Thanks to the boom of DNA kits promising to reveal your ancestry, people are starting to identify some surprises within their heritage. A common one is finding Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.
When I got my results in early 2018, it made sense. And it didn’t. I knew I had a Jewish grandmother, but I never really thought of her as Jewish. She didn’t raise her kids (my father and aunt) to be Jewish and never celebrated any Jewish holidays within my lifetime––at least that I’m aware of. Plus, I never thought of being Jewish as an ethnicity or heritage. It was just a religion in my young, naive eyes.
“Fuck this. I’m never doing this again. No more running.”
That’s all I could say to myself as I started another 200-meter climb with about six kilometers to go in the race. My legs wouldn’t let me run up anything resembling even the slightest ascent. They were shot from the previous 800 or so meters of climbing.
I was out of water to boot, having felt a false sense of relief after taking a drink at the last aid station. My throat was so dry, I couldn’t swallow a tiny bite of my Clif Bar without nearly activating my gag reflex. All I wanted in the world was to cross the damn finish line and be done with this mistake.
The following is part of my ongoing writing about exploring my Jewish heritage and ancestry through travel, religion, history, language, and food.
Planning a trip to Auschwitz is an awkward experience—and not necessarily for the reasons you’re thinking. First of all, “a trip to Auschwitz?” What is this, the Catskills? You’re not planning a trip, but, I don’t know, a visit, maybe? But it’s also not a nursing home where you might plan to visit your great-uncle, kept alive past his expiration date thanks to the miracles of modern medicine.
Language simply lacks the proper vocabulary for what a contemporary traveler is doing at Auschwitz. Paying your respects is the best option, but you don’t see that in the gobs of tourist material advertising a tour of Auschwitz. And that, in part, is why planning the whole endeavor is awkward. Booking transport in Poland isn’t straightforward and it’s a chore to find the right websites to make your bookings. Then after you schedule your tour at Auschwitz, you might realize your only option for a return to Krakow is a bus because the last train back has already left.
“Where are we?” I said to Melanie. “How have I not heard about this place before?”
We were in Walporzheim, walking through the village center—a convergence of two quiet streets with a couple of restaurants and a bus stop—during a sunset that looked like it was painted with acrylics. The orange-violet sky shrouded the valley in darkness, amplifying the quiet of this place we’d never heard of until about a week earlier. We’d only had a glimpse, but I could already tell that the scenery would be something spectacular as soon as we got onto the trails in the hillsides the next morning.
Walporzheim is just one of a collection of villages and towns that sit along the Ahr River, a tributary of the much larger Rhine that runs westward to the half-timbered village of Blankenheim. I selected it for this holiday weekend getaway because the Internet told me it’d be easy to get to by train and it was along yet another one of Germany’s multi-day hiking trails, the AhrSteig. But what’s appealing about the Ahrtal (Ahr Valley) on paper is greatly exceeded by seeing it in person.
I’ve been in a bit of a running kick as of late, so much so that I’ve been signing up for half-marathons left and right––at least one per month since April. (That makes it sound like it’s more than three, but… it’s three.) Looking for one more to do before heading back to the States for a 10-day family visit, I spotted the EVL-Halbmarathon Leverkusen.
After doing the VIVAWEST-Halbmarathon in and around Gelsenkirchen, I decided I was especially digging races in smaller town/cities that I otherwise might not think to visit, following courses that show the best the region has to offer. Leverkusen matched that description to a T.
The direct train from Lisbon to Sintra runs every half hour and lasts between 37 to 41 minutes. It’s the last stop on the green line (Linha de Sintra), so you can’t miss it.
Although I picked it up from the Oriente station, there are about 17 stops along the way. Some other central stations you might want to grab it from include Braco de Prata, Roma-Areeiro, Entrecampos, and Sete Rios. A ticket to Sintra costs €1.90. You’ll need the Viva Viagem card, zapping it on a card reader before getting on the train and again when you get off. Keep in mind that you cannot buy this ticket in advance like you would a long-distance train with Comboios de Portugal. (For more detailed information on the Viva Viagem card and everywhere it’ll get you in Lisbon, click here.)
This story was produced in cooperation with Tourismus NRW. As always, all opinions are my own.
Bergisches Land refers to Berg Country, a region of low mountain ranges situated between the Rhine and Ruhr rivers in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Berg here is not to be confused with the German word of the same spelling, meaning mountain. In this case, we’re talking about a duchy (European for ‘territory’) that dates back to the 12th century.
Like much of European history, you can drown yourself in all the details of events that have taken place since that time. You’ve got your Neanderthals over 35,000 years ago; your typical, general awfulness of the Middle Ages riddled with conflict, war (though they escaped any major battles of the Thirty Years War) and the plague; the industrial revolution; Napoleon popped in for a bit to claim it for himself before Prussians took it back with the help of Russian Kosaks and it grew to become one of the largest economic centers in the German Empire of the late 19th century only to be destroyed in the Second World War. Post-war, the Bergisches Land Nature Park was founded (1973) and tourism has since become a focus for the region. That about brings us up to speed.
And like most corners of western Europe, it’s difficult to imagine the conflict and plague that ravaged these lands when you’re standing in a place like the Bergisch countryside, surrounded by woodlands, grassy meadows, streams, and lakes. But for me, that’s what defines this slice of Germany; that and––drumroll please––its mills.