Thursday, March 23, 2017

48 Hours in Karlsruhe

'What do you want to do in Karlsruhe?', 'Is there anything worth such a long visit there?' my friends asked when I happily announced that I will visit this German city in the land of Baden-Württemberg. I am used with such questions as often friends and acquaintances, many of them born and breed in Germany too, need some time to check on Google the locations I am mentioning as my next travel destinations. I am here in this city relatively unknown in my part of Germany to explore for 48 hours 
My visit coincided with the 14th edition of art Karlsruhe art festival and the central area was jammed by shuttle buses full of artists, critics and simply art lovers hurrying up to the exhibition place. Karlsruhe, an art city? It was a label I didn't find associated too often with this city, but as the art fair is more than a decade old, it seems that I had the wrong bibliography. 
However, while slowly walking the long Karlstraße, I noticed the beautiful entrances decorated with colourful tiles or glass art, which was already a clear sign that the people in this city care about the way in which they live.
Art Nouveau massive buildings added more style to my first walk into the city, with carefully decorated many-storey constructions adorning the side-streets.
In less than one hour, I was gathering more and more visual impressions about the city, and the spring-like sunny day allowed me to add more thoughts while wandering the gardens of the Palace, a classical city destination. Taking the advantage of the sunny day, the city of Karlsruhe is fairly represented on the grass, from small children having their afternoon nap to highschool children playing football or students from the many faculties in the city reviewing their bibliography outdoors.
A couple of minutes later, a new information was added to my travel map: there is a tradition of craftmanship generously displayed at the Majolika factory and museum. From small sculptures to entrance tiles and bowls and plates, the visitors is offered colourful and interesting insights into the local traditions. Now, I know that the beautiful tiles I spotted before were not brought from Portugal or other places, but produced locally.
As the sunny day seems to last more than a couple of minutes - as we experienced in Berlin - so I take the chance for some long walks in the Hardtwald, alongside with many locals of all ages biking, Nordic walking or just walking as we do. As the city is surrounded by forests, the air is so fresh that once, after a couple of hours of rain the air was so fresh that made me feel I am on the top of the mountains. 
Back from my walk, I am heading back to the palace, making a mental note to return later for a serious visit of the modern and antique collections and temporary exhibitions. Interestingly, the building of the palace, in the 18th century, was planned as a very elaborated architectural project. The tower of the palace was situated in the center of the city, with 32 rays - streets - radiating out of it like the lines of a fan, therefore a German nickname of Karlsruhe of 'Fächerstadt' - 'Fan city',
Meanwhile, I continue my first day in Karslruhe discovering streets after streets, not necessarily with a plan. And, as usual in such cases, my eyes are always rewarded with unforgettable views. My camera is having a lot of work to do right now. 
While in the Western part of the city, I notice the classical architecture which applies not only to schools and institutions, but also to houses. 
There is always a reward to the curious mind. While returning to the center, I decided to take a side street and after a couple of blocks I am in the front of a massive entrance to what used to be a private street built at the beginning of the 20th century: Baischstraße. The entire project was the idea of the local architect Hermann Billing Baisch, teacher at the local Art School.
It includes a couple of dozen of big stone houses, with at least one storey, displaying unusual geometrical shapes and excessively decorated, particularly with golden touches. It is a challenging view, one of those moments when the traveler is happy to follow the unbeaten path. 
But besides arts, Karlsruhe is noteworthy also for its interests for the lettres. The elegant Prinz Max Palais, a late 19th century building where Prince Max of Bavaria used to reside, is hosting the Museum of Literature on the Upper Rhine and the Literature Library on the Upper Rhine. The literary society created in 1924, has nowadays 6,500 members, being one of the largest literary association of today's German speaking world. As I visited the city bookstores, I noticed many literary events, including a meeting with an author I like, Donna Leon who had a meeting with her readers at the small bookstore near the train station Schneider-Jung, unfortunatelly the day when I was already out of town. 
When on my way back from Ettlingen, on a tram that seems to be in use since the late 1960s as many others I've seen operating in the city - therefore without a proper facility from wheelchairs or baby carriers, but with free wifi - the name of a station appealed to me: Schloss Rüppurr. As castle hunting in Germany is on my bucket list, I made a stop there, happy to reveal to my readers another hidden gem. But after walking a bit more than expected without anything in sight and asking a local about the location of the castle, I realized that this time there is no reward. The castle, used for bishopry functions, is no more, but my less than 20 minutes visit to this Northern part of the city, close to the Exhibition - Messe - Center revealed some slices of modernist architecture which was a gain anyway. 
If you travel with children, finding interesting things to see and do is a hard task, wherever you are. The Zoo, opposite the central train station, offers a couple of hours of entertainment, in one of the oldest zoos in Germany. Opened in 1865, the huge park hosts 800 animals belonging to 150 species. My little one particularly appreciated the little colourful ducks roaming free on the grass, a view that you don't usually encounter often in the big city life. 
Another local attraction that appeals to curious - but bigger - children is the Naturkunde Museum, situated in Europa Platz.
Karlsruhe is known equally Germany's judicial capital, a place assigned in the institutional architecture following the arrangements taking place in the Federal Republic in the aftermath of the WWII. In this city are located two important judicial institutions: Bundesverfassungsgericht - Federal Constitutional Court - the Supreme Constitutional Court - and Bundesgerichthof -  the Federal Court of Justice - the highest court in the system of ordinary jurisdiction in Germany. The institutions were assigned to this city on purpose, to be far away from the then-capital city of Bonn, in order to guarantee the right balance required by the act of justice, and were kept here after the reunification of Germany. The buildings of those institutions are interesting too. Behind high concrete walls surrounded by barbed wire, the Federal Court of Justice is hosted in a castle-like residence in the middle of a garden, while the Federal Constitutional Court is situated close to the castle, in a cube like construction with high window-walls. 
Since October 2005, Karslruhe has also a Square of Human Rights - Platz der Grundrechte - inaugurated on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Federal Constitutional Court. A project of Joachen Gerz, the aim is to make the idea of rights as a tangible value. 24 Metal squares attached on poles have written with capital letters on one side statements made by legal practitioners, scientists and legal experts on human rights issues, with on the other side statements from people in conflict with the law, 
In 2015, Karlsruhe celebrated with a year-long festival 300 years since its founding and many of the buildings and main sightseeings received a serious lift. But when you want your city to look almost perfect, the work is never over. As my visit was in February and the touristic season was not officially open - except the regular French visitors, as the city is less then one hour away by train from France - many important buildings were surrounded by construction works. For instance, the famous pyramid and the entire marquet square area, including the historical city hall. 
Until the final works are done, the visitors and locals can spend some good time discovering other cultural offers, such as the Badisches Staatstheater, built in the brutalist style of the 1975, serving as both a theatre and opera house, with a very rich repertoire, appealing to many age and educational categories. 
One of my biggest regrets during the intensive 48 hours spent in Karlsruhe was that I didn't have the chance to explore properly the food scene. Except for breakfasts, I tried to use my time between touring the city and visiting locations on my bucket list situated less than one hour distance, such as Baden-Baden or Pforzheim. The city has many interesting restaurants, especially African and Eritrean, which deserve an extensive tasting tour. For one lunch, I tried Viva Heute Vegettarisch, a vegetarian buffet offering a variety of meals for affordable prices. 
If you are a lover of arts, Kunsthalle is a destination that should be included on the to-do-list, with some good hours reserved to explore. It has an impressive collection of Dutch paintings and European works of arts in general, hosted in a classical temple-like building. Surprisingly, paintings considered 'outrageous for the public view' were decently hidden beneath silky curtains, the viewer being told to proceed to cover it after the view. For me, I think it was the first such 'modesty' experience in my whole eventful museum life. 
A couple of meters away, the Botanical Gardens are recommended if you are in need of a walk in the middle of a park made by beautifully organised alleys. 
Back to the palace - operating as a museum since 1921 -, I am spending half of an afternoon exploring the art and historical collections. From history of printing to the famous Black Forest wall watches, there are many things to learn on the way about the Karlruhe and the entire region of Baden-Württemberg. Until this June, an exhibition about life in Egypt during Ramses the Great, is another example of local interest towards the Egyptian culture.
The famous pyramid, for instance, was built following the Napoleonian interest towards the traditions of Egypt. 
At the end of such an intensive cultural journey, I offer myself a food staple from the region, a slice of the famous Schwarzwald Kirschtorte - Black Forest cake. I've tasted various variants prepared outside the region, but I kept being disappointed. However, the one I've tasted at the Palace coffee place, has a perfect melting of the different layers, covered by a very soft whipped cream, and based on a thin and delicious batter. 
There were many other discoveries I made during my journey to Karsruhe: The small Transportation Museum - Verkehrmuseum - open only on Sundays, where I got permission to take fast some pictures outside the visiting hours; the quiet morning streets around Hirsch bridge or the busy shopping centers like Post, hosted in classical museum-like buildings.
Although I only spent two full days in the city, I realized that I just got the taste to come back to see and discover more. Now, that I can coherently asking to anyone asking me: 'What can you do in Karlsruhe', I already have the plan to return any time soon for feeling more like a local than a busy tourist. I am sure there are many hidden gems waiting for me here. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Breakfasts in Karlsruhe

Seasons are coming and going, favorite places are upgraded or downgraded on the bucket list, but wherever I go, there is something that always stays with me: breakfast. I am a big lover of breakfast and I cannot properly start my day without a rich meal, always accompanied by a mug of black, sugarless coffee. Back in the times when I had to be at work at 8 o'clock I was taking up some sweet hours of morning sleep to be sure that I have enough time to prepare my morning ritual, very often the one and only serious and quiet meal of the day.
When I travel, I always try to keep it up with various menus and options, always looking forward to the richer part of the plate. 
Last month, I spent a lovely long birthday weekend in Karlsruhe - with short-time trips to Ettlingen, Pforzheim and Baden-Baden - and wanted to be the early bird catching the (travel) worm. Therefore, I had the chance to test various breakfast options in town, which I am ready to share.
If you just need some fast meal, with pastry and local brezel - you need to try the Baden-Württemberg variant, much tastier than the usual variant sold in Berlin - and maybe some warm quiche, the local network of bakeries Badische Backstub is an affordable and satiable option. 
However, if you are looking for much more, in the Western part of the city, you can enjoy starting with 8 o'clock in the morning a rich Bulgarian morning meal, accompanied by the famous white cheese and local - cottage cheese-filled pastries, at Mama's. They say that breakfast isn't such an important meal in the Bulgarian tradition...
If you are around the Central Station, on the other side of the street, with a view over the pink flamingos from the Zoo, there is my favorite breakfast spot in town: Löwe an Tiergarten. It usually serves the customers of the hotel with the same name, but it open heartedly accepts outsiders too. The prices vary between 3 and 10 EUR. The Swedish buffet has a good selection of cheese, fresh pastry and vegetables, cereals and many tasty local jams. And yes, you can have also brezel for breakfast.
While in Baden-Baden, I made a last stop looking for some famous Schwarzwald cakes, to discover that the Bäckeler Kaffee is also present in Karlsruhe - and in Brühl too, a locality nearby. Their menu for the morning includes many homemade pastry and cheese to fuel your wanderlust energy for the rest of the day. Plus, who can refuse cakes for breakfast, anyway?
During my visit to Karlsruhe, I stayed at Hotel Greif, whose main advantage was the proximity to the train station. It was a neat nice place to spend a peaceful night before going out for the entire day. Their breakfast was booked for additional costs, and wasn't a blast. There was cheese and cereals and fresh orange juice and coffee too, but unfortunately no veggies at all. Maybe my breakfast day was a 'give veggies one more chance to life', who knows...
Among the top recommendations for breakfast in Karlsruhe, ALEX in Post was on the top. It is situated in the busy area of the Post shopping center and offers during the weekend, between 8 and 12 o'clock the option of brunch for 8.90 EUR. The price includes only one glass of juice, as the coffee and the rest of the drinks are paid separately. The balance between price and quality is really fair, with an extensive choice of things to add on your plate - including pasta and olives, fruit and veggie salads - and the breads are tasty and very fresh. 
My only small problem was that the customer service didn't have a good day then, but maybe not anyone knows how important is a good breakfast for a brilliant day. A happy belly and a smile on your face are sometimes all you need for sharing happiness with the others. Especially at breakfast. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Postcards from Baden-Baden

Dear reders, I want to make a confession: I have a weakness for spa towns, entire localities built around the principle of health and beauty treatments. In such places, besides the usual locals, you can always meet a bunch of interesting people with their stories, that hopefully have more to say than their obvious medical histories. In the last years, I was able to visit a couple of them, such for instance Karlovy Vary, where I enjoyed not only the visit of various spa facilities, but also a beautiful landscape at the beginning of a colourful autumn. 
In the case of Baden-Baden, a famous spa town especially among far Eastern Europeans and Russians, my curiosity had an extra motivation: when I was in high-school, one of the most interesting lectures I had was The Player, by Dostoevsky, which describes with a fine psychological detail a gambling addiction practiced in the local casino. For me, this would be the only work by the famous Russian writer which I really appreciates, but every time I am thinking about this book, the longing to visit Baden-Baden was always present.
This year, during my birthday tour in Baden-Württemberg, I included this locality in my intensive travel plan.
I arrived there by train from Karlsruhe, after a 20 minutes journey. As the place is close from the border to France, it is a destination of choice for an affordable weekend for the French too. Therefore, French is a language often used here as well as welcoming signs 'Nous parlons Francais' at the entrance to various restaurants. In order to reach the center of the town with the main touristic attractions, you need to take a bus - or a cab - for another 20 minutes. 
We made our first stop at Ernst Schlapper Plarz, named after a post-WWII mayor, for admiring the imposant Art Nouveau theatre. The bad news was that a show of the Bejart Ballet from Lausanne was about to have a show here during the next weekend where we were no more around. 
After a couple of more steps alongside Lange Straße, we arrive at the treatment area, with the spectacular red bricked painted arches of the Trinkhalle. After drinking the precious mineral waters - the production estimated by the experts being of 200,000 galons per day - the patients are recommended to take a long walk in the treatment gardens, breathing deep the fresh air of the Black Forest, who is surrounding Baden-Baden. 
A couple of minutes later, we are in the front of the former casino, where many of the episodes of The Player are taking place. At this time of the day, there is no one around, except tourists, and there is no way to visit the place. Outside the pages of the book, the place looks like any other around, hardly likely to be the place that inspired my travel list for such a long time.
The vague feeling of disappointment is shortly forgotten as I look around at the white silhouettes of the architecture against a blue sky. Luxury shops and expensive art galleries add more glittering to the scenery. 
If you want to live as in the time of the characters from the time of Dostoevsky, a ride with the carriage tour can help. The main station is on Lichtentaler Allee
Another theatre, playing for this season Nathan the Wise by Lessing can bring more cultural activities into the daily schedule in the spa town.
However, my day trip to Baden-Baden is supposed to be rather modest from the cultural point of view. Instead, I am happy to enjoy the early spring weather, discovering the cosiest places, such as the restaurants and coffee places from Sophienstraße.
Many buildings are proudly decorated with the coat of arms of Baden Baden, a diagonal red line against a golden shield. Very often, both my eyes and my camera are pleased by the architectural views.
Interestingly, the town seems to be built on a hill, therefore the many stairs that connect different levels and streets. A good opportunity to get ready for the coming spring hiking...
The colours of Baden-Baden look like an invitation for more discoveries, forgetting the hardship of moving from a place to another. 
The tree-bordered alleys look relatively bland today, but I can easily imagine how much beauty can be added by the green leaves and the colourful flowers. A boulevard to enjoy the evening post-treatment walk. 
Talking about treatments, the huge complex of Caracalla Therme offers high-end modern facilities to either spa and beauty or health treatment. It is respectfully quiet around that you can hardly think if there are so many people inside. 
A couple of meters away, Friedrichsbaden offers beautiful architectural views, with its carefully pastel painted arches. Its rich spa culture prompted Baden-Baden to be added since 2014 to a prospective UNESCO Cultural Heritage list, together with another 10 places, 'Great spas of Europe'.
Although the main streets are, as usual in such towns, always busy, some side alleys, like Steinstraße, offers a lot of quiet spots. 
If you look up, at the end of an adventurous ride through the cobbestone streets, you might be surprised by the construction solutions of raising a city purely on stone. The luxury of living in a free-eartquake area.
Everything looks so picturesque that one may forget that there are also normal administrative activities taking place here. The city hall - Rathaus - is well hidden behind the walls of a former Jesuite college, maintaining the main features of austerity and stiffness. 
If you are strong enough - and wearing good sport shoes - a short visit to the castle can offer not only some additional historical information about this place, but also beautiful views of Baden-Baden.
If you are looking for interesting cultural sightseeings, there are here a couple of interesting destinations. For instance: the Altes Dampfbad - Old Steam Bath - hosting historical and photographic exhibitions or the Museum Frieder Burda - an extensive art collection by second son of the famous German publisher Franz Burda. Besides the failure to visit the casino, another regret was to not be able to visit the Faberge Museum, hosting a collection of the colourful elegant eggs. 
But the luckiest traveller is the one who is able to make the best of the current opportunities, so I had instead a couple of colourful houses on the narrow streets.
Back in the central area, I dared to explore the small elegant shops and svelte white buildings.
I even had a look at the big Wagener Gallery for even more shopping and chatting with the locals.
The food offer is very elegant too, with high-end Italian restaurants, a Taj Tandoor Indian one and many fine chocolate stores, like the Läderach Swiss chocolate. When in the Black Forest, having a bit of the famous chocolate cake with the same name is a must, but it seems that my visit to the Bäckeler Coffee House was at a time of the day when it was no piece left. Instead, I was offered a Central European version - Budapest - with more chocolate, less cream, no alcoholic cherry on the top and some drops of alcohol spread during various stages of the cake composition. My coconut milk coffee was an elegant add to the palate.
My short trip to Baden-Baden ended on a sweet note. The time spent there was relaxing and rich enough in discoveries to make to return back, maybe the next time for a full weekend in this town tucked in the middle of the Black Forest.