Neuwschwanstein Castle and Munich

Today we left the hotel, loaded up with some sack lunches.  Our travel on the highways and side roads was very challenging as we had times  of heavy snow, wind, icy roads, and drifting snow over the roads.  Our first stop was the Neuwschwanstein castle in southern Bavaria.  After getting our tickets, we then had a 25 minute climb up a mountain road to get to the castle.  When we got to the castle, it was snowing heavily with strong winds and it was difficult to see the castle.  The tour was excellent. Afterwards, we came down from the mountain and then climbed on the bus with our sack lunch.

Our next brief stop is know as Wieskirche or the church in the meadow.  It was a beautiful example of baroque architecture.  The outside was plain but the inside was amazingly ornate in white, gold, and marble.

We then headed to Munich with our first stop at the Steelcase Learning+Innovation Center.  This is a working showcase of effective ways to configure an office environment.  Klaus and Helmut walked us around and explained what we were seeing.  It was an excellent look at up and coming office environments.

Our final stop was downtown Munich.  We stopped at the Marionplatz and the students had a short time to explore before we had a huge meal at the Hoffbrauhaus.

Gentex and Ulm, Germany

Today was a little bit more relaxed than some of the other day.  We had three goals:  1) visit the company Gentex, 2)  get lunch and explore Ulm, and 3) arrive at our hotel in Landsberg am Lech.  After a short drive on the autobahn, we arrived in Erlenbach, the location of the German facility of the Gentex Corporation.  The home of Gentex is Zeeland, MI and the company specializes in  mirror and vision systems for automobiles, windows for aircraft, and smoke alarms.  The facility in Erlanbach provided Gentex a localized presence with the major German automakers, allowing them to work closely with them on new designs.  We had a brief introduction to the company and then the class was divided into 3 groups, one to hear about future product ideas, one to see how the distribution of parts from Zeeland happens, and one to test drive some of the new concepts.  It was a great visit!

We then left for Ulm, the home of the tallest cathedral in the world.  It was a bit rainy and so students could only climb up part of the way to the top.  Ulm was also a place to get lunch and do a little shopping.  We arrived at our hotel in Landsberg am Lech where we were treated to a wonderful buffet of German food.  We then had time to discuss our experiences of the past several days.

The Luxembourg American Cemetery and War Memorial

The cemetery was located in Hann, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. The cemetery has 5,075 American soldiers buried there, most of whom died in the Battle of Bulge. The person who showed us around the cemetery was Jennifer Roman.
The tour started with her pointing to two huge maps on walls, of the area of the battle field with arrows showing the directions of the routes Allied forces took and the routes Nazi forces took to launch the surprise attack for the battle of Bulge. She talked about the the strategies and gains of the two sides and about the bravery of American soldiers, for example, in one scenario sixteen U.S. soldiers pushed back an offensive of eight hundred Nazi soldiers.
After this, she went on to tell the individual stories of a few soldiers and pointed out the diverse background of the soldiers buried there. She did this by walking to each person’s gravestone and talked about them by showing their picture.The people she talked about included a Jewish , an African-American, a German born soldier and an Army nurse, the only female in the whole cemetery. The stories of these individuals not only gave a face to them but also helped us to realize that they could have been anyone of us, with unique interests and backgrounds attending to their country’s call.
Towards the end of the visit, it was a very special moment because it started to get dark and she asked the students to help in lowering the two U.S. flags in the cemetery with the Taps playing in the background.

Reims Cathedral

After leaving Paris in the morning we headed to the city of Reims to attend the Sunday service at the famous Notre-Dame de Reims (Our Lady of Reims), also called the Reims Cathedral. This was a very important place because it was the place where all the coronations of the kings of France took place. The most notable of whom was probably Charles VII as the legendary Joan of Arc won the Hundred Years War for him. There was a statue of Joan of Arc in front of the cathedral in honor of her.
When we reached the cathedral, I personally thought it was a tad more magnificent than the Norte-Dame of Paris with all its gargoyles and sculptures adorning its walls.
The cathedrals looked similar in terms of architecture, but the the one in Reims seemed to have more majestic gargoyles and more sculptures adorning its walls.
Then we proceeded to enter the cathedral, and it was just gorgeous inside from the beautiful stained glass windows to the huge stone columns supporting the structure. The service started at ten in the morning and was completely in French and was probably the first Catholic service I attended. The service seemed very organized and traditional. The French songs sounded very pretty and my basic knowledge in French helped me to join in on a few of their lyrics by reading it off the song sheets.

Koblenz, Heidelberg, and Hockenheim Germany

Today was an exploration of the Rhine River region of Germany, especially the area known for its castles.  We left the city of Trier in the morning and arrived at the city of Koblenz.  Koblenz is know for many things, but what we were most interested in was the Deutsches Eck, also known as the German Corner.  Koblenz is located where the Mosel River joins with the Rhine River.  At that intersection, a humongous statue has been erected to William I, the one who unified Germany in the 1800s.  We were also hoping to use public restrooms nearby, but they were closed, so we continued along the Rhine River until we arrived at the town of St. Boar which had public restrooms open.

We then headed to Heidelberg, the location of the ruins of the Heidelberg Castle and the location of the Holy Ghost Church.  The writers of the Heidelberg Catechism served the ruler in the castle and worshiped in the Holy Ghost Church.   Since 2013, a set of commemorative plaques have been on display inside the church about the catechism.  After figuring out our way around town, the students headed off for a brief lunch.  Then, we spent a few minutes inside the church before going up to the castle on a guided tour.  After our time in Heidelberg, we headed to the town of Hockenheim where we checked into our hotel and went to a restaurant for supper.

The Sacred Heart of France

On the edge of the city of Paris, up a slope and away from the bustle of downtown, the basilica of Sacre Coeur rests. It watches over the streets of Paris from its vantage point and from there one can watch as well. Sacre Coeur stands as an oasis from the dynamic metropolis. As far as French cathedrals go, it is somewhat modest, though a step through the doors still brings a view of grand, high ceilings and ornate decoration. It is to this church that the oppressed are encouraged to come.
Sacre Coeur was built by the French monarchy to appease the people of Paris after particular brutality involving the execution of the Archbishop of Paris. Translated as “Sacred Heart”, Sacre Coeur calls to come and to pray for the sacred hearts of those who are oppressed. It promises sanctuary in a time of trouble and rest in a life of pain. Before the doors and on the square, people danced to music and played with their pets, but inside the walls was still.
I was struck by the sacredness that can still be felt in Sacre Coeur. Tragically, most of the cathedrals and churches we visited in Paris felt only like spectacles; a sight to see from a bygone age. The cathedral of Norte Dame imposed its impressiveness, but it is only the remains of a once holy kingdom. The colorful Sainte Chapelle is a beautiful corpse of the Christianity once found in France. No more do people worship in these structures; no more is their life fulfilled.
This, to me, was the most wonderful part of Sacre Coeur. It may not be a place of Christian worship, but it still sees its purpose somewhat fulfilled. People still come and pray in the holy halls for the oppressed, and maybe some of them find comfort.

Reims France, Luxembourg, and Trier Germany

Today was a big travel day for the group.  We left Paris early in the morning and traveled to the city of Reims.  Our goal was to worship in the Reims cathedral and see where the kings of France had been crowned through the centuries.  The service was a Catholic Church service, was all in French, and was held in the cathedral with a temperature close to freezing.  When we sang, we could see our breath!

After finding lunch in Reims, we traveled on the the country of Luxembourg to visit the American military cemetery from WWII.  This is the place where General Patton is buried.  Jennifer was our guide in the cemetery and told us about the cemetery and stories of several people that were buried there.  At the end of our visit, our group was granted the privilege of bringing down the US flag and folding it up for the night.  That was very special.

From there, we traveled into Germany and stopped at the border city of Trier, known as one of the earliest Roman settlements in the region.  An ancient Roman gate still stands today and we visited it after we checked into the hotel and ate a delicious Italian dinner.

The Palace and Garden of Versailles

Everything here was huge. Originally a hunting lodge for King Louis XIII, it was then enlarged into a palace through various expansions beginning with expansion by Louis XIV. In the palace everything was extravagant and over the top. The Hall of Mirrors showcased the first ever mirrors in France which were constructed by artisans from Venice. Sitting at over 700,000 square feet, its size was astonishing. All of the material for the palace was sourced from France in an attempt to minimize costs. However, it didn’t help all that much as estimates on the total cost of construction is in the billions.

The gardens cover over three square miles and contain hundreds of fountains and water jets as well as 200,000 trees. Each year, over 200,000 flowers are planted. The grounds once contained over 1000 fountains and it’s a work in progress on restoration of both fountains and rooms in the palace.

This was one of my favorite places we’ve visited so far and I’d love to go back again, especially in the spring time to see the garden in full bloom.

Paris:Eiffel Tower and Catacombs

We toured the Eiffel Tower as well as the Catacombs on day 7. Two of Paris’ most common tourist locations, these attractions were impressive and very intriguing.
We had the opportunity to go to the summit level of the Eiffel Tower. However, the weather limited our view as we were 281m up into fog. The height along with the structural design of the tower was staggering.
Next, we walked to the catacombs. It was quite a change in elevation to switch from nearly a thousand feet up to over sixty feet below ground. The catacombs museum was only a portion of the entire catacombs area, which covers only one eight-hundredth of the tunnels under Paris. The eerie nature of the catacombs was not as bad as I had imagined, as it was well lit. In total, the catacombs contain the remains of over six million people.
A day filled with site-seeing, we were privileged to be able to experience these locations.

Dikes and Windmills

We’ve now been in Europe for over a week! Time has flown by. We’d like to recap a few things we saw in the Netherlands because we haven’t posted about them yet.

Back when we were in the Netherlands, we visited a few storm barriers. While in southwest Holland, near Hoek van Holland, we saw the Maeslant barrier (part of the vast Delta Works dike system). In the event of a flood, this barrier protects the important trading city of Rotterdam. We learned many interesting facts about this structure from a guide: it was completed in 1997, it operates with ball-and-socket joints (each of which is 10 meters in diameter and weights 680 tons), the doors close automatically, and each door is as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall. Now that we’ve been up the Eiffel Tower, we have a better idea of the scale of this barrier. Below is a picture of a section of the wall.

We also saw some windmills in the Netherlands but didn’t get a closer look at them until we got to Brugge, Belgium. Windmills are generally considered Dutch even though the Dutch were not the ones to invent the technology. They were used to pump water out of lowlands back into rivers for farming purposes since the Netherlands is so much below sea level. They were also depicted in art quite often.

Our bus driver, Joop, gave us some information about the numbers of windmills as we were driving from the airport to the hotel in Amsterdam. He told us that there used to be around 8000 windmills in the Netherlands, but there are now only about 800. The city keeps building around them so that the wind cannot get at them as well anymore.

Although we did not go see any windmills in Amsterdam, some us went to see two old-fashioned windmills located on the outskirts of Brugge. The blades of the old ones are much different than the new windmill’s blades. They have an open, netting type of material on half of the blade as opposed to the solid blades of the modern ones, and the supporting structure looked a bit like a barn. Below is a picture of one of the old-fashioned windmills we saw in Brugge.