Thursday, October 20, 2005

Sometimes you just get it, that whole cute Europe thing

Heidelberg is a damn cute town. One that´s very famous for it´s damn cuteness judging by the number of Japanese tourist buses that go screaming through it, pour out camera clicking tourists for 10 minutes of "been there, done that, got the photo" before shoehorning them back in to continue the 15 countries in 10 days tour. Talk about an economical use of time. The Swiss ain´t got nothing on them.

So far I haven´t been able to see much of the city as I´m working and living up on the hill beside Heidelberg in an outer suburb. But even this, a tiny suburb with a somewhat lower average income and large amount of old people with small dogs has an unexpected beauty. My flat is on the upper floor of a building and overlooks the Rhein valley, a vast, flat plain dotted with towns and roads and rimmed in the distance with the hills that mark the border to France. Every morning I get to look at this view as I´m getting dressed. On my way to work I pause after buying my raisin bread roll for breakfast and stare out across the valley. It´s not a beautiful suburb here. The architecture is 1960´s and reasonably rundown. But the view transcends all of that. I would live here just for that view.

And then there are the towns themselves. The night before last I had to get off at an earlier tram stop than usual on my way to Aikido (don´t ask me why, tram and bus drivers here seem to decide quite randomly what route their going to follow and when they´ll decide to call it a break). The class is in a small town on the other side of the river, which can be reasonably called a suburb of Heidelberg now. So the tram let me off on the edge of this suburb. I´d been travelling through the gorgeous city centre of Heidelberg, moved through the larger villa area on the other side of the river, gone through the outskirts (1960´s again) and was starting into the villa area of this next town.

It´s amazing to watch the change in architecture representing the growth of the town. I was walking down a road lined with villas and large houses 100-200 years old. Within about 300m this changed to smaller houses, arranged in that hapahazard fashion that usually means they were parts of farmhouses (large gates to an inner courtyard, converted barns and outhouses now apartments) and probably over 400 years old. 200m further on and I was in the centre of the old town, with two story buildings with low ceilings. Tiny windows, front doorsteps that go directly onto the cobbbled road. The wooden frames visible in the walls (think Tudor houses etc). The fortress in the centre of the town. The oldest written evidence of this town´s existence was July 765.

1240 years old.

Is that not just completely insane?

In Hamburg the area I lived in celebrated it´s 800th birthday this year. I´ve stayed in houses that are 400 years old. Raised in Australia on American entertainment, the first time I visited Marburg at Christmas with the snow, the lights, the old old old houses and castle, it felt like Disneyland. That it was all painted cardboard on struts. That if I went through a door the fairytale would disappear and I´d find myself in a shop selling t-shirts, baseball caps and minatures of the town square in a glassball.

No matter how Disneyland or Hollywood try to portray it, recent countries like Australia and America just cannot do justice to places with history like this.

Do yourself a favour. Next time you visit Europe, forget the big cities and the famous statues. Visit the small towns and cities. Go to the local church which is still in use after 800 years. Walk down the tiny, winding streets of these places. Stay in a tiny pension in a building that´s older than America. Have tea with the landlady who´ll tell you the history, the stories. Live it, breathe it. Don´t just photograph it.

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