Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Upper Rhine Valley: chateaux

A co-worker asked me to sum up my visit to France in two words; on the spot, I chose "wineries" and "castles".

It's of course no surprise that a visit to France is rich with wineries, but when we were first thinking about traveling to Alsace I was not thinking about castles, which are more properly described as chateaux.

And for much of our time in France we were in towns and cities, and really didn't think much about either wineries or castles, but rather about cathedrals and cobblestone streets and canals and half-timbered houses and the like.

But then, one day, we went out for a drive in the country, and we stopped and had a picnic lunch.

And there we were, sitting at a picnic table next to a beautiful country winery, in a beautiful town in a part of the world where wine-making has been practiced for nearly two thousand years. And the weather was beautiful, and we were looking up at the Vosges mountains above town, and we saw, across the mountain ridges, castle after castle after castle.

Really, it's just like they promise on the chamber of commerce web site:

Anyway, this part of France is simply blanketed with these beautiful chateaux, as you can easily see for yourself by looking at the "Bas-Rhin" (lower Rhine valley) and "Haut-Rhin" (upper Rhine valley) sections of the List of castles in France page on Wikipedia. Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin, together, comprise the major part of the Alsace region, and just by skimming the Wikipedia page you can see that no other part of France is as full of castles as this.

Why is that? Well, apparently we have a father-son pair to thank: Frederick the first of Swabia, and his son Frederick ("the one-eyed"), founders of the mighty Hohenstaufen dynastic family of the Middle Ages, ruled over these parts in the 1100's and built literally dozens of castles along the ridges of the mountains on either side of the Upper Rhine Valley (the Vosges to the west, the Swabian Jura to the east).

One lovely local guidebook I read says that there is an Alsatian saying that "Frederick the One-Eyed placed chateaux around the Vosges as though he was flicking his horse's tail."

Even in ruined state, these castles are gorgeous, as you can see in this picture I took on our visit to Kastelberg, near Waldkirch, Germany:

But, really, it's very hard to understand the role of these castles in their ruined state.

You find yourself mystified: what were these places like? Why were they built? Why on the top of mountain ridges? Who lived here? What was it like to live here?

Questions like these are why Chateau Haut-Koenigsbourg is such a delight.

Although the castle is one of the Hohenstaufen constructions, and hence is almost 900 years old, and was completely destroyed during the Thirty Years War, it was beautifully and carefully restored about 130 years ago and has been carefully maintained ever since.

Taking the tour of this castle was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. The museum is superb, with lots of information displayed as you wander the massive, extensive castle from bottom to top and back down again.

We were lucky to visit on a glorious summer day, yet have the grounds mostly to ourselves (a major surprise, since the castle is said to be one of the top 10 most-visited destinations in all of France!).

We spent hours there.

In fact, I was so enthralled that I broke one of my unwritten "laws of traveling" and bought a lovely little souvenir booklet in the gift shop, which I very much enjoyed reading.

If we had a month to spend in Alsace, or better if we actually lived there, I'm sure I would go to visit as many of these beautiful chateaux as I could.

But since our time was sadly limited, I am wonderfully happy that we got to see the ones we did, and if you ever find yourself in Alsace I thoroughly recommend that you visit at least Chateau Haut-Koenigsburg, and perhaps several more as your time permits.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

It's not just a game ...

... it's a mini-series: The Witcher Is Getting A Netflix Series.

... and it's a story that stays with you, years later: Reading The Game: Witcher 3

It is the story of a man looking for his daughter. It is the story of a lot of people looking for a lot of missing things — friends, comrades, nations, history

...

It is rare for a big game to be so focused on the small things. Exceedingly rare for it to be made up, more or less, of a thousand trivial, funny, sad, often pointless stories which all, in their way, cut the path that the plot will ultimately follow.

Good games are epic. Great games are true. And Wild Hunt is that rarest of modern, digital myths: One that is both.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Updated list of my trips with Mike

I'm going to try to use the Blogger "pages" facility to keep track of this, because it works better than having a new summary post every year: My Backpacking Trips with Mike.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Upper Rhine Valley: prelude and overture

We took an altogether-too-short but thoroughly wonderful trip to the Upper Rhine Valley region of Europe. I'm not sure that "Upper Rhine Valley" is a recognized term for this region, so please forgive me if I've abused it; more technically, we visited:

  1. The Alsace region of France
  2. The Schwarzenwald region of Germany
  3. The neighboring areas of Frankfurt, Germany, and Basel, Switzerland.
But since we were at no point more than about 40 miles from the Rhine river, and since we were several hundred miles from the Rhine's mouth in the North Sea, it seems like a pretty good description to me.

Plus, it matches up quite nicely with this map.

So there you go.

Anyway, we spent 10 wonderful days there, which was hardly even close to enough, but it was what we had.

And I, in my inimitable fashion, packed about 30 days of sightseeing into those 10 days, completely exhausting my travel companions.

Once again, no surprise.

I'll have more to write about various aspects of the trip subsequently, but here let me try to crudely summarize the things that struck me about the trip.

  • Rivers are incredibly important in Europe, much more so than here in America. Rivers provide transportation, drinking water, sewage disposal, electric power, food (fish), and form the boundaries between regions and nations. They do some of these things in America, too, but we aren't nearly as attached to our rivers as they are in Central Europe, where some of the great rivers of the world arise.
  • For centuries, castles helped people keep an eye on their rivers, and make sure that their neighbors were behaving as they should in the river valleys.
  • Trains are how you go places in Europe. Yes, you can fly, or you can drive, but if you CAN take a train, you should. And, if you can take a first class ticket on TGV, you absolutely, absolutely should. I have never had a more civilized travel experience than taking the TGV from Frankfurt to Strasbourg. (Though full credit to Lufthansa for being a much-better-than-ordinary airline. If you get a chance to travel Lufthansa, do it.)
  • To a life-long inhabitant of the American West, Central Europe is odd for having almost no animals. People live in Central Europe, nowadays; animals do not. BUT: storks!
  • France, of course, is the country that perfected that most beautiful of beverages: wine. While most of the attention to wine in France goes to Southern France, don't under-rate Alsace, for they have absolutely delicious wines of many types, and have been making wine for (at least) 2,000 years. We Californians may think we know something about wine; we don't.
  • The visible history of the Upper Rhine Valley is deeply formed by the Franks. Don't try to understand the cathedrals, villages, cities, etc. without spending some time thinking about Charlemagne, etc. And, if you were like me and rather snored through this part of your schooling, prepare to have your eyes opened.
  • The other major history of the Upper Rhine Valley involves wars. My, but this part of the world has been fought over for a long time. Most recently, of course, we can distinguish these major events:
    1. The Franco-Prussian war, which unified Germany and resulted in Alsace being a German territory
    2. World War One
    3. World War Two
    Although the most recent of these events is now 75 years in the past, the centuries and centuries of conflict over who should rule these wonderful lands has left its mark, deeply.

    So often through my visit I thought to myself: "Am I in French Germany? Or perhaps is this German France?" Just trying to form and phrase these questions in my head, I realized how little I knew, and how much there is to learn, about how people form their bonds with their land, and their neighbors, and their thoughts. Language, food, customs, politics, literature: it's all complex and it's all one beautiful whole.

    This, after all, is the land where Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, where people like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Louis Pasteur, John Calvin, and Albert Schweitzer lived and did their greatest work.

I could, of course, have been much terser:

  1. The Upper Rhine Valley is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The people who live there are very warm and welcoming, and it is a delightful place to take a vacation
  2. Early May is an absolutely superb time to go there.

I'll write more later, as I find time.

Back online

I took a break from computers.

I had a planned vacation, and so I did something that's a bit rare for me: I took an 11 day break from computers.

I didn't use any desktops or laptops. I didn't have my smartphone with me.

I went 11 days without checking my email, or signing on to various sites where I'm a regular, or opening my Feedly RSS read, or anything like that.

Now, I wasn't TOTALLY offline: there were newspapers and television broadcasts around, and I was traveling with other people who had computers.

But, overall, it was a wonderful experience to just "unplug" for a while.

I recommend it highly.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Staying up to date

One thing about having several computers, and about never having quite enough time to work on them, is that whenever I turn on a particular computer, it's almost certain that I'll have updates to perform:

  • Windows updates
  • Java updates
  • nVidia driver updates
  • Steam updates
  • etc.

In fact, I'll usually have at least 2 or 3 updates that run whenever I switch one of my computers on.

At least the updates are mostly self-sufficient, though I can never really get the hang of which updates just run automatically, and which require me to baby-sit them at least to the point where they put up a confirmation prompt requesting me to authorize them to update their own software.

Snort.

Meanwhile, in the world of updates, I'm trying to figure out if Windows Subsystem for Linux has matured to the point where I can run Java 8 on it.

As best I can understand from poking around on duh Netz, it seems that:

  • Oracle's Java 8 distribution has made a number of fixes, and now can be successfully installed and run on Windows Subsystem for Linux, at least according to this StackOverflow answer
  • But Java 8 in general really seems to prefer Ubuntu 16 over Ubuntu 14,
  • And Microsoft themselves suggest that both Java 8 and Ubuntu 16 are able to be used once I have upgraded to Windows 10 Creators Update (see this MSDN blog article)

So it seems like the bottom line is that for the time being, I should continue to do my Java work using either the vanilla Windows JDK, or using my full Linux installation on my VirtualBox instance(s).

But hopefully Windows 10 Creators Update will reach my machine soon (if I get really impatient, Microsoft says I can possibly hurry the process along using the Update Assistant).

And then I can start a whole new round of updates!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

An Alameda high rise?

Alameda Magazine, which frankly is simply a Chamber of Commerce flyer, nonetheless ran this breathless article: Alameda’s First High-Rise?

A developer is proposing to build a 14-story, 589-unit housing project on the waterfront at the long-dormant Encinal Terminals site. The project, which would be constructed directly across the estuary from Oakland’s 3,100-unit Brooklyn Basin housing development now under construction, would feature the Island’s tallest building.

“We are building a world-class waterfront” that will be “a centerpiece for the estuary,” said Mike O’Hara, a representative of developer Tim Lewis Communities, or TLC. TLC recently broke ground on another 380-unit housing project on the adjoining historic Del Monte warehouse property.

I certainly would like to see the estuary waterfront opened up and reclaimed. Currently it is a wasteland of abandoned warehouses, docks, and vacant lots, mostly fenced off and sitting idle. It could be some of the most beautiful space in the Bay Area, if it is done well.

As the article notes, however, this is far from a slam dunk:

the Encinal Terminals project faces a more complicated regulatory approval than most developments. The 32-acre site includes nine submerged acres, large dilapidated wharf structures, and six acres of state tidelands. Under state law, tidelands property cannot be used for housing, so the project would require the swapping of private acreage around the perimeter of the site for tidelands property in the interior—a plan that also would have to be approved by the state.

It just so happened that I had the chance today to wander down to a similarly-long-under-used section of the San Francisco waterfront, known as "Dogpatch", where an enormous gentrification project is underway, scheduled to run for at least another 15 years.

The cities are changing. The Bay Area is changing. It's good to remember the history, but it's also good to invest in the future.

On we go.