Friday, August 17, 2007

Travelling Without A Hitch

From Franconia my path headed northwestwards along two of Germany's great rivers: the Main and the Rhine until I finally reached Cologne smelling in need of some of its water. It's no secret that Germany is a rather pricey country and the trains are particularly dear, so I've been trying my hardest to get around by hitchhiking, with mixed results. At the start, in Franconia, it was deceptively easy and my average waiting time was less than half an hour. On one occasion, trying to get between Bayreuth and Bamberg I was standing at a junction and a lady stopped to say that unfortunately she wasn't going in my direction … but would I like some bread, and proceeded to hand me a loaf of organic wholewheat bread (which was indeed very welcome). Then I was picked up by a couple with two little kids and ended up being offered to spend the night with them. Such events help me keep my faith in humanity because hitching can be emotionally draining when you stand by the side of the road and are continually ignored by innumerable drivers, oblivious in their vehicle cocoons, not wanting to know, not wanting to care, afraid of the unknown. It seems to me, having talked to older people who hitched in their youth that the number of hitchers, and certainly those that are willing to pick them up, has decreased dramatically over the past generation. The world has lost some of its innocence and people are scared of dangers that have become hyped and are grotesquely misformed urban myths. Everyone, of course, has heard of gruesome hitching stories, but I have yet to meet someone who knows of an actual case, somebody they know, or a real story in the news, and not just vague Chinese whispers. For me every experience has been fun and I have got to meet some very interesting people. In fact I find the whole fear of hitchers rather ridiculous, I mean you would have to be a pretty stupid psychopath to stand out on a road for hours on end, sometimes in quite unpleasant weather conditions, until a random person decided to pick you up (if anyone were to pick you up at all). You would be much better off stalking someone, at least that way you would be able to choose your quarry and would have more say over your hours. And so it was, the further north and west I got the harder it became to get a ride, and on a couple of occasions I was even forced to abandon my principles and catch the train.

Whilst on the subject of travelling cheaply and faith in humainty I feel I ought to mention something that has been a highlight of my travelling of the past few months, and that is namely CouchSurfing. Many of you will probably be scratching your heads and so I shall briefly explain. It is a website where you sign up and enter in some personal details along with your address. Then if people happen to be travelling to your town they can do a search on the website, find you out and then write you an e-mail requesting to stay with you for a day or more (some people who cannot offer accomodation offer a tour of the area or even a quick coffee). You are then free to accept or decline. And when you are then on the road you can also find people and ask to stay with them. Now for many people it might sound crazy to let a complete stranger to stay in your house and that the system is wide open to abuse and misuse. But I have only had amazing experiences and met wonderful people who have opened their houses to me (several times even giving me their house keys) and hope to stay in touch with many of them. It just goes to show that there are many generous and amazing people out there who help others in many little ways that are generally unseen and unheard. So a big thank you to all those Couchsurfers who have hosted me; and now back to the trip.

My voyage through central Germany has taken me through the historic cities of W├╝rzburg and Mainz, both seats of powerful bishoprics (historically, in the Catholic church, the archbishop of Mainz was second only to the Pope) and with large, imposing cathedrals to match their stature. (As an aside, I've always been fascinated by all the various saintly relics that are kept and venerated by the church, and often wonder about collecting them all together and creating, along the lines of Frankenstein, a super-holy undead monster.) Mainz also has some interesting Roman remains (though of course they pale in comparison to the ruins that can be found in the Middle East) from its days as an outpost of the frontier with, bizarrely enough, the remains of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The town's biggest claim to fame, however, is as the home of the last millenium's most important invention (according to Time magazine at least): printing using movable type. This was the home of Johannes Gensfleisch (aka Gutenberg) when, some 550 years ago, he inadvertantly started a cultural revolution that was to spread throughout the world. For an avowedly bookish person like myself a visit to the Gutenberg museum was a must, and although the exhibition itself was somewhat disappointing there was a pretty cool live demonstration of the whole printing process.

Then following the Rhine one comes to the famous section somewhat confusing known as the Upper Middle Rhine valley. Although these days Germany isn't immediately thought of as a holiday destination (or even a particularly romantic one at that) in the 19th century this was the premier destination for wealthy Victorians travelling to get a taste of Europe, and it's easy to see why. The steep slopes are home to some of the best vineyards in the world and at the same time prevent the development of anything but the most picturesque of towns, add a generous dusting of ruined castles (such as the Pfalzgrafenstein below built on the most improbable little island in the middle of the river) and to top it off you have the mighty river flowing majestically through the middle as it has done so since the dawn of history.

1 comment:

Inihtar said...

Funny how we don't even realize that we're losing faith in humanity until we find ourselves completely surprised by someone's goodness!