A German Adventure Never Had Before
by Rick Ostrander, Cornerstone University Provost
Saturday, June 8
Eight Cornerstone University alumni, my wife Lonnie, and I arrive in Frankfurt, Germany for an eight day educational tour of a region of southeastern Germany known as Franconia. Lonnie and I lived here in 2004 with our four children while I taught at the University of Wurzburg. We fell in love with the bustling cities, historic charm, and natural beauty of this region dotted with picturesque villages whose residents still keep time by the church bells that toll every quarter-hour. Since then we have taken several groups of college students on study trips of Germany. This year, however, we decided to take a group of Cornerstone alumni instead, promising to show them not only famous German sites, but also “the Germany that tourists rarely see.”
Upon clearing the airport, we drive to our home for the week: Margetshochheim, a sleepy little German village that lines the Main River downstream from Wurzburg which I discovered on a bike ride years ago. Rather than living in hotels and tour buses, for our trip we take up residence in a couple of old restored farmhouses in Margetshochheim, then take day trips from our home base.
After moving into our rooms and enjoying a “Doner Kebab” lunch at the nearby Turkish lunch stand (which soon becomes a group favorite), our first task is to stay awake for the entire day in order to recalibrate our bodies’ clocks. Fortunately, it’s a warm sunny day, and a footbridge across the Main River leads to our neighboring village, Veitshochheim (did I mention that Germans like long words?). This town is the home of an 18th century castle surrounded by beautiful Rococo gardens. In a few days, the Schlossgartens, as they are called, will pale in comparison to other things we see, but our group doesn’t know that yet. So a stroll around the palace and gardens is a perfect way to introduce them to Franconian history and keep them awake until after dinner.
Our first dinner begins another routine: home-cooked meals by Lonnie in our farmhouse courtyard. Because this is an educational tour, we sprinkle some lectures amid our sightseeing and have some brief readings that accompany our day trips. Thus, dinner together in the courtyard provides the opportunity to linger over dessert and discuss the day’s events. After dinner, most of the group retires to sleep off their jet lag.
Sunday, June 9: Wurzburg
Our first full day in Germany begins with a German breakfast in the courtyard consisting of muesli and yoghurt, coffee, juice, and fresh Kaiser rolls and croissants from the neighborhood bakery. Anyone who has spent time in Europe will find it difficult to enjoy bread on our side of the Atlantic.
After breakfast we head to Wurzburg, a university town that celebrated its 1,300th birthday when we lived there in 2004. Since this is a Catholic region of Germany, we begin with a visit to Wurzburg Cathedral, built in 1100 a.d., to experience a Roman Catholic Mass. The service features a children’s choir and a blaring pipe organ postlude that reverberates through the enormous stone structure.
Later we cross the Old Bridge and hike up to the Marienberg Fortress, a castle dating back to the Early Middle Ages perched high on a hill overlooking the city. The castle and its view are beautiful in their own right, but they also give me an opportunity to give my first historical lecture, since from our overlook we can view sites pertaining to early Irish missionaries martyred by pagan kings, cathedrals erected, the Peasants Revolt, the Thirty Years War, 17th century witch trials, and World War II bombing raids.
I’m not sure which was more inspiring—my historical lecture or the hand-made potato chips smothered in salt and sour cream that some of the group members obtained during their explorations of Wurzburg afterward.
Monday, June 10: Bamberg
Having seen Wurzburg, we widen the circle of our explorations in Franconia. As a historian, I try to arrange the trip in chronological order, so our next stop is Bamberg, home to Bamberg Cathedral, one of the best-preserved and most impressive churches in Germany. For many in our group, it’s their first taste of a Gothic cathedral interior, which is worlds apart from the stages, bright lights, and pulsating sound systems that characterize many American evangelical churches. The Gothic cathedrals were designed to overwhelm the worshipper with the majesty of God and one’s corresponding smallness, and Bamberg Cathedral still has that effect, although diluted in part by the bands of tourists roaming the corridors.
After dinner, it’s time to take our group off of the beaten path. Having spent years exploring the region by bike, I know the countryside better than most Germans do. So we pile in the van and climb some old tractor paths through vineyards and orchards up to some huge modern windmills perched atop of a thousand-foot high hill overlooking the valley. We enjoy the view for a while, then as typical Americans we compete to see who can throw a rock the highest way up the windmill.
Tuesday, June 11: Nurnberg
Our next city is Nurnberg, one of the most beautiful and historic cities in Germany, which unfortunately was co-opted by the Nazis in the 1930s for their party rallies. Thus, the quaint cobblestone streets that we walk to visit castles and museums are the same ones seen in grainy film footage of Nazi parades. Our theme is the Middle Ages, since Nurnberg was a chief city in Bavaria during this time, but also the Renaissance, since Nurnberg was home to Albrecht Durer, the most important artist of the Northern Renaissance.
Nurnberg’s main square is also home to one of Germany’s most famous Glockenspiels, which we time our visit to hit exactly at noon. I have warned the group that Medieval Glockenspiels fail to live up to their hype, especially in a generation conditioned to high-tech movie special effects. So seeing their palpable disappointment after the five minute display, I raise their spirits with one of Germany’s great cultural achievements: Nurnberger bratwurst served fresh off the grill, wrapped in a Kaiser bun and smothered with Senf (mustard).
Sufficiently fortified, we head off to the Kaiserberg Fortress and visit the home of Albrecht Durer. Later, during their afternoon free time, some of our group visit to a hidden gem of Germany—the Nurnberg Toy Museum.
Wednesday, June 12: Rothenburg
Our last experience of the Middle Ages is Rothenburg, a charming, immaculately-preserved medieval village that not even roving armies of American high school students and camera-toting tourists can spoil. The day is sunny and warm, and better yet, the town Glockenspiel is under construction, thus sparing us another disappointing spectacle. After climbing up the rickety old Town Hall tower and touring St. Jacobs Cathedral, we enjoy another Doner lunch before heading off to the Castle Gardens for a group photo in our Cornerstone University tee shirts. Before the afternoon free time, our group activities end at the Medieval Crime Museum, a quirky little museum housing some “shaming” devices that were commonly used in medieval towns. And of course, our group members can’t resist taking photos of themselves in the stocks outside the museum entrance.
After dinner, I lead another off the beaten path” excursion, this time to Folkenberg Chapel, a small shrine perched in the woods atop “Falcon Mountain,” high above our village. We drive up dirt roads to get as close as possible to the chapel, but somehow the ten minute hike up to the chapel that I remembered turns out to be more like twenty minutes of scrambling up a steep rocky slope. The views from this beautiful little chapel, however, earn me a measure of forgiveness from those who brave the hike.
Thursday, June 13: Bike day
The Main River Valley is best experienced via the bike paths that line the river and connect the various villages. So on Thursday we rent some bikes from Stefan, my mullet-clad friend in Veitshochheim who loves all things American, and we ride to a local swimming pond for a picnic and a swim. Fortunately, this being mid-week, we witness only one middle-aged German man wearing a Speedo. The park also features a zip line that stretches over the water to an island in the middle of the pond. After enjoying this device for a while, two members or our group decide to try riding double. Their failed attempt provides Lonnie with her first opportunity of the week to use her nursing skills on back abrasions, and it sparks expressions of puzzlement among the local Germans who are clearly amused by their American guests. After the picnic, we end the day with a visit to nearby Thungersheim, dinner in the courtyard, and free time to explore the region by bicycle during the long, mild German evenings.
Friday, June 14: Heidelberg
Today we head to a new region—Southwestern Germany—and some new historical periods. Heidelberg, one of Germany’s most beautiful cities, retains its 18th century charm despite a heavy American influence, as evidenced by a Hard Rock Café and a Starbucks. Sitting along the Neckar River as it flows out of the mountains into the Rhine River, the city is an excellent opportunity to explore both the Reformation of the 1500s and the Romantic movement of the 1800s. Having pre-read excerpts of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the Protestantism’s most important documents, we visit Heidelberg Cathedral before heading up the mountainside to Heidelberg Castle, the stomping grounds of Goethe, Schiller, and other famous German poets and philosophers.
The afternoon includes plenty of free time for lunch, exploring Germany’s oldest university, shopping, or, for our chemist alumna, visiting the German Apothecary Museum. After a long day of touring, we arrive back home in Margetshochheim, where, by popular demand, Lonnie’s usual home-cooked dinner is replaced by take-out Doners.
Saturday, June 15: Wurzburg
Saturday is Flohmarkt, or flea market, day in Margetshochheim, so our last day in Germany begins with scouring the tables and booths set up in town for mugs, lace, trinkets, and other souvenirs of our stay in Germany. Later we head into Wurzburg for a tour of the Residenz, a magnificent 18th century palace modeled after Versailles that was home to the Prince-Bishop of the region. Much of the building was destroyed by World War II bombers but has been meticulously restored. Today it attracts visitors from all over the world, including plenty of Americans to join our English-language tour of the palace. After the tour, we take advantage of our last opportunity for a bratwurst lunch before dispersing to explore the city on what is its busiest shopping day of the week.
We end our week together with a closing dinner at an outdoor German restaurant along the Main River—the perfect opportunity to discuss a memorable week in Germany and to reflect on how a group of strangers can develop close friendships in such a short time.
As Cornerstone University’s first-ever alumni trip, the experience connected a diverse group of alumni both to the university and to each other. Members of our group included graduates of the traditional undergraduate program, the M.B.A. program, and the online M.B.A. program. Their years of attendance at Cornerstone ranged from the 1960s to 2012. But we were united by our Christian faith, our desire to experience the incredible variety of human cultures that God has created, and our devotion to Cornerstone University. Hopefully it will be the start of many more alumni trips in the future.