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Holidays in Bergwitz

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the German federal state of Sachsen-Anhalt, the little village of Bergwitz pursues, in contemplative fashion, its daily business. Traditional, cobbled streets are lined by rows of large trees and low houses, a typical brickwork church raises its square spire, and a smattering of shops tentatively explores individual entrepreneurship. Annexed to the Eastern Bloc, this part of the country lived the socialist dream behind the Iron Curtain for forty years, and therefore these rural areas remain still largely free from the blight of commercialism; though much catching up has been done in all urban centres since Germany’s reunification. It is an unusual place to choose for a holiday, and certainly one even your most widely-travelled friends will not be familiar with. Yet there is much to recommend a visit:

The nearest town, a short drive of fifteen minutes away, is Lutherstadt Wittenberg, famous for being the cradle of the Reformation. (See my related blog post ‘Wittenberg’ for a brief summary of this dramatic twist in history.) The first-rate museum in the former Augustinian Monastery where Martin Luther worked with friends and lived with his family is definitely worth a visit. The Castle Church with Luther’s tomb, the Town Church and other buildings are at present being spruced up for the approaching 500-year anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

Wittenberg's Flower Festival in May

Wittenberg’s Flower Festival in May

Horse Carriage Tours in Wittenberg

Horse Carriage Tours in Wittenberg

Along the old high street of Wittenberg, strung out between the two churches and Luther’s house, there are restaurants and shops, as well as all kinds of Luther merchandise. Haus der Geschichte is a museum dedicated to daily life in the German Democratic Republic and the lifestyle of the mid-twentieth century in general – a treasure trove for sociologists. Melanchthon House tells the story of Luther’s friend and main supporter, the Antiquariat will delight lovers of old books, and the Cranach House has a historic Druckerstube (print shop) in its beautifully restored yard. The craftsman who set up his workshop here has gorgeous prints and cards for sale, traditional tools and typefaces on display, and interesting tales to tell of the painters Lucas Cranach and son and their commercial enterprises in print-making.

Traditional Print Workshop

Traditional Print Workshop

The bustling city of Leipzig is about an hour distant and of world-class distinction. Its cultural, historical and commercial palette is thrilling to explore (see also my blog post ‘Leipzig’). For those keen to venture further afield, Dresden and Berlin are also within easy reach, as well as the Dutch baroque castle of Oranienbaum and the World Heritage Site Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm (see my blog posts describing the last two).

Wood-Carving Artists

Wood-Carving Artists

A pleasing mix of the delights of both culture (as mentioned above) and nature (as described below) is available to those who spend their holidays in Bergwitz:

In this floodplain of the River Elbe, open-pit mining for brown coal marred the landscape during the first half of the twentieth century, pockmarking its flat surface with deep craters and heaps of slag that were dug up and moved on conveyor belts to form low hills. But in the end, irrepressible Mother Nature won game, set and match by drowning the pits in quickly rising groundwater. Abandoned, their ugly craters transformed themselves into lovely lakes, their shining surfaces mirroring the changing light and fringes of reeds growing around their rim. The little lake of Bergwitz is one of them, and its clear water is of excellent quality for swimming. Light woodlands of acorn, birch and fir spread over the hillocks of heaped-up earth, and this appealing habitat attracts much wildlife.

Regatta, Lake Bergwitz

Regatta, Lake Bergwitz

These days, it also attracts people who seek rest and recreation in a simple, down-to-earth style, away from noisy nightlife and drunken crowds. The flat land is criss-crossed by a net of traffic-free cycling paths (easy on the legs and ideal for children) that skirt these lakes and lead through those light woodlands.

Bicycle Path from Woerlitz to Dessau

Bicycle Path from Woerlitz to Dessau

Swimming, paddling, rowing, sailing, hiking and bird-watching are other typical pursuits for those in search of peaceful summer holidays. A secluded campsite on the shores of Bergwitz Lake is popular and comes alive in the summer months.

More comfortable than camping is, of course, a holiday flat. Zechenhaus on the shore of Bergwitz Lake offers accommodation to families in a private setting. Its idyllic location and amiable hosts make it an excellent choice for visitors who are looking for a fully equipped home base from which to explore the area. Click ferienwohnung-am-bergwitzsee.de to see pictures of two self-contained flats, the garden area and details of accommodation, rates and booking information. Looking ahead to the year 2017, when Wittenberg will be overrun with visitors for the anniversary of the Reformation, it may be worthwhile to consider a stay in the peaceful countryside nearby, and to dip into events in town from a distance.

Zechenhaus in February

Zechenhaus in February

Garden Area of Holiday Flat

Garden Area of Holiday Flat

I have been staying as a Workaway volunteer with Michael and Annette at their home in the Zechenhaus and can recommend this location and its friendly hosts. As members of the free evangelical Jesusgemeinde Wittenberg, they are active Christians and would be especially happy to welcome like-minded visitors. Annette is always keen to improve her already fluent English and will be pleased to chat with you. She will also advise you on anything you may need help with in a foreign country, such as public transport for example. Michael has compiled an interesting folder of aerial photographs of the region and can help with directions to places worth visiting.

Annette and Michael, your friendly hosts

Annette and Michael, your friendly hosts

My stay in the winter season did not allow me to make the most of the lake, but long walks along the shore path were refreshing even in February. The sky was overcast and the water shimmered in bands of grey, some light, some dark. Bare trees wove a filigree of dark branches over the water’s surface; a flock of sparrows pecked at seed pods and fluttered in a twittering cloud. The sun pushed through the haze and cast a sheen over the mirroring lake, caught in the reeds along the edge … For those who like to sketch or paint landscapes, this wonderful little lake certainly makes a captivating subject.

Lake Bergwitz in February

Lake Bergwitz in February

Sunrise on the Lake

Sunrise on the Lake

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Road Trip Stop Chiemsee

Saturday, 25 January 2014

I take the motorway towards the Austrian border and Salzburg, but turn off towards the village of Prien and the Chiemsee, a large lake. The land is covered in a thin layer of snow that fell over night as the temperature dropped towards zero. Driving on the right-hand side of the road with a British car is not a problem, but the lack of winter tyres may soon turn out to be one. So far, luckily, the roads are clear.

How to take a ticket from the machine at the large parking lot near the piers? With the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, one must lunge through the passenger window to reach the button, taking care not to slip off the pedals in the process.

The next ship tour around the lake begins at noon, leaving ample time to wander along the promenade. There is a lovely winter mood, with gulls perching on snowy piers and the light reflected on the cold, grey water.

6_Anlegeplatz Prien

Chiemsee

Then the tour ship Berta arrives and gathers up a surprising number of people braving the cold on this bleak day. She delivers us to the Herreninsel, the largest island in the lake.

A twenty-minute walk along a smoothly tarmacked path through the woods leads to the hidden castle of Herrenchiemsee, a pet project of Ludwig II of Bavaria. This sensitive, creative and introverted king used extravagant building projects to escape from the sordid reality of political intrigue and power games.

Ludwig II felt much more at home in an ideal world of legend, music, art and architecture. In 1873 he acquired the island as a setting for this impressive castle. It was built in homage to Versailles as a miniature copy of that grand chateau and its gardens and was designed to be a temple of glory, dedicated to Ludwig’s idol Louis XIV. Every imaginable luxury was lavished on the building, and King Ludwig paid for everything from his own coffers, thus amassing a huge personal debt.

7_Schloss Herrenchiemsee

Schloss Herrenchiemsee

Work began in 1878 and continued for seven years, yet castle and gardens remain unfinished. King Ludwig’s exhausted funds and sudden, unexplained death (days after his deposition because of alleged insanity) put an end to his dream.

Even so, the completed parts are impressive. The guided tour of about thirty minutes takes us through extensive state rooms, clad in many-coloured marble panels and furnished with massive lead-crystal chandeliers reflected endlessly in huge, gilded mirrors, parquet floors inlaid in intricate patterns with costly, scented tropical woods, colourful frescoes and priceless embroidered draperies, as well as a collection of precious clocks and a table designed to be set near the kitchen below stairs and then hauled up by mechanical magic.

But King Ludwig II also integrated the newest technology in his building projects, like cleverly disguised central heating and running hot and cold water. Furthermore, he was a pioneer of the beginnings of social security. The workers on his castle projects could join a society that would pay a certain sum per day of illness, and carry the costs of the wake and a mass in case of death.

These days, the castles that led to Ludwig’s financial ruin are Bavaria’s main attractions and have paid for themselves many times over, drawing millions of visitors each year from all over the world …

Intrigued by this king’s tragic story, I decide to learn more about his life and visit the museum in one of the castle’s wings. Apparently, Ludwig II envisioned flying machines from an early age and later ordered various engineers to work on this idea, unaware that such a feat was not yet technically possible. Unfortunately, this dream of his was later used as one of the most damning arguments in the report ordered by his ministers to prove Ludwig’s unsound mind. However, when Bismarck was approached by the conspirators, he dismissed the report with the verdict that “the Ministers wish to sacrifice the King, otherwise they have no chance of saving themselves.”

Indeed, Ludwig II was considering replacing them all, for their constant opposition to his projects irritated and frustrated him. So the ministers, preferring to act quickly, commissioned a panel of four eminent psychiatrists with an investigation; and although not one of these doctors had met the king, nor ever examined him, their findings were that the king suffered from paranoia and was no longer fit to rule.

“Suffering from such a disorder, freedom of action can no longer be allowed and Your Majesty is declared incapable of ruling, which incapacity will be not only for a year’s duration, but for the length of Your Majesty’s life.”  

The detailed files of the king’s personal physician, who strove to show that there could be no question of mental illness, were dismissed unread.

It all makes the words of Richard Wagner, who met with Ludwig II in May 1864, seem prophetic:

“Heute wurde ich zu ihm geführt. Er ist leider so schön und geistvoll, seelenvoll und herrlich, dass ich fürchte, sein Leben müsse wie ein flüchtiger Göttertraum in dieser gemeinen Welt zerrinnen … Von dem Zauber seines Auges können Sie sich keinen Begriff machen: wenn er nur leben bleibt; es ist ein zu unerhörtes Wunder!”

(“Today I met with him. Alas, he is so handsome and ingenious, soulful and magnificent, that I fear his life must melt away like an ephemeral divine dream in this vulgar world … You cannot imagine the magic of his eye: if only he remains alive; it is too great a miracle!”)

Ludwig II had found in Wagner’s operatic work the kind of fantasy world that appealed to his imagination, and he became Wagner’s generous patron and the saviour of this obstinate, rebellious and debt-ridden composer’s career. Reports about King Ludwig’s peculiar habits observe reproachfully that the king shunned public shows at the theatre and instead ordered private performances for his solitary enjoyment. But the king himself confided that he could not possibly enjoy a performance and immerse himself in the story while being stared at by the crowds who followed his every expression through their opera glasses – surely perfectly understandable and a sign of normality rather than eccentricity.

That this king was too sensitive to withstand the expectations and duties his role placed upon him is further illustrated by his aversion to war. Nevertheless, he was forced by a treaty with Prussia to do battle against France in 1870. After the victory, Wilhelm the First was proclaimed German Emperor – in Versailles, of all places – and Ludwig considered this an insult to the French people. He refused to take part in the celebration, thus making himself more enemies at home.

He was critically aware of his situation, as shown by another quote where he reflects on the fact that he acceded to the throne at the age of eighteen.

“I became king much too early. I had not learned enough. I had made such a good beginning (…) with the learning of state laws. Suddenly I was snatched away from my books and set on the throne. Well, I am still trying to learn …”

Today it is widely believed that Ludwig was an innocent victim of political intrigue. His cousin Sissy, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, knew him closely and held the view that “The King was not mad; he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams. They might have treated him more gently, and thus perhaps spared him so terrible an end.”

31_Seepromenade

Winter Mood

Insh Marshes Bird Sanctuary, Kingussie, Scotland


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Exploring the Insh Marshes

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

This morning I set out to explore the Insh Marshes, because they caught my eye as I passed them on the road yesterday. An information panel in the car park explains that they are a nature reserve covering a large floodplain, and also an RSPB bird sanctuary.

The weather turned sunny and all at once unusually warm at twenty-two degrees Celsius. I am the only wanderer on the trail and greatly enjoy this light, marshy woodland. It strikes me as a landscape I have wanted to meet all my life without knowing it, and I find myself walking more slowly today as I breathe more deeply, stand still to listen more often, and look around for longer.

Insh Marshes Bird Sanctuary, Kingussie, Scotland

Insh Marshes Bird Sanctuary

Many of these trees wear thick pelts of lichen. Aspen leaves whisper in the wind and scores of little birds sing in the branches. I see dragonflies hunting and damselflies coupling in the feverish heat of a marshy dell. A large, glossy frog sits on the path, watching me, and a roe deer is hiding in dense bracken by the wayside. Mushrooms are everywhere, their caps bright buttons of colour: saffron, chestnut, crimson, plum and oyster, in all the autumnal stages of burgeoning and decay.

It is indescribably lovely to be here as a solitary, silent witness of this celebration of the season, and once again I feel immersed in my proper element in this dreamlike wandering and the quiet observation of nature; becoming ever more conscious of what it is I am hoping to find on this journey.

Insh Marshes, Kingussie, Scotland

Light Woodland

A path leads down to a hide for birdwatchers in the reeds. I pay a brief visit and look out at the wide marsh, but the wildlife, as usual, has a pressing engagement elsewhere.

Then I wander on through old pine forests, carpeted with thick moss. The warm resin scent of a sun-filled pine wood has to be one of my favourite smells and makes me want to fill my lungs to capacity with its fragrance. This would be my perfume of choice, if only it could be bottled!

Now the soft, mossy path tempts me to remove my shoes and to walk barefoot for a while in absolute bliss, and it occurs to me that I am reconnecting with the chief delights of my childhood here. At this rate, I shall soon be climbing trees again …

Loch an' Eilein, Shore Walk

Shore Walk

After a walk of about three hours, I drive over to the Rothiemurchus Estate Centre to have lunch. At an outside table in the warm sunshine I enjoy venison sausages, produced by the estate, with mash and red onion gravy – all absolutely delicious!

Loch an' Eilein, Rothiemurchus Estate, Scotland

Loch an’Eilein

Finally, I wander a path along the idyllic shore of Loch an’ Eilein for another hour, in yet more heartlifting serenity, beauty and peace. This stunning place is very quiet now, but must be bustling with crowds – and midges – in the summer months …

Read more in ‘Reports from the Road’, a tale for explorers of Great Britain – solo or not. Clicking on the cover will take you there:

new-kdp-ebook-cover

Readers‘ Comments:

“What a beautiful picture you paint! I only wish more English folk would appreciate all the wonderful things they have on their doorstep.” – S. Thompson, UK

“I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of your exciting and colourful reports about the places you visited. Your descriptions made me want to visit those places too.” – Jo L., UK

“Your descriptions of Scotland are wonderful.” – Emma T., UK

“Beautiful account! I’ve read a few journal entries and loved each one. You have a wonderful way with words, bringing the places and people to life. It has been a pleasure. Thank you!” – Penny F., UK

“While reading this wonderful account of the author’s rambles around Britain, I could envision what she was seeing and experience her days along with her. I felt her gaining strength day by day as she walked further and further. And felt her frustration when she had trouble finding a place to sleep some evenings. If you enjoy travelogues, this little volume is for you! And if you travel alone there are hints on what to do, and what not to do.” – J. Fender, US

“The soft way of traveling. There is something really special about Fabienne Wolf’s way of letting you participate in her trip around Britain – solo, which means getting in closer touch with things in her very sensitive way.” – C. Schauer, Spain

“I just felt as though I was there, standing next to you, seeing it all. Thank you!” – C. Bourke, UK

“I ordered both of your books from Amazon and loved the first one immensely! And now I have started the second volume on your solo cruise. Your reminiscing and experiences are wonderful, as well as your adventures on and off the ship. Thank you!” – Jane F., Beaufort SC, US

Foyers Gorge, Loch Ness, Scotland


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Exploring Foyers

Monday, 26 September 2011

More heavy rain fell in the night, but the morning is brightening. I have checked out and sit in my car, studying the road map, unsure of where to go next. There are now several options. I could continue along the coast to Aberdeen, drive up to the Cairngorms National Park, or investigate the south shore of Loch Ness. Unsurprisingly, I find that I want to do all of these things! I begin by driving back to Loch Ness, to which I find myself rather attached now that I have learnt so much about it.

On the way I pass a James Pringle Weavery, closed down several years ago and turned into a tourist attraction. In the small but interesting exhibition, an old man demonstrates the working of a semi-automatic loom by pedalling steadily. The machine makes a great noise and the shuttles fly back and forth. Because there are no other visitors, he takes a break to have a chat and tells me that he has been a weaver since he learnt the trade at his grandfather’s side, from the tender age of ten. His grandfather’s grandfather had been a weaver too, like so many people in the area, but now there are only about thirty weavers left in the whole of Scotland, reportedly producing high-quality cloth for the Arab market.

His tale is another version of the familiar story of exploitation, encountered earlier in quarry and mine: not getting paid for the whole yard of cloth produced, only for a percentage – in this case because of ‘shrinkage’. The weaving families had to buy the looms and other necessary equipment from the mill owner and paid it all off over many years. They set up the large looms in their tiny cottages and lived around the edges. All the family was busy with the washing, carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving of the wool, but they were not allowed to buy wool or sell cloth independently. Their pay was spent on supplies provided by the mill owner who also set the prices, profited from every single transaction and effectively owned his work force. The only possible escape from this form of slavery was through emigration – usually to Canada, the United States, South Africa or Australia – and was mostly chosen by younger sons who would not inherit the family loom.

Information panels on the history of Scottish clans display the famous McNames with their corresponding tartan colours and plaid patterns, as well as illustrations of the old warriors in the full glory of their garb. I cannot help thinking that they must have been very sure of their manliness to go prancing around in skirts, as well as coldly disdainful of the prevailing climate conditions.

There is also information regarding the Whisky Trail, a route that takes visitors to famous distilleries in the area. Rather amusingly, this Whisky Trail is sponsored by the Automobile Association AA (Alcoholics etcetera?). It is the same association that issued a handy book of excellent road maps, the ones that guide me on this trip. Printed on its back is the notice: ‘The experts at the AA have created these maps to help you navigate Britain’s roads safely and easily’ – especially after sampling some whisky at all these distilleries, I suppose! The Automobile Association’s daring combination of road travel and Whisky Trail sponsorship makes me wonder if Scotland could possibly have its own, separate, special laws concerning drink-driving too.

The inadvertent humour continues at the traffic light of a building site, where a large sign proclaims: ‘Pedestrians push button and wait for green man’. I sit in my car, waiting for the lights to change, and laugh delightedly, wondering which one of his many forms the mythical Green Man might assume at this crossing. Will he show his face, surrounded by foliage, as the spirit of nature, the personified triumph of life after the dead months of winter? Will he surprise children in his newer guises as Robin Hood or Peter Pan? Or will he reward patient pedestrians by meeting them in more esoteric form, as a guide to the personal transformation and inspiration that are also in his power, and associated with his name? I want to push that button, just to find out.

The drive along the south shore of Loch Ness is splendid! I am pleased that the single track road between Dores and Foyers is without traffic and I can crawl along as slowly as I like, for I find myself visually stunned by the steep, rocky woodland bank on my left and the view across the loch on my right. I arrive in Foyers and discover that this is a famous, if barely advertised, sightseeing spot. It certainly isn’t marked as a place worth visiting on my up-to-date AA map. Maybe because it lacks a distillery?

Nearby, a tremendous waterfall plunges into a gorgeous gorge; a spectacle that inspired Burns, Keats and Wordsworth, to name but a few famous visitors. And here at last I find a car park and a well-maintained footpath through unbelievably and indescribably beautiful woodland, leading down to the waterfall.

Foyers Gorge, Loch Ness, Scotland

Foyers Gorge

Uplifted, my soul reaches out in an attempt to embrace the glorious beauty that is spread all around me. In this particular place, more than in any other I have yet visited on my journey, I find the nearness of nature in its untamed and varied splendour almost overwhelming. In my youth I took the beauty of the natural world for granted, but these days I find that this easy acceptance is often replaced by a sense of awe and wonder, and a questioning of how: How is all this beauty possible? Who composed this great harmony?

The path that leads down to the lakeside is a Red Squirrel Trail, but no squirrels are to be seen. They must all be enjoying their midmorning nap. Instead, I find myself wandering through the sequence of topics from our Botany lessons as fungal fairy rings spread out amongst billowy clusters of moss under bracken that is just turning golden, and the air is so pure that lichen grows on the conifers in splendid abundance, its fronds and lobes scattered like jewels across my path.

Picking them up, I feel their delicate texture and then run my fingers over the rough bark of a Scots pine by way of comparison. After years of indoor living, this intense exposure to the natural world has a miraculousness about it that appeals strongly to my sense of touch and reminds me of my childhood. In those far-off days, stone and soil, bark and leaf had to be touched and felt to be more fully understood – and so it is now.

Red Squirrel Trail, Foyers, Scotland

Red Squirrel Trail

Towards the end of the afternoon I take the A9 and follow it through great scenic splendour into higher hills. Once again I drive without a clear goal. Just picking a road and a general direction is enough. In the evening I reach the Cairngorms National Park and the village of Kingussie, where a surprise awaits. The B&B I approach has a Swiss flag above the door, and the landlady turns out to be from Zurich, like myself. This is unexpected, to say the least!

Now a stream of Swiss dialect floats through the Scottish air and I am welcomed like a long-lost friend. There is also a lovely cat, adding her presence to the general delight, and the room could not be better. The landlady proposes to share her supper with me, so we sit down in her cosy kitchen for a good chat about our homeland and the circumstances of our lives that brought us together here. And although my Swiss German is exceedingly rusty after so many years spent in England, it limbers up as the evening wears on …

Read more in ‘Reports from the Road’, a tale for explorers of Great Britain – solo or not. Clicking on the cover will take you there:

new-kdp-ebook-cover

Readers‘ Comments:

“What a beautiful picture you paint! I only wish more English folk would appreciate all the wonderful things they have on their doorstep.” – S. Thompson, UK

“I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of your exciting and colourful reports about the places you visited. Your descriptions made me want to visit those places too.” – Jo L., UK

“Your descriptions of Scotland are wonderful.” – Emma T., UK

“Beautiful account! I’ve read a few journal entries and loved each one. You have a wonderful way with words, bringing the places and people to life. It has been a pleasure. Thank you!” – Penny F., UK

“While reading this wonderful account of the author’s rambles around Britain, I could envision what she was seeing and experience her days along with her. I felt her gaining strength day by day as she walked further and further. And felt her frustration when she had trouble finding a place to sleep some evenings. If you enjoy travelogues, this little volume is for you! And if you travel alone there are hints on what to do, and what not to do.” – J. Fender, US

“The soft way of traveling. There is something really special about Fabienne Wolf’s way of letting you participate in her trip around Britain – solo, which means getting in closer touch with things in her very sensitive way.” – C. Schauer, Spain

“I just felt as though I was there, standing next to you, seeing it all. Thank you!” – C. Bourke, UK

“I ordered both of your books from Amazon and loved the first one immensely! And now I have started the second volume on your solo cruise. Your reminiscing and experiences are wonderful, as well as your adventures on and off the ship. Thank you!” – Jane F., Beaufort SC, US