If you are a storyteller who writes in the English language, chances are the lore of Germany and Britain (among other nations and regions of the world) influenced you at least a wee bit.
Recently I got to go see some of the places that produced the storytellers who wrote things like Treasure Island and Harry Potter and Demian and Mary Poppins and the stories in the Brothers Grimm and Peter Pan and I could babble on and on….
So here it is: Sometime in mid-August 2011, arrival in London at 6am.
We manage to baffle a seasoned London cabbie by staying in a hotel no one has ever heard of. Check in to our elusive hotel is not till 2pm. Drag ourselves to a coffee shop, where we discover the phone that Sam spent a total of 12,000 hours configuring for European travel (GPS and whatnot) does not work.
Sam’s despair at this discovery:
In an effort to cheer him, I remind him that travel is largely improv and that I have spent countless sleepless nights in various train stations and airports in Europe due to my own poor planning skills. He regards me blearily. I remind him further that I did most of this fly-by-night European travel as a hapless young adult, and that we are considerably more resourced now. He does not look comforted.
We emerge into sporadic rain to walk around until we can check into our hotel about seven hours later.
Without thinking, Sam asks, “Would you like to pop into a shop and pick up an umbrella?” We are both delighted that he has acclimated so quickly.
Anyway. If someone had told me I could saunter along the Thames and see some of the most famous places in the Western world casually popping up along its relatively cramped banks, I would have been stunned. But there they were—
The Houses of Parliament….
Which are all a stone’s throw from one another.
There were other London delights:
Amazing street art….
And the majestic Globe Theatre….
which is about as far away from Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey as my neighborhood post office is from my house. We have a distorted Americanese sense of space, you see, which makes it almost impossible to imagine that such famous historic sites could be sitting as closely together as some houses in my neighborhood cul-de-sac (only a slight exaggeration.) This startled Sam and I to our American bones. (Also I realize my phone-camera HDR has oddly superimposed this man’s face over the brick in the pic above.)
The next day we visit the Tower of London, the duly impressive site of, well, oh so much.
In its early days it served as a royal residence, then became primarily a prison—a fearsome castle with an inner village and lush green lawn where a moat once lay.
In one of the more stunning feats of human narcissism (in regard to the animal kingdom), exotic animals were imported from all over the globe to come stay in the English castle and entertain the royals.
The dogs and lions and bears of the Royal Menagerie were pitted against one another in the animal-version of gladiatorial games to delight the kings. The more powerful the menagerie of royal captive animals, the more powerful the king, or so the mis-informed monarchs believed. Turns out, some of these animals were unhappy and….my goodness…..bit people. In the 1800’s, because of this, the animals were transferred to the Regents Park.
Aside from the heinous crimes committed there against human and animal (the Yeoman Warders are very happy to tell you about the heads that rolled—literally), it was a work of pure wonder. We saw Henry the VIII’s suits of armor, growing successively wider over the years:
After a couple of days in London, we fly to Edinburgh, Scotland, one of my favorite places in the world. I mean, just look:
Edinburgh’s combination of beauty and its animated, warm, cheerful people made it feel like home.
On to the Germany portion of our trip—first to Koln (Cologne) to see the Kolner Cathedral. You simply cannot imagine the scale of this thing. Imagine three of the biggest cathedrals you’ve seen stacked one on top of the other. The most Gothic, dark, rich, haunting structure imaginable. Climbing to the highest tower will win you a view of the awesome belfry, a panorama of the city, and some hard-core vertigo.
Then on to the bucolic little town of Wierschem, where we strolled around our B&B for the evening breathing in the smell of horses and apples and gentle evening. I’m from Virginia and badly miss those smells.
The next day we were off to Burg Eltz, my favorite castle on earth. You enter a dense forest, wind down a path, turn a corner and there it is—tucked into a wild lonely valley, secluded and majestic, sitting on its rock. There is no manic tourist town at its base, no gaudy ticket center, nothing at all—just this timeless castle perched on its stone, surrounded by steep wooded hillsides. It is the Frog Prince’s castle, the castle of anyone who ever wished to retire quietly away and live happily, privately ever after.
Here is what it normally looks like (it was under construction while we were there):
And the inside! It’s not as opulent as some other castles, but its rustic beauty is just what I love. Some of the royal drinking-vessels also make you think steampunk originated here, right here in the bowels of this secret castle. Look at some of the king’s cups:
We drove south along the Mosel River on our way to Freiburg, and had one of those lovely spontaneous moments of seeing a castle on a hillside….
and one of us shouting, “What the heck? Let’s go look at it” and swerving off the road to find this was a castle one can officially tour—Burg Thurant, a mighty but intimate “Burg,” situated above a steep hillside vineyard and primed for battle. The courtyard inside was gorgeous….
and then, up in one of the towers, an actual torture chamber. Imagine—outside, this lushly tended garden rife with roses, and inside a human cage, a rack, a cross, and some horrible poker. Presumably to disembowel prisoner(s).
And in the backyard, a flame thrower. You know, just in case.
It is these moments that put our own history into grave perspective. There was a person in that cage once. And, you know, lots of people in the trajectory of that flame thrower. (Yes, I realize the medieval Europeans are hardly alone in their feats of barbarism, and that this barely compares to the cold remove with which we can deal destruction these days. But I’d never been in close proximity to something as specifically designed to torture as a rack. Within twenty feet of a rosebush, no less.)
Then on to Freiburg for a day, which was lovely.
Freiburg sits in my most beloved place on Earth, the Schwarzwald (Black Forest), where I spent many childhood wanderings and where relatives once told me that garden gnomes come alive at night to creep around the homes of their masters. I love the German word for ancient—”uralt.” And this is the most uralt place I can think of, in a fairytalish sort of way. We hiked, looked down upon glorious vistas, felt removed from time and modern life and like we were the first travelers in some of these enchanted groves:
In Gutach, I raked my toe across a raspberry bush and was needled by thorns:
We tried to take a shortcut back, and ended up surreptitiously trapped in several farmer’s fields and having to undo complicated locks to free ourselves (which we always put back into place) and scuttling down treacherous hillsides laden with more thorny bracken, of the area-around-Sleeping-Beauty’s-castle-variety. Sam’s chivalry was on display as he walked ahead of me whacking down thorns and checking upcoming fields for wild boars (or the Black Forest equivalent, possibly an errant unicorn.) The adventure was a welcome hiatus for both of us from our relatively soft and well-ordered lives; we both fancied ourselves frontierspeople by the time we emerged from the last of the tangled fields bruised, torn, and bloody. We were grinning like idiots and preparing to do the hapless-American act for some angry German farmer. I think Sam almost hoped we would encounter something appropriate to the region, such as a troll or a talking owl.
Then on to Schwangau, in Bavaria. The closest thing to a real and living kingdom, majestic, silent, ageless. An Eden tucked into one small corner of the world, the Bavarian Alps.
My dream is to one day spend a long amount of time there, at least a month or so a year. My head flooded with story ideas, and I realized (painfully) how conducive to creativity environment is.
I get chills just thinking of it.
Then back to London to fly out. Much as I love London’s people, it was a shock to return not only to the English-speaking world but to the manic pace of a city. Sam and I, still acclimated to the pastoral wonders of southern Germany, sat on the Tube and stared at the city dwellers as though they were characters in some slightly dystopian fairytale.
We went to Stonehenge and tried to sift through some of the touristy feel around it to sop up the true glory and mystery of the place. I did learn that one of the sarsens weighs 45,000 tons, which is hardly conceivable, and that 1/3 of each stone is underground. The fields around Stonehenge are peppered with ancient burial mounds. Really, no one knows “haunted” till they’ve been in England.
Many hours and a freezing plane flight later, we alighted into the 110 degree Austin heat feeling utterly dazed. Only just now are we re-adjusting to wide roads, 24-7 pharmacies, the ubiquitous presence of fast food, and front lawns in danger of spontaneously combusting. (As soon as we got back, we watched Sound of Music, Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter in frantic succession, just to help remind us. Soon we’ll do the sensible thing and raid the BBC archives and begin watching German films.)
So. Yeah. It is all the more amazing to read old fairytales, having seen some of the landscapes that inspired them. For me, the tales and stories we grew up with have moved a bit more into the light.