VanLife: Part Deux

I’m listening to Leon Bridges and Mavis Staples, trying to exercise my still-swollen fingers (just two weeks out of the cast post-break / six weeks post-bike accident) by making fists like a maniac, and realizing that we are approaching the one year anniversary of our van trip across southern Europe.

It is time to finish that story. So here it is: Van Life Part Deux.

After relaxing in the coolness of northern Italy last July we drove into Bavaria to visit the castles of “mad” King Ludwig II. You might ask why “mad”?   Well . . . as a boy he didn’t show much interest in martial arts, hunting or governing.  Instead he loved art and poetry, and hanging out with Richard Wagner, with theater friends and with the boys. Lots of boys.  Even stranger, and to his parents’ consternation, young Ludwig never seemed very interested in the girls or in getting married. Mad!

When it came time to start king-ing, in 1864, and to build his own castle, Ludwig first built the small and isolated Schloss Linderhof, but then went big: he surveyed the hills surrounding his father’s castle and picked out a nice high rocky outcropping that looked down on dad’s place. For a castle architect he chose Wagner’s set designer. He wanted to create something romantic and picturesque; something that hearkened back to Germanic myths and fairy tales.  It never functioned as a defensive fortification; it’s not protective and it wasn’t meant to be. Ludwig wrote to Wagner in 1868, while the castle was under construction, to say that it would be “in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles” and would also remind Wagner of his operas Tannhauser and Lohengrin. 

Not fortified; not defensible.  But really pretty.  

As time passed, the “mad” King focused more on the opera and the story of Parsifal, he became very enamored of that legend. As I understand it, Parsifal is the “pure fool” or innocent good man, who must retreive a golden spear from some maidens who have stolen it (from other knights) so that he can use that spear to touch and heal his injured male friends.    So anyway, right off of Ludwig’s bedroom in the castle is a special “grotto,” with craggy fake-stone walls and the only electric lighting in the place, which was designed with special glass to allow changes to the color scheme of the lights to green, blue, red. I’m not sure what exactly went on in the grotto, but I imagine Ludwig going off to imagine himself a knight in the wilderness or a hermit in his cave.

We also visited Linderhof, which isn’t nearly as popular or as crowded. It is set in a beautiful park in the Ammer Valley near Oberammergau and was originally intended as a hunting lodge, so it is relatively modest. It was also Ludwig’s favorite place to come stay either alone or with just a friend or two. And to entertain himself he built an underground lake with boat in the shape of a swan to glide around on. You can only imagine the parties that they must have had on that lake. Mad!

After the castles we drove over to Munich where we stayed for a few days visiting museums, parks and Dachau. One of the odd sights in the parks was a wedding photo session carried out in highly-stylized fashion. Photo above doesn’t begin to capture it.

The concentration camp at Dachau is shockingly close to Munich; it’s really just a suburb. And the effect of seeing it is profound. Some of the barracks have been preserved, as well as the ovens. There is a also a museum that narrates the progress of the camp as it was built and operated. The photos and videos from the time are unforgettable, but one of the most chilling displays for me was a section that narrated the white-washing that was carried out by the Red Cross and other international organizations and the press. Those organizations were given carefully orchestrated tours of the camps and then published stories about how “criminals” and the “work-shy” were being rehabilitated.  The echos of that rosy assessment are inescapable in the descriptions that Fox News and others use in covering the US camps for migrants and migrant children.

And in that vein, this New Yorker article is worth reading for its descriptions of the chaotic Nazi regime that created the camps in Germany, and for the conclusion that “when a society decides that some people deserve to be treated this way—that it is not just inevitable but right to deprive whole categories of people of their humanity—that a crime on the scale of the [Nazi camps] becomes a possibility. It is a crime that has been repeated too many times, in too many places, for us to dismiss it with the simple promise of never again.”

On the lighter note of our further travels, after Munich we drove into Switzerland and stayed first on the edge of Brienzersee in a campground beside the tiny town of Iseltwald. This was one of the campgrounds largely occupied by people who buy year-long leases for their campers, and who then build decks, plant hedges and place garden gnome statuary under the trees. The lake was beautiful and cold and the view of the mountains calming. Even more importantly, Benji found loads of slugs after swimming, and we had a nice pasta dinner in the van.

From the lake we drove up a steep and winding road to Grindelwald, a small but very picturesque and popular town in the Alps. From there we took some easy hikes, including one that featured lots of cows emerging from mist, lounging on the grass or walking slowly so that their bells were constantly sounding across the mountains.

During this time I was also pushing the remote work and “mobile office” concept about as far as it could be pushed, culminating in a conference call taken from a parking lot while looking up at the North Face of the Eiger, and then working on my laptop on the van’s fold-out table in the same spot.

Because I had more work to do, after Switzerland we drove over to France and camped out in Lyon for a few days. I worked and Brook and the kids explored the city and parks. The report was: it’s a great town!

And then finally it was time to turn back south into Spain. We spent a nice afternoon on the beach in San Sebastian, and then two nights in Bilbao. I visited Bilbao 27 years ago, before the opening of the Guggenheim, and the city has changed completely! Now the river has been opened up, with boardwalks built and old factories converted to museums and other art spaces. There are good restaurants, lively crowds at night, and of course the amazing, beautiful Guggenheim building. The 30-foot high spider sculpture is by Louise Bourgeois and the silver bubbles are by Anish Kapoor. The turtles traveled with us all summer and we thought they deserved a photo op too.

From Bilbao we made the drive home to Sevilla in just two days, stopping in Salamanca for a quick look at the Plaza Mayor and the cathedral and university facades, and spending one night in the lovely little town of Burgos.

And in mid-August we were home at last, with the van parked briefly in our courtyard, looking like a protruding tooth under a mustache of vines.

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