This Is Saxony!

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Workaway
Unfortunately our plans to cycle for a week alongside the River Maine visiting wineries fell through and so we found a workaway host that was en route to spend some time with instead. Workaway is similar to wwoofing in that you stay with a host, work 5 days a week, 5-6 hours per day in exchange for food and accommodation. It differs in that the work doesn’t have to involve organic farming. It can be anything that will be useful to the host (this is advertised on their online profile so you have some idea in advance) including gardening, cleaning, babysitting, teaching English, renovations etc.

An army of dogs
Our interest was peaked in our first host as it was described as a perfect stay for animal lovers, living in an old semi-converted mill helping to look after the 6 dogs and a few Icelandic ponies. One of the dogs had just had puppies so the work would also involve playing with them. This hardly sounded like work and we were soon booked in for 8 days in Saxony, near the border with Thuringen.

Our host picked us up from the train station and was lovely and chatty despite having slightly sketchy English. On arrival at the tiny village of langenleuba – oberhain (a small bakery and a hairdresser were the only services) we were greeted by an army of dogs. It turns out there were 8 adult dogs (two of them only a year old) and 6 puppies! Our host had been at work all day so they were super excited to see her.

In amongst the dog army

In amongst the dog army

Now, I would describe myself as an animal lover, and a definite dog person but when you’ve got 4 Scottish setters, 2 Great Danes and 6 puppies jumping up and barking all around you and you’re trying to get into the courtyard and not let them out, while carrying your luggage, even I was a little overwhelmed!

The smallest and biggest representatives of the dog army - Cora and Ido

The smallest and biggest representatives of the dog army – Cora and Ido

I thought we would never learn all of the dogs names but we came to love Schmoozy, Ido, Leisel, Mina, Ricky, Dicky, Fronnie and especially little Cora – the chiwawa which made me change my mind about handbag dogs!
We were pleased to have a room with a little living room off it at the top of the mill which was a dog free zone and a nice haven for some quiet at the end of the day.

Sunset view from our bedroom window

Sunset view from our bedroom window

We also got lovely sunsets across the fields from up there.

The work
The mill and outbuildings were huge and only a few of the rooms had been renovated to living standards. We spent a day clearing out the loft area above the horses stables which was full of old boxes, tools, horse harnesses, milk pails, junk and stuff that looked like it been there since the 18th century. Everything was really dusty, there were cobwebs everywhere and I was charged by a few spiders released from under boxes. It was not a fun job and I’m not sure our ‘beats being at work’ slogan applied on that day!

Building the electric fence for newt paddock for the horses

Building the electric fence for newt paddock for the horses

Mostly though our work involved grooming the horses, mucking out their field and stable, fixing fences, building up new electric fences, moving hay and trying to help clear out some courtyards. We also helped a local farmer one day to shovel and move 8 tonnes of horse manure. Our host was lovely and clearly genuinely loved all of her animals but as a single person with a demanding full time job we felt like she’d possibly taken on too much with the property and continual acquirement of animals.

Job done - 8 tonnes of manure moved

Job done – 8 tonnes of manure moved

We helped her get by but we were mostly doing daily chores and so we were left feeling unsatisfied and somewhat melancholy about how unsustainable the arrangement was. She had no time to walk the dogs so they were always hyper and when we ventured out with them (only five, not the whole lot) I nearly got my arm ripped off as they tore through the gate, so excited to be out and then they constantly pulled on the lead. I think in this situation, love for the animals was not enough, our host needed more time for them. She also didn’t have much time for us, not that we minded too much, but we mostly organised our own meals and rarely ate together as she was home from work quite late. We did cook for them once (with the minimal ingredients we could find!) which consisted of kartoffel puffe (potato cakes) and home made apple sauce.

An outing
There were some highlights from our trip there though. We had a sunny Sunday afternoon off and our host offered to take us with her neighbour to a beer Keller in the next town.

At the beer kellar

At the beer kellar

We jumped at the chance as in Bamburg our servas hosts had explained that kellars didn’t really exist anymore and when we saw signs for them it generally meant a beer garden. After a hot morning of physical work mucking out the inquisitive Shetland ponies a few beers in the sun sounded perfect. Little did we know how random our outing was to be.. Our first clue was being advised to bring a jumper as the kellar may be cold. Hmm, strange given that it was 30 degrees outside. We arrived at a lovely looking pub in Penig and were given hard hats and taken down, down, down underground to a genuine beer cellar, used in the 15th century for storage! It was about 9 degrees down there so pretty chilly and the whole experience was quite bizarre given that after establishing that we only spoke English, the guide proceeded to give the whole tour in German with no translation from our hosts! We understood bits and pieces, it was interesting but really, quite strange.
Saxony - Amerika train stationThe theme continued with our next stop – Amerika! The hamlet seemed to consist of a disused train station and an American flag and a pub. We only stayed about five minutes because there really wasn’t much there.

We also had fun being in the Saxon countryside where the dialect was really strong. Mitch’s German is basic but usually he can gleam an understanding of what people were saying whereas in Saxony, it really was another language.

So it really wasn’t all bad, in fact, mostly we had a good time, it just wasn’t what we had expected from workaway. Having just spent 10 days at our second workaway we can definitely say that each experience is very different as we had a fantastic time there. More about that soon.

Rambling along the Romantic Road

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Mad Kings and Castles
The Romantische Straße (romantic) is a 350km route between Fussen and Wurzburg in southern Germany linking a number of picturesque towns and villages. With a few days up our sleeves we decided to check out part of it. Starting at the southern end we arrived in Fussen to find that our hostel had limited reception hours and was closed til 4pm. It was 1pm and today was only our chance to visit the famous castles in the area. Fortunately we were saved by a ritzy hotel that was happy to store our bags for the afternoon. Liberated from our luggage, we avoided looking at the threatening dark clouds and loaded onto the local bus (full of tourists) and headed up the hill to Neuschwanstein – home of King Ludwig II.

Neuschwanstein, view from the bridge

Neuschwanstein, view from the bridge

The Mad King was a big fan of castles and although he already had a couple up his sleeve he immersed himself in his fantasy world of building the fairytale castle, which indeed inspired Disney’s sleeping beauty palace. However the castle was never finished as he ‘mysteriously’ drowned in the lake. With a crazy ticketing system we opted to just walk around the grounds and up to the bridge overlooking the castle and valley.

Lake at the bottom of Neuwanstein

Lake at the bottom of Neuwanstein

We had a lovely walk around the lake although the threatening clouds delivered and we did get a little wet.. We stayed in a great little hostel and giving the dorm a miss after Sazlburg opted for a twin room. Possibly the tiniest room we’ve stayed in, the bunks were stacked into the wall/ceiling, a bit like having a CT scan!

Rothenburg ob der Tauber – quintessential Germany
Next stop was Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a beautiful old town still surrounded by city walls, this was quintessential medieval Germany. It is one off the few towns with surviving city walls as many others were destroyed during the bombings in WWII. Apparently Rothenburg’s were rescued by an American General who heard of the plans to bomb it. He had grown up with a picture of the town in his parents house and had always dreamt of visiting.

Rothenburg city walls

Rothenburg city walls

Some years later he was able to visit the city he had saved. It’s free to walk along the city walls and we enjoyed taking in the sights of the city from above. We got an even better view from the top of the tower of the Rathaus, a bargain at €2 each although not for the faint hearted with a steep, cramped climb to the top! In the evening we learned a lot more about Rothenburg’s history on a walking tour with the Night Watchman, our guide recreating life as a watchman who used to patrol the city after dark, lighting lampposts and keeping an eye out. The tour is hugely popular, there must have been about 70 people but the guide is entertaining and knowledgeable and at €7/head, it’s highly recommended.

Wine tasting in Wurzburg
We had a quick stop in Wurzburg, primarily to sample the region’s famous wine which comes in a ‘bocksbeutel’ the shape of the wine bottle typical of Franconia.

Wine tasting in WurBurg

Wine tasting in Wurzburg

Unfortunately the wineries themselves were not open to the public midweek but there are cellars in town where you can do a tasting. It was slightly tricky to find the cellar, with a few businesses on the street pretending to offer samples but third time lucky we found the place. You have to pay for the tasting but we basically ended up with three glasses of wine each for €8, rather a lot at lunchtime but a good option if you find yourself there mid week. We enjoyed comparing the different varieties of Riesling and Silvaner which the area is known for and bought a few bottles to enjoy with our next hosts. Wurzburg also has a pretty stately home type building, the New Residence, which has lovely gardens with water fountains, the perfect spot to munch on our packed lunch and snooze in the sun after all the wine!

Wurzburg New Residence

Wurzburg New Residence

Bamburg: Freak City
Bamburg was our last stop on the Romantic Road, famous for smoked beer (rauch bier) and basketball. Germans are obsessed with football however in Bamburg, the football team’s not so good. Needing a sport to follow, the locals got behind the basketball team and with a reputation for unwavering devotion and noisy supporters (think drums, chants AND a brass band) they earned the name of Freak City.

St Michael's Church, Bamburg

St Michael’s Church, Bamburg

Bamburg was also where we had our second Servas experience. Our first hosts in Ljubljana were fantastic and Inka and Alex rose to the challenge and didn’t disappoint. Alex introduced us to the smokey, and semi-smoked beer famous in the town and we spent some time with their children – serious, football loving Johannes, cute Sebastian who I sang songs with and gorgeous, smiley baby Elisa. Again they lived out in the suburbs but it was only a bus ride away and it was nice to stay with locals and be away from the tourists in the town centre. We had the typical German spread for dinner each night with tasty cheeses and smoked meats with a basket of different breads (delicious salty pretzels).

Bamburg - historic Rathaus over river

Bamburg – historic Rathaus over river

Bamburg’s a pretty city and worth spending a day or two. The old town hall is built out of the end of another building and overhangs the river which is rather pretty. We also climbed a few steps to St Michael’s Church where we got a nice view over the town. We enjoyed lunch at the famous Schlenkerla brewery and of course, sampled the local brew. I liked the semi-smoked beer, it tastes similar to smoked meats however the fully smoked I found a bit overpowering. By now we’d been eating a lot of meat and bread and i was feeling a bit desperate for some vegetables. Therefore I was pleased that there was an asparagus menu at the brewery offering some lovely white asparagus soup. We’d seen them a lot over south Germany and when white asparagus is in season, chefs design a separate menu to honour the vegetable.

Pork shoulder for lunch with a smoked beer

Pork shoulder for lunch with a smoked beer

Mitch was still happy to be carnivorous and had the local delicacy of pork shoulder. We were entertained over lunch by a charming retired Irish couple, Paddy (I’m not even joking) and Patricia. They were hilarious, telling us stories and talking over each other so that even I couldn’t get a word in.

The Romantic Road is full of cute little villages and worth a visit, particularly to gorgeous Rothenburg. However it felt a bit funny being tourists in amongst mostly 50-60 year old American couples with a few bus loads of Japanese around and I was keen to get back to the wwoofing and the backpacker trail. However I don’t think I was at all prepared for what was to come next at langenleuba – oberhain..

Revisiting old friends and places: Nufringen, Tubingen and Lake Constance

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We headed south from Rineck to spend a long weekend with my old exchange family who I first met in 1999 who live in Nufringen, just south of Stuttgart. The last time I’d seen them was in 2007 so it was great to catch up. They remembered my favourite pastry treat – ‘schnekanoodle’, a snail shaped Danish with raisins and icing, which they had for our arrival with coffee and some other sweet treats.

Touring around Tubingen

Touring around Tubingen

It was pretty hot and on our first day which culminated in a spectacular thunder and lightning storm that night. The following day my exchange partner, Nadja and husband, Sebastian took us on a tour of his university town, Tubingen. It’s a lovely old town, with cobbled streets and there’s an infamous spot where German writer/poet, Goethe, apparently vomited after a big night! We partook in the more cultured tradition of punting on the river.

Punting on the Neckar!

Punting on the Neckar!

Each year there’s a punting race, popular with the fraternities where somewhat unbelievably, FORTY boats race down the river Neckar at once (it’s not very wide). Some unlucky fellow is nominated ‘the pig’ and has to sit at the front and try and avoid/deal with collisions.

Prost! Lunch at the brewery

Prost! Lunch at the brewery

We had lunch at a local brewery overlooking the river and then headed out to the stable where Nadja keeps her lovely horse, Jack.

Nadja, Jenny and Jack the banana eating horse

Nadja, Jenny and Jack the banana eating horse

Now, despite growing up around horses, something I never knew, and now this may be particular to German horses, is that they love bananas! A nice end to the day was dinner at a beautiful, old converted barn where they had delicious, huge homemade cakes and Mitch and I enjoyed the typical German dinner, ‘abendbrot’ a cold platter of meats, pickles and cheeses served with bread. This is usually a smaller affair with imagelunch being the main meal of the day. However, our platter to share was enormous and we only managed about half!

We spent a sunny Sunday at Lake Constance which is situated across Germany, Switzerland and Austria. We had a clear day so could see across the Lake to the magnificent Swiss alps. We visited the old castle in Meersburg which also happens to be the town where the inventor of the Zepplin originated.

Exchange pals reunited at Lake Constance

Exchange pals reunited at Lake Constance

Usually there’s a Zepplin flying across the lake however Mitch was disappointed not to see it the day we were visiting. A good reason to return! After our massive dinner the night before we were easily persuaded to have a light ice cream lunch where we sampled our first ‘spaghetti eis’.

Spaghetti eis for lunch!

Spaghetti eis for lunch!

It was nice but I think I prefer my spaghetti in carb form and my ice cream in scoops! We had fun driving onto the car ferry and over to Mainau, the island of flowers (owned by a Swedish princess), where we weren’t disappointed. The gardens were just gorgeous, in full bloom and beautifully taken care of.

Mainau - in the gardens

Mainau – in the gardens

We also enjoyed going into a big butterfly house where there were hundreds of butterflies of different sizes and colours, in particular a really vibrant blue. Mainau is really worth a visit however the entrance cost is quite pricey, I think €19/head so plan to spend at least half a day as there’s a lot to see.

It was such a relaxing weekend and nice to be hosted by friends so that we didn’t have to consult guidebooks, maps, trip adviser… We could just enjoy the places, a backpackers dream.

Wwoofing: out of the office and into the paddock

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I first heard about wwoofing (willing workers on organic farms) when I worked at the Pillars of Hercules Organic Farm and cafe during my first gap year at 18. The wwoofers would help out with whatever was needed on the farm 5 days a week for 5-6 hours per day in exchange for food and accommodation. It seemed like a great way to travel slowly, learn about what was being farmed,develop some new skills and meet some local people.

Sweat Lodge

Back at base after a 10km hike

Back at base after a 10km hike

Our first wwoofing hosts were Chris and Mabel at Rineck in the Baden Württemberg countryside. Chris, Melbourne born, is developing a permaculture veggie garden and is Mabel’s son in law. Mabel runs a large seminar house where groups come to practice yoga and meditation. While we were staying there was a group led by a shaman Eskimo from Greenland who built their own ‘sweat lodge’, essentially a sauna in a field which they built from branches covered in blankets and put inside are stones heated from a fire outdoors. They started at about 11pm and went through until 4 or 5am doing chants and well, getting sweaty! It’s supposed to be a spiritual and energy cleanser, not for me as I can only manage about 15 mins in a sauna..

Inspecting a mornings planting in the polytunnel

Inspecting a mornings planting in the polytunnel

Practising permaculture

However, we were more interested in the permaculture practises and learning from Chris some of the techniques he used in the garden. So, what is permaculture? The name was coined in the 70s by Mollison and Holmgren, an Australian student and his professor and stands for permanent agriculture. It basically involves working with nature to grow enough to sustain the plant/crop/land itself and then yield some additional for human consumption. There have been many books written on the subject and I’m keen to learn more about it and hopefully implement some practices when we’re back in Aus. On our first day Chris introduced us to his ‘hugels’, some large mounds which he had built up using a mixture of cardboard, wood and compost so it was really fertile.

Planting seeds in the hugel

Planting seeds in the hugel

We planted a number of seeds including carrots, buckwheat and peas and put a loose covering of straw over the top to help capture the moisture. We also helped Chris to build up some ‘swails’. Fortunately some wwoofers before us had already dug some trenches and our job was to break up the branches of some dead trees to fill them and cover in mulch. The swails then act as a natural water storage so you plant fruit and nut trees down their sides and the roots will soak up the water from the swails. This was a great technique, fairly easy and low in resources that I think would be extremely effective in water scarce environments

Chris also had us using an old Native American technique of building up mounds with compost, topping each mound with 4 small piles of mixed soil and sand in which we planted sweet corn with a pumpkin plant in the middle. We spent a rainy afternoon making up clay balls which had a mixture of clover and alfalfa seeds sprinkled within which we could throw into the swails. I liked the idea that we didn’t have to plant everything in neat rows but could plant different seeds in amongst others.

Jenny learning about making compost

Jenny learning about making compost

We also spent one physically intensive day making up two large mounds of compost. This involved alternatively layering cut grass with brown leaves/hay and then horse manure. It was hard work but it was great to think about how many delicious veggies would benefit from growing in such great compost!

After 3 hours, the lasagne compost is complete!

After 3 hours, the lasagne compost is complete!

We did a variety of other jobs during our stay from clearing out and tidying Chris’s tool shed, to helping out put netting over the large chicken/duck/guinea fowl run to stop the kites from getting at the birds (Chris had recently lost 4 chickens to the kites) to mowing the lawn and collecting the clippings to mulch around the bases of the many fruit and nut trees. We also enjoyed observing Chris transfer a bee swarm he had caught into a more permanent hive, watching the baby chicks and also the little foals frolicking in the next field.
The work was interesting, varied and often physically demanding. We learned a lot and I certainly have had my interest in permaculture peaked that I intend to learn more about it. The work was balanced with participating in Chris’s yoga sessions which we held a few nights a week with locals from the surrounding villages – lovely to stretch out after a day of digging/planting/shifting manure in the garden! It was also a good way to pick up a few German words – left/right, ‘ant spannen’ relax..

Beautiful old water mill which we spy as we come out into the clearing from the forest

Beautiful old water mill which we spy as we come out into the clearing from the forest

Touring in time off
On our days off we enjoyed doing some hiking in the local area (not cycling unfortunately as I was too short for any of the bicycles offered!) where we spotted deer, hare and a beautiful old water mill. We also liked getting away from the tourists wielding selfie sticks to join the locals at the Mannheim stadtfest where we sampled a range of local cuisines (the best was the cherry quark cake) and listened to some bands.

Some of the treats on offer at the stadtfest

Some of the treats on offer at the stadtfest

We also spent a day in Bad Mergentheim, a small quaint village with a very grand fort which was the headquarters for the Teutonic Knights for 300 years.

Lunch in Bad Mergentheim

Lunch in Bad Mergentheim

We had a delicious lunch of kase späetzle (cheese noodles) and maulhausen, huge stuffed pasta washed down with some tasty local beers while sitting out in the sunshine in the main square.

Bad Mergentheim markt

Bad Mergentheim markt

Mitch took us on a short self guided tour around the town before we headed for the fort. There was a great visiting photography exhibition on the ground floor which showed two photos of each person, one in their casual clothes and one in uniform with an accompanying description of how they felt in each. It included nuns, police officers, sportsmen, miners and even a dominatrix!

Mitch learning how to be a good knight

Mitch learning how to be a good knight

The museum about the history of the Knights was more up Mitch’s ally but it was interesting to learn about how having the Knights there over time had affected the local town. We enjoyed walking around the beautiful gardens behind the fort in the late afternoon sun where we saw a few cheeky squirrels playing on the lawn.

Hanging out in Heidelberg
We also spent one hot afternoon off in Heidelberg, a beautiful town set along the Neckar river. Although it was quite touristy we think we timed it well arriving after lunch as the bus loads of Asian tourists were exiting. We got great views down on the town and across to the castle from the philosophenweg, named so because it was where the university academics and professors used to get out of town to ponder, reflect and think deep thoughts.

View from philosophenweg over Heidelberg

View from philosophenweg over Heidelberg

The views were really fantastic however my thoughts only stretched as deep as feeling the need for an ice cream on such a hot day after a steep uphill walk! We walked back into town past the locals sunbathing/bbqing/picnicking on the banks of the river, enjoying the sunshine. Back in the old town, a two scooper mango and caramel popcorn ice cream went down a treat.

Schloss Heidelberg

Schloss Heidelberg

Energy restored we walked up the hill on the other side to the beautiful Schloss, mostly in ruins. It was very pretty to wander through and in and around the gardens.

 

 

 

 

We really enjoyed our first wwoofing experience at Rineck, not only was the food great (think Ayurvedic porridge for breakfasts with freshly ground oats courtesy of Mitch,

Mitch grinding oats for porridge

Mitch grinding oats for porridge

veggie kedgeree for lunch or homemade ice cream with berries from the garden al’a Anna Maria and Claudia, the resident chefs!) but Chris and Mabel were also great hosts . It was nice to be somewhere that friends and neighbours seemed to drop in and out so we could enjoy chatting and learning about their way of life. It was a great way to force Mitch to practice some German, and for some of them, to try their hand at English in return!

Relaxing in the hammock after a hard days work

Relaxing in the hammock after a hard days work