September 29, 2005

Sprachkurs/Amsterdam/Paris/Chapel Hill

Filed under: Travels — Alex Ravenel @ 4:49 pm

So, tomorrow is the end of the Sprachkurs. We have to give a short presentation; the one that my partner and I are working on is soccer in Germany. It won’t be too hard, and should actually be quite fun, so that’s not really that big of a concern.

Then, directly after that, I head to the train station and jump a train to Amsterdam. I’m staying there for the weekend, then heading to Paris to stay through the rest of the week. Friday, I catch a flight back to the States for a week–I found a crazy cheap ticket, have time to spare, and won’t be able to go again until February. Besides, I’d like to see Lindsay and the Lodge.

Anyways, I’m sure I’ll be posting about all those things, but it’ll probably be a while. Until then…

September 27, 2005

Flight Search Engines

Filed under: Travel Tips — Alex Ravenel @ 12:30 pm

Given that I have a three week break between my summer class and the official start of the semester, I’ve been doing a lot of travel planning. With that includes many searches for flights and such. I figured that I’d list my suggestions for the best flight search engines.

First, is Kayak. Kayak is an aggregate search engine, meaning that unlike the other major flight searches (Orbitz, Travelocity, etc), it compares flights from over 100 different places. I’ve consistently found cheaper prices here than any other site. Add to that its interface design, which incorporates some excellent work to allow you to seamlessly and dynamically filter the search results, and you’ve got the best flight search engine I’ve ever seen.

Second, and only for those flying within Europe, is SkyScanner. SkyScanner lets you choose flights from many of the budget airlines in Europe, shows you which days are cheapest to fly that route, and shows you, in one glance, the prices after tax, which can more than double the cost of the ticket. A great place for inter-europe travel.

Third, also for those in Europe, is WhichBudget, which tells you what budget airlines fly out of what airports and to where. Again, a huge help for planning trips within Europe.

Thats it for now. I’ll add other worthy sites as I find them, or watch the links to the right.

September 26, 2005


Filed under: Travels, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 2:12 am

Saturday, a few friends from the Sprachkurs program and I went to Munich for Oktoberfest. We caught the earliest train we feasably could, the 6:28AM out of Tuebingen, that would put us in Munich at around 10:30AM. Unfortunately for me, living out in the boondocks meant that there was no bus here that early in the morning, meaning I had to shell out for a cab. After being hurtled to the trainstation by a lead-footed guy blasting German pop in his Mercedes taxi, we all boarded the train and took off. Our first train, from here to Plochingen, was no problem–empty, as one would expect. Our next two trains however were another story. At Plochingen, about 50 people tried to fit into an already full four car train. After taking my place sitting on the floor, I lucked out when someone sitting next to me got off at the next stop, so I got a seat for the rest of the hour long journey. The next train was even worse. In Ulm, we, and seemingly the rest of Germany, boarded the train to Munich. There was no way of anyone getting a seat on this thing–it was standing room only, and barely that, with no room to even sit on the floor. And more people got on at every stop. To top it, in Augsburg, the train broke down–except that the doors broke down along with it, and so we were stuck standing in the train for an hour. With that many people on the train, it gets hot fast, and to top it, people started smoking. Hot air choked with cigarette smoke doesn’t make for a good time.

OktoberfestFinally, at around 11, we made it to Munich. Promptly heading towards Oktoberfest, all we had to do was follow the masses of people wearing lederhosen and beermaid dresses to the festival grounds, about 15 minutes from the trainstation. We soon arrived at what looked like a massive state fair, and could already hear the drunken singing and carousing from the tents. We walked down one of the main streets taking it in, ate quickly, and then tried to find a place to sit down. All of the tents we tried were full (hard to believe, seeing as these things probably fit 10, 15 thousand people each, but they had apparently been full since 10AM), but soon we heard from another friend who had found a table outside the Paulaner tent. We promptly crammed ourselves in at the table, and ordered a beer.

Oktoberfest, BeermaidThe beermaid soon returned with our beers. These things are huge–1 liter each, which is the equivalent of three 12 oz bottles of beer. You can hardly lift one with one hand, and these beermaids carry 8 or so at once. When they hit the table, it makes the most tremendous racket. We promptly set to drinking our one liter masses of beer, and were soon talking with the people sitting across from us–an older German man and his nephew, the man plays steel guitar in a country-western band, lyrics in German, of course. He used to play in the officer’s clubs of American military bases in the region, and we talked about the strange small differences between American and German culture.

Oktoberfest, Singing ItalianWe were also well entertained by the table of Italians sitting across from us. They had been there drinking strong since 10AM, and were (clearly) having a good old time. As soon as we walked in, they practically pounced on the two girls we had with us, and after seeing that they seemed pretty harmless and were buying the girls plenty of seven euro masses of beer, we sat down at our table and just laughed. Hey–free beer.

We kept drinking strong. The problem is that everyone is carousing and singing and toasting, so you’re constantly drinking, all the time. Add to that the smoothness of the beer, and before you know it, you’ve killed your mass and need another one. As the empty masses piled up, everyone gets much more friendly with each other, and before you know it, you’re talking with anyone and everyone. I ended up talking with a couple of French people, and had a great conversation about politics, and then, even better, we talked about cycling and argued over whether or not Lance Armstrong is a doper. A most excellent conversation. Soon after, we realized that we were very soon going to have drank too much (if we hadn’t already), so we departed our hard-won table and decided to leave so we could get some affordable food and see some of Munich before we had to leave.

Frauenkirche, MunichAfter munching down one of the ubiquitous German fast-food sandwiches, the Doener (which is actually a quite good Turkish sandwich on fresh baked bread), we headed into the Altstadt and wandered around. I was very impressed with the place, and it looks like a great place to spend a few days. I went and found the hotel that my parents are staying in when they come and was lucky enough to get to see a room, and then we headed back to the train station.

The train ride home was uneventful save for the pounding hangover headache I and everyone else in my group had. The whole train was a ragtag bunch, all the way back to Tuebingen, with everyone on the train hungover and looking like they wanted to die. It was entertaining in the least, and after an uneventful, and much less full ride home, I promptly hopped in the bed and slept hard for 10 hours.

September 22, 2005


Filed under: Travels, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 2:21 pm

Yesterday, our Sprachkurs class took its second and last excursion, this time to Stuttgart. We all piled into a big Mercedes van and our teacher’s Peugeot, and headed off down the road, with more than one destination planned.

First stop, the Ritter Sport chocolate factory in Waldenbuch. The first thing you notice here is that upon stepping out of the car, the very air itself smells like chocolate. From there, we headed into the showroom/museum thing they have there. While there, we monopolized a display/toy that would dispense free chocolate, then watched a short movie about the plant (and got more free chocolate), then headed to the store downstairs. The prices were pretty good here, about 50 to 70 cents for a bar that costs 2.50 or so in the States. I only bought a few bars, but some others came out of the place with 20 pounds worth of chocolate.

After that, we went to Boeblingen, a rather ugly town, but with one great redeeming factor: IKEA. Upon hearing this, we managed to convince our Sprachkurs teachers to take us there. All bowing before the cheap-retail-houseware gods, we quickly dispersed to do our shopping. I got a lamp to replace the crappy one that came with my room, a small rug, and a small winerack. There was a larger rug that would have covered most of the floor of my room that I wanted, but they were sold out. I still wish I had more time there though–I would have gotten a new pillow and some cookware and some glasses and some sheets, and, and, and… Massive and awesome doesnt begin to describe the place. The thing that baffles me though is that they opted to build it in a tiny place like Boeblingen–Tuebingen, a town with 25,000 students who need cheap housewares could have singlehandedly kept the place in business.

MercedesAfter that, it was off to Sindelfingen, just outside of Stuttgart for the best part of the day: the Mercedes factory. The first thing that pops into my head from viewing this place is precision. Much of the assembly work is done by robot, and it’s incredible to witness the precision with which these things work. I mean, these robots are sliding entire dashboard assemblies in through the door and screwing them in, with less than an inch to spare on any side, and never even touch the car. Mercedes, ShowroomAnd in the press shop, where the metal is stamped into its shapes, massive two and three story high machines press and cut the metal with a thump that shakes the floor like something out of Lord of the Rings. The whole thing managed to restore my faith in German engineering, which had been waning as of late.

After that, we finally made it to Stuttgart proper and after dinner and a beer at an outdoor cafe, we headed to our first German soccer game. It was interesting, but after the Mercedes tour, not much measures up. We had a good time watching the rowdy fans, though.

Anyways, this weekend, we are planning to go to Munich for Oktoberfest. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of pictures and stories out of that, so stay tuned.

September 15, 2005

Tuebingen Umbrisch-Provenzalischer Markt

Filed under: Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 12:54 pm

Tuebingen Provenzalischer Markt, SpicesThis weekend in Tuebingen, there is a large market going on in the Altstadt. There are frequently markets in the Marktplatz (hence the name), but this one is a bit larger. While the normal markets feature only vendors from around the town, mostly selling food, this includes vendors from Italy and France, selling everything from cheeses to wines to food to crafts.

Tuebingen Provenzalischer MarktBoth of these pictures were taken this afternoon at this market. Things were already crowded, and one could barely move. From what we have been told, it gets significantly worse: tomorrow and Saturday night will be an unbearable crush of people. Thankfully, I think I got my fill of it today. These two photos were the two best, and I really like the one above; I think it is one of the best photos I’ve taken in the last year.

September 13, 2005


Filed under: Travels, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 4:18 pm

This weekend, we had planned to go to Stuttgart for a winefest. Great plan; we showed up and smoothly caught a train to Stuttgart. Unfortunately, the winefest was a bust. We got there, and it was more of an expensive tourist trap with four euro glasses of watered down wine than the winefest we had all pictured in our heards. We shortly left that, and after realizing that none of us knew of anything else in Stuttgart to do, and all having other things back in Tuebingen that could be done, jumped back on the train back home for a quiet day.

Bebenhausen CloudsThe next day, Kiel, a fellow UNC student, and I headed to Bebenhausen. Bebenhausen is a small town to the north of Tuebingen that used to house a walled monastery. Much of the monastery survives in surprisingly good condition. Kiel and I hiked over there through some paths through the woods, coming out of the woods onto a grassy hill that looked over Bebenhausen in the valley below.

Bebenhausen DoorFrom there we headed into the town, and were immediately impressed. The whole town is an amazing tangle of paths and roads, winding their way through the ancient walls, houses, and gardens. The whole place is amazingly open as well, with very little closed to visitors.

Bebenhausen StairsWe spent several hours in the town, aimlessly wandering the streets and taking in the sights. When I say Bebenhausen is small, I mean it–I suspect that less than 250 people live there. And yet, we managed to make several hours out of it, and still felt rushed. There was just such a wealth of things to see there.Bebenhausen Roof Every time you turned around, you’d see something else you wanted to look at, from the ancient town wall with its arrow loops and battlements, to the dormitories, to the courtyards, to the church itself. It was a wealth of exploration.

Bebenhausen MemorialIt was also a wealth of photographic possibilities. I took many photos there, too many to fit in this post. Go look a the photo gallery and take a look at some of the ones that didn’t make the cut here.

September 11, 2005

Burg Hohenzollern

Filed under: Travels, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 5:07 am

Burg HohenzollernOn Friday, our Sprachkurs class make a trip to the town of Hechingen to see Burg Hohenzollern, a 19th century neo-gothic monstrosity. The castle is typical 19th century, when princes with too much money and an overactive imagination would build massive neo-gothic creations that have no defensive function. Castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, the castle that the Disney castle is modelled after, is the best example of such castles.

Burg Hohenzollern, WalkwayWe took a bus to get the 20km or so to the town. From there, we began the long trek up to the castle. The castle is built on a small mountain, part of the Swabische Alb, a lightly mountainous region of Germany not far from Tuebingen. The trek through the woods was nothing short of strenuous–there weren’t many switchbacks and so we ended up walking almost straight up the mountain. Arriving at the top drenched in sweat, we rested for a bit and then proceeded to head into the castle.

Burg Hohenzollern, ViewThe tour was completely in German, but the tour guide was actually quite easy to understand. We were shown the lavish interiors and admired the gold leaf and fairytale like design of the castle. Interestingly, there was a small group of Americans in the tour that didn’t speak any German. Whenever we heard a particularly interesting bit of information, we’d lean over and tell them what was going on. After the somewhat short tour, we were allowed to climb one of the towers to get a better view of the countryside. When the weather is nice, you can see the Swiss alps from there, but it was a bit hazy, putting a stop to those plans.

All in all, a fun day trip, but I don’t think I’ll be back. The parts of the castle that are open for viewing are really quite small, and given its lack of history and extremely difficult walk to the top, one day trip is really all that’s needed.

September 7, 2005

A Walk Around the Castle

Filed under: Travels, Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 11:49 am

Today, there was no afternoon class, so everyone from the Sprachkurs went to get lunch at the student cafeteria in the Altstadt, and then we all went our seperate ways, everyone having something else they needed to be doing. I had to go to a hotel to make reservations for when my parents come in December, and after confirming with my broken german that the reservations were indeed what we wanted, I proceeded to head to the castle–since it is only 50 meters from the hotel anyways.

When there the last time, I had seen several walking paths and parts of the castle that I couldn’t figure out how to get to, and I now wanted to find those and get a better view. I headed into the castle, and quickly found several parts that are not immediately obvious, but are extremely beautiful.

Schloss Hohentuebingen from the woodsThere are many small courtyards and gardens on the backside of the castle. I didn’t get many pictures of them as everything was so spectacular that I couldn’t capture what I wanted to on my little point and shoot camera that I had with me, but I plan to return soon with my good camera and attempt to show them. However, imagine this: courtyards, with grass in the middle, medieval stone castle walls covered in ivy rising all around you, and battlements with excellent views to the city and countryside below. And I only saw a couple other people there–guess where I’m going to be doing my reading and studying from now on? To those from Chapel Hill, I think it beats the Undergrad library.

Tuebingen through the treesAfter finding everything that is open to the public, I walked down one of the many paths jutting into the woods along one side of the castle. There was a paved walking trail, and several unpaved trails following along the castle walls. I explored both of these, and was rewarded with excellent views of both the castle and the surrounding town.

Suffice it to say, it was a good day, and I will be returning to the Schloss Hohentübingen many a time.

This weekend, several of us from the Sprachkurs are planning to go to Stuttgart for a wine fest. Baden Württemburg, the state that Tübingen is in, is a very large wine producing region (think Riesling), and the harvest is starting to come in, so many of the local producers are showing off this year’s vintage in Stuttgart. Should be a great time.

September 6, 2005

Stocherkahne und Radler

Filed under: Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 12:15 pm

It’s been a busy couple of days. Things are starting to pick up a lot, and we’re all starting to get the swing of things here.

StocherkahneLast night, my Sprachkurs class took out one of the numerous Stocherkahne, the gondola like boats that pole themselves up and down the Neckar river. Owned by the Tuebingen version of fraternities, these boats can be rented and are frequently seen lazily making their way up and down the river as their occupants enjoy the day, and often their food–many bring grills along, placing it on a seat like another member of the boat.

Tuebingen from the NeckarWe did the same, minus the grill, and calmly pushed ourselves up and down the river, laughing as one after the other of us couldn’t quite get the hang of making the boat go in a straight line, rather than crashing into one side of the shore followed by the other. Everything is quite beautiful from the river, and served to further reinforce something I noticed as soon as I landed in Stuttgart–Germany is very green.

Windows, TuebingenAfterwards, we all went to the beer garden for a few beers. Wanting to try something else off the menu, I got adventurous and ordered the only beer I hadn’t yet tried–a Radler. I was pleasantly surprised. Radler isn’t just beer, you see. It’s beer, with lemonade. I know that sounds disgusting, and is why I had been rather reluctant to try it–but it’s really very good. It’s extremely refreshing and just the right combination of flavors. I’ll definitely be drinking it more often, though I may have to work up the courage to try the next strange beer combination: beer with Coke.

September 5, 2005


Filed under: Germany — Alex Ravenel @ 9:39 am

I’m really quite thankful for the Sprachkurs I’m taking here, which is essentially a language crashcourse/orientation to the University and town of Tuebingen. Five days a week, for 4 or 5 hours, we meet and go over things–grammar, vocabulary, or just the various differences between the world we are used to and Germany. They are very patient with our rather bad German, and are quite nice in showing us around the town. It’s a very well though out program, and one that has been infinitely helpful, and this is only after two meetings. Furthermore, it has given us all the chance to meet other people going through the same things we are, something that wonderfully decreases the sudden gaping feeling of emptiness one gets when he realizes he is all alone in a foreign country, doesn’t know anyone, and barely speaks the language. And despite essentially being in German class for 5 hours a day, one doesn’t get quite so burned out on it as you wold back in class in the States–here it is for real, and doesn’t feel like you are dragging yourself along the coals for nothing.

Anyways, things are definitely much more different than I had expected. It’s all the little things that get you–Germany is after all a Western nation, so many of the big things are similar. Take for instance the keyboard that I am (ever so slowly) typing this on–it’s some sort of halfbreed between the standard American QWERTY keyboard, but some of the keys are in totally random places. Also, it’s interesting to see the laid back approach to cars and parking they take here. Earlier, we walked by the Schiebenparkplatz, the “pushing parking lot”, so named because if there was no room to park, people would bring a jack and literally push your car over to the side to make room–and no one really gets agitated over it. In the States, if someone did that, it would likely be grounds for arrest.

Anyways, it’s time to be off. I’ve got a few stops to make before the Sprachkurs class meets back tonight to go on a punt trip down the Neckar–I’m looking forward to it.

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