December 29, 2011

Stuttgart with Stu

After leaving Munich we entered into a welcome phase of our trip, whereby we arranged to stay with friends of ours for the weeks leading up to the holidays. These were visits with no expectation of working for our keep and where we were saved from being in hostels/hotels in foreign cities with no one to connect us to the local scene.

After some quick and effective planning over the previous two months, we arranged for the first of these "comfort stays" with a good friend of ours, Stu Java. I (Dave) got to know Stu very well during my time in Miami. After leaving South Florida, Stu has since been living in Stuttgart and working for the U.S. Defense Department for the last two years. He's a fantastic guy and a great friend, and he welcomed us into his home with grace and kindness. After our previous several weeks, with the chaotic adjustments in Switzerland and the flurry of activity and poor hostel-sleep in Munich, his downstairs guest space (complete with full-sized bed and a sleek bathroom/shower) felt downright luxurious, practically a five-star hotel for us smelly and weary travelers. We had a chance to catch up on some sleep and some long-overdue laundry, and then for the next several days we saw yet another fascinating German city, though this time with the nuanced approach afforded only by having a local companion to show you the way.

We toured Stuttgart's Christmas Markt, similar to many of the others that we have seen throughout Europe and yet much more impressive. It was certainly one of the biggest Christmas Markts we'd seen, with some of the best food offerings. There was the standard, and oh-so delicious Bratwurst - Dave's 40th, by rough estimate - and some funky warm drinks, including the ubiquitous hot, mulled "gluhwein," as well as hot mead (honey wine, Christina's favorite) and another beverage that Stu accurately described as hot, liquid cake batter....with booze. Stuttgart also had one of our favorite variations on the Christmas Markt model; the Medieval Markt, complete with food, drink, activities and vendors that were all gleefully stuck in the middle ages. Stu is an avid military history enthusiast and is well-versed in his Scottish heritage, while Christina and I are avid fantasy book dweebs. Needless to say we had a great night at the medieval markt, indulging in a few purchases and quite a few food and drink offerings.

Stu also showed us around some of Stuttgart's historical sites, giving us a tour of some major government and historical buildings, past city fortifications, and other parts of the surrounding city landscape, many of which are covered by extensive grape fields for wine production. Perhaps most welcome were the tours of Stu's local haunts, his favorite bars and eateries and the great folks we met along the way. The highlight of these were two Irish bars. There was the Auld Rogue, which served up a cheeseburger for the ages (it'd been a while for us Americans) and frothy beers in front of a TV displaying NFL games to a crowd of ex-pats. And then there was O'Reillys, which was a bit more traditional of a pub. On the night we showed up there was a group of local musicians playing traditional Irish songs to each other as they sat in a circle in a dimly-lit corner of the bar, downing pints and largely ignoring the random folks around them. We stayed there until closing, and that scene of sipping brews with our friend and quietly listening to the crew of men, young and old, as they belted out somber tunes, will be a memory that stands out. If you find yourself in Stuttgart, go to these two pubs and you will not be disappointed.

In all, Stu welcomed us into a glimpse of his life there in Stuttgart, and with the comfort of his home and the several home-cooked meals he whipped together for us (good cajun, southern cooking), we left feeling recharged and incredibly grateful.

After four days in Stuttgart, we joined Stu and his friend Steve on our train out of the city, ultimately parting ways at the Koln train station. Stu and Steve carried on to some of the towns surrounding Dusseldorf for a weekend of exploring local pubs, while Christina and I went further to some obscure, former-military base that was the departure point for our flight to Estonia, where we would spend the rest of our holidays. After a sleepless night in the airport, we took our rickety flight to Tallinn (Estonia's capital) and left Germany behind once and for all. Our time in Stuttgart was a fantastic send-off from the country that we had grown to love so much, and Stu was a great friend and guide at a time in our trip when we truly needed both.

Until the next.

Our trio for the time in Stuttgart; Dave, Christina and Stu-Pac.

Noel, the manager and bartender at the Auld Rogue. He runs a great pub and he worked the room effortlessly, never allowing a pint glass to be empty for too long. He gave us some great stories and some great suggestions for cities to visit later in our trip, specifically in northern Portugal. Pay Noel a visit if you find yourself in Stuttgart.

We saw yet another variety of Christmas Markt in Stuttgart, the Finnish version. Gluhwein with spiced chili vodka was the drink, and fire-smoked salmon was the dish. 

Some of the fascinating architecture in Esslingen, a town just outside Stuttgart and the location of the medieval markt.

A view from the ancient city fortifications that lined Esslingen. The grape vines covered countless hillsides such as this, producing mainly Pinots and Rieslings. 

Dave and Christina, manning the city walls.

Practicing our skills at the medieval markt, complete with an archery teacher in authentic garb. Two euros bought you five chances to shoot an arrow through a dangling lemon, about 15 feet away. Dave did not hit the lemon. 

The man with his back to the camera, dressed in a medieval cloak and elf ears, knew he had an interested customer and gave his pitch. Another, not-pictured vest was made of deluxe red leather and had intricate runes carved into it. "This is for show," he said, and the one shown here, which Stu ultimately bought, "this is for fighting." Who the elf-man is fighting remains a mystery, but the vest was awesome.

Christina has always wanted a cloak, simple as that. In the Stuttgart medieval markt, she got one. American fashion will never be the same when she gets back stateside with this thing.

Stu, Steve, and Dave on our train ride out of Germany. Our final Deutschland beer and great company to share it with.

We had all of twenty minutes in Koln, but that was enough to see it's famed cathedral, which was located right outside the central station. It was a hulking, gothic site to behold.

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