A Tale of Twin Toyotas –and WOE

Toyotas I and II


Two Americans living in southern France set off to Germany to buy a car. Not a Porsche (pity). Not a Mercedes. Not a BMW. Not even an Audi. But — a Toyota! No, not a new model, but a very old Toyota (2004).

Crazy? Bizarre?   Idiotic?

Perhaps a bit of all. Here’s the story. Two years before moving to France from Germany 12 years ago, we bought a royal blue Toyota Yaris Verso. The back seats of this minivan collapse and slide under the front seats, leaving lots of rear space, enough for two bicycles standing up. That was the selling factor. We could park the car anywhere with the bikes chained and locked inside.  And, it was easier to put them inside the car instead of on the roof.

Back then we did lots of pedaling. The bikes went with us on cycling trips all over Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France. All l that space was also practical when making large purchases: washing machine, mattress, cases of wine.

Not our car.
Not our car.

We love this car. It has been reliable, trouble free. It now has some 255,000 km, but has had only minor repairs. We knew it could not last forever and were getting worried.   No reason to spend big bucks on a new car at our age. Besides, Toyota no longer makes this model and we found no others with the same features and known reliability.

Bicycle Bob (BB) dove into Internet research on used Toyotas. He claims he could not find any in France. No wonder. I later learned that all his Toyota finds were coming from a German web site. He said he would feel better buying a used car from a German rather than a Frenchman. Those neighbors to the north treat their cars with over-the-top TLC, like rare endangered species.  Check out the cars in parking lots in France. Dents. Dirt. Rust.

The cars he was finding were old, but there were many with far fewer kilometers than ours. We had to see a car before buying it, and probably look at more than one car before purchase. That meant a train trip to Germany, hotel and meal expenses etc. The price tag was climbing.

More to Germany than cars.

No matter. We could do more in Germany than look at cars: Satisfy cravings for good beer and hearty cuisine, visit friends, perhaps even see some new sights. He found versions of the desired Toyota all over Germany – Leipzig, Zweibrucken, Hamburg, Munich. We had to narrow our selection lest we spend weeks canvassing the entire country.

Schweinhaxe and sauerkraut.
Schweinhaxe and sauerkraut.

So, one dreary day in February we hopped aboard the TGV (fast train) from Aix to Frankfurt, then another train to nearby Erlensee where a friendly car salesman met us and took us to see the first selection. It looked just like our car, same bright blue, just two years younger (2004) but with a mere 134,000 km.

This one looked good.

Promising, but we had another car to see in Kulmbach, three autobahn hours away. We rented a car for that trip. It rained. It poured for the entire drive. We checked out the second Toyota .   Both cars were in immaculate condition. Each car had had just one owner, elderly folks like us.

The blue Toyota owner had been male; the silver Toyota had been in the possession of a female. We test drove both cars. “There is something I don’t like about the clutch in this car,” BB said of the silver one, knowing it had had a woman owner. He maintains women drivers often ride the clutch. A sexist view, in my opinion.  “I think this car could have a problem,” he insisted. I found nothing wrong with it, but he makes the car decisions. Besides, the silver color was wimpish . And, the salesman was anything but accommodating. Our salesman in Erlensee, a Jordanian, was terrific, helpful.

Trying different brews in Kulmbach.

We spent the rest of the day and an overnight in Kulmbach before returning to claim the blue baby. The rain never stopped, but great beer made up for it. Kulmbach is noted for its beer. We visited an artisanal brewery, bought beer to bring home, toured a beer and bread museum – all wunderbar.

We figured it would be a multi-step procedure to finalize the sale and get the car temporarily registered and insured for the trip back to France. Never underestimate the Germans.   Our salesman took us to a trailer type office in a parking lot where, within a half hour, all was complete, including temporary plates on the car.

Seeking solace from German rain.

We set off in our new old car south to Darmstadt to visit old friends, enjoy more beer and hearty food, and then on to Basel, where we were married 26 years ago. The nostalgia visit to this Swiss city was more than moist. The rain, six days of it in Germany, followed us to Switzerland. We spent a day indoors, visiting some interesting museums, before coming home to France where we did find sunshine, but also frustration, headaches, obstacles.

Giacometti at Fondation Beyeler in Basel.

I knew car registration in France would never be the smooth and easy process it was in Germany, however…. We started the process after our return, Feb. 15. On March 22, 36 days later, it was finally finished…or so I thought.

We began the ordeal with a visit to the mayor’s office in Reillanne, our town. Then the tax office in Manosque (1/2 hour away). We had to go there twice since we did not have one of the required documents the first time.  From there we were sent to Digne, a city about 1 ½ hours away and the seat of our region’s “prefecture,” the folks who could make our car legal in France. We thought we had all the required documents.

Dubuffet at Fondation Beyeler in Basel

At the tax office in Manosque we had been given a list of requirements: six documents. The woman in Digne gave us a  longer list: 10 different documents. Sacre Bleu! We did not have the “Certificat de conformite,” a document which could only come from Toyota. And, we were told the safety inspection document we had from Germany would not fly. It was several months old. So, we had to make an appointment and have the car inspected in France and get yet another document.

Off we went to our nearest Toyota dealer, 1/2 hour away. A young man filled out a form requesting all sorts of technical details on the car. We sent that form and a check for 150 euro to Toyota headquarters in France — fortunately not in Japan. A week later we had the form. We were making progress.

On our second trip to Digne, miracle of miracles, we had all the correct papers. We received a temporary registration. We went to a nearby garage and had plates made – instantly. We were overwhelmed. The French are efficient at something.

The French have mastered instant license plates.

Only insurance left to conquer. We have our cars insured with a bank in the town of Pertuis (45 minutes away), but we arranged for temporary insurance by phone, and followed up with a visit to the bank last week to sign the form.

We were elated. Finally all finished. Not quite. Today I received a letter from the prefecture in Digne. They need the original car registration from Germany immediately.   I checked our thick folder of documents on this car. We do not have it. I am certain we turned it in with all the other papers to the woman in Digne. ???

Will they cancel the registration without it? Seize the car? Insist we contact the German registration office and get a new ”original” on a car that was registered 12 years ago?

Moral of the story: If you live in France, buy a car in France.

No, not our old Toyota, but a Tinguely creation at the Tinguely Museum in Basel.


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The twins

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Wunderschön Times in Germany

The previous post, Humanity is Lost, was my attempt to reblog a post of a bloger I follow.  If you click on the title, you should be able to open and read the post. 

Along the Moselle
Along the Moselle

201 kilometers of pedaling in four days. Certainly nothing to brag about. But, we are no longer young and it’s been a few years since we have done any serious cycling. We were also biking with our panniers – worth a few extra Brownie points. The cycling was mainly on flat terrain following bike routes along the Saar and Moselle rivers in Germany: pleasant, easy, scenic.

We made it -- back to the car in Merzig where it all began.
We made it — back to the car in Merzig where it all began.

The bike excursion was a highlight of our spring trip back to Germany where we lived for many, many years before moving to France. We love going back, seeing friends, drinking the world’s best beer, enjoying our favorite German foods — and discovering more of Germany. Wines in Baden, hikes in the Black Forest, sights in Saarbrücken– add all that to bicycling and it makes for a wunderschön  (wonderful) trip.

It wouldn't be Germany without a bit of rain.
It wouldn’t be Germany without a bit of rain.

Google led me to a blog post,”A Bicycle Ride along the Saar and Moselle Rivers.” Perfect for us, I decided. We cut short the part on the Saar, pedaling only from the town of Merzig to Konz where we picked up the Moselle Bike Route and followed it to Bullay.

A break from the bikes to enjoy the scenery.
A break from the bikes to enjoy the scenery.

The Saar section was serene, sublime. Few people. Few major towns. Trees, the river and vineyards. We stopped to chat with a couple from northern Germany who were taking a break from the bikes and lounging in the grass. “We’ve never be to Saarland. It’s beautiful and not so touristic,” she said.

Trier: Porta Nigra
Trier: Porta Nigra

Along the Moselle we pedaled past lots more vineyards, through more towns, and encountered more cyclists. We felt we needed to see the major sight in Trier, the Porta Nigra, but biking through the congested city was not pleasant. However, tasting wine in the town of Graach where Mythos Mosel, a Riesling wine tasting event was underway, was very pleasant.

BB/VR gets a taste of Moselle wine.
BB/VR gets a taste of Moselle wine.

Be it in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France—wherever, biking along marked cycle routes is usually a joy. For the most part you encounter few cars. Unfortunately this was not entirely the case for us this ride. As navigator, I am to blame.

Instead of carefully consulting the bikeline guidebook when leaving one town, I chose the wrong side of the river for our ride. We were on a bike path, but not the right one. The trail deteriorated, leading us onto a muddy track bordered by thick vegetation. No way to ride this, so we pushed the bikes through the swamp. The worst was not over. We followed the path out of the mud and up a hill, only to be faced with a busy major and narrow highway. Cars sped by much too close for comfort. Add to that: rain.

Postcard villages surrounded by vineyards abound on the Mosaelle.
Postcard villages surrounded by vineyards abound on the Moselle.

I don’t frighten easily, but this was very scary. I feared we may have missed the one bridge that would lead us to the other side and the correct bike route. I used all my energy to pedal as fast as I could, hoping we would find the bridge before being crushed by a car.

We survived and were relieved to arrive in Trittenheim and find the welcoming home of Marlene Bollig, a guest house where we had booked a room. I told her about our adventure. “No one rides on that side of the river,” she said. “Well now you have an adventure to write about. “ One adventure I could have done without.

Hikers learn about wild herbs
Hikers learn about wild herbs.

Our adventure in the Black Forest was problem free, fun and interesting. We joined a guided group hike, Wild herbs: Multitalent. “My passion is to delve into nature and gather herbs. I learned from my grandmother,” guide Heidi announced. The trek was easy with numerous stops where she plucked a plant or flower, then explained its use in the kitchen and its nutritional, as well as medicinal, value.

Butter mixed with wild herbs-- delicious on bread.
Butter mixed with wild herbs– delicious on bread.

The forests and fields are indeed rich in edible treasure, but don’t try to eat all.   “No, you can’t eat that,” she announced as one of the group pointed to some lovely yellow flowers. “Not even cows will eat that. The stomach won’t tolerate it.” She treated us to a wild herb snack which our stomachs tolerated with pleasure, bread smeared with tasty herb butter made from plants of the forest.

We followed guide Rolf Wein on another hike, uphill to the Genuss Platz (Pleasure Place), a scenic spot with benches he and friends had made long ago. His treat, wild plum schnapps which he had made.

Rolf Wein led us to his favorite spot in the Black Forest.
Rolf Wein led us to his favorite spot in the Black Forest.

“This is my home,” Rolf said as he looked below to the town Baiersbronn surrounded by forests. “I enjoy outings with guests, to show it off. It is wunderschön here in the black Forest. I would never move away.”

Baiersbronn is a wunderschön town, especially for foodies. Its restaurants have a total of eight Michelin stars, quite amazing for a town of 14,500. I had the privilege of interviewing three-star chef Claus-Peter Lumpp at the Hotel Bareiss, one of the town’s five-star hotels.

3* Chef Claus-Peter Lumpp in his kitchen
3* Chef Claus-Peter Lumpp in his kitchen.

“It’s hard work,” he said of his profession, but “good.”   “There is nothing better than to see happy people when they are satisfied. Guests are the most important for me.”

Zwiebel Rostbraten with Spaetzle -- also wunderschoen.
Zwiebel Rostbraten with Spaetzle — very wunderschoen.

Dining at the three star restaurant was beyond our budget, but we enjoyed the tastes of Germany at the hotel’s gemütlich Dorfstuben where I indulged in my all-time German favorite: Zwiebel Rostbraten (Onion Beef). During our travels we savored other German favorites, such as Sauerbraten, Bratwurst, Sauerkraut and red cabbage.

Sauerbraten, Rotkohl and Bratkartoffeln (Sauerbraten with red cabbage and fried potatoes). Makes me hungry.
Sauerbraten, Rotkohl and Bratkartoffeln (Sauerbraten with red cabbage and fried potatoes). Makes me hungry.

And, German wines. Although the Moselle is a noted German wine region, except for our one tasting along the bike route, we had no time for serious wine discovery there. We made up for it in Baden, part of the state of Baden-Wurttemberg in southwestern Germany. The Black Forest is part of this state. The Baden section borders both France and Switzerland and is Germany’s warmest and sunniest region. Baden produces more red than white wine, which is rare for Germany, a country known best for its white wines, especially Riesling.

Vineyards in Baden.
Vineyards in Baden.

Bicycle Bob (BB) is known more as VR (Vino Roberto) these days since his passion for wine now exceeds his love of his bicycle. We not only tasted our way through many Baden wineries, VR bought a supply, too.

With Heti and Heinz.
With Heti and Heinz.

Our friend Heinz gave us a delicious souvenir to take home – six bottles of his favorite Baden white, Oberrotweiler Grauer Burgunder.  Heinz and Heti live in Sindelfinen adjacent to Stuttgart, not far from where we used to live. We stayed at their beautiful home and had the chance to reunite with many of our friends from those days at a fun evening, a pot luck dinner they arranged.  Danke Heti and Heinz.  Alles wunderschön.

We'd never been to Saarbruecken. It's worth a visit. Ludwig's, Church is a Baroque masterpiece.
We’d never been to Saarbruecken. It’s worth a visit. Ludwig’s Church is a Baroque masterpiece.


Bicycling in Saarland: www.radfahren.saarland.de

The Moselle: www.mosellandtouristik.de

Baiersbronn: www.baiersbronn.de

Hotel Bareiss: www.bareiss.com

Viller0y & Boch, http://www.villeroy-boch.com

Wine fests abound in Baden, for more on Baden wine and a list of wines fests dates and places: www.badischerwein.de

Don’t miss Today’s Taste in column at right: ASIAN CHICKEN SALAD, tangy and terrific

Villeroy & Boch makes its home in Mettlach in the Saarland. A visit to its ceramics museum -- and outlet store -- is enticing.
Villeroy & Boch makes its home in Mettlach in the Saarland. A visit to its ceramics museum — and outlet store — is enticing.

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Visit to my angel cat savior Sigrid Ruckaberle and house where
Visit to my angel cat savior Sigrid Ruckaberle and house where “the maternal great grandfather of the fifth generation of Barack Obama” was born in 1729. Her hometown. Besigheim, is proud.

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Saarschleife, a bend in the Saar River near Mettlach.
Saarschleife, a bend in the Saar River near Mettlach.

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Antwerp: A Gem of a City

Antwerp’s City Hall dominates the Grote Markt.
Antwerp’s City Hall dominates the Grote Markt.

Thanks to the generosity of my step-daughter Kellie who gave us tickets for a Leonard Cohen concert in Antwerp,  BB and I recently hopped on the fast train (TGV) for a trip to that lovely city. A shorter version of the following appeared in the newspaper Stars and Stripes, www.stripes.com

It could have been a scene from a James Bond movie. Two shiny black limousines crept down the narrow street.  Then came a monster white armored truck, followed by a smaller version of the same, and then more limos. Several  stern, black-suited men walked alongside the vehicles.  It was all very eerie, mysterious.

The white truck stopped in front of a non-descript building.  Three hulks (you would not want to fool with these brutes) jumped out.  A woman with a wad of papers surveyed the scene, as well as more of those ominous looking men and a small crowd of curious on-lookers.  The muscled trio dashed to the back of the truck, opened it, and rapidly tossed out large canvas bags, at least a dozen.   These were rushed inside the building.

I wanted to take pictures but was firmly warned, “No photos.”  I asked the woman about the contents of the bags. “Diamonds” — obviously millions of the precious gems.  Wow! I asked the value of the contents.  No answer.  She remained silent to that and my many other questions.

An everyday delivery in Antwerp’s diamond district where Jewish men, wearing long, black coats  and wide-brimmed black hats, rush up and down the heavily guarded streets, many with cell phones to their ears.Antwerp.3

Antwerp, Belgium’s second city, has been associated with diamonds since the 15th century. “By 2007 more than half of the world’s consumption of rough as well as polished industrial diamonds is traded in Antwerp realizing an annual turnover of $42 billion,” explained Sylvie Van Craen of the city’s tourist office.  She said 1,800 diamond companies have their headquarters in the city, including four diamond exchanges, special diamond banks, security and transport firms, brokers and consultants.  While the business of the glittering stones was originally associated with the Jewish community, today it’s run by people of numerous nationalities, including Jews, with Indians in the majority.

I did not come to Antwerp to purchase a diamond, although shops whose windows are brimming with diamond rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and more abound.  Husband Bob and I came to attend the Leonard Cohen concert (amazing), visit the city and my Irish friend Isabel who lives there with her Dutch husband, Carlo.  She was our guide extraordinaire.

Jackie, Isabel and Carlo.
Jackie, Isabel and Carlo.

“You’re seeing Antwerp at its absolutely worse,” Isabel  lamented as we strolled by café after café whose outdoor tables were deserted.  “Normally at this time of year people are sitting outside.”  It was mid-June, and like in much of Europe, summer had yet to appear.  It was cool, dreary, rainy, but the weather did not dampen her enthusiasm for the city.  “We like Antwerp,”  she said.  “It has culture.  There’s always a holiday atmosphere.  The Belgians enjoy food and drink.”  Antwerp is the capital of Flanders, the part of Belgium where Flemish, a language much like Dutch, is spoken.

We walked down the main shopping street, the bustling Meir, with a quick glance inside the Stadsfeestzaal (Festival Hall), a luxurious indoor shopping mall with a glass iron vault, marble staircase, gold leaf décor and a champagne bar.  Antwerp.8Then a mouth watering stop next door at one of Antwerp’s numerous chocolate shops,  The Chocolate Line in the Paleis op de Meir which offers chocolate pralines with 60 different fillings:  wasabi, Sake, cabernet-sauvignon, Earl  Grey

You can even find Chocolate Pills at the Chocolate Line.
You can even find Chocolate Pills at the Chocolate Line.

tea,  cannabis,  to name a few.   For 45 euros you can buy a “Chocolate Shooter,” a snifter with three different flavors of cocoa powder to shoot up your nose for a nonaddictive jolt to “maximize the chocolate experience.”

One of Isabel’s favorite Antwerp nooks is the Botanical Garden  Plantentuin, a small but lush patch of green in the midst of the city with unusual plants, blossoms, and a pond where over-sized, colorful carp swim.  A park regular stopped to chat with us– another Antwerp plus.  “It’s easy to get into a conversation with people here, having lunch, sitting on a bench.  They are very chatty,”   Isabel said.

And generous, as we found out at our next stop.  In the food realm, Belgium is noted, not just  for chocolate, but also waffles.  I have never been a waffle fan, but BB loves them and misses those U.S. waffle houses.  In that case, we must go to the “only place to eat waffles,”  Isabel insisted,  Désiré de Lille.  And, we Antwerp.30must order a Wafel warme Noorse Krieken (cherry waffle).  “I bring everyone who visits here.  You have to have a waffle if you come to Belgium.”

If every waffle was like this light, luscious confection with a mound of cherries and whipped cream, I’d be a waffle convert.  Exquisite.  And, there was more.  An elderly woman sat next to us and was served a large bowl of donut balls dusted with powdered sugar.  We eyed them with envy.  She graciously offered us each one – another tasty treat called Smoutebollen.

Back to sightseeing and  the Grote Markt,  a triangular public space that is the Antwerp.27heart of the city with its restored gabled guildhalls dating to the 16th and 17th centuries and the flamboyant renaissance town hall.  For fair weather days, there are plenty of cafes with terraces where you can relax surrounded by the stunning architecture.

Nearby is the city’s architectural pièce de résistance, the Cathedral of Our Lady, a gothic temple whose towering spire dominates the city skyline.  Inside are awe-inspiring masterpieces by Antwerp’s most famous son, Peter Paul Rubens, and other noted artists of the  16th and 17th centuries.

Workers restore  a statue in the cathedral.
Workers restore a statue in the cathedral.

Waffles and chocolate…but what about beer and frites (French fries), two other Belgian specialties?  In the same ancient square as the cathedral, Handschoenmarkt,  is Abbey No 8, a beer store with “100 of the best beers out of 2,400 brewed in Belgium,” boasted salesman John. The shop also has 100 different kinds of beer glasses, as every beer demands its own type of glass. The most popular Antwerp beer is De Koninck, an amber colored brew  served in  a Antwerp.14bolleke, a goblet shaped glass.  According to Isabel, the best frites in the city are to be had at Fritkot Max, easy to spot with a large replica of fries in front.

We met Isabel’s husband for lunch at their favorite restaurant, Dock’s Café.  Antwerp,  located on the  River Schelde just 50 miles from the North Sea, is known for fish and seafood dishes, both of which are favorites at Dock’s.   I relished six scrumptious oysters, followed by very fresh flounder.

Next on our tour guide’s agenda was the city’s newest sensation, the Mas, a striking and unusual edifice along the river which houses a five-story museum  illustrating the story of the city, the port, and their  connection to the rest of the world. Bad  luck for us – closed on Monday, the day we were in Antwerp. There is a boulevard walkway around the building to the top where the views are said to be “extraordinary.”  It too was closed.Antwerp.1

However, we found “extraordinary”   views in the nearby Schipperskwartier (Seamen’s Quarter), the red light district where sex goddesses ply their trade (prostitution is tolerated in Belgium), posing in doorways and windows with little covering their bodies.  Men “shoppers” stroll by, stopping now and then to converse, perhaps  negotiate a price.

The district’s church, St. Paul’s,  owes the salvage of some of its treasures to the prostitutes.  During a huge fire in 1968 which destroyed much of the structure, the ladies of the night helped save valuable paintings.  The church is a treasure trove of the latter,  50 paintings by notables such as Rubens and Van Dyck .Antwerp.13  We were lucky during our visit.  A volunteer guide provided  fascinating facts and insights on the church and its masterpieces.  The adjacent Calvary Garden is intriguing, if not bizarre, enticing visitors to put their cameras to work.

Rear facade of the elegant Rubens house fom the gardens.
Rear facade of the elegant Rubens house from the gardens.

We saved Antwerp’s most popular attraction, the Rubens house, until  last.The prolific artist obviously did well.  His home for 24 years (1616-1640) is an elegant palatial residence with a lovely garden, room after room where his paintings hang, and a few pieces of exquisite furniture.  Rent the head set to learn more about the artist and his work.

Our visit to Antwerp ended where it had begun, at the city’s impressive central train station which was constructed in 1902 and recently renovated.  Newsweek called it “the fourth most beautiful station in the world.”Antwerp.20

“I went to several cities looking for a place for a business,”’ a young Nepalese woman named Beauty told me.  She now has a shop in the city where she sells crafts from Nepal.  “I liked Antwerp.  It’s not too big, not too small. It has a cozy feeling and nice people.”  And,   interesting sights to admire, good food, great beer.  I, too, like Antwerp.


Park Inn by Radisson, ideal location adjacent to the train station.  Ample Antwerp.28breakfast buffet.  Rates vary depending on season and promotions available.  Doubles from 89 euros.  www. parkinn.com/hotel-antwerpen

The Chocolate Line, Meir 50, www.thechocolateline.be  (Fun place to visit – in the back you can watch chocolates being made.  However, I was disappointed with the expensive box of exotic chocolates I purchased.)

Désiré de Lille, Schrijnwerkersstraat 16, www.desiredelille.be

Friktot Max, Groenplaats 12.  While Isabel recommended this, she confesses she does not eat fries.  Some Trip Advisor followers gave it a poor review.   One said the best fries are at Frituur Kattekwaad, Verbondstraat 112.Antwerp.2

Abbey No 8, Handschoenmarkt 8, www.belgianbeersandbrews.be

Dock’s Café, Jordaenskaai 7, Two course lunch special, 18 euros. www.docks.be

COMING IN SEPTEMBER:  Red Star Line Museum opening Sept. 28 will tell the story of this shipping company which carried some 2.6 million fortune hunters, businessmen, and wealthy travelers to America between 1873 and 1935. Museum located at the Rijnkaai next to where the ships used to dock.  www.redstarlineorg.

Masterpieces by Rubens abound in Antwerp.
Masterpieces by Rubens abound in Antwerp.

Antwerp.18I love to hear from readers. Please share your views. See  “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right.

Back to Germany

Germany was my home for 28 years. Good times, wonderful memories – and fabulous friends.  Husband Bob and I recently returned to reconnect with many of those friends,  to visit old haunts, as well as other destinations that I will be writing about for the magazine German Life. (www.germanlife.com).

Maybe we’ve lived in the boondocks of rural France too long (since 2004).  Here life is tranquil, serene, quiet.  This time we found Germany a bit chaotic with monstrous traffic jams on the autobahns, construction sites  almost everywhere and  crowds of people in the city centers.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone could be unemployed in Deutschland with so much building in progress.

We spent several  nights with friends Klaus and Dagmar who live in Gerlingen just outside of Stuttgart. They urged us to take the U-bahn downtown to see the massive and controversial construction site for Stuttgart 21, the city’s  new railway and urban development project  which involves  57 kilometers of  new railways, including some 30 kilometers of  tunnels and 25 kilometers  of high-speed lines. Protesters still demonstrate at the site every Monday.  The project, which is estimated to  cost as much as six billion Euros, won’t be completed until 2020.  Another attraction adjacent to the site is the  new library, a modern and dazzling wonder in white by architect Eun Young Yi which has been likened to a Rubik’s cube puzzle.

Dagmar invited several of our friends for an excellent dinner, an antipasti of grilled vegetables, followed by  a  Swabian favorite,  stuffed breast of veal, all topped by  our very favorite German dessert, Rote Grϋtze, a yummy compote of red fruits.  Friend  Heti also entertained us with an amazing meal of Peruvian delicacies:  ceviche (fish  marinated in lime juice) and veggies, gallina picante parmesana (chicken with aji -hot yellow pepper), quinoa risotto with veggies, and for dessert, coconut flan and Tonka bean mousse.  All over the top.  More on those beans to follow.

Heti is an inspiration, and not just in the kitchen.  She recently lost 14 kilos on the Dukan diet combined with an hour of aqua jogging every day in the nearby Sindelfingen indoor pool.  When I lived  in the area, I frequently swam there year round.  There are also several outdoor pools for summer months.  Sadly, France is lacking in these first-class swimming facilities.

Klaus and Marianne, other friends from the Stuttgart area who frequently housesit for us in France, treated us to a delicious pasta lunch and a homemade Swabian apple pie at their new apartment.

We took a trip north to the Darmstadt area to see more friends.  For years I worked for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes which was previously headquartered just outside the city.  A group of former colleagues met us at an Italian restaurant for a fun evening.  Special pal Andrea, whom I consider a surrogate step-daughter, and her husband Thiemo, joined us at Darmstadt’s famous brewery, Grohe, where we sat outside in the sunshine savoring the brew.  Another Darmstadt friend, Wilma, invited us for a delicious salmon dinner and stimulating conversation with her friend Erik.

Our travels also  took us to the Bergstrassee south of Darmstadt, Kaiserslautern, Augsburg, Munich and the Starnberg Lake district south of Munich.

For many years while I worked at Stars and Stripes, I lived in Jugenhiem at the northern end of the Bergstrasse in an apartment I called the “Treehouse.”  It was the top two floors of a former seniors’ home at the edge of a forest  and surrounded by tree tops.  We stopped for a visit, and it’s still the same – an idyllic hideaway in a jungle of green.

The best of the visit to the Bergstrasse, which extends 70 kilometers south from Darmstadt  to Heidelberg, and where many an ancient castle and castle ruins crown hilltops, was wine  The Bergstrasse wine region is divided into two parts, vines in the south in the state of Baden Württemberg, and those in the north in Hessen.  The former is Germany’s smallest wine region. German wines, as well as wines everywhere, have improved thanks to up-to-date knowledge and techniques, an expert told us.

For years German wines had a bad rep because “we exported the wrong wines, “ such as the  sweet Blue Nun, explained Maria Zimmermann of the regional tourist board.   Today German vintners are also well-educated, studying viniculture, not just learning the trade from their parents. We tasted some fine wines, and  Bob  made several purchases.

In the town of Weinheim, we toured a lovely garden followed by the best restaurant meal of the trip, an amuse bouche of scallops topping  a pumpkin salad sprinkled with mandarin oil, and a Hirsch (venison) medallion with an elderberry sauce and Steinpilze (boletus),  plus  parsley root puree. It was perfection.

Heppenheim is the quintessential Bergstrasee town with a market place of well-preserved half-timbered houses.  We joined an after-dark tour up and down the ancient streets and stairways, following a costumed story teller and her lantern carrying assistant.  Periodically they stopped with the story teller relating charming tales and fables of the region, most translated from old German into an English that rhymed.  Very impressive and a delightful, unusual experience.

The greatest number of Americans outside of the U.S., some 50,000 who are military or civilians working for the military, makes their home in the Kaiserslautern area. There I interviewed Wolfgang Tönnesmann, director of the Atlantic Academy, who had a life-size cardboard replica of Obama in his office. Like me, he is no doubt thrilled with the recent election results.

My quest to try local food specials in Kaiserslautern led us to the town’s only half-timbered building and the restaurant Spinnrädl. We were in the Rhineland Pfalz area and the restaurant served up  Pfälzer dishes written in the local dialect on the menu:  Brotworscht, Saumaa, Lewwer (Bloodwurst, potatowurst so named because it is stuffed into a pig’s stomach or Saumaa) and liverwurst. Hearty fare accompanied by Grumbeerstampes   (mashed potatoes).

Jakob Fugger (1458 – 1525), a wealthy merchant (according to a guide, “he had more money than Bill Gates) put Augsburg on the map.  The Fugger family, in particular Jakob, was into finance and trade.  Jakob, known as the Empire’s banker, and  not unlike Bill Gates, had a social conscience.  He founded the Fuggerei, a section of the city for the town’s poor, the world’s oldest social housing which still exists with 140 apartments.  Rent is 1 euro per year.  We followed a fascinating tour of the area, and also visited a dazzling Rococo banquet hall, the Schaetzler Palais (1767), as well as other local attractions.

The Munich visit focused on food with visits to the city’s legendary outdoor market, the Viktualienmarkt, its classy food emporiums, Dallmayr and Käfer, as well as the food empire of Alfons Schuhbeck who has a collection of shops, including a Michelin starred restaurant, in the Platzl near the Hofbräuhaus.  Friend Heti clued me in on Schuhbeck who is huge on the German food scene.  It was at his incredible spice shop where she purchased the Tonka beans which come from South America for that exotic dessert.

Our visit wound up at the Starnberg Lake, one of several lovely lakes  south of Munich. All the sailboats which blanket the lakes in summer had been put to bed, but the region had plenty of charms for a fall visit.

A  must was a visit to the nearby Andechs Abbey above the Ammersee, another one of the regional lakes.  After admiring the Abbey’s church and its stunning Rococo stucco décor and frescoes,  we moved on to the terrace beer garden.  Monks have been brewing beer at Andechs since 1455.  These days seven different kinds of brew can be ordered, as well as Bavarian food favorites.

Other Starnberg highlights are the Baroque St. Mary’s Minister in the town of Diessen and  the lakeside Buchheim Museum noted for its collection of Expressionist works.  Last but not least, a wonderful bike ride following a cycle route along the Starnberg Lake with an outdoor lakeside lunch stop, as well as many breaks for postcard photos of the lake framed by distant Alpine peaks. (For more photos, see slide show to follow.  Comments are welcome. )

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