Before and After

When I first arrived in Regensburg, the ticket machines for the bus system were all confusing push-buttony evil, like so:

photo 2-5

One day about two months ago, a magical thing started to happen.   The old machines started to evolve.  I walked past one on Albertstraße and it had a brand new touchscreen and a whole lot of new technology stuck on the front.  The new machines always exist in sunlight.

This is progress!

photo 1-5

Have you noticed any tiny little improvements around your town that make you happy?

No Limits

Americans have a lot of myths and misconceptions about Germany.  We think that all Germans wear lederhosen and dirndls- they don’t; that’s just in the South of Germany.  We think that all Germans love beer and pretzels- ok, that part is actually mostly true.

Before I moved to Germany, I had a weird misconception that the Autobahn was a single world-famous stretch of roadway.  I stupidly didn’t register that “Autobahn” is really just the name for Germany’s entire system of highways until I was already here and seeing the separate segments of the highway.  I now know that Regensburg sits at the intersection of the A3 and the A93, and both of those roads are considered “The Autobahn.”

We think that the entire Autobahn has no speed limit.

nolimitsIt only takes one time on the highways here to see that this isn’t entirely true.  There are places on Germany’s roadways with no posted speed limits, designated by the circle and slashes seen to the right of this paragraph.  One ADAC estimate says that roughly half of the Autobahn  does indeed have a posted speed limit.  I can attest to this, since I drove on the Autobahn last week for the first time.

I don’t usually have a car here- when I moved over, I sold my beloved Honda Civic in favor of using the bus and train to get around.  I didn’t want to deal with the expense of parking, of getting gasoline, of insuring a car- and I really don’t need one here.    I drive when I’m in the United States, but not here.

When several of us went to Zürich for business last week and I had the opportunity to sign on as a second driver for the rental car, I didn’t have to think too long before signing up.  As a result, I got to drive a bit in both Germany and Austria.  I have a few thoughts on the experience:

  1. The places that do have speed limits here are somewhat infuriating because the speed limit changes rapidly and often.  In a five-minute span, you can find yourself seeing multiple speed limit changes.  It’s usually somewhat logical-  120 kilometers per hour to 100 to 80 as you approach a tunnel, for example.  Sometimes, though, it can be downright schizophrenic:  120 kilometers per hour to 80 to 100 to 60 to 120 and then, suddenly, no limits again.  In the US, highway speed limits tend to be one speed for much longer stretches of roadway.
  2. Even on the sections of the Autobahn that don’t have posted speed limits, there is still a recommended speed.  The Richtgeschwindigkeit, or recommended speed, is 130 km/h.  I can say from my new experience that 130-140 is actually a very comfortable speed.  This is perfectly logical, since this is roughly equivalent to 80-87 miles per hour.
  3. Our rental car was a Volkswagen Touran, which is basically the minivan version of a VW Golf.  This car isn’t really built for speed-  at one point on a straightaway, I took the car up to 180 km/h (112 mph) just to see what it felt like.  It felt terrifying.  At that speed, the entire vehicle felt like it was catching an updraft.  There was no sense of real control of the vehicle, and I was concerned that any good gust of wind would completely crash us.  I leveled it back down to a more relaxed speed very quickly, and didn’t break a three digit mph speed again for the rest of the trip.  I saw plenty of people doing 200-220 km/h on the Autobahn, but you really have to have the right car to do it without spontaneous outbreaks of sudden and horrible death.

Would I rent a fast car some time and drive fast on the Autobahn again?  Probably, it was kind of fun despite the terror.  Maybe next time I just need a faster car…

Have you been on the Autobahn?  What’s the fastest speed you’ve ever driven?

 

icebanner

ICE, ICE, Baby! (A Beginner’s Guide To The Deutsche Bahn)

I love trains.

One of my favorite things about living in Regensburg is that we’re situated on a major rail line. From here, there are direct lines to Munich, Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Prague. That’s just without changing trains. If you don’t mind changing trains once or twice, you can go nearly anywhere on the continent. It’s a great way to travel.

Step One: Book Your Trip

appWhile you can get your train tickets from automated machines in the train station, or from a Deutsche Bahn counter, it’s generally advisable to do this ahead of time. The DB has a very excellent website in multiple languages, as well as a series of great apps to serve this purpose. It’s not much different than arranging air travel at this point- You can search with criteria like arrival or departure time, number of connections, and so forth.

The Website has also recently added a seat selection option to the booking process. The brown bars in the screen capture below are tables, so you’ll be sitting facing someone else. The boxed off sections toward the right are compartments with a door between you and the aisle. Click for a bigger view.

seatselector

Step One Point Five: Choose Your Type Of Train

rb-alexWhile you book your trip, you should bear in mind that there are a number of different types of trains in use on Deutsche Bahn rail lines.

  • There are a few non-DB carriers that operate on German rail lines, like the Alex trains pictured on the right, and Agilis just below that. I’m not going to get into the specifics of them in this post, but I’ve used Alex trains for trips to Prague and Munich. The Prague trip was horrible, but the Munich run was smooth as glass. The Agilis trains tend to be run on local routes. For example, the one pictured here runs between Ingolstadt and Regensburg, on an almost hourly schedule.
    Agilis train
  • Regio-DB or RB (Regional Bahn) tend to be highly localized. These trains are usually painted red.
  • RE (Regional Express) lines are for slightly longer distances than the RB. For example, there are RE lines between Regensburg and Munich. You can travel throughout the entire country using only RE lines, but it will take you a while. RE trains are also painted red.
  • IC (Inter City) trains.  IC trains are the middle step between the RE and ICE trains.  They are typically mostly white with red stripes, like the ICE trains, and they are generally faster than the RE trains.
  • ICE (Inter City Express) lines are my personal favorite. These are the trains that look like monorails. ICE trains are always pronounced Eye See Eee, never like the word ‘ice’ despite my bad joke in the subject line of this post. ICE trains are painted white with a red stripe, and they’re fantastic.
  • When your trip moves you between countries, sometimes you’ll wind up on the rail network from another country. For example, the train below is Railjet, a high speed Austrian line. This train was going to Vienna.
    austrianrailjet

In the picture below, you can see four different DB train types. The trains are, from left to right, an ICE type one, an ICE type two, an RE, a RB, and an ICE type three. The type three is the newest and fastest type.

ice-123-3types-munich

I’m a huge fan of the ICE trains. Here’s two more pictures of them. First, an ICE-T train. The T stands for ‘Tilt.’ All the newer models do this, actually. The upper portion of the train is designed to tilt to allow for high speed navigation, even on curves. The practical result of this for me is that my trips to and from the bathroom on an ICE train while the body of the train is tilting back and forth are often high comedy.

icet

Here’s another close picture of an ICE type three, because they’re amazing.

ice3

Why do I think they’re amazing? Well, they’re quiet, they’re comfortable, they have power plugs on the seats, and they’re fast. On newer, straighter sections of track, they can do this-

ice-zoom

You read that right- that’s 300 Kilometers per hour. That’s 186 Mph. And they can go even faster, if the track is straight and smooth.

One more thing that’s kind of interesting to me- in the picture of the ICE Type 3 above, the coupling is covered by a white shell. However, sometimes you see them uncovered, like so:ice-coupling1

That’s because ICE trains can be coupled together for longer hauls, making the single train double the length of a normal train. This is particularly useful when both trains share half a route, then get uncoupled at a major station before going to separate destinations. Here’s what they look like coupled together:

ice-coupling2

Step Two: Go To The Station

The main train station in any city is called a Bahnhof. In cities that are large enough to have more than one station, the main station is called a Hauptbahnhof. Bahnhofs always have clocks on them, for some reason I haven’t been able to learn. Here’s the front of the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof:

frankfurt-hbf

Step Three: Find Your Platform

Every Bahnhof has display signs which tell you information about upcoming departures, including the Gleis (track or platform), destination, and departure time. There’s a big departures board inside the Bahnhof, and once you get to the actual platform, there are usually smaller signs to provide more information, like this one:

platform-digital

In the picture above, you have the following information:

  • This is Gleis 4.
  • This train is going to München (Munich). This train also has stops in Köln (Cologne), Frankfurt Flughafen (airport), and Nürnberg (Nuremberg).
  • The train’s identification is ICE 629.
  • This train will stop at stations A through E on the platform. On the left side of the picture, you can see the letter C- this is useful for shorter trains, as it allows you to see roughly where the beginning and end of the train will stop.
  • The train is departing this station at 12:38.

If there are any announcements or indications that your train is late, they’ll generally be notated on the boards. In the picture below, the scrolling text with the white background tells us that the train to Dortmund is actually running five minutes late.

trainbelate

Sometimes, you luck into an older station with the charming flip-board version of this sign. While they don’t have as much information, I think they’re really nifty and I quite like seeing them.

platform-flipstyle

Step Four: Find Your Seat

On RE and RB trains, you can’t reserve seats. On those trains, you just have to make sure that you don’t wander into a First Class car with a Second Class ticket. The cars are clearly marked with very large 1 and 2 signs, so that’s pretty straight forward. Some of the RE trains use double-decker cars with a lot of seating, like this next picture.

rb-interior

For ICE trains, however, you can usually get reserved seating- this is especially nice on crowded routes. When you have an ICE reservation, your ticket will specify a Wagon and a Seat. That’s where these signs come in handy. It’s difficult to capture this in a clear picture, but the car itself tells you that this is Wagon 23, on ICE 29 between Frankfurt and Wien (Vienna). The giant 2 to the right of that display tells you that this is a second class car.

ice-trains4

Once inside you’ll need to find your seat. If you do have a reservation, the seats will be marked by a small electronic displays somewhere above each pair of seats. If the display is blank, there’s no active reservation. The reservation display pictured below shows you that the window seat, #46, is reserved from Bochum to Nürnberg, and the aisle seat, #48, is reserved from Köln to München. Hypothetically, if you were planning on getting off the train before Köln, you could use seat #48 without much of a problem since that reservation starts with someone boarding the train in Köln.

ice-reservations

Once you’ve got your seat sorted out, you can try to stash your luggage. Most of the trains have some form of overhead storage, but it’s not always big enough for a regular suitcase. The pictures below are four different views of ICE train interiors.

ice-cabin-1 ice-cabin-2ice-interior1 ice-interior2

Step Five: Enjoy The Ride!

There’s not much else to add, really. DB trains are generally very smooth. Sure, yes, sometimes delays happen and weird things make travel a little more complicated. For the most part, though, this is a great way to travel. You can get from Regensburg to Frankfurt in three or four hours while reading on your Kindle, or you can stare out the window at the countryside passing by.

If you get hungry, most ICE trains have either a Bordbistro or a Bordrestaurant, and even the RE trains often have a snack cart passing by periodically so you can get something to eat while in motion. The Bordrestaurants often have hot food available, in a small fixed menu. You can see a few options in the photo below- when this picture was taken, chili, a rice dish, currywurst, a simple salad, and even some desserts were available.

bordbistro1

So there you have it- a beginner’s guide to riding (and enjoying) the Deutsche Bahn. I could go on a great deal longer about this topic, because I love riding the rails I think this is a good place to stop, though- this post should cover the basics. Now go forth and ride! Travel somewhere this weekend! Gute reise!

Which do you prefer- trains, planes, or automobiles? Have you traveled by Deutsche Bahn?

london08

One Week In The UK, Part One: London

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
— Samuel Johnson

Ever since I was eleven years old, I’ve wanted to see London.    My fascination with the city started when I would come home after school, running from the bus stop to catch the second half of the day’s broadcast of Dangermouse on Nickelodeon.  For the uninitiated, Dangermouse is the world’s greatest secret agent, a mouse in a white jumpsuit with an eye patch.  His assistant, Penfold, is a hamster in a tiny blue suit.   The link above is part of an episode.  To date, Dangermouse is still my favorite cartoon.

As I grew older, the UK criss-crossed my personal pop culture landscape.  Many movies I loved were filmed, in part, in Pinewood Studios about twenty miles outside of the city.  Here’s a very short and in no way complete list:  Superman and Superman II, the original Harryhausen Clash of the Titans, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Legend, the James Bond movies, Little Shop of Horrors, Aliens, the first two Hellraiser movies,  the 1989 Batman, The Fifth Element, Stardust, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (the single finest movie adaptation of a stage musical ever made), and The Dark Knight.  Granted, most of these didn’t showcase London, but they were made there, and in my brain, that counts.  Sweeney Todd has an entire song just about London, though.

I read every Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy book as it came out.  Tom Baker was my Doctor until 2005.  I watch Love Actually at least once a year.  A hefty portion of my regular television viewing comes out of the BBC.  My favorite living author is British.

My point is that I was predisposed to love London even before I ever dreamed of traveling there.  And I did, of course-  dream of traveling there.  When I finally got my passport back in 2006, it was with the intention of making it to London.    I was just waiting for money, time off, and someone to travel with.

As I gained more seniority at Mr. Company, the money became less of a constraint, and the time off became easier to come by.  I was still waiting for a travel buddy though, but it never quite worked out.    Meanwhile, I went to other places.  I traveled widely in my own country, visited Canada, and spent two weeks in Hong Kong for work.   Then in late 2010, my life reached “Do-Over” status-  I found myself single again and temporarily without an apartment of my own.  In that time of upheaval, I made a promise to myself that I would reach London before my fortieth birthday.

Fast forward to April of this year.  I’d been in Germany for a scant five months, and I saw a link on Facebook to a Neil Gaiman post.  The surviving cast members of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio shows were doing a live touring version of the radio shows. Neil himself would be the voice of The Book in the Edinburgh, Scotland show on the 21st of July.  Twenty minutes after I read the post, I had already purchased tickets.    Thirty minutes after I read the post, I had compared the dates of the Olympics to the date of the show, verified that the week leading up to that event was a full week before the crowded Olympics began, and requested my vacation time.    The trip formed from that point forward.

On Saturday, 14 July, I flew into Heathrow Airport, with an Oyster Card, a LondonPass, and a very basic travel framework locked in.  I had a ticket for the London production of Wicked on Tuesday.  I had a rail ticket to go from King’s Cross Station in London to Waverley Station in Edinburgh by rail on Friday.  I had the aforementioned HHG Live ticket, and airfare to go from Edinburgh back to Munich the following Sunday.  And finally, I had a list of things I wanted to see, based on a lifetime of absorbing the UK into my soul like so much mercury on the skin.  I had a terrific time, and I took nearly a thousand photographs.  I’m only going to share about two dozen of them here.

Photos and such are behind this More tag

Two If By Train

I’ve always wanted to see Europe.  Lots and lots of Europe.  Up until I moved to Germany, however, I had never actually been to Europe. When I was given the chance to work in Germany for Mr. Company, one of the biggest draws was that I would be here for a long period of time-  exploring Europe from Europe is a great deal simpler than trying to do it in a series of shorter trips from the US.

To add to my wonderment,  Regensburg sits on a major rail line.  The Regensburg Bahnhof is a five minute walk from my apartment.  From there, I can be to Munich in just under 90 minutes.  In five hours I can be to Vienna, Salzburg, or Prague.  In less than seven hours, I can reach Berlin or Zurich.  In eight hours, I can reach Amsterdam, Budapest, or Paris.  If I have ten or twelve hours, I can reach Venice, Rome, or London.  That’s just rail-  if I take a 75 minute train to Munich, I can hop a flight to just about anywhere in no time at all.

I just got my BahnCard, too.  The BahnCard system is a wonderful boost to someone like me.  For a yearly fee up front, you get a percentage of all of your rail travel discounted within Germany.  The BahnCard 25 is less than sixty Euros up front, and is 25% off your rail for that year.  The BahnCard 50, which I purchased, is 240 Euros per year, but it provides a 50% discount.   I’ve already made back 20% of the expense, and I just got the card last week.   There’s also a BahnCard 100, which is an obscene amount of money up front, but BC100 holders do not pay anything additional for their German rail travel for that year.  It’s the Black Card of the EuroRail system, literally- it’s actually a black card.  Regular BahnCards arrive in a flat white envelope, but the BC100 arrives in a presentation box, pictured below. (And shamelessly stolen from http://blog.mahrko.de/.)

To add to the seven layer burrito of awesome that is the BahnCard, RailPlus is automatically granted on every BahnCard, which grants 25% off of ticket prices for another 24 countries.  From here, I can start planning on little rail trip weekends whenever I feel like it.

I’m gonna go everywhere.