Distractions, reflections

David Ing, at large … Sometimes, my mind wanders

2010/04/15-23 Seeheim, Darmstadt, Rhine River, Brussels

I was a volcanic ash refugee for eight days. In the minivan with a group leaving Pernegg en route to the Vienna airport, we received a mobile phone call telling us that flights were being cancelled. When we arrived at the Vienna airport, the UK airports were in the process of closing. Jennifer and I thought that motion towards Manchester was better than just staying in Vienna, so we boarded the first leg to Frankfurt. When we arrived at FRA, we discovered that the UK airspace had completely closed. Then we discovered the EU rule that once a passenger is taken on as a carrier, that airline is responsible for accommodations for the passenger until he or she arrives at the final destination, or negotiates an alternative routing.

This began an unexpected adventure of an extended European tour.  On the first night, the airline sent us on a long taxi ride to Seeheim.  The destination turned out to be the Lufthansa Training and Conference Centre, a wonderful facility that tourists are unlikely to see.

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The coupons for dinner gave us the breadth of choice of continental cuisine from experienced chefs.  After the meal, Jennifer and I walked around as much of the building complex as we could find.  I read that there are bowling alleys at the facility, but we never found them.

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We might have liked to extend our stay at this facility, but we were told the conference centre was booked full for that evening.  We took a shuttle back to Frankfurt airport.

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At the airport, the airline then sent us to Darmstadt. This town is the home of the Technische Universität Darmstadt, a research institution with strong ties to German industry.  From just west of the city centre, we walked to Ludwigsplatz.

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The city centre, such as Ernst Ludwig Strasse, has only pedestrian traffic going through it.

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The Luisenplatz is centered on a fountain, and ringed by buildings with sidewalk cafes.

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To the north is a park and city hall, with a prominent military statue.  Families were out enjoying the weather.

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I had located the Institut für Neue Technische Form on the tourist map.  The doors were locked, but then a curator came down from the second floor to let us in.

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The displays in the institute were strongly related to industrial design.  The exhibition happened to be a celebration of incandescent lighting, since the world is on the move towards compact florescent lights.

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Have been on our feet for a few hours, we paused for a rest on a bench by the fountain in the Herrngarten.

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Continuing on our walk east, the path through the Technische Universität Darmstadt was only a few blocks across.

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By Karlplatz, the neighbourhood transitioned to more residential buildings.  We encountered some children playing by the sculptures.

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To the east, we had seen the wedding tower of the Mathildenhohe — Darmstadt Artists’ Colony — from some distance away, and walked uphill through a park to reach it.

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We were too late in the day to go into the Museum Künstlerkolonie — the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony Museum.

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That entry might have allowed us to see the wedding tower.  We had to be satisfied at looking up from the plaza.

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Opposite the wedding tower, the plaza looked over a bowling garden where many elderly were playing.

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Next to the plaza and bowling garden was the Russische Kapelle — the Russian Church.

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The pool at the base of the Russian Church had the soothing sound of running water.

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We walked west, downhill, to find buildings of one of the institutes of the Fraunhofer Society — probably the Institute for Applied Research in Visual Computing.  The Fraunhofer name was familiar to me, as a sister institute had invented MP3 audio.

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A minute further along, the next building featured a modern architecture that looked like a vessel about to take flight.

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At the base of that building, we found skateboarders taking advantage of the slopes and rails.

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Circling back to the hotel, on our westward walk, the Katholische Innenstadtkirche St. Ludwig — a Catholic Church — was tightly nested in a residential district.

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After a quiet evening in the hotel, Jennifer decided that she was going to get up early in the morning to make her way closer to home.  That Saturday, she went back to the airport a few hours before me.  When I arrived, I found her at the head of the Lufthansa executive check-in queue.  She discovered that she could trade her plane ticket for a train ticket to Brussels, with a reservation for the Eurostar train to London on Tuesday.  I decided to join her in the voyage, since my college roommate Pierre had offered me shelter in his apartment in Brussels until the ash clouds cleared.  During the 3-hour wait for the next available InterCityExpress train to arrive, Jennifer managed to upgrade her Tuesday booking on the Eurostar for a first class Sunday departure.

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The ICE train took us on a route up the Rhine River.  We saw barges, reminding us that water travel preceded rail travel.

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We had a great view of castles and vineyards overlooking the Rhine.

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One of the major cities on our path was Koln.  We noticed things fastened onto the railings of the bridge into town, which turned out to be padlocks of love.

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We only stopped at the station for few moments in Koln.  On another trip, the4 city would be worth a visit.

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I had been sending SMS text back and forth to Pierre.  By the time we passed through Aachen, we were many hours late.  It turns out that this Rhine river route is not the express track that the ICE normally takes.  The train must have missed an window of opportunity, and was thus relegated to the slower — albeit more scenic — route.

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Pierre picked us up at the Brussels North railway station, and lavished us with refreshments at his apartment.  I’ve been to Brussels a few times before, but Jennifer had not.  Pierre took us to the city centre, and parked under the Place d’Espagne, where there’s a statue of Don Quixote.

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A short walk, and we were at the Grand Place.  The guild halls line the plaza.

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The town hall has the highest tower on the square.

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Thinking about dinner, we walked northwest through Grand Place into the small maze of streets.

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Pierre led us to a reliable brasserie in the Belgian tradition — Scheltema — and we were lucky to score a table outside, to soak up the atmosphere.

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By the time we had finished dinner, the sun had set.  Our return walk through the Grand Place was no less scenic, with facades shown off with floodlights.

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At the Grasmarkt, some amateur astronomers were also enjoying the evening, giving passersby an opportunity for a view of the sky.

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The next morning, we set out on our day from a different starting point.  Pierre parked near Place du Petit Sablon.  Statues of the Count of Egmont and Count of Horn overlook the park.

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The Sablon Antique Market was open on Sunday morning, but we weren’t in a shopping mood.

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The service at L’église Notre-Dame du Sablon was in session, so not a stop for tourists on Sunday.

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We wandered through the Magritte Museum, which included three floors of paintings, sketches and memorabilia from René Magritte.  The galleries were considerably dimmer than the entry, presumably to preserve the condition of the works.

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After a lunch where we sampled steak americain, we put Jennifer on her train to London.  She texted us that evening that she had picked up her car from the Manchester airport, and driven home.  When she went to the office the next day, she discovered that she was practically the only instructor in the school, as many of her colleagues were caught in Asia without a way home through the volcanic ash cloud covering the UK.

Pierre also had to cancel his business travel to Houston, because of similar flight concerns.  I figured that the conditions would clear in about a week — or the airlines would figure out alternatives — so rather than stressing out day to day, I booked a return flight from Frankfurt for Friday.  For four days, Pierre went to the office, and I worked in his apartment, with a good Internet connection.

In the late afternoons, I took some time off to explore his neighbourhood in northern Brussels, Schaerbeek.  The main street this Brussels commune is Chaussée de Haecht, known for its history of immigrants from Turkey.

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The neighbourhood is a compact urban district of apartments and shops.  Josaphat Park is a major patch of greenery for families to enjoy.

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The Neptunium pool is nearby, for those prefer swimming.

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I had made train reservations for the Brussels-Frankfurt return, but booking seats would be easier at the station.  The walk to the train station took me by Place Colignon.

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After passing through a series of residential streets, I came to Place Liedts, where there was a statue of Nasreddin Hoca on a donkey.  Nasreddin is a satirical figure in Turkish culture, and there’s a joke about telling him that he’s riding his donkey backwards.

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There’s a gate at one end of Rue de Brabant, a popular shopping street.

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Once I found the wickets at the Brussels North station, reserving a seat was just a few euros.

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Coming out the other side of the station, there is a cluster of office towers that contrast with the low rise structures on the residential side.

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My return walk to Pierre’s apartment took me by the Halles de Schaerbeek, formerly a covered market, and now a European Cultural Centre with theatre and live performances.

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The Église Saint-Servais was a good landmark to ensure that I wouldn’t get lost.

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Downhill, the gardens in the boulevard at Avenue Louis Bertrand provide a grand view back to the church.

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Early on the Friday morning, Pierre dropped me off at the Brussels North station.  I was only a few minutes on the platform, with the train arriving on time.

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The trains running on time meant less than a 3-hour rapid route to Frankfurt airport, as compared to the 5 hours for the journey by the Rhine River.

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When I arrived at the Frankfurt airport, it turned out that my flight booking — involving a connection — was invalid.  The agent put me on standby for the direct flight to Toronto, and I was lucky enough to be boarded.  In the terminal of Frankfurt airport, there were remnants of the temporary accommodations given to stranded passengers, although it seemed as the emergency had mostly passed.

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My philosophy is not to get stressed out with travel reroutings.  I was fortunate to be well accommodated by EU travel regulations, and then through the kindness of a friend.

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