Monday, May 5, 2008
Last year a small polar bear named Knut was born at the Berlin Zoo. Cute and cuddly, the bear stole the hearts of people all over the world when its mother rejected it and the zoo raised it by hand. Fast forward a year and Knut is no longer the adorable ball of fur that the world knew him to be. He grew up to be a regular polar bear, still cute, but not that cute.
Enter Flocke. In December 2007, another polar bear was born in Germany. The Nuremberg Zoo was excited to have a new addition. However, when this bear’s mother rejected it, the world was once again won over as little Flocke was raised by her keepers at the zoo. What started out as just another bear cub ended up an international sensation that the zoo has used to bring about awareness of environmentalism and global warming.
I followed the Knut story somewhat sporadically, interested mostly in seeing the photos of the small bear in his cute cuddly phase. But when Flocke was born, for some reason I took a much greater interest. I followed her story on her website, watched her daily videos, and became so obsessed with her that my boyfriend programmed an RSS feed of her daily photo into our alarm clock so I could see her every morning when I woke up.
Don’t get me wrong here…I’m not the mushy sentimental type. This whole Flocke obsession really isn’t typically ‘me’. There’s just something about this little bear that I can’t help but love.
Thus it logically follows that being in London meant that we would have to go visit little Flocke when she was old enough to roam around outside. That day came in April, so we quickly booked our tickets for this weekend’s bank holiday.
We flew to Munich on Saturday morning and arrived two hours later still marveling at the fact that we live so close to continental Europe and don’t have to worry about long-haul flights and jet lag. We drove up to Nuremberg that afternoon and arrived in time to explore the city before nightfall.
I wasn’t expecting much from Nuremberg. In fact, in my excitement to visit Flocke, I hadn’t even bothered to research the city beyond getting directions to and from the zoo. But when my boyfriend and I set out on Saturday to do some exploring in the historic part of the city, we were pleasantly surprised.
There were big markets selling food, wine, beer, vegetables, and all kinds of other goodies, a huge castle with huge walls and lovely flowers, churches with beautiful facades and elegant spires, a great beer garden by the river, and a whole bunch of bridges spanning the water. We spent the afternoon wandering around, eating and drinking our way from one spot to the next. We eventually ended up at dinner, where we feasted on sausages and sauerkraut and washed it down with good German beer.
Sunday we woke up early to get to the zoo. We arrived at 8:30 and I dragged my boyfriend across the entire park to the polar bear enclosure so that we could get a front-row viewing spot.
When the little bear trotted out of her indoor enclosure I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I started watching her and didn’t look up for the next 45 minutes. I followed as she played with her toys (putting a basket on her head was a favorite activity), explored the grounds with her keeper, went for a swim, rolled around in the grass and mud (note how she gets dirtier and dirtier throughout the morning), played some more, and jumped up to eat leaves from the trees. She really was adorable.
I tore myself away from the bear enclosure to explore the rest of the zoo, which incidentally was a really beautiful place. There were trees and flowers everywhere and the animals looked well kept. Sadly, the red pandas were nowhere to be found, but I guess I can’t have everything.
Leaving the zoo, we headed west to a little town called Feuchtwangen. There we met up with the Romantic Road, a stretch of highway that runs through some of the most picturesque towns in Germany. Since we had to drive back to Munich, we figured we might as well make the most of it.
Our first stop on the Romantic Road was the tiny town of Dinkelsbuhl. Aside from having a name that made me laugh every time I said it, Dinkelsbuhl was a town straight out of Hansel and Gretel. The colorful buildings, city walls, and fields full of dandelions made us feel like we had just stepped into a Disney movie.
We ate lunch in Dinkelsbuhl then continued south until we came to Harburg. We were about to drive right by (or under, I should say) when I looked up and noticed that we were right beneath a castle. I had to see this.
We drove up the hill and stopped by the castle before heading down into the town. Apparently it was market day, because everyone was out and about selling just about everything imaginable. We browsed our way along the narrow streets, checking out the goods, then stopped for some apple strudel before heading back to the car.
Our drive took us south through bright green fields filled with yellow and white flowers and small towns with beautifully carved wooden houses. When we got down to Bavaria, the snow-capped mountain peaks arose out of nowhere and took our breath away.
Our drive ended in Hohenschwangau, the town at the base of Neuschwanstein castle. We drove into town just before dark and had time to walk around and see the tiny town before dinner. I immediately remarked how Neuschwanstein, in its Romantic glory at the top of the wooded mountain, reminded me of Sintra in Portugal. Ironically, later that night my boyfriend read that the castle was a contemporary of Sintra’s Palacio da Pena, which is sometimes called the Portuguese Neuschwanstein. My whole life is coming full circle.
This morning we woke up early and hiked to the castle. Our tour guide took us through the rooms, which were decorated in Gothic, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Renaissance style, and all devoted to Wagner and his operas. It was a rather bizarre place, but stunning in its opulence and odd in its recency (it was built in the late 19th century).
We left Hohenschwangau after our castle visit and drove up to Munich, where our journey was about to end. We had time for a quick lunch at the Hofbrauhaus, which I hadn’t been to in almost eight years, and a walk through the Marienplatz and the English Garden. After that we headed to the airport and made our way back to London in time for a leisurely walk before dark.
Our trip to Germany was planned for the sole purpose of seeing a small bear in Nuremberg, but like the bear herself, the journey ended up taking on a significance much larger than its original intent. I’m so glad we got to see the city of Nuremberg, drive the Romantic Road, see Neuschwanstein, and visit Munich all in one weekend. This is exactly what I hoped living in London would allow me to do, and I’m enjoying it immensely!