Labor Day in Southern Germany

September 8, 2010

By Major Steven Lamb, U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs

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The military is a great place to work…Not only do you get all the federal holidays but commands normally give their Soldiers training holidays in conjunction with those federal holidays.  Labor Day weekend was no exception; we had all been looking forward to a four day weekend.  Unfortunatel,y our six kids had school Friday but this allowed my wife and I some alone time to plan and prep for a great weekend.

Saturday we made the hour drive from Stuttgart to Heidelberg to park along side of the Neckar River and watch the castle “Illumination.”  We were lucky and found a great parking place for our Chevy Suburban; this isn’t always easy but we haven’t much of a choice in the size of our vehicle considering the size of our family; for this weekend we had our typical eight plus our daughter brought a friend!

As the sun set, the breeze off the river wasn’t too uncomfortable but to make sure we were not too chilled we enjoyed some grilled pork steak sandwiches and some beer.  Around 10 p.m. the lights on the castle went out, and at 10:05 all the lights along the river and streets went out too.  Anticipation began to grow in the cool night air. 

This traditional fireworks display, which is only done twice a year, began with a huge explosion that sounded like cannon fire.  The sky along the river exploded in a brief fireworks conflagration; then suddenly there was silence….. several moments of silence….. BOOM!  The castle ignited with fireworks and explosions of its own.  Flickering red and orange lights gave the illusion the castle had just been struck with an artillery barrage and had burst into flame.  Once the “flames” dwindled down and the castle was again hidden in darkness the skies above the river Neckar erupted into another fireworks display lasting almost 20 minutes.  

Early Sunday morning we struck out again for a three hour trek northwest to Idar-Oberstein.  The two communities, Idar and Oberstein, were joined together in the early 1930s.  Sitting in a valley along the Nahe River this community is known as the capital of Germany’s gemstone (primarily agate) industry.  By the way, according to several sources on the internet, Bruce Willis was born at a former military base in Idar-Oberstein back in 1955.

We followed the signs for the Schloss (palace) from the valley floor up narrow cobblestoned alleys and streets to the ruins at the top of the cliffs overlooking the city.  This climb was incredibly steep and forced me to put the truck into low just to get up the hill!  The palace was built around 1300 A.D. by the Earl Wirich (or Wyrich) and, while it fell to disrepair over the centuries, volunteers have rallied together to fix it up as a tourist attraction.  From this vantage point and that from Burg Bosselstein (about 150 meters from Shloss Oberstein) we were able to view the entire valley.

From Burg Bosselstein we took a shaded trail down the cliffs first to a small park with a war memorial and then to the Felsenkirche or “Church in the Rocks” which was also built by Wirich.  Legend has it that he killed his brother, Emrich, over the love of the maiden Bertha, Lady of the Castle Lichtenburg.  Wirich reportedly killed Emrich by defenestration or rather he threw him out the window of the castle to the rocks 400 meters below!  Wirich was remorseful of his actions and years later, under the direction of the Abbot to whom he confessed, built the Felsenkirche where his brother died as repentance for the sin of murder.  The story goes that Wirich asked God for a sign that he had been forgiven and the Lord responded by opening a bubbling spring in the cliff-side wall of the church.

This beautiful chapel is still active today hosting religious ceremonies to include weddings.  The bells from the tower can be heard throughout the valley.

Once we climbed back up the trails to our truck (beautiful scenery but not a fun climb!) we wound our way back down the mountainside to the old city below where we quickly did some shopping for agate souvenirs.  The agate comes from mines near the city.  They cut the stones very thin so the multi-colored crystals are translucent.  I bought my wife a wind-chime made of slivers of earth colored agate.  I also purchased two thicker stones with wooden stands designed to tilt the shaved gemstone toward a candle mounted behind it.  The effect of shimmering flame through the colored crystal is gorgeous.

From Idar-Oberstein we drove another hour further west to the ancient Roman city of Trier.    According to legend this city dates back to 2050 B.C. but it was officially recognized and founded by the Roman Emperor Augustus in 16 B.C.

Tourism in Europe is easy.   You can always opt to figure things out yourself or you can choose from a multitude of tours.   Due to the size of our family we usually opt to do it ourselves but we made an exception in Trier and took a double-decker bus tour.  The tour guide charged us the family rate, twice, but with a discount so instead of 70 Euro we only had to pay 50 which equates to about $64 US dollars.  The open topped bus was perfect for the great weather we were enjoying.  It was warm and there were “Simpsons” style clouds across the bright blue sky.  The hour long tour was actually done by a recording that you listened to with personal headphones provided by the bus company.  Keeping with the international tourist attraction numerous languages were offered.

We were given the entire history of this beautiful city and saw all of its wondrous sites.  Trier’s Roman history includes a Roman bath complex that was once the size of eight football fields and included hot, warm and cool baths, exercise rooms and saunas pretty much equal to the spas of today. 

The amphitheater, the oldest of the Roman structures in the city, was built in 100 A.D.  Much of its manmade architecture, the outer walls etc. no longer exist but the basin itself, built into the side of a hill, is still there and the acoustics are so good that a match struck in the center of the arena can be heard throughout the complex.  I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to be one of 20,000 attending a gladiatorial contest where you could hear and see the violence so clearly.

Trier once stood as Constantine’s seat of power; in fact, Aula Palatina (Basilica of Constantine) still stands in the old city.  No wonder it still stands, some of the brick walls are 12 feet thick.  From this red brick hall Constantine once controlled an empire stretching from Germany to England and Northern Africa.  

Porta Nigra, the Black Gate is perhaps one of Trier’s most famous attractions.  This gate is the last remains of the 6.4km long city walls.  The name of “The Black Gate” was earned years after its construction when the light-colored sandstone used in construction grew black/grey with age and deterioration. 

My family was most intrigued with the Trier Cathedral and the Church of Our Lady.  The beautiful conjoined structure boasts that it contains the actual robe of Jesus Christ mentioned in the Bible.  According to scripture Roman soldiers rolled dice for this robe once Christ was crucified on the cross.  Legend has it that St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, found the robe in the 4th Century and brought it with her to Trier.  My wife knew of this legend and had previously seen the church and alter when she was in Germany before we met.  She surprised me with this tidbit of information after we heard about it on the city bus tour.  One of my sons in particular loves to learn from the Bible and he and I were filled with excitement at the prospect of seeing this article of such historic significance.  Unfortunately, we soon learned that the robe was last displayed publicly in 1996 and has since been stored away with other church artifacts.  As we stood at the glass partition we were able to see into a chamber containing a what appeared to me as a glass alter containing  wooden box that is reportedly where the tunic is kept.

Other sites we enjoyed included finding the Guilds Fountain, an artwork depicting 42 craftmen’s guilds from the area.  There are two cranes on the side of the Moselle River–one is 300 years old and the other is 500 years old.  We learned on our bus tour that workers operated these cranes by running inside large wheels much like a gerbil!  One of the more modern attractions was the birthplace of Karl Marx which is now a museum dedicated to his life and works.

One other attraction is a statue high on the mountain across the Nahe River of the blessed mother with open arms wide casting a blessing over the city, paid for by the citizens of Trier.

We ended this very busy day with dinner at an outdoor Italian restaurant just a few dozen feet from the town’s whipping post (Yum!).  Stuffed with pastas and lasagna we began a three hour drive back to Stuttgart with the knowledge that unlike the multitude of cars all over the autobaun rushing home to prepare for work the next morning we were lucky that Monday was a day off to sleep in and recover from yet another incredible weekend in Europe.


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