I took German in high school instead of French because I didn’t like it very much in primary school and I was encouraged to take German instead because then I could learn to talk to my grandparents, sort of. They speak a dialect of German called plautdietsch, or, Low German. I did very well in the subject because I used to be great at short-term memorization and aced all the vocabulary quizzes. I took it for only three years and have basically forgotten everything except for a few words and numbers. Every year near Christmas time Herr Toews would play the same videotape that highlighted all the Christmas markets and traditions that occur in Germany at this time. I learned about the Black Santa (Krampus) and Christkind and Weihnachtsmann, about the sausages and gingerbreads you can buy at the market with all the beautiful decorations and happy smiling people. I always thought it would be neat to experience Germany at Christmas because of this video.
Our first stop on our German tour was the small village-like city of Heidelberg. It is famous for its castle and that’s about it. Of course there is the modern part of the city where people actually live their lives but we stayed in the old town at the base of the castle in a cozy little hostel run by a really nice woman named Carmen. It is by far the best hostel we’ve stayed in this whole year. Carmen is a die-hard traveller herself and so knows what a hostel guest needs and wants. Being German, she is also stereotypically fastidious about cleanliness and order. Her hostel “Lotte” is always in spit-spot Mary Poppins perfection, with cozy touches like a lounge room, a bookshelf, sufficient lighting positioned at every comfy chair, adequate kitchen dishes and utensils, a coffee maker with decent coffee, 6 varieties of tea, and 8 different guest books on display with previous guests’ glowing remarks and thanks. After a very trying day of travel to get from Amsterdam to Heidelberg, Carmen saw my face and immediately put me to ease and handed me a chocolate in welcome. A woman after my own heart. The hostel has only a few rooms and each room has no more than 6 beds, I believe. We were with a noisy Russian, an adorable elderly gentleman who dropped his coins and talked a lot, a mousy Japanese woman and later, a noisy Korean girl who couldn’t figure out how to make her bed up. The people you meet in hostels are either interesting or annoying. It was a good mixture I suppose.
To tell you the story of the horrible travel day: it started in Amsterdam at 6:30am arriving at the train station at 7:30am to catch our 8:20 train. We were pleased because we had caught our tram and arrived at the train station in time to have a leisurely breakfast and not feel rushed. Little did we know we would still be there at nearly 10am. We had three trains that day and I was mentally preparing for all of the stressful transitions—one of them only allowed 10 minutes to find our next one on a different platform. None of our tickets had reserved seats (Callum booked the trains months in advance to save moneyand I guess it wasn’t an option to reserve specific seats). While on the platform waiting with all of our heavy bags, our first train was suddenly cancelled. I was like, “What?! What happens now?” We were told by a woman standing near us that the next one would come in 20 minutes. This was no good for us though, because our second train would leave before we got there. The nice woman told us to see the “international desk” to perhaps switch our ticket. We thanked her and left the platform with all of our bags. We went downstairs and tried to find this desk. We couldn’t see it anywhere, so we found a worker near the turnstiles and asked him what we should do. He told us to go to a different platform to take a different train. It would take twice as long but we’d only have to switch trains once, and yes, our current ticket was valid. So, we waited 30 minutes, found the suggested platform, and waited again for another 20 minutes for a train that didn’t come. I asked a worker I found if the train was coming and wanted to confirm our ticket would be good. She said she wasn’t sure when the train was coming (there were a million people on the platform by the way) and no, our ticket would not be good. So we waited all this time for nothing. We went downstairs again, and finally found the so-called international desk. Waited our turn and went up to the nicest Dutch lady I’ve ever laid eyes on. She asked us “What can I do to help?” and this made me insta-cry. I blubbered that we had had a very trying morning and could she help us please? She cooed motheringly to me and asked if I needed tea. She told me to sit down on the couch while she figured out which train we should take. Callum told me later that he thought I was fake-crying to get her to feel sorry for us and give us new tickets for free. Long story shorter, we had to take four different trains to get to our destination.
Everything went smoothly but each transition was stressful because we had to find seats on very busy carriages and once sat in seats that were reserved so had to move. We rolled into Heidelberg at 5pm and found our bus station. We waited for 30 minutes or so for a bus that never came. I then realized our bus would never come because….it was cancelled. OMG! So then we walked around and found a tourist information station. We were told us to go across the street and find the second bus stop as our bus was now leaving from that location. We went for a walk to find….nothing. We couldn’t find it. You might be wondering why we didn’t just take a taxi at this point. We are now at the end of our trip so our funds are kinda running out. A three euro bus ride is a lot cheaper than a taxi. So, we walked back the way we came and were going to go back to the tourist info place when I spotted a single piece of paper haphazardly taped to a light pole that said our bus number. A minute later our bus came. You have to understand it was a long day, it was freezing, it was now dark and I was basically at the end of my patience. Once we found our stop, we struggled off the bus and then couldn’t find our hostel. We walked in the opposite direction to where we were supposed to go and when we finally found it, I was DONE. A very big ordeal of a day and one I hope never to repeat. The cozy hostel was exactly what we needed. And wine.
We had a nice dinner with wine after that and if we weren’t trying to be economical, I would have ordered a bottle rather than a glass.
The next day was much better. We had a leisurely breakfast (included in the hostel—amazing!) and then hiked up the cobblestone path to the castle where we spent a couple of hours just wandering around the ruins and looking out at the view. There is a video of me pretending to be a Disney princess where I am skipping and twirling and if you saw it you wouldn’t be able to imagine the ogre I had been the night before. Of note at the castle is the giant house-sized barrel where they to this day keep wine, and the old Apothecary rooms which were very interesting. Especially the crocodile and puffer fish…
The Christmas market in Heidelberg is very small but very charming. We had a nice bowl of chili with bread, a waffle with chocolate, a gingerbread cookie, and on another day a curry sausage which I very much enjoyed. The iconic bridge was covered in scaffolding so we couldn’t get any nice photos of that, but the town was delightful and I loved how close we were to all of the places we wanted to see. Our second day we took our time leaving the hostel again but made up for our slow start by doing a four hour walk in the forest along a path called the Philosopher’s Walk. We walked all the way up to an old amphitheater where Hitler is known to have given a speech or two. It was a bit eerie being there after knowing that, but the theater was empty when we were there except for two other people who came walking up a minute after we took our photos. It was where the Nazis had rallies and speeches before and during World War II. A piece of history which we enjoyed seeing. It felt good to do a big walk because we haven’t had a ton of exercise since our hikes in Hawaii.
Our next stop on our German tour was the sleepy little town of Baden-Baden. It seemed sleepy to us because it was the weekend and the shops were all closed. Thankfully the Christmas market was still on so we walked through that.
There is not much else to do in Baden-Baden except for the Big. Scary. Thing. To go to Friedrichsbad and enjoy the Roman-Irish bathing traditions of 140 years. It’s a spa with a 17-step experience with hot steam baths and saunas, hot tubs and cool baths. And you have to be naked. I have been 100% against doing such a thing since Callum warned me about the nude rule. I actually thought he was joking. I flat out refused to go if I couldn’t wear my bikini. Then I read about it. I read a blog post that was very helpful by someone named Jenna. I read Rick Steve’s article about it. Once in Baden-Baden and totally bored with the place, I realized it was literally the only reason to come to Baden-Baden. Callum was completely fine and supportive with whatever I decided. After much thinking and even gaining a bit of confidence from my Facebook pals, I decided to take the plunge. Mostly because the day we went it was NOT a “mixed day” but a segregated day, so the women and men were separated and kept to their own sections except for the (optional) central pool where they join together.
There are different package options you can choose when you go to the Friedrichsbad. You can go for the basic, the medium or the full throttle experience. These are my own terms by the way. We decided to go for the medium since I’m a medium kind-of-gal—don’t want to miss out, but don’t want to get crazy. I was VERY self-conscience beforehand because I was convinced that I’d be the dumpy little 30-something-year-old surrounded by tall, slender, 21-year old supermodels who would all point and laugh at me. That was not the case. We opted to go to the Friedrichsbad in the later evening when most people would be out for dinner. There were only about a dozen other women with me and most of them were older than me by at least 20 years, and certainly not super-models. I was the second youngest woman there and by far the only one aware of being in the nude—at first. Everyone else was just “whatever” about it. I immediately felt at ease. It wasn’t much different than being in a locker room at a swimming pool, to be honest, except that instead of peeling wet swimsuits off we were relaxing. I went through each room with intent, following the posted instructions and the suggested timings for each step.
My favourite parts were the hot saunas and steam bath. The hot tub was the third last stop for my “medium experience” and the second last one was a cooler tub with jets. The final step was the (optional) central room with pool pictured below (not my own picture) where both the sexes are together. I skipped this step because I wasn’t comfortable with it but also, it was freezing cold water. Apparently it’s good for your body to experience hot temperatures and then very cold ones. There were two more stops after this cold pool that were EVEN colder but I didn’t do them. I wasn’t in Germany to bathe in frigid waters for goodness’ sake.
All in all I am proud of myself for trying something that scared me. I enjoyed the experience because I was really prepared for what would happen and the two ladies that worked there and attended me were very kind and welcoming. They start out by saying “welcome”, are happy to answer any questions you have, and say you can follow the posted instructions or leave any area that doesn’t feel good.
Callum also enjoyed his time and in fact did all the pools—even the icy plunge at the very end! He was the only one in the central pool when he was there so didn’t feel self-conscience at all, though he’s not one to feel that way ever anyway. We met in the foyer dried and dressed and full of stories for the other person. I am not sure I felt totally relaxed the entire time, but, I can see why it is a place much loved by Europeans that go there. It is designed for complete and utter relaxation and well-being and I kind of like anything that makes people have a little “me time”. I also like that author Mark Twain went there and the facility is proud of it. They have his quote on their website: “After 10 minutes you forget time, after 20 minutes the world.”