We took an altogether-too-short but thoroughly wonderful trip to the Upper Rhine Valley region of Europe. I'm not sure that "Upper Rhine Valley" is a recognized term for this region, so please forgive me if I've abused it; more technically, we visited:
- The Alsace region of France
- The Schwarzenwald region of Germany
- The neighboring areas of Frankfurt, Germany, and Basel, Switzerland.
Plus, it matches up quite nicely with this map.
So there you go.
Anyway, we spent 10 wonderful days there, which was hardly even close to enough, but it was what we had.
And I, in my inimitable fashion, packed about 30 days of sightseeing into those 10 days, completely exhausting my travel companions.
Once again, no surprise.
I'll have more to write about various aspects of the trip subsequently, but here let me try to crudely summarize the things that struck me about the trip.
- Rivers are incredibly important in Europe, much more so than here in America. Rivers provide transportation, drinking water, sewage disposal, electric power, food (fish), and form the boundaries between regions and nations. They do some of these things in America, too, but we aren't nearly as attached to our rivers as they are in Central Europe, where some of the great rivers of the world arise.
- For centuries, castles helped people keep an eye on their rivers, and make sure that their neighbors were behaving as they should in the river valleys.
- Trains are how you go places in Europe. Yes, you can fly, or you can drive, but if you CAN take a train, you should. And, if you can take a first class ticket on TGV, you absolutely, absolutely should. I have never had a more civilized travel experience than taking the TGV from Frankfurt to Strasbourg. (Though full credit to Lufthansa for being a much-better-than-ordinary airline. If you get a chance to travel Lufthansa, do it.)
- To a life-long inhabitant of the American West, Central Europe is odd for having almost no animals. People live in Central Europe, nowadays; animals do not. BUT: storks!
- France, of course, is the country that perfected that most beautiful of beverages: wine. While most of the attention to wine in France goes to Southern France, don't under-rate Alsace, for they have absolutely delicious wines of many types, and have been making wine for (at least) 2,000 years. We Californians may think we know something about wine; we don't.
- The visible history of the Upper Rhine Valley is deeply formed by the Franks. Don't try to understand the cathedrals, villages, cities, etc. without spending some time thinking about Charlemagne, etc. And, if you were like me and rather snored through this part of your schooling, prepare to have your eyes opened.
- The other major history of the Upper Rhine Valley involves wars. My, but this part of the world has been fought over for a long time. Most recently, of course, we can distinguish these major events:
- The Franco-Prussian war, which unified Germany and resulted in Alsace being a German territory
- World War One
- World War Two
So often through my visit I thought to myself: "Am I in French Germany? Or perhaps is this German France?" Just trying to form and phrase these questions in my head, I realized how little I knew, and how much there is to learn, about how people form their bonds with their land, and their neighbors, and their thoughts. Language, food, customs, politics, literature: it's all complex and it's all one beautiful whole.
This, after all, is the land where Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, where people like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Louis Pasteur, John Calvin, and Albert Schweitzer lived and did their greatest work.
I could, of course, have been much terser:
- The Upper Rhine Valley is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The people who live there are very warm and welcoming, and it is a delightful place to take a vacation
- Early May is an absolutely superb time to go there.
I'll write more later, as I find time.