Europe For The Senses

Author/Photographer Vicki Liston blogs on her book and some interesting places she's traveled. "Europe for the Senses - A Photographic Journal" was published under the name 'Vicki Landes'.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Dorotheenhütte: Hidden Gem of the Black Forest

Germany’s Black Forest hides many delightful secrets amid its thick foliage. In this land of fairytales and half-timbered houses lies a little glass factory, practicing the methods of a time long past. Located in the town of Wolfach, the Dorotheenhütte Glass Museum brings the traditions of yesterday alive for today’s visitors.

Proudly known as the ‘Black Forest’s only hand-blown glass factory’, Dorotheenhütte walks its guests through 2,000 years of glass history. The museum section of the complex shows how the art of glass-making has evolved over the years as well as displays tool and mold artifacts from long ago. Masters can be observed creating and grinding delicate crystal stemware by hand - each cut a carefully calculated combination of angle and pressure.

Dorotheenhütte also gives their visitors the opportunity to try their hand at glass blowing – fascinating and fun when considering one rarely gets the invitation to ‘touch’ and ‘try it out’ when fragile objects are concerned. Standing near the 2,642 degree inferno of fire and molten glass leaves one uncomfortably warm, yet it develops a sense of awe for the master who endures this heat for his love of the art. Take a deep breath and blow with all your might as a tiny bubble forms in the glowing shapeless mass at the other end of a long metal tube. The master coaxes for more air, more pressure, more strength as your cheeks start to tingle and your face turns bright red. You get a very short break as you pick out different color chips for the blob that will eventually become a shapely vase. The master has you blow into the tube again as he twists and shapes the vase then flings it almost madly through the air as you wonder how close he’s getting to the floor and the crowd. The glass cools enough to cut it off the tube and the vase must cool longer before being handled. The glass blowing workshop is absolutely free – only pay a nominal fee if you want to take your work of art home with you (since the vase must cool first, this give you plenty of time to peruse the rest of the complex).

Dorotheenhütte’s ‘Glass Paradise’ is appropriately named as it is truly a heaven for shoppers. The room brilliantly sparkles as each overhead light, perfectly positioned, splashes bright reflections and color over everything. Shelves and display tables are stocked full of finished vases, such as those blown in the free workshop, sets of stemware of all shapes and shades, figurines, candleholders, hanging balls that shine like stained glass, and anything else imaginable for home décor. ‘Glass Paradise’ leads into ‘Christmas Village’, full of enchanting seasonal ornaments and decorations throughout the entire year. Twinkling lights border the aisles of fluffy snow and delicate items that are practically bursting with holiday spirit. Whether spending a lot or a little, Dorotheenhütte’s experienced staff gently packs each find in protective paper to cushion its journey from Wolfach. They also offer international shipping options for those who would rather have their purchases meet them at home. Finally, after a day of blowing glass and shopping, visitors can relax in Dorotheenhütte’s charming restaurant. Have a full meal of delicious German cuisine or simply a warm drink and a pastry to reenergize as you admire the traditional wood décor.

Dorotheenhütte is a one-of-a-kind experience in the Black Forest region of Germany. Although it seems to be hiding among the dark trees, it welcomes each person with its enthusiasm and talent for the beautiful art of glassmaking.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Lake Constance: Holiday on the Bodensee

August is ‘vacation month’ for many Europeans. Shops close, traffic congests at all hours of the day, and a vacant hotel room is almost impossible to find. So, where do you go if you already live in a country where international tourists flock to? Many go to the peacefully blissful shores of Lake Constance.

Image visiting three different countries in only one day! It’s possible on Lake Constance. Called ‘The Bodensee’ in German, the lake laps at the shores of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Visitors have several options when exploring this area – by scenic car ride, on a relaxing cruise via ferry boat, or to really experience the area’s personality – ride the bicycle trail, stopping at each and every charming village on the route. Whatever mode of transportation is preferred, the visitor will be enchanted by the history, the atmosphere, and the breathtaking views of the snow-capped Alps.

A visit to the Bodensee begs the question, “how much can I possibly see while I’m here?” because there are so many options. On the German side of the lake, Meersburg is charming, boasts an old and a new castle, has a bustling pedestrian zone, and enough half-timbered houses to send the tourist back in time to an era less rushed. In contract, Birnau Abbey, a Baroque pilgrimage church, seems like a humble loner from the outside – standoffish and silent above the reflecting waters. A step inside her sanctuary shows she’s anything but shy. The exquisite frescoes, towering walls, and an influx of light so brilliant that it momentarily halts her guests, as if reminding them of the greater scheme of things. The town of Langenargen boasts an unusual Moorish castle – its unexpected style feels out of place among the traditional German buildings. Yet as the sun sets over the serene lake, the castle begins to glow with a sense of belonging. Even the waters seem to agree as they reflect a mirror image of Moorish radiance.

On the Austrian side, the town of Bregenz offers tall gothic towers, onion-shaped cupolas, and castle ruins at the very top of a mountain. One wonders if the residents of this town look out of their windows and stare in awe at the sheer magnificence they live and work in each and every day. Or does the landscape become a mere backdrop – no longer overwhelming them with a deep love of the natural beauty?

On the Swiss side of the lake, Romanshorn mixes the traditional with the contemporary. It, too has adorable half-timbered houses but it also contrasts these with its modern port and many modern tourist attractions. Minigolf, swimming pools, and playgrounds give the visitor a relaxing break from the area’s history…yet still remains grounded in a time past.

There are many more little towns and larger cities along the banks of this tranquil lake, however it’s the small island of Mainau that should not be missed. No one lives on this little seven kilometer long piece of land surrounded by the waters except a count and his family, yet it feels like a secret garden of sorts. Nicknamed ‘the garden island’, Mainau bursts with almost every type of plant life imaginable. From common flowers to tropical trees, each species thrives in the unusually warm climate the island experiences. The little island is an easy ferry ride from any of the ports along the lake – a ride effortlessly enjoyed with a warm cup of cappuccino or hot chocolate.

Lake Constance can be considered ‘the’ vacation spot of the German people. Each city feels like a seaside retreat with relaxing comforts and captivating sites. While a ‘melting pot’ of three beautiful countries, the Bodensee is the perfect place to unwind – whether that involves doing absolutely nothing on a waterfront bench while eating ice cream or taking in centuries of history while shopping, playing golf, or exploring museums. ‘The Bodensee’ translates to ‘holiday’ in any language.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Wuerttemberg Memorial Chapel: Tribute to a Young Queen

Perched atop a vineyard-covered hill, the lonely Wuerttemberg Memorial Chapel enjoys a magnificent view of the Stuttgart area’s wine country. Although it sits in reverent silence, the chapel proclaims the timeless love of King Wilhelm I for his deceased bride, Katharina. The two now share this secluded resting place, together for eternity.

In 1819, Wilhelm and the people of Wuerttemberg lost their beloved queen at the tender age of 31. This queen had given much of her own money to further the social development of the area, including a girls’ school, hospitals, and an institution for charity – even during the extremely difficult years of famine. The enormous Wuerttemberg Hill, home to the family’s old 11th century fortress, had been a favorite place of Katharina’s. Shortly after her death, Wilhelm had the ancient fortress leveled so he could build something truly symbolic of his devotion for her. Italian architect Giovanni Salucci had been employed as the court architect and was soon put to work designing an appropriate new haunt for young queen.

The result of Salucci’s work was a neo-classic rotunda with an airy, arching dome inspired by Rome’s Pantheon. Towering Corinthian columns, stucco rosettes, and marble statues all of the palest hues reflect peace and rest as the dome’s incoming sunlight is subdued to a gentle glow. Warmly detailed cast iron accents the coolness of the circular room and is used for the doors, window frames, and a ventilated portion of the floor directly under the soaring dome. Since Katharina was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, Wilhelm made sure that this aspect of his wife’s existence was also remembered with fitting icons and services. Even to this day, Orthodox worship is conducted in the chapel once a year on Whit Monday. Katharina quietly sleeps below in the chapel’s dark crypt, surrounded by a massive white sarcophagus, where she patiently waited for Wilhelm to join her 45 years later. Their daughter, Marie, lies nearby and remains the only other soul in the tomb. Although the crypt is simple and unadorned in décor, the cast iron floor above allows light to pour in and paint decorative patterns on the cold stones that support the chapel’s foundation. Since this iron floor/ceiling lies right under the dome, the royal couple enjoys an everlasting view of the heavens.

In addition to being a monument of love and Italian architecture, the chapel is something of an acoustical phenomenon. Sounds originating in the crypt reverberate off the hard stone walls as well as travel up through the cast iron floor to bounce around the spacious dome. Secondary echoes from the crypt also travel skyward to create deafening slap-echoes which live several seconds before dissipating. This amazing sound effect brings an unusual energy and life to a place enveloped in death and remembrance.

On its isolated peak on Wuerttemberg Hill, the memorial chapel leaves the visitor with a profound sense of marital love. Visible from even miles away, the structure immortalizes one man’s devotion to his wife. Romantic, too in the sense that the pair have this secluded spot to themselves forever.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Tuscan State of Mind

Sometimes traveling isn’t just about going to a destination; it’s a state of mind. Physically, I’ve been trapped in South Carolina for seven months now while mentally I try and put myself back in my favorite European places. One of my very favorites is the Tuscany region of Italy. While the city in South Carolina is a blistering desert of concrete, Tuscany radiates a rejuvenating warmth that washes over you like the rolling green of the hills.

Since I’m currently unable to experience the area in person, I can only do what I can to substitute the experience. CDs full of pictures taken during my travels bring back stifled laughs and fond memories. The coffee table books I’ve collected over the years are so full of intense color and vivid landscape scenes that it makes my ache even worse. I even read “Under the Tuscan Sun” this week (which isn’t done justice by the movie). Mayes is such a descriptive writer. She does such a perfect job bringing the area to life and I believe, deserves much credit for putting Cortona on the map. Her book stirs memories of my one day in this little town – hot chocolate and pastries at a little café in the morning, gelato under a patio umbrella in the pouring rain, and linen shopping after the sun triumphed over the stubborn clouds. It almost makes me forget that my ‘gelato’ is now Eddy’s or something from Dairy Queen.

I also try to substitute with cooking – of course, I’m far from the authentic cuisine I once savored in the local family-owned restaurants. Tortellini al forno, penne al’arabiatta, even plain old spaghetti marinara is a work of art in Tuscany. I throw basil around like it’s going out of style, get all giddy when I find a sweet gorgonzola or pecorino cheese at the grocery store, and keep Verdi on full volume while I create my own personal Italy in the kitchen. Fortunately, I’ve been able to bring back the very best extra virgin olive oil in the entire country – La Macchia. The green, aromatic oil tastes so fresh and so light that you taste what you are meant to taste – the fruit of the olive tree – and not something reminiscent to wheel bearing grease. So even if my bruschetta is made from imported North Carolina tomatoes, South Carolina french bread, parmesan from Kraft, and dried basil from a lousy little plastic jar (out of fresh basil again…), I still have my beautiful drizzling Tuscan olive oil.

Italians also understand and appreciate the concept of ‘breaks’ (and not the 15 minute kind). Time doesn’t rule a Tuscan’s day, rather it revolves around life at the moment. I rush from one end of my current hometown to the other, running errands and trying to make it to appointments on time – in Italy, being late is ‘normale’. And when it gets to lunchtime, there’s no rushing through the meal and then jumping back into a schedule. Between the shining sun at its zenith and a full stomach that’s pulling you into a food coma, the day calls for a siesta. This ingenious concept not only refreshes the body but it literally pulls your mind into another world. Why fret about the next two hours when everyone else’s life has also come to a relaxing standstill? Daydream, watch the tall grasses blow in the wind, or drink a cappuccino among friends with a vineyard as a backdrop. Until the notion of a daily siesta takes hold in America, I attempt to create my own with plastic patio furniture and a Coca-Cola…that is, until the phone starts to ring with endless telemarketers anxious to sell me siding or refinance my mortgage.

There are just some places that feed your soul and remain in your heart no matter where you go. The rise and fall of the graceful hills, the glittery silver-green leaves of the olive trees, the way the aged bricks glow in the last rays of the evening sun all call me back for more. In the meantime, though, I’ll remain in a Tuscan state of mind.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Oberammergau: Devoted to a Passionate Promise

The little village of Oberammergau is more than just another charming German town. It’s a place where history is full of faith and sincere gratitude. It’s a place that oozes of timeless moments. And it’s a place where a promise to God has been kept for almost 400 years. Oberammergau is truly the soul of Bavaria.

Located in southern Germany not far from the Austrian border, Oberammergau is adorably charismatic and enchanting. Streets are lined with half-timbered houses whose flower boxes are exploding with brilliant red blooms. Many of the buildings are adorned with ‘lüftlmalerei’ – ornate fresco-like paintings on the outside walls, meant to display the residents’ religious beliefs or family occupation. Since Oberammergau is a deeply religious town, many of the paintings depict saints or other characters from the Bible. However, two houses – nicknamed the ‘Red Riding Hood House’ and the ‘Hansel and Gretel House’ – are colorfully painted with children and are said to have inspired the classic fairytales of the same name.

Oberammergau is also home to some of the most talented woodcarvers in Germany. These thriving little businesses offer exquisite hand and machine-cut plates, bowls, decorative items, toys, and religious icons. Visitors can not only browse a shop’s selection but observe as the resident master creates a work of art out of a simple block of wood. The fresh scent of sawdust and wood chips linger in the air around the stores as if drawing customers in with a signature perfume.

Despite all of its charm and beauty, the magnetism of Oberammergau is its emotional Passion Play. Back in the dark days of the Thirty Years War, the little town watched as Europe fell victim to an even harsher enemy – Plague. This menace brutally ravaged home after home, community after community, city after city and leaving almost no one in its wake. As this Black Death crept over Oberammergau’s borders and her population started to feel its grip, the town cried out to a higher power for help. Not wanting to be obliterated as other places had been, the citizens made a solemn promise to God – the desperate prayer of a desperate people. They swore that if God saved their town, they’d reenact the story of Christ’s death and resurrection every ten years as a commemoration of His mercy. They made this ultimate deal in 1633 and by 1634, they were ready to make good on their bargain. Although Oberammergau lost some to the deadly disease, the town as a whole escaped extinction and the Passion Play began its long-running history. Its first performance was held in the town cemetery, perhaps so even the plague’s final victims could look upon this promise upheld. Even now in these modern times where religion sometimes falls in the cracks, the citizens of Oberammergau refuse to tempt fate and remain faithful to their ancestor’s word. Their beautiful rendition of ‘the greatest story ever told’ runs a whopping six hours and is performed in an open-air theater through all kinds of weather.

Picturesque and eternally grateful, Oberammergau takes its promises very seriously. The next ‘installment’ of that promise is scheduled for May-September 2010.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Monrepos Castle: Ludwigsburg’s Silent Charmer

The exquisite baroque Residence Castle steals the thunder in the town of Ludwigsburg, Germany. Its proud and stately demeanor vies any other historical building in the area. However, the quiet little Schloss Monrepos sits on the outskirts of town – and proves to be just as charming.

Monrepos is a ‘newer’ castle, dating back to the 18th century. The delicate rococo facade cheerfully greets the visitor as they enter the grounds and the grand double staircase is an elegant focal point. In fact, many brides can be seen using this spot for their wedding photographs. The appeal of the castle is actually in back, where the stairs descend and dip their cold toes into the quiet lake. Swans and ducks keep the stone statues company as they guard this rear access to the palace.

The castle itself is actually privately owned and closed to the public but that doesn’t diminish the allure. Instead of touring the inside, visitors can stroll the expansive grounds or sit and enjoy the scenery. Want to get the best view? Rent a paddleboat and set out to explore the dream-like lake. Little islands anchor trees that hang over the water creating enchanting tunnels of foliage – perfect for escaping the hot sun or a misting rain. The lake has a calming sense about it, leaving the boater with only the splashing sounds of paddling as they watch the ripples lap at the castle steps. Worked up an appetite yet? Visit the kiosk near the entrance to the grounds for authentic German snacks and enjoy them on a blanket underneath the verdant trees.

Monrepos Castle begs to be seen as it competes with the regal Residence Castle nearby but its undisturbed character gives it its charm. Whether looking for a fresh, lesser-known place to photograph or simply needing a quiet spot to reflect and chat with the ducks, this modest palace will captivate and satisfy.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Release of third book trailer!

The EFTS summer book trailer has been released! See it on You Tube at:

Pompeii: A City of Death Lives On

Amid the hardened ash and pumice of a two-thousand year old disaster lies a city so perfectly preserved, it sparks the imagination of even the most indifferent visitor. Pompeii has become more of a living museum than an excavation site since its discovery in the 1700s. Millions flock to the ancient Italian city to explore this pristine time capsule that has taken over 250 years to be slowly and delicately uncovered.

It takes at least one full day to be able to truly take in all of Pompeii’s many intricate discoveries. Walk the stone streets where only the wind and birds now reside, wondering how much more of the town’s secrets await resurrection. Take in the magnificent beauty of elaborate mosaics and colorful frescoes that have weathered such utter circumstances. Marvel at the citizens’ names that will live on forever in the clinging paint on their homes. Imagine the marble splendor of the mighty Temple of Apollo and the other religious icons of the day. Ponder what it would have been like to live in this flourishing city that was at its zenith when Vesuvius began to grumble its ominous warning.

The excavation of Pompeii has been nothing short of astonishing. Such care has been taken since the beginning of its unearthing that we are able to see a clear snapshot of the city on its last fateful day in AD 79. Simple terra cotta containers for oil and wine, giant millstones, iron farm tools, and decorative columns have been protected for 2,000 years in a heavy blanket of ash and serve as witnesses to everyday life. The most shocking is the presence of Vesuvius’ victims. As the digging began, empty cavities were found among the layers of volcanic debris. Archeologists soon realized that each void was actually where a body had long since decomposed. Plaster was poured into the empty spaces to create molds of the bodies, which are chillingly detailed – their writhing agony during a suffocating death, the terror on their faces, even the way their hair was styled that day are frozen forever in the casts. Some were found fleeing for their lives while others were found curled up on floors and beds with their hands covering their faces. One cast depicts a thief with his hand in the purse of a wealthy man who is seemingly unaware of the looting while trying to escape the catastrophe. Another cast portrays a frightened dog fruitlessly fighting against the chain that held him captive. Each plaster mold projects such an intense emotion that visitors are sometimes moved to tears at the profound loss of life that Pompeii exhibits.

Despite its constant reminder of death and destruction, Pompeii proves that life continues to overcome obstacles as the vines and blossoms thrive among the silent ruins. A sleeping Vesuvius remains as a visual remembrance that life is precious and the unexpected could happen at any moment.

Traveling with a Child’s Perspective

Within a few short months of giving birth to our first child, my husband got word that the Army, in all of its wisdom, decided that moving us to the other side of the world was a good idea. This meant leaving behind everything familiar – family, friends, schools, church, our favorite Kansas City barbeque restaurant – and adapting to a new country, a new culture, and a new language.

My husband was thrilled as he’d always wanted to visit to Germany. Me? The word ‘livid’ comes to mind. I’d never traveled much, didn’t have much of an interest to leave my perfectly good home and strand myself somewhere new, but at this point I didn’t have a choice. We packed up every single worldly possession we owned, said our goodbyes to family and friends, and had our last sweet taste of that barbeque before heading out – my husband, me, and our then 9-month-old son. What I didn’t know at the time was that this would be the first of many trips we’d be taking.

It took a little while to adjust to our new life but Europe offered too many fascinating sites for my reluctant demeanor to resist. We traveled mostly on the weekends to sites in the area due to my husband’s work schedule but every now and then, my husband was able to take leave and off we’d go to someplace new. I had transformed from unwilling traveler to globetrotter and I wanted to ensure that our son really appreciated our various overseas trips, something his peers back in the states would probably never have the opportunity to experience.

We ended up staying in Germany for a total of seven years – four years more than originally planned – and I’ve come to realize that my son came away from those family trips with a much different takeaway than I did. Granted, that was to be expected during the first years. We visited the Louve in Paris when he was two-and-a-half and while I was commenting on the talent it took to carve the marble warrior figures depicting a gruesome battle scene, my son was overly concerned with their ‘ow-ies’. As he grew older, though, his appreciation for these priceless sites continued to be on a level very different from my own. One unseasonably warm February morning, we found ourselves standing in front of Michelangelo’s David in Florence. For me, David was absolutely profound. The brilliant Italian sculptor missed no detail as he carved this larger-than-life man - the bones in the hands, the contours of each muscle, the eyes with their thoughtful gaze - even the cold marble itself looks like soft, white skin. I stood in front of him deep in thought, feeling small and humbled in his towering presence. My curious son, unable to contain his question any longer, loudly whispered, “Mommy, why is David naked?” Knowing my son’s own fondness for that natural look, I simply replied, “do you know how you don’t like getting dressed? Well, David’s just having a ‘naked day’.” He took a couple seconds to process this reason, which seemed perfectly normal to him, and answered with an ‘oh, ok’ then looked back up at David with a new-found sense of understanding and commonality. As we walked around to view him from the back, I pointed out various intricacies to my son. I wanted him to see what I saw in this statue – perfection. My son responded as honestly as he could, loudly whispering in such a way that although he was talking to me, everyone around us could hear him, “mama, that’s a big booty.” What’s a mother to do? I’m trying to add a bit of culture into my preschooler’s life and his takeaways from David are that he’s having a ‘naked day’ and he’s got a big booty! Even years later at his current age of seven, I know he remembers going to these famous sites. When I asked him about the Tower of Pisa recently, he said, “yes! That’s where you bought me the Hulk candy and they had all those stands of junky toys!”

We’ve since moved back to the states and I enjoy reflecting on those precious seven years worth of travels that the Army blessed us with – 45 countries worth of trips, 364 weekends worth of family fun, and countless unique commentaries of the sites from my son. As I recall the places I’ve seen – breathtaking world heritage sites, museums full of priceless works of art, ancient castles that still stand strong, soaring cathedrals that take your breath away, or ruined cities that echo with its lost souls - it’s not my mature, educated appreciation that comes to mind. It’s the purity of my child’s perspective – his angelic view that breathes a fresh look into even the oldest of travel destinations. I will always appreciate the artistic technique of Michelangelo’s David, but I love him for being able to relate to my son’s aversion to clothing…and for having a big booty.