The Birkenkopf is a 511 metre high hill in Stuttgart, the highest point in the city.
During the war, 53 Allied bombing missions destroyed over 45% of Stuttgart, and nearly the entire city centre. Between 1953 and 1957, 1.5 million cubic metres of rubble were cleared and moved to the hill which resulted in an increase in height of around 40 metres.
We walked up the long winding path to the top. At the summit there were many recognisable facades from ruined buildings. The ruins were towered over by a giant iron cross.
It’s hard not to think of World War II when the results of destruction are sitting there starting you in the face. It is a place for contemplation. For reflection. A warning not to follow crazed demagogues of the right.
In a sombre mood I took a few pictures and wandered the ruins and rubble. There were lots of Germans, some walking dogs, some admiring the view, some sitting silently looking out over the city. Flowers were growing amongst the ruins. Children were playing and climbing the stones. A sign of hope perhaps.
A plaque at the top reads “This mountain piled up after World War II from the rubble of the city stands as a memorial to the victims and a warning to the living.”
It would be nice if we learned from history rather than repeat past mistakes, wouldn’t it?
There is a cable car up to Am Osterfelderkopf at 2033 metres (6670 feet) high. It costs an eye-watering €27 each for a seven minute ride. You can walk up the zig-zag paths but it would take a lot more stamina than I possess, and time that I had.
There was a cafe right by the cable car exit which was packed. We had lunch there, as far away from the accordion player as possible. The cafe had a captive market but I was pleased to see they had not taken advantage and their prices were not dissimilar to the restaurants in the town two kilometres below.
I did walk up a little further, amongst the hardy walkers with serious-looking boots, nordic walking poles and backpacks. To go any further would have needed ropes and crampons and an annual subscription to Senior Climbing Magazine.
Once I got to the furthest rocky outcrop away from the chattering tourists there was complete silence. I was above the tree line. There were no birds. No wind whistling through the tree tops. If I strained my ears, I could hear only the occasional distant sound of hiking boots scraping on rock. Unless we stop and listen, we tune out the random noises that are always there. Cars, birds, dogs barking, music and distant conversation. It isn’t until we are somewhere completely quiet that we realise how noisy our world has become.
If, by chance, there is silence, most people will turn on the TV or play music, or quietly talk to a bird eyeing them suspiciously from a nearby rock.
There is only one bird that ventures into this alpine region, the Alpine Chough. An information board by the cafe informed me that these were social creatures that like to nest in large groups. This one was all alone which was why he was happy with my company. I told him all about the cable car ride and how I would almost certainly climb to the very peak of the mountain if I had only remembered some rope. I mentioned that there might be some leftover food on the cafe tables. At the mention of food, he flew off. “Just follow the sound of the bloody accordion” I called after him.
Before this trip, I had a look on the internet for the top attractions in Stuttgart. Most of them seemed to involve cars as there are several motor manufacturers based near the city. The second top attraction was the Stuttgart public library. I don’t believe I have ever seen a library ranked number two in any city. It turned out that this was due to the impressive and unusual architecture including a roof observation area from which you can see the entire city of Stuttgart. Clearly, this deserved a visit.
We tried to get to the library on the local metro. There were five train lines from the central station passing the Stadtbibliothek station. How hard could that be? We got on the right train but it went along a different line. It stopped at Budapester Platz, right next to the massive Milaneo shopping mall. A bit like getting on the central line at Oxford Circus and the next stop is the Elephant and Castle. We went back to the central station and tried again. We studied the map closely. Double checked the train. Triple checked the train. We definitely got on the right train this time. It stopped at Budapester Platz. We gave up on the library and went to the mall. Malls are the same the world over, so we just headed up to the food court on the top floor for a late lunch. I asked Madam where she would like to eat. She chose McDonalds.
It may seem an odd choice to eat at an American fast food restaurant while travelling. I guess it is just easier sometimes. The menu is broadly the same the world over. It comes with pictures that bear a passing resemblance to the finished product. We looked at a few German restaurants but it was hard to decipher the German menu. I have a translate app on my phone but it often gives bizarre translations. You never quite knew if you were ordering a haloumi sandwich or a pig trotter and ox-brain sausage. The Germans are big on sausages. You go into most any restaurant and they will hand you a menu of twenty dishes. The first nineteen will be sausages. I forget the exact description but they were something like Schweinfoot und Grissel or Kalbsbrain mit Grosserbits.
The last item on the menu will be something disturbing like a veal cutlet with an aubergine and turnip sauce, served with raspberry ice cream according to my translation app.
After a brief wander around the mall which was indeed identical to every mall everywhere else in the world, even down to the same chain stores, we went back to main square. We sad for a while admiring the fountains and gardens. We watched Japanese tourists pose for selfies in front of the fountain. A group of five arranged themselves in every conceivable combination and variety of poses. It must have taken them twenty minutes.
It started raining and we briefly considered a car museum but realised it was 6pm somewhere in the world so, we went into a brauhaus to drink beer. That’s something the Germans do well. Beer. No translation needed. Always good quality.
Out of curiosity I looked at the food menu and had another go with my translate app. The first item, according to the app, on the dessert menu was:
‘Homemade Oven Slipper A Swabian specialty with apples and raisins refined, vanilla sauce.’
Madam, being much smarter, asked the waiter for an English menu. The first choice on the dessert menu was
‘Homemade Oven Slipper. A Swabian specialty with apples and raisins refined, vanilla sauce.’
The rain had stopped, so we sat in Palace Square for a while. It was early evening by now and people were laying out blankets on the grass and settling in for the evening. I was not sure if there was some event planned for a Tuesday night, or if that was what passed for entertainment in Stuttgart.
It was a nice enough city, clean and prosperous, but a day is probably enough unless you are into cars or shopping.
We caught the train in to Stuttgart from Vaihengen. Like a lot of European local rail networks the city is divided into zones and the ticket you need depends of the number of zones crossed. There was very little information on the station on which ticket to buy or where to zone boundaries started and ended. I struggled with the machine for a while trying to make sense of the different options and just ended up buying a group day ticket for four zones, which I suspect was more than we needed.
A group ticket for up to five people cost €17. A ticket for one person was €12.
if you stand on just about any major road and watch the cars as they pass you will see that most have only the driver . Wouldn’t it make sense to encourage people to use public transport where there is only the driver and save the car for when there are multiple passengers?
Instead the train pricing encourages people to use a car for one person and the train for five people. That seems ass-backwards as the American would say. Somebody, somewhere needs to do a spot if joined-up thinking and co-ordinate car and public transport. I don’t suppose it will ever happen but I live in hope.
We eventually found our way to the central station and wandered up Königstrße, the main shopping street, towards Schlossplatz, or Palace Square. Since Germany has not had a monarch since 1918, I am not sure why it has a Palace square, but it is a lovely open area with grass, fountains and a central statue of Concordia, the goddess of harmony, on a high column.
There is a small area of Stuttgart, around the market square, that retains a few older buildings. We had a wander round Stiftskirch, a church dating from the thirteenth century. This was extensively damaged during bombing raids WWII and was rebuilt in the 1950s. There is a slightly odd mix of some if the historic features and some more modern designs. I rather liked the more modern stained glass windows and roof.
Close to the Stiftskirch was the Landesmuseum with exhibits from Württemberg ranging from neolithic to the early 20th century. I was primarily attracted to the admission price (free) and Madam to the fact it had air-conditioning. Even though it was free we had to queue to get a ticket which was scrupulously checked on every floor. They could have saved themselves a lot of work by eliminated this pointless procedure.
It was all well laid out although the guide insisted that we started vaguely in the middle ages, then to later periods, before we saw the neolithic exhibits. I’ve always had an interest in anything stone-age. It is surprising to see that stone tools throughout the world are made in the same shapes using the same techniques. We forget that the neolithic period lasted for several thousand years – long enough for travellers and traders to spread knowledge. I tried to create an axe head from a flint a couple of years ago, firstly using another stone then, when that did not work, with a hammer. All I ended up with was a bruised thumb and an undamaged flint. I read somewhere that a neolithic hunter would have created an arrow head in 20 minutes using only an animal bone and lump of flint. I’d like to see that.
Both Madam and I both had feeling we were being followed by the museum guides. Every time we looked round a guide would be just behind us. Maybe they thought we might be up to something. About to tuck a small statue under my arm or scratch “Romani ite dominum” on a Roman column. I hope that they were just bored and thought we might have questions. There were only a few other people in the museum which was a shame as it was well worth the visit. I suspect all the tourists were busy in the BMW car museum posing for a selfie in front of an exhibit of indicators through the ages sponsored by local BMW dealers. Car dealers always have a lot of optional extras left over.
Twenty-five miles an hour isn’t fast. A plane going that slow would fall from the sky. A car might be holding up traffic. A bicycle would be a little scarier. But still not excessive.
Now imagine, if you will, going at that speed in a plastic go-cart, close to the ground, down the side of a steep mountain for over 8,500 feet. Seventy-three bends and nine jumps. Thin wire-netting along the sides by the steepest drops which may, or may not, catch you if you fall out. How can that be scary?
We drove for a long time up a narrow winding mountain road. I’m not sure how I was persuaded – possibly the promise of a high-altitude cappuccino at the top – but we got onto a chair lift suspended from a suspiciously thin cable. We rose higher and higher for 15 minutes. I gripped the bar tighter. The air grew colder. I was almost starting to enjoy it when it ground to a halt. The cable creaked. The seat started swinging gently. I looked down. It was long way off the ground.
In 2010 a 22 year old snowboarder, Dominik Podolsky, was stuck on a ski-lift in the Austrian Alps for six hours. He thought about jumping down but he was ten metres above the ground and would probably have broken both legs and frozen to death. He burned a paper tissue to attract attention. When this didn’t work, he moved on to receipts and business cards. Eventually, he was forced to burn bank notes from his wallet. Finally, on his last €20 note, he managed to attract attention and was rescued.
Of course, none of this went through my mind at the time. I just looked down at the ground and wondered if a double extension ladder would be enough or would they need to fetch a triple.
After a mercifully brief stop, we moved again and eventually reached the top. It wasn’t a particularly high hill, around 1200 metres but the views were spectacular. Across the valley to distant mountain peaks. Nestled far below in the valley was the town of Oberammergau.
It was primarily a ski resort but the hill in August was packed with hikers, some of whom had walked to the top. Others, wearing sturdy boots and carrying impressively full backpacks were preparing to climb further. The cafe was doing a thriving trade. There was a rope walk and short zip lines. And of course the go-karts.
I checked my seat belt. I checked it again. The operator checked it and said ‘Off you go. Just press that lever.’
I pressed the lever and off I went for 8,500 feet downhill.
I changed my trousers at the bottom.
We picked one of the hottest weeks in a summer heatwave that had gripped Europe for our two weeks in Germany. Glaciers were melting in Sweden. Britain faced a shortage of brussel sprouts. Worse still, mon Dieu, France was suffering a shortage of snails due to heat and lack of rain.
Parts of Spain and Portugal experienced temperatures of 48C as blisteringly hot air swept in from Africa. It was marginally cooler in Germany, reaching only a high of 37C, still bad enough without air-conditioning. We spent the first couple days hanging by the neighbourhood swimming pool waiting for cooler weather before exploring the city.
The heatwave and unseasonably dry weather has also affected America. The tinderbox conditions have led to several fires across the south-west. Sixteen of the largest wildfires burning in California have burnt over 320,000 acres and led to several deaths.
A Republican state senator stood within sight of the fires in California and claimed climate change has nothing to do with man and blamed the fire on environmentalists. The gist of his argument was that if you cut down all the trees, they wouldn’t be there to catch fire. I suppose that argument has a certain logic.
Researchers have found that the ‘signal of climate change is unambiguous,’ and heat waves will become more common. You will be hard pressed to find any climate scientists who do not believe climate change is real and man-made.
A recent survey found, however, that 82% of Republican voters in the USA do not believe climate change is man-made. They variously blame it on sunspot activity, magma causing ice-shelves to melt or that the planet is really cooling and we need to burn more coal.
It is a sad state of affairs when a majority agree with a politician over expert scientists.