliament

Fitting sculpture, European Court of Human Rights

I then wandered around the European Court of Human Rights, a few blocks east, designed by superstar Richard Rogers and opened in 1992. Also closed to visitors. Headed back to the city, wandered a bit more, and at noon walked back to the train station and jumped on a local train to Offenburg, just across the Rhine in Germany. Crossing into Deutschland, the landscape changed a little, more prosperous and orderly. It was good to be back. At Kork, I smiled when I spotted a dachshund barking ferociously at the train, just like MacKenzie would, until its owner yanked her leash. I headed north on an ICE fast train to Mannheim, where I changed trains for Mainz.

At Mannheim, a young German paratrooper in a maroon beret asked if he could sit in the seat facing me; I replied in German. He settled in, and I asked him (in English) how many times he had jumped. Herr Gnädinger said he just began the week before, and had done five jumps. I reached out, shook his hand, and thanked him for his service. He was surprised. I said “we always do that in America,” and he replied “in Germany it is so very different,” and I told him that I knew that. He was headed to a temporary base for training, and was 1 year into a 12-year stint. A nice fellow. The spring landscape was pleasant in southwest Germany, too, especially the vineyards being worked and the apple, peach, and apricot trees blossoming in neat rows.

The train continued to my destination, Koblenz (to teach for a ninth time at WHU the next day), but I got off at Mainz and got on a local train. I checked the timetables and determined that if the local train were on time, it would arrive Boppard, 12 miles south of Koblenz, in time for me to trot down to the dock and make the last leg on the KD, the Köln-Düsseldorfer Rhine (boat) Line. The Transport Geek relished the multimodal prospect!

As we headed north, right along the river, I watched for the boat. The train was running a few minutes late, and I spotted it about a mile upstream from the train station. “Go for it,” I thought, and I hopped off the train, rolled down a gentle hill to the river, and up a couple of blocks. Just in time for the 4:50 departure. The rain had stopped, and it was a lovely afternoon to be on the top deck, in the fresh air, snapping pictures of vineyards on the banks, as well as Marksburg, the best-preserved medieval castle in the Middle Rhine (and headquarters, the boat P.A. said, of the German Castle Association), 500 feet above the village of Braubach. It was a lovely ride, and arriving Koblenz at the dock, not the bahnhof, was fun.

Ambled up the hill to the Hotel Trierer Hof, which looked familiar, because it was the place I stayed unexpectedly in March 2009, when the hotel where I usually slept had locked me out for the night (a true fiasco). Checked in, connected to wi-fi, and headed to dinner at the Altes Brauhaus, one of my favorite places, a simple, homey spot established 1689. I got a dark (Alt) beer and a stool at a small table, with a full view of the place.

I liked France, but it was so good to be in Germany. “These are my people,” I thought (well, okay, 25% of me). I had to pull up the picture of my maternal great-grandmother Ottilie on my iPhone, and smile – and notice that she had the same deep smile creases that I have. A nice inheritance. The beer hall presented the local scene I remembered and liked so well from previous visits, the last in 2008: dogs underfoot (the barmen provide water bowls), five older guys playing cards at a round table, a couple of American tourists smiling and enjoying the scene. I was able to order dinner in German, a nice feeling, and 15 minutes later a nicer feeling when the plate arrived. After a heavy Alsatian meal, I intended to lighten up with herring filets (Omega-3! Omega-3!), but the accompaniments put me back in heart-attack-land: potato salad (you’d call it German potato salad back home, but that would be redundant here!), and something called zwiebelstippe, onions sauteed with bacon. With a couple of bock beers, I was in heaven – and near collapse from fatigue. I walked back to the hotel, and turned off the light at 9:45.

Still life, Altes Brauhaus

Woke to another beautiful spring day, and because my talk was not until the evening, it was a perfect opportunity for another bike ride. Ambled a few blocks to an old-fashioned bike shop (the manager had greasy fingers, always a good sign) and rented a semi-clunker, not as nice as the Paris bike, but workable. I intended to ride up the Rhine, reversing the boat route the day before. It took some zigzagging to find the riverside bikeway, but the detour did take me past the Königsbacher brewery, makers of the stuff I enjoyed the night before (the brewery actually owns the pub).

A wonderful floating and functioning antique, the KD\’s steam paddlewheeler Goethe

The semi-klunker was not built for speed, and I was not in a hurry, but in less than an hour I made it the 12 miles to Boppard, where the day before I boarded the boat – rivers don’t typically go down (or up) hills. I paused for a moment, then decided to press on to St. Goar, another 11 miles. A few miles past Boppard I came astride Christian, a bike tourer from Osnabruck in Lower Saxony, and I had a wonderful T-t-S experience for the next 40 minutes. He worked for a local savings bank, a sparkasse, which led to a conversation about follies, human and institutional, at Goldman Sachs, Citibank, et al. He played the trombone since he was a kid, and was still at it, tooting in two big-band ensembles, which led to a discussion of the joys of music – “I would never have been able to see so much of the world without my music,” he said. I could have ridden all the way to Mainz with him, but I turned around at St. Goar, and was back in Koblenz by 1:20.

Freshly painted buoys

Halfway between Rotterdam and Basel

Bought lunch provisions at a supermarket and repaired to my room for an indoor picnic and a 40-minute nap. Suited up, hopped the #8 bus, crossed the Rhine, and soon was at WHU, and laughing with my longtime host Sandra Bödeker. She introduced me to some new folks, and at six to an audience of MBA students and youngsters from a Master’s of Law and Business program that is a joint venture of WHU and Bucerius, a private law school in Hamburg (established by the founder and publisher of Die Zeit¸ the most influential north-German daily paper). The group was hugely international – Germans, for sure, but also Uzbeks, Georgians, an Americans, Indians, Chinese, Russians, and more. After the talk, Sandra organized a reception, and I visited informally with a bunch of students. Great fun, especially the Uzbeks! Sandra dropped me at the hotel about 9:45, and I was tempted to head back to the Altes Brauhaus for a cold one and snack, but I was plumb wore out and needed to get up very early.

Before six it was. The kind hotel family (Mr. and Mrs. Demmler were always on hand) had fixed me an enormous bag of breakfast goodies: bread, cheese, ham, yogurt, juice, a banana, even a Snickers. I feasted as the fast ICE train rolled up the Rhine, and I was at Frankfurt Airport by 8:05. The white terrier who smiled at me at Gate A2 made me wish I had MacKenzie along for the trip; I do miss poochy when I travel.

The original plan was to teach in Switzerland next, but that got messed up, so I flew Lufthansa to Madrid to visit some friends from Amadeus, the travel software company. It was another clear day, and I could pick out the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc as we headed southwest. I was excited to be heading to Spain – like Paris, it had been several years. Approaching Madrid, I smiled as I looked down on groves of olive trees, like dark green dots on copper-colored soil. Way cool! Hopped on the Madrid Metro to my hotel, changed clothes, and spent the late afternoon with the Amadeus buddies at their main offices.

At six I headed into the center, to the prosperous Salamanca neighborhood, and into Retiro Park, one of my favorite “green lungs” in all of Europe. At the end of a warm spring day it was teeming with activity, and I sat on a bench to take in the scene. I was reminded again of the kindness and civility of the Spanish people – the saxophone busker who stopped mid-song to acknowledge my coins and the large number of people walking their elderly parents are just two examples.

Pleasant apartments, Salamanca district

Street sculpture, Salamanca district

Nuevos Ministerios station, Madrid Metro; the skyline at the top of the image is actually a mural

Madrid\’s street signs are works of art

I was thirsty, and found an agreeable sidewalk café at the corner of Goya and Velazquez (an artists’ corner!). A toddler was just finishing her ice cream, her dad scooped her up and their table opened, affording a great window on Madrid – and an opportunity to reflect on the changes I’ve seen in the kingdom. I worked briefly in Spain as a tour manager in 1973 and 1974, at the end of the awful Franco era, and I did not visit again for 18 years – when Linda and I attended the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. On that trip and the several since, I just marvel at how different it is: freer, more vibrant, more prosperous. Democracy does make things better.

Next stop were a couple of tapas bars near the Puerta del Sol. A Spanish website wrote enthusiastically about a place called Alhambra at 18 Calle de la Victoria. But the street ended before there was a #18, so I turned around, paused, and headed into an agreeable old-school place. Sat down on a stool and noticed that the waiters wore black polo shirts bearing the name Alhambra. Eureka! The young barman drew a large beer and I order chorizo, the tasty sausage. Antonio was friendly, and each of us practiced the other’s language – he asked, sincerely in his language whether I thought his English was better than my Spanish. “Por cierto,” I replied, absolutely certain.

Fortified, I ambled a few bars north to Cerveceria de la Cruz Malta, the Maltese Cross Beer Bar.
As is the custom, the barman brought me a free nibble with my beer. I soon shifted to the front room, where Barcelona was playing Inter-Milan in European Cup football. (As an aside, ya gotta love a team, Barcelona, that has a big UNICEF logo on their jerseys; the Inter-Milan boys’ shirts read Pirelli.). The small partisan crowd was raucous and fun, and I got into it, hollering in English. One can only imagine the frenzy this summer during the World Cup. I contemplated another beer, but instead hopped the Metro back to the hotel.

The Novotel bed and pillow were the best of the trip, and I was soon in dreamland, then up and out the door by 7:30 Thursday, out for a quick couple hours of Madrid look-see before heading back to Texas, in New Spain. At the Metro station, in a lower middle-class neighborhood, I stopped for a coffee and pastry at Café Cris, apologizing to the barista for my poor Spanish. The morning regulars were playing video games, reading the paper, and, almost unique in Europe, still smoking in an eating place. Were it not so damaging, it would seem almost quaint.

Hopped on the train, and started the trek near Retiro Park, walking west past the ornate Palace of Communications and Bank of Spain, dazzled by the Beaux-Arts buildings that so typify Madrid. I skirted the Spanish parliament, the Cortes, pausing to admire the security in a country where Basque crazies still blow up buildings. Last stop was the palace. I sorta hoped King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia would spot me crossing Plaza Oriente and invite me in for a café con leche, but I settled for a cup in the palace coffee shop, admiring the photo of the handsome king above the bar.

Puerta de Alcala

Madrid\’s parks are abundant, and wonderful refuge from city bustle; this tranquil scene was a few steps from honking rush-hour madness

The Metropolis Building, one of scores of Beaux-Arts buildings in the capital

Detail, Palace of Communications

Facade, Almudena Cathedral

The closest I got to King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia: a T-shirt in the Palace gift shop!

Snapped a few more photos, headed back to the hotel, showered and shaved, and rode to the airport. American and the other oneworld airlines now fly from the new and massive Terminal 4, which was truly huge. Navigating its vast halls, I chuckled, remembering my first visit to the aerodrome, stepping off a DC-9 from Malaga and walking across the tarmac on a warm day in October 1973, then boarding a DC-8 for Zurich; those were the old days. In T4, you take a train to the gate, a ride long enough to imagine a “Welcome to Portugal” sign when you hop off!

I was home by 6:45 p.m.

1 Comment

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One response to “France, Germany, and Spain

  1. Hope you picked up the girls’ that fabulous t-shirt of the King and Queen of Spain!!

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