After visiting Anke in Köln and passing our first test of maintaining German conversation for a 3-hour period, we could now embark on our next trip to Bad Lauterberg, to visit Ellen's dear old great-aunt Annelie. She is at a youthful age of 92, and is still as active as a race horse. Unlike Anke who could revert to English whenever we were struggling for vocabulary, Annelie was going to be 100% German. Along with never having visited Bad Lauterberg without Wolfgang to translate, Ellen had also never travelled there from Berlin...lest to mention with our restricted local train travel. The day before departing Berlin we popped into the DB Hauptbahnhof office to ask for a break-down of our necessary route. The fastest route was unavailable as the floods in central Germany were affecting train directions. The lady printed off an alternate route that was operating. It was another 8-changes journey, some with very small windows to make connections. Annelie's son Lutz was picking us up from the station so we memorized the necessary platform numbers so there'd be no delays.
The next day we arrived at the station nice and early. However, before boarding our initial train we noticed a slight problem: the town we were supposed to be arriving in, to make our next connection wasn't listed on the screen. We asked the platform attendant if the final destination just wasn't listed or something. She replied in very fast German something about a bus change to get to our stop. A little confused we boarded the train and sat down. When the ticket inspector came around we asked again about our journey. He explained a lot clearer that the floods had now spread even further so our destination was now under water. After about an hour travelling, the extent of the floods became apparent to us. We were dropped at a tiny suburban train station that didn't even have a sign labelling it. About 15m from the end of the platform the rails became completely submerged in water. We looked at the time and then Google mapped where we were. We were only 12km from where we needed to make our next train and we had 30mins. So long as the bus arrived soon, this was do-able. We sat down with the other 40 stranded people and watched the lives of the villagers unfold around us. It was quite unique little place: every 3rd car that passed on the tiny road was either a tractor, monster truck or horse-drawn carriage. Soon the buses arrived and we hobbled on-board.
The bus ride revealed more of the flood water devastation. Towns were barricaded-up with sandbags, detour signs were everywhere, and a massive entourage of fire engines were driving around, as if running the towns under a militia-type control. We arrived at our destination with 2 minutes before our next trains' departure. We jumped off the bus and ran to the platform, but to no avail. We must've missed it by mere moments. Depleted, we headed to the information office to find out an updated itinerary of necessary trains. The news was both good and bad. We hadn't actually missed our train (yay!) but that was due to the fact that the train was redirected, as our current location was now the most heavily affected flood zone... (shit). There was one rail line that could get trains in and out, but due to accessibility, usual routes were out-the-window. What the train officials were now doing was getting everyone stranded at the station to say where they needed to get to. The destinations were then tallied-up and when a certain quota was hit a train would be sent out taking the necessary people. It was a massive shambles. We were given a tentative 2-hour wait before a train would be sent the general direction we needed to go. The silver lining was that at least our initial remaining 7 changes was now probably going to be cut down to 2.
After eating some lunch and playing with the pigeons outside, our train was finally listed as departing in 10minutes. We eagerly headed to the platform. Whilst waiting for a conductor to be assigned to the train, an African man approached us and asked if we were travelling on a "Schones Wochenende ticket" (the cheap local train ticket). "Yes." we replıed. "Could I travel with you to the next town?" (I should explain at this point. The cheap tickets we bought are actually pretty incredible. For 42€ up to 5 people can travel on any local train within Germany for that entire day). I would've loved for him to join us, so we could've been a white, brown and black person entourage. We would've looked like the perfect anti-racism campaign. Unfortunately the ticket conductor on the first train had stamped our ticket and written "2 persons" on it, so we couldn't add him to it. He thanked us anyway and walked-off in search if someone else. 2 minutes later a conductor rushed up the stairs towards the front carriage. "This train goes to Herzberg, yes?" I asked in horrific German as he passed by us. "I have no idea. I was just told to "drive west"," he responded. It was good enough for me.
Apart from the odd phone conversation in the carriage from someone calling their wife explaining that they physically wouldn't make it to the hospital in time for the delivery, but this time they weren't at the pub but ACTUALLY caught in flooding, the rest of the trip to Bad Lauterberg was relatively hassle free. We called Lutz when we'd finally arrived and he came to collect us. Even though we were leading with German, Lutz kept responding to us in fluent English. When we checked-in to our hotel I asked Ellen about this. "I had no idea he spoke fluent English, usually when I come here with dad everyone speaks German" she explained. I was skeptical as her memory is faltering at best, but gave her the benefit of the doubt, as it's not like it wasn't a welcome surprise. Apparently word had spread throughout the village of our arrival, as on the way out of the hotel a random woman stopped us near the reception and inquired as to whether Ellen was the great niece of Annelie. We were obviously a little shocked that random people knew who we were, but we soon found out Annelie had been raving about it to everyone, as she was so excited Ellen was coming from the other side of the world without Wolfgang. I assumed we stood out because it was common knowledge Ellen was half-indian? But most people didn't actually know this. The main reason was the average age of tourists to Bad Lauterberg was around 55, due to all the health retreats and baths. We were without a doubt the youngest guests to ever check-in to any hotel here.
We jumped back into Lutz's car and drove to pick up Annelie and Kuchow (her tubby Hungarian dog) to go on an afternoon walk around the mountains that surrounded Bad Lauterberg. It was apparent how fond of Ellen Annelie is, as she was smiling constantly from the moment the car door opened. Annelie reminded me of my Nonna in so many ways: a tiny white-haired that was as strong as an ox. She was extremely animated, loving towards everyone she met and always positive. I was chuffed that she praised my beautiful curly hair within moments of meeting me:)
Once arriving at the base of the grassy hill, we walked for about 30 minutes then sat down on a bench under a massive tree, that offered an amazing view of the town below. Bad Lauterberg was a gorgeous little town. It's a tiny health resort town that people flock to for natural remedies, outdoor activities and clean, fresh air. Surrounded by mountains on every side, it was not only aesthetically pretty, but incredibly ambient. After a short break we walked back down the hill to where Lutz had parked. We jumped in the car and headed to a local Italian restaurant for dinner.
Although eating Italian cuisine, we drank hearty German beers with our meals. Over dinner we gave a basic break-down of our travels thus far, Lutz helping us explain certain details in German to Annelie. As we were really interested in the history of the DDR era, Lutz gave us an in-depth detailing of how the area was affected. As the border ran only 2km from the town, the whole area had a very interesting history. He promised to take us on a tour the next day. After dinner we went back to the hotel, showered, got in our jammies and tucked ourselves into bed. As it was Sunday night, one of Germany's tv networks was playing marathon episodes of "Tatort" (a German version of CSI). We watched about half an episode, but because there aren't any scenes with a German inspector making ridiculously stupid puns then putting on sunglasses we got a little bored so went to sleep.
The next morning we rose early to take advantage of the free breakfast. It was a delicious smorgesboard of cured meats, cheeses, pastries, brötchen, eggs, yoghurt, fruits and homemade jams. I ordered a coffee and they brought me an entire pot of espresso long black. It was awesome! After filling our bellies, bang on 10am Lutz arrived to collect us for our day ahead. We began with Annelie's daily morning hike with Kuchow, this time to a mountain on an opposing side of the village. Afterwards we dropped her back home and then headed-off with Lutz to explore the area. Lutz was a great tour guide, as he experienced the fall of the wall and remembered the East Germans marching back into freedom on the western side, finally being reunited with their friends and families. We drove through one of the villages that was evacuated by soviet troops as it fell within the 5km "dead zone" (no one was allowed to live within 5km of the border). He pointed out an old DDR watch tower, which was now privately owned by one of his friends, who used it as a location for cocktail parties. He told us tales of farmers bribing Soviet troops with cigarettes and other luxuries in an attempt to let their family members cross back from the DDR. One West German man found a sewage tunnel that crossed underneath the checkpoint, so began smuggling East Germans back across, for a hefty fee...instead of actually letting them successfully cross back, he would kill and then rob them in the tunnel! (what a wanker!) We went further north to the schools he and Wolfgang attended as children, as well as the park Lutz had his first kiss (awwwwwwwwww).
When we finished the tour Lutz dropped us back in the village for a lunch break. We walked around the river and the park, then took the chair lift to the top of the lookout. We walked through the forest at the top of the lookout, running into a bunch of crazily scary slugs amongst the growth. We enjoyed the view for a bit, then got the lift back down. We then met up with Lutz and Annelie again and headed to a lake for dinner.
This was a favourite childhood spot for Ellen's dad and siblings. The water was about 14 degrees so we passed on going in for a dip. The restaurant was built from the local hardwood trees that surrounded the lake, so it looked like a ski chalêt. Lutz told me he knew exactly what I would want to eat. Upon glancing at the menu I knew exactly what he meant: There was no way I was passing on an opportunity to try oven-baked reindeer. It was too yummy! Ellen pretty much just glared at me the whole time, muttering about "animal cruelty". The owner of the restaurant was intrigued by our horrific accents when speaking German, so came out to our table and inquired where we were from. When we said Australia she beamed and went on a huge rant about her youngest son having just been there and absolutely loving it. As she cleared the table she complimented us on our language skills:)
On the way back to the village Lutz took a slight detour through the forest, as he wanted to show me something he'd stumbled upon the other day. The local council workers have to come through the forest and clear any falling or dangerous trees that might topple onto the small vehicle path. One of the workers is apparently an absolute king with a chainsaw. Bored one afternoon, he carved an incredible sculpture of an owl into one of the fallen trees. I was pretty impressed. Lutz and Annelie dropped us back at the hotel and we crashed out straight away.
The next morning we once again feasted on the delicious breakfast then checked out. We walked to a natural spring and bath that morning with Annelie and Kuchow. Annelie explained how the spring was an Augen Quelle, so we had to wash our eyes with the water to improve our eyesight.
It stung a little, but we just assumed that meant it was working. We weren't able to walk through the spring bath as it was being drained and cleaned. We sat instead and chatted about our visit. A large storm cloud began rolling, covering the village below. We spoke with Annelie about the rest of our travel plans for this trip, and a proposal for another return to Bad Lauterberg in the near future with Ellen's brother Tom. Annelie beamed and said she'd love that. As it was reaching close to 11am we had to make tracks to the train station. We said a teary goodbye to Annelie and dropped her home, before Lutz took us to our train.
Our ride back to Berlin began very smoothly with on-time trains. We even got to travel to the end of the line and change where the old East/West border meets. I found it really interesting that they'd kept the lines separated and not re-connected them. It was a token reminder of a bygone era, during the country's devastating separation. From that station onwards, all hell broke loose on the railways. Trains were still being constantly re-directed or cancelled due to the ever-rising flood waters. We ended up waiting 2hrs for one of our connections. I think all-in-all it took a little over 10hours to get back to Berlin. It felt amazing to step back into our little Leopoldplatz apartment that nıght and lay our heads to rest on our slightly dented mattress.