A Charming Capital along the Neckar River

Until recently Stuttgart was virtually a blank page for me. Even though my parents and I visited relatives in its suburbs throughout the years, these social calls were usually in connection with birthdays, or my cousins’ confirmations, and did not entail sightseeing. So it was with fresh eyes that I encountered Baden-Württemberg’s capital during my travels this past fall. My aunt and uncle housed and fed me royally, and my aunt also introduced me to her home turf by taking me on a circuit of the city’s center.

Our tour began at the new Central Library, completed in 2011. This fabulous futuristic cube affords Escheresque views on the inside, and a panorama of Stuttgart from the rooftop’s observation platform.

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The town developed in the picturesque Neckar River valley, but is composed of a number of vales and hills. The river climate is conducive to the thriving of forests and vineyards and I was pleasantly surprised by so much verdure and viticulture.

From the library, we strolled to the Main Train Station which was saved a few years ago by citizen protesters from demolition in the context of Stuttgart 21, a controversial public transportation renewal project whose ongoing process has resulted in ubiquitous construction sites. The railroad hub sits at one end of downtown’s main shopping avenue, the Königstraße. Parallel to this pedestrian zone runs the Upper Castle Park with a number of historic buildings.

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We admired the elegant Opera House and the Neues Schloß (New Castle), the 18th century baroque residence of the former kings of Württemberg which now accommodates offices of the state legislature.

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It replaced the neighboring Altes Schloß (Old Castle) whose origins date back to the 10th century, after it had outlived its purpose. Since 1969 it is home to the state museum.

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Like many German communities, Stuttgart was in the crosshairs of Allied bombing during World War II, and was heavily damaged. The two palaces have been restored to their former grandeur, but of the nearby Stiftskirche (Collegiate Church) mainly walls remained, and it was rebuilt with major modifications. Surviving stone fragments highlight the original architecture, and glass panels on the ceiling are arranged to imitate the former existence of a main nave and two side aisles.

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At the beloved art nouveau Markthalle (market hall), which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014, the appealing aroma and appetizing aspects of an assortment of local and international foods provided a veritable feast for the senses.

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Enticed by its ambience and attractions, I returned downtown repeatedly. An amazing 4 story bookstore, Buchhaus Wittwer, with a dizzying array of regional, national, and global titles, and comfortable chairs, kept beckoning. Near this buzzing book hive, I encountered an extensive string of soap bubbles, enchanting to the young, and the young at heart. The shopping district’s proximity to numerous notable structures creates a very alluring combination in the core of the city.

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I was delighted to detect that the Upper Palace Park was only the first in a succession of connected oases of greenery that run like a ribbon through the urban landscape. It is followed by the Middle and Lower Castle Parks, as well as the Rosenstein Park. Miles and miles of non-motorized trails wind through copses and alleys of trees and along scenic creeks and lakes. My stay coincided with a string of sun-kissed days, stimulating to man and animal alike and I relished the brilliant arboreal colors.

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My family also introduced me to additional local landmarks, among them the Max-Eyth-Lake, nestled adjacent to the Neckar. Along this stretch of the river, one of the embankments is steep and covered with vineyards, the opposite gradual, with high-rises. A Black Swan seemed as enthralled by the sights as I.

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In Ludwigsburg, a short distance north of Stuttgart, my cousin and I strolled across the Saturday market and caught a glimpse of the baroque palace and gardens. With more time at our disposal we would have paid the fee to view the annual gourd festival which features artistic cucurbit displays.

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On a stunning Sunday we joined what appeared to be the majority of the resident population on a pilgrimage to the Württemberg, the state’s eponymous hill, where King William I expressed his love for his wife, the Russian Duchess Catherine Pavlova, in a magnificent edifice, after she passed away prematurely. He commissioned her sepulchral chapel in the neoclassical style with a dome modeled on the Pantheon in Rome.

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Its prominent position offers jaw-dropping views of the scenery, similar to those from the nearby Kernenturm (Kernen Tower) in the midst of the flamboyant fall forest.

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I was spoiled by this beautiful Swabian locale, the clement weather, and by my obliging hosts. Stuttgart and surroundings will definitely remain on my travel wish list, and I highly recommend it as a destination.

Click here for the link to the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/charmante-landeshauptstadt-am-neckar/

Nordic Paradise

     Imagine a vast mountain valley at an elevation of 8,700 feet. High hills draped with pine and aspen trees line its southern and western borders, the ridges and rugged peaks of the Continental Divide dominate the eastern horizon, and to the north lies the wide expanse of Colorado’s Middle Park. In this picturesque location in Grand County, between Winter Park and Granby, the YMCA of the Rockies operates Snow Mountain Ranch. From our home in Colorado Springs, we usually travel the 150 mile distance in at least three hours, depending on the conditions along 11,300 foot Berthoud Pass.

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     During a typical winter, the countryside is clad in coverlets of snow. Pole Creek and its tributaries crisscross the flatter terrain and murmur gently under a shield of ice. Rows of willow thickets thrive in low-lying areas. Stripped of leaves at this time of year, their branches luminesce in shades of olive, orange and claret in the slanting sunlight. When clouds are absent or scarce, frozen hexagons sparkle in Colorado’s intense sun, and the Rockies’ version of alpenglow greets us at dawn and dusk, painting the sky and mountaintops in various hues of gold and red and purple. While we delight in the calm and clear days and enjoy quietly falling flakes, occasionally we deal with notorious blasts measuring up to 45 miles per hour which turn the sprawling basin into a wind tunnel whirling with horizontal crystals.

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     Snow Mountain Ranch offers a choice of accommodations: unheated yurts (you may bring your own electric radiator), three different lodges with rooms that sleep up to eight (with one single bathroom), and cabins with two to multiple bed- and bathrooms. Compared to other ski resorts, the prices are very competitive (see website for detailed information). We appreciate that our lodging fees include access to the Nordic Center with up to 100 kilometers of well-groomed ski and snowshoe trails, varying from easy to expert. In recent years, a course for fat mountain bikes has also been added. A multitude of additional family-friendly activities are available daily, such as tubing, skating, swimming, and archery.

     One of my favorite destinations on skis is Columbine Point. This overlook affords views of the Continental Divide in the distance and, closer at hand, of Gaylord Reservoir, nestled at the foot of Snow Mountain, the Ranch’s namesake. The scenic spot is home to many aspen, our state’s most emblematic trees whose cream-colored trunks bifurcate into ever more delicate twigs, forming a reticular pattern that contrasts charmingly with Colorado’s cerulean skies. This inspiring site has spawned the construction of an open-air chapel and has become a favorite for outdoor wedding ceremonies in warmer months.

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     The Just and Rowley homesteads, which are still visible and visitable, recall some of the area’s first settlers. The YMCA purchased this land from the Just family in 1966 who had owned it since the 1890s. I try to picture what life in a log cabin would have resembled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, without close neighbors, electricity, and indoor plumbing. The pioneers’ life was dominated by hard physical labor, if not hardship. I hope they marveled at the majesty of their environs nonetheless and, at the risk of sounding overly romantic, I envy their connection to Mother Nature and her rhythms. To experience the melting snow and the return of the first birds in the lengthening days of spring, to savor the extended summer hours beautified by a profusion of wildflowers, to revel in the brilliant autumn days and blazing colors of the aspen trees must have been welcome counterpoints to the cold and harsh days of midwinter, when it would have been most comfortable to curl up next to the fireplace.

     It is a bonus to happen upon the wild denizens of this landscape. Tufts of coarse hair and oval-shaped droppings in the snow foretell the presence of moose, but beholding one of these largest representatives of the deer family, whose males can reach weights of 1,200 pounds. still comes as a surprise. We admire their thick brown fur, pendulous bells, and the bull’s weighty antlers from a safe distance, and make sure never to get between a cow and calf. The fact that these herbivores manage to subsist on dry vegetation throughout many cold winter months is worthy of marvel.

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Occasionally we observe a red fox in a warm, fluffy winter robe, lying in wait for rodents underneath the surface. Squirrels chatter as we pass their territory. Chickadees twitter in the tree branches. The wingbeats and raucous calls of crows, ravens, and magpies pierce the air. Those are often the only sounds, apart from those generated by our own skis.

     We feel fortunate to have found this paradisiacal place. The serene setting, away from crowds of people, and the breathtaking skiing, literally and figuratively, continue to exert an irresistible allure.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/01/19/ein-skilanglaufparadies/

Birding in Germany

It is a stroke of good fortune that my father’s residence is located a mere 3 miles from one of Germany’s 30 so-called “hotspots of natural variety”, islands of re-naturalized habitat wrested from the surrounding agricultural and industrial landscape. They are living proof that nature, given the opportunity, will reclaim its own. Since the regional branch of the country’s largest conservation group (Naturschutzbund, aka NaBu) completed this particular site in Rhineland-Palatinate in 2011, called Rohrwiesen am Seegraben, which could loosely be translated as “reed meadows near the creek bed”, a minimum of 160 bird species have re-populated this oasis, along with additional animals and plants.

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Pond seen from viewing platform

It is formed by a creek, called Seebach, a tributary of the Rhine River, one of Europe’s major shipping arteries. In order to facilitate nautical traffic and to prevent flooding prevalent throughout many centuries, the large stream and its side channels were straightened, resulting in loss of habitat. Once the creek in question was allowed to again leave its prescribed bed and to flood fields, it created ponds and wetlands in the process which attracted numerous resident and migratory birds. A viewing platform and an observation hut invite the nature lover to linger and observe the environs.

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Observation hut in the morning sun

One of my regrets is my non-interest in birding when I grew up in Germany. Except for our frequent feathered denizens, I did not know most by name. I also was not aware of birding enthusiasts, or of dedicated groups, like the one I belong to in Colorado which meets weekly. In another bit of luck, my visit in Germany this past fall coincided with Euro Birdwatch, a continent-wide bird count each October. So when I had the chance to set out with four experienced local birders for this European event at this very hotspot, I jumped at it, benefited from a higher number of avian sightings than I could have reached on my own, and expanded my German vocabulary. Among the rarities I surely would have missed were Dunlins, Little Stints, Spotted Redshanks, and Common Greenshanks. Just thinking of shorebirds characteristically puts me into a state of complete confusion.

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Mute Swan, juvenile

After count day I continued to frequent this serene enclave. One morning, I happened upon a pair of Mute Swans, one adult and one juvenile, still asleep in a pond, seemingly without a worry in the world. Only when approached by Eurasian Coots and Common Moorhen did they pull their elegant necks from under their wings, survey their watery realm regally, and commence their morning toilette.

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Mute Swans, adult and juvenile

A flock of Graylag Geese interrupted the silence as they circled noisily, before landing in a lake where they continued their garrulous chatter.

I typically encountered Great Egrets, Gray Herons, Little Grebes, Mallards, Eurasian Green-winged Teals, Tufted Ducks, Gadwall, and a lone Common Shelduck. Common Buzzards were, indeed, common, but on a few lucky occasions I saw Red Kites and Eurasian Marsh Harriers.

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Northern Lapwing

Cormorants, Common Kingfisher, Common Snipe, and Northern Lapwing also counted among the regulars, and some of the smaller callers were Eurasian Wrens, European Stonechats, Common Reed Buntings, Northern Wheatear, and Great Tits. The latter are among Europe’s most abundant and gregarious little birds, as cheerful to behold as the related chickadees in North America.

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Great Tit

Sunrise and sunset painted the boggy, reedy scenery in warm auburn hues and the air was filled with the waxing or waning of bird calls. I immersed myself in this sanctuary as often as possible. During a previous trip I had learned about the increasing numbers of the White Stork population in Western Europe. This thriving ecological niche was a further encouraging example of what can be accomplished when humans put hearts, heads, and hands together.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/01/11/auf-vogelsuche-in-deutschland/

My 2016 Pulitzer Reading List

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the ever-growing canon of literature. Like many readers, I whittle away at the “classics”, and I am (very) slowly making progress (see my review of Don Quixote), but I also want to keep up with more recent publications. To familiarize myself with “good” American writing, I opted to explore prose which has garnered a Pulitzer Prize, even though several alternative book honors might be substituted as guides to excellence.

Joseph Pulitzer immigrated to the United States from Hungary in the 19th century and became a journalist and newspaper publisher. The eponymous prizes are funded from his bequest to Columbia University in New York. The Pulitzer for the Novel was established in 1917, but was first granted in 1918, and was later renamed Pulitzer for Fiction. Because it was skipped in some years, as of the beginning of 2017, there have been 89 recipients, with the 90th expected to be announced in May. My journey through the Pulitzer realm has been haphazard, as I don’t follow a thematic or chronologic order. So far I have been guided by tomes already in my library. In 2016, I enjoyed the following three titles.

After my acquaintance with A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay about the challenges facing women writers, and her influential Mrs. Dalloway, I felt prepared to immerse myself in Michael Cunningham’s 1999 winner, The Hours. A modern-day re-interpretation of Mrs. Dalloway which bears the title originally intended for it, it is similarly intriguing and disturbing as the original, stream-of-consciousness narrative. The parallel and intertwined stories afford glimpses into the lives of Virginia Woolf, her novel’s protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, transported into contemporary times, and a woman in the 1950s whose perusal of Mrs. Dalloway alters her reality. If you enjoy unforeseen surprises and plot twists, you are in for a treat. I am aware of the 2002 Oscar-garnering movie version starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, but despite this cast, I have resisted the temptation to view it. In the vast majority of cases, I am disappointed by film versions of literary works, and the images on the screen have a tendency to overshadow those that arose in my own imagination.

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The 2015 recipient, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, sat on my shelf for nearly two years, but once I flipped over the first few pages of this story set in occupied France during World War II, there was no putting it back until I had suffered and cried with its main actors, even with some of the bad guys. It revolves around a French blind girl and a German orphan turned radio engineer. Their paths are swept up by the maelstrom of the war, and even though they only meet briefly toward the end, their lives have been interconnected much longer, without their knowing. This book illuminates the importance of characters who are complete human beings with motivations the reader can relate to, even if they prove to be monsters in some regard. As devastating as it might be, it at least left me with a sense of closure and a glimmer of hope.

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Pearl S. Buck who grew up in China thanks to her missionary parents and who went on to become a Nobel Laureate, received the Pulitzer in 1932 for The Good Earth. When I chose it from my collection, I was skeptical about the relevance of a farmer’s fate in pre-revolutionary China, but once I allowed the slightly archaic yet very lyrical language to wash over me, like a good summer’s rain, the leisurely action kept me absorbed. To illustrate humanity’s strength and weaknesses in the destiny of one person is remarkable, as is the protagonist’s insight that, despite wealth and progress, his existence is only worthwhile when lived in closeness with nature, the soil, the good earth, upon which our well-being depends. A timeless truth, and more relevant today than possibly ever. As I have since found out, this opus is the first part of a trilogy, though I have not tackled the sequels.

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Each of these gems is worthwhile to study again, but with only 11 down, and 78 (soon 79) to go, I am open to suggestions for my next read. Also, if you are familiar with any of the works mentioned above, I would love to hear your impressions.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/meine-pulitzer-leseliste-2016/