Our first two weeks in Germany have been focused on settling in – setting up our home, planning for the kids’ school, stocking our cupboards, figuring out how things work. But while most of our time this year will be spent discovering what everyday life in a foreign context looks like, we hope to take full advantage of being in Europe to explore the region and see many sights that fall outside of our typical small town Vermont lives. So we’ll use this blog to document many of our excursions, both to share with friends and store our memories.
Yesterday we took our first trip out of Göttingen to the nearby city of Hannover, the capital of the German state we’re living in, Niedersachsen (or Lower Saxony). Depending on the type of train, it’s either a 35 or 75 minute ride – we took the more leisurely option, as it was less than half the price and I’ve yet to figure out the best strategy for reserving reasonable express train tickets. The morning was spent on the train, then the tram in Hannover, to arrive at the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen and Sea Life aquarium, where we planned on spending the day. We arrived at the gardens at 11:15, and wanted an early lunch before getting immersed in activities – alas, we violated a golden rule of family travel in not getting decent food when we saw it (at the downtown train station), as the food options at the gardens were far more limited (and challenging with one vegetarian and one incredibly picky eater). So we spent too long searching for food, then waiting in line at Sea Life to get to their café – hopefully a lesson learned for future excursions!
Sea Life was our first stop post-lunch, and it was worth the wait. Walter has been particularly fish-obsessed over the past year, and Sea Life was one of his chief goals for our trip to Germany after learning about it months ago. As far as aquariums go, it was pretty good – better than Vermont’s ECHO Center (which is shackled by restricting itself to Lake Champlain’s habitats), but not as vast and fun as Boston’s New England Aquarium.
But there were ample opportunities to gaze at fish, including a cool tunnel through a tank where sharks and sea turtles pass overhead, and a nice small exhibit on jellyfish. A domed rainforest section seemed less focused on sea life but offered a nice counterpoint to the dark claustrophobia typical of aquariums. Generally an enjoyable trip, but little different from what we’d get back home (and it seems that Sea Life is a global chain, with outlets throughout Europe and the U.S.).
We found a much more European experience at the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen, dating from 17th century German/British royalty. We first explored the Berggarten, a large botanical garden area with a range of plant habitats, the mausoleum of Hannover’s royalty, and a spectacular climbing tree that we can’t identify (wisdom from the comments – it’s a European Beech!). There were greenhouses full of orchids and cacti, and hundreds of plants that we spent far too little time exploring.
But we wanted to cross the street to explore der Große Garten (and get Eis to refuel!). The large gardens are the grounds of the now-ruined palace, where Electress Sophie had the baroque gardens built between 1696 and 1714 (and why don’t we call people Electress anymore?). The gardens were filled with elaborately designed box hedges, ornate statues, carefully manicured walkways, flower arrangements, and fountains.
The great fountain was truly spectacular, spouting water over 200 feet into the air! Amazingly, the system was first designed in the 18th century using a gravity pump that spouted over 100 feet without electricity. We spent less than an hour in these gardens, but are already looking forward to a return trip to deepen our exploration.
Our walk through the gardens ended at The Grotto, one of the few remaining parts of the original palace structures that was not destroyed in WWII. But it is unrecognizable due to the distinctly modern touch made by artist Niki de Saint Phalle in 2002, her last artwork before she died that year (it was actually completed after her death by her assistants per her notes). It’s a stunning three room installation of mirrored mosaics, whimsical sculpture, and patterned windows, and definitely inspired me to seek out more of her artwork throughout Europe.
We left the gardens to meet up with a faculty member at the University of Hannover whom I had met at my previous visit to Göttingen. He welcomed us to his Kleingarten, a small cottage and garden area contained within a compound of similar small plots, with people renting a plot as their summer getaway in the city. (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that,
but I cannot find a good English language source to get my facts right – more wisdom from the comments!) The kids had fun playing with their son, despite his limited English, communicating instead in the universal language of Springen, or jumping on a trampoline. We reveled in their hospitality, continuing to be struck by how kind, generous, and welcoming all of the Germans we’ve met have been.
We arrived back home after 9pm (or 21:00 as they say here), weary but happy after a successful first of many European excursions. Of course, there are still many wonders to be found outside our front door.