Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

German Travel Memories 2 - Michael in Heidelberg

Heidelberg mit Neckar und SchlossVisiting Heidelberg? Exploring this romantic and historic university town will leave you with lots of wonderful travel memories.

Our first German Travel Memories post covered Frankfurt a.M., where Michael, the young traveler, is visiting family. He then takes the train to Heidelberg for his second stop in Germany.

We'll follow Michael's explorations of Heidelberg. For those of you who are doing or have done our German 1 course: Michael in Deutschland, the additional details will complement those of the course.

The Travel Memories blog posts tell you more about each of the cities of GamesforLanguage's travel-story based courses. We typically use the cities' real street names, hotels, squares, restaurants, etc. and we've been to many of them ourselves.

In future blog posts, we'll provide more details of the two other German cities Michael visits, Munich and Berlin. And we'll do the same for the cities that our other travelers visit in France, Italy, Spain, and the U.S.

In our travel-story course, you learn daily conversational language. The vocabulary listed here is a combination of some words taught in the course as well as other useful travel terms in German.

Quick Facts about HeidelbergHeidelberg view from Castle

The city of Heidelberg lies on the Neckar river, in the south-western part of Baden-Württemberg (one of Germany's 16 federal states).

Because of its stunning location and picturesque cityscape, Heidelberg is a hugely popular travel destination.

A quintessential college town, Heidelberg has a population of just over 150,000, with roughly a quarter of its inhabitants being students.

The city is well known for its university, which was founded in 1386 and said to be one of the oldest in Germany. Over the centuries it has attracted prominent philosophers, poets, and scholars.

In addition, Heidelberg is the location of numerous research institutions, among them four Max Plank Institutes.

After World War II, Heidelberg, which was situated in the American Zone, became the Headquarters of the American forces in Europe.

  • Bundesland (n.) - federal state
  • Lage (f.) - location (of a city)
  • Stadtbild (n.) - cityscape
  • Universitätsstadt (f.) - college/university town
  • Studenten (pl. m.) - students
  • Philosophen (pl. m.) - philosophers
  • Forschung (f.) - research
  • Forschungsinstitut - research institute
  • Hauptquartier (n.) - (military) Headquarters, H.Q.
  • die amerikanischen Truppen - the American forces

Arrival in Heidelberg (the Weststadt Neighborhood)

House Zum Ritter in Heidelberg, GermanyFrom Frankfurt, Michael takes the ICE (InterCity) to Heidelberg, a train ride of less than an hour. (You can also take the S-Bahn, or a regional train.)

Heidelberg has 15 city districts. The Central Railway Station is located in Weststadt, the district next to the historic core of the city (Altstadt). It's also where Michael's friends live: on the Schillerstraße.

Weststadt is a residential district dating back to the 1830s. Starting in the 1870s and continuing into the 20th century (a period which is often called "Gründerzeit"), Weststadt experienced a residential building boom and became a highly fashionble neighborhood.

The "Gründerzeit" (literally, "founders' period") - related to the period when the German national state was consolidated under Chancellor Bismarck - coincided with rapid industrialization and economic growth in central Europe.

The architectural style of that time was eclectic and mixed diverse historical periods. So walking through the Weststadt neighborhood, you'll see buildings in various styles: Italian Renaissance, Baroque Revival, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, etc.

  • Hauptbahnhof (m.) - Central Railway Station
  • Altstadt (f.) - historic city center
  • Wohngegend (f.) - residential area
  • Gründerzeit (f.) - economic phase of rapid development (lit.: "founders' period")
  • Bauboom (m.) - building boom
  • Industrialisierung (f.) - industrialization
  • Wirtschaftswachstum (n.) - economic growth
  • Baustil (m.) - (architectural) style
  • Ritter (m.) knight
  • Friedrich Schiller - German philospher, playwright, poet (1759-1805)
  • nach rechts - to the right
  • nach links - to the left
  • geradeaus - straight ahead

Mark Twain's Travel Memories of Heidelberg

Michael and his friends walk through the historic of Heidelberg ("Altstadt").

One of his friends, Renate, points out a hotel, where Mark Twain supposedly stayed during his visit to Heidelberg in 1878.

In that year, Mark Twain was struggling to finish his novel Huckleberry Finn (as some journalists claim), and went on a Europe tour with his family, as a kind of working holiday.

Mark Twain loved Heidelberg (as you can  read in his Travel Book "A Tramp Abroad") and stayed there for three months. 

Possibly, the hotel that Renate points out, is today's Crowne Plaza, built in 1838 as Hotel Ernst, and located in the Old Town on the Bahnhofstraße. Mark Twain first notes in "A Tramp Abroad": "We stopped at a hotel by the railway-station."

Twain continues:

The weather was growing pretty warm,—very warm, in fact. View from Heidelberg castle where Mark Twain made travel memoriesSo we left the valley and took quarters at the Schloss Hotel, on the hill, above the Castle.

As Twain describes it, the Schloss Hotel provided him with a fantastic view: (see view from Heidelberg castle)

"Now if one turns and looks up the gorge once more, he will see the Schloss Hotel on the right perched on a precipice overlooking the Neckar—a precipice which is so sumptuously cushioned and draped with foliage that no glimpse of the rock appears. The building seems very airily situated. ...

Out of a billowy upheaval of vivid green foliage, a rifle-shot removed, rises the huge ruin of Heidelberg Castle, with empty window arches, ivy-mailed battlements, moldering towers ... It is a fine sight to see the evening sunlight suddenly strike the leafy declivity at the Castle’s base and dash up it and drench it as with a luminous spray, while the adjacent groves are in deep shadow."

Journalists and historians have tried to guess why Mark Twain loved Heidelberg so much.

Was it because "Heidelberg" (short for "Heidelbeerenberg"), in fact, means "Huckelberry mountain" as we speculate in Why did Mark Twain like Heidelberg?

More likely, Twain fell in love with the beauty of town itself, and its picturesque riverside setting.

  • Roman (m.) - novel
  • Arbeitsurlaub (m.) - working holiday
  • Heidelbeere (f.) - huckleberry
  • Wetter (n.) - weather
  • Aussicht (f.) - view
  • Schloss (n.) - castle
  • Klippe (f.) - precipice
  • raten - to guess

Twain had a love-hate relationship with the German language and his The Awful German Language - an Appendix to his 1880 book, A Tramp Abroad, is a fun travel memories read for anyone learning German.

Heidelberg University

Heidelberg Universität The founding of the University of Heidelberg (1386) was prompted by a curious historical event. At the time of the Great Schism of 1378 (when two popes - one French and one Italian - were elected after the death of Pope Gregory XI), German secular and spiritual leaders supported the Italian one in Rome.

As a result, German students and teachers at the University of Paris had to leave. But, the Italian Pope, Urban VI, allowed the creation of a university in Heidelberg.

During the years 1804 to 1809, a number of writers who were part of the German Romantic movement, spent time in Heidelberg for teaching and research at the university. They included poets such as Clemens Brentano and Friedrich Hölderlin.

In the 1960s and 70s, Heidelberg University became one of the main centers of left-wing student protests.

Today, Heidelberg University is internationally renowned. Its building are grouped in two main locations. 1) In the Altstadt: the Old Town Campus (for humanities), some of whose buildings reach back to 1712, and the Bergheim Campus (for economics and social sciences). 2) In the district of Neuenheim across the river: The New Campus built during the 1960's (for the natural sciences and life science).

  • Universität (f.) - university
  • Gründung (f.) - founding
  • Pabst (m.) - pope
  • Romantik (f.) - Romantic movement in the arts and literature (late 18th-early 19th c.)
  • Dichter (m.) - poet, writer
  • Dichterin (f.) - poet, writer
  • Linker Studentenprotest (m.) - left-wing student protest
  • Ort (m.) - location, site, place
  • Unigelände (n.) / Campus (m.) - campus

Heidelberg SchlossDas Schloss

A Renaissance ruin and well-known landmark, Heidelberg Castle is nestled on the slope of the Königstuhl hill, 300 feet above the city of Heidelberg.

To go up to the castle from near the center of town, you can take a funicular to the Molkenkur station, and from there change to another funicular up to the castle. In all, it's about a 15-minute ride, and the view from the top is fantastic.

First built in 1890, the two Heidelberg mountain railways (Bergbahnen) underwent various building phases, renovations, and additions to meet current safety standards.

  • Ruine (f.) - ruin
  • Abhang (m.) - hillside
  • Wahrzeichen (n.) - landmark
  • Standseilbahn (f.) - funicular (cable car on a slope)

Further sights may interest you:

Other Places to visit in Heidelberg

Studentenkarzer: The Student Prison (part of the old university), which was used from 1778 to 1914.

Philosophenweg: The Philosopher's Walk is a pathway that the university's philosophers frequented. It runs along the side of Heiligenberg and provides spectacular views of the castle and the city.

Alte Brücke: The Karl Theodor Bridge goes over the Neckar river joining the two historic parts of Heidelberg.

Königstuhl: Instead of taking the funicular up to the summit, you can also make the Königstuhl (King's Chair) a destination for hiking.

For anyone interested in poetry, click on Poems about Heidelberg (Heidelberg in der Dichtung) 

Michael's Next Stop

Munich HofbräuhausFrom Heidelberg, Michael takes the Intercity to Munich. There he stays at a hotel, visits the Hofbräuhaus (see picture ), and spends the evening with friends in Schwabing, a lively student quarter.

We'll soon tell you more about Munich in our future post "German Travel Memories - Michael in Munich"

Register or log in again to continue with the German 1 course.


Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Spanish Travel Memories 2 - David in Granada

Travel memories at ancient fortress of Alhambra, Granada, SpainThe Spanish Travel Memories add to the information that our young traveler David picks up in our GamesforLanguage travel-story courses.

In the courses, we use street names, neighborhoods, hotels, and restaurants - many of which we've explored ourselves - in each of the Spanish cities.

In Spanish Travel Memories 1, we tell you more about Barcelona. After visiting his aunt and uncle there and exploring the city, David heads south to Granada.

If you're going to visit Spain, you wouldn't want to miss Granada. It's a fascinating city with a multicultural history, and certainly a place for travel memories.

We're also listing a few basic words and phrases in Spanish that will help you to communicate locally. The word lists are a combination of words and phrases taught in the course and other useful travel terms.

Just as we did with our post about Barcelona, we'll follow David's discoveries in Granada. For those of you who have done or are doing our Spanish 1 course: David en Españathis may be of special interest.

Quick Facts about Granada

The city of Granada is the capital of the province of Granada, one of the eight provinces in the autonomous community of Andalusia. The city proper has a population of over 236,000.

Granada has a great location. It lies close to the Sierra NevadaGranada with Sierra Nevada in background mountain range, and is only about an hour by car from the Mediterranean coast.

The name "Granada" may come from either the Spanish word for "pomegranate" (granada) or from the Arabic word said to mean "hill of strangers."

In its early history, the region of what is now Granada was the site of an Iberian settlement, Elibyrge, (5th century b.c.), and of the Roman town Illiberis (150 b.c.). During the reign of the Visigoths (500 a.d.), a small community of Jews who had also settled there, named the area Garnata al-yahut.

In 711, a Moorish Caliphate invaded and conquered Granada. After internal conflicts among Arab clans, the Ziries clan created an independent kingdom, which lasted from (1013-1238). It was followed by the powerful Nazrid dynasty (1238-1492).

It was during the reign of the Nazrid kingdom, that the Alhambra fortress and the Generalife palace were built.

Granada was the last Muslim kingdom to be conquered by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.

  • the mountain range - la sierra
  • snow-covered, snowy - nevado/a (adj.)
  • the coast - la costa
  • the pomegranate - la granada
  • the settlement - el asentamiento
  • the dynasty - la dinastía
  • Catholic Monarchs - Reyes Católicos

Train to Granada

Barcelona to Granada mapThe distance between Barcelona (located in the northeast of Spain) and Granada (in the south) is 425 miles. Rather than fly to Granada, David chooses the less expensive option. He takes the train, which in his case is the Arco train with a route along the eastern coast.

Side Note: Obviously, train schedules and routes change over time. The Arco train to cities in Andalusia, operated by RENFE (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles), has been replaced by their AVE trains with somewhat different routes. The map above shows the driving options, which also mirror the train routes quite closely. The train route via Madrid may be faster. 

Once he arrives in Granada, David asks for directions to “la calle Reyes Católicos,” the street where his friend Daniel lives, in the center of town. From the train station it's about a three-mile walk. (There's also an easy bus connection.)

  • the train station - la estación de tren
  • the distance - la distancia
  • the train schedule - el horario de trenes
  • the train ticket - el billete de tren
  • the (train) track - la vía
  • to wait - esperar
  • a seat by the window - un asiento en la ventana
  • Is this seat available? - ¿Está este asiento todavía libre?

Washington Irving and the Alhambra

Washington Irving Statue in Alhambra, Granada, SpainThe Alhambra ("the red" in Arabic) is a spectacular palace and fortress built between 1238 and 1358 during the Moorish Nazrid dynasty. It stands on a plateau overlooking the city of Granada. You can read up more on its history HERE.

We were surprised to learn that the American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) had actually lodged in a room in the Alhambra palace for three months in 1829. During that time he began his "Tales of the Alhambra," a colorful mixture of local history and legend. There's a plaque in the room where he stayed.

On the way down through the gardens, you can see a statue of Irving, which commemorates the 150th anniversary of his death. Downtown, there's also a street named after him.

  • the palace - el palacio
  • a palatial complex - un complejo palaciego
  • the writer (m/f) - el escritor, la escritora
  • the tale, story - el cuento
  • the plaque - la placa
  • the garden - el jardín
  • the statue - la estatua

Side note: The city of Alhambra in California is reportedly named after the "Tales of the Alhambra." In 1874, the daughter of Benjamin Wilson, a wealthy developer, was reading the book and encouraged him to use the name for his new suburban development in Los Angeles County.

University of Granada

Founded in 1531 by emperor Charles V, the University of Granada is one of the oldest in Spain and continues a long educational tradition that goes back to the time of the Moorish epoch.

With over 50,000 students in Granada alone (and seven campuses, five in Granada, and two in Spanish territories in Northern Africa), the University of Granada is the one of the largest in Spain.

The university is also highly popular with students of Erasmus, a program adopted by the European Commission in 1987, to encourage and support student exchanges throughout the European Union.

Side Note: The Erasmus Program was named after the Dutch philosopher and scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536). At the same time, ERASMUS also stands for: European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students.

Mirador de San Cristóbal

The San Cristobal Viewpoint is in the picAlbaicin neighborhoodturesque Albaicín neighborhood of Granada. From the viewpoint you have a stunning panoramic view of the city, including a side view of the Alhambra and the snow-peaked mountains behind.

El Albaicín has maintained the narrow winding streets and the architecture of its Moorish past. It was declared a world heritage site in 1984, together with the Alhambra. 

(We recently came across this Post "Ask an Expat: Living in Granada, Spain" by Nina Bosken, who describes her experience teaching and living in Granada. And to fill out the picture of Granada, read this New York Times Travel Dispatch In Spain, Secrets and a Possible Betrayal!)

David's next Stop (and future Spanish Travel Memories 3)

From Granada, David takes the train to Seville for more travel memories. There he checks into a hotel his friends had recommended to him.

He explores the Toro del Oro and the Almohad Tower, called La Giralda. Together with Ana and some of her friends he spends an evening in Triana, the neighborhood known for flamenco dancers and singers.

Register or log in again and continue with the Spanish 1 course.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments below or with contact. 

Posted on by Peter Rettig

European Travel 5 – Discoveries in Austria

Beer Garden in Austria with "Grüass Eich God" sign - Gamesforlanguage.comAustria always holds new things for us to discover. After a week in Überlingen, Germany, where we explored sights along Lake Constance, we picked up a rental car in Friedrichshafen and headed to Austria.

And we were happy to still have our Webspot Pocket WiFi with us, which we had first used while canal cruising in the Netherlands and during our train trip from Utrecht to Lake Constance. This way we could easily google information about the towns and sights we passed by. (Returning the pocket WIFI was also easy: Later in Vienna, we just dropped it off at a Post office in its metal case and prepaid envelope!)

In Austria

Our car's navigation system led us easily around Munich and, it being a Saturday, we didn't encounter any of the notorious Munich traffic jams.

Soon we found ourselves on Austrian territory. (There are open borders between Germany and Austria, so we had no wait at the border. This is one advantage of the “Schengen Agreement” for tourists and travelers.)

At noon we stopped in a little town. The warm and sunny September weather allowed us to enjoy our lunch in a typical Austrian beer garden.

We watched as the restaurant became busy and the tables all got occupied.

We picked up pieces of Austrian conversation here and there, and as is customary in Austria, we were not surprised when another couple joined us at our table.

We enjoyed a delicious meal. As we wereBeer Garden sign: "Pfüad Eich God" leaving, we chuckled when we noticed the sign over the entrance to the garden restaurant:“Grüass Eich God” (see above left) and on the other side of the sign, when leaving: “Pfüad Eich God” (see right).

The first one is a local form of “Grüß Gott” meaning “May God greet (or bless) you. ”The second translates as something like “Be well with God,” meaning “Goodby.”

Both Austrian/Bavarian versions would be pretty well incomprehensible to a German learner. (Now you also know what “Pfüad di” means?)

Wels, Austria

A little more than an hour later, we arrived in Wels where one of Ulrike's Austrian cousins lives with his family. His son now manages the family business, the Hotel and the Gasthof Maxlhaid, located on the outskirts of Wels.

Wels, the seventh-largest city in Austria with 60,000 inhabitants, lies at the Traun River, about 20 miles from Linz.

It was my first visit to Wels and I was eager to learn more about its history.

Important during the Roman age, prosperous during the Middle Ages, devastated during the 30 Years' War, Wels became an important manufacturing center during the industrial revolution.

In World War II, Wels saw heavy destruction, and only a few historic buildings have remained. However over the years, new industries have settled there and the city has also gained prominence with its trade fairs and congresses.

The Saturday we arrived happened to be the Lange Nacht der Museen (Long Night of the Museums). For a small fee, people could visit any of the area's participating museums, many of which stayed open until midnight.

We took advantage of that opportunity and visited several museums in town, including the City Museum.

Stadtmuseum Burg Wels

Stadtmuseum Burg Wels GardenThe City Museum is located in a castle, which for centuries belonged to the Habsburg family. (see the castle gardens left) The castle was rebuilt between 1504 and 1514 by emperor Maximilian I in late-Gothic style.

Many artifacts from that time are exhibited, together with documents, models, and audio-visual presentations of the city's and area's history.

One exhibit shows the many different bread forms bakers have used over time. Another one shows the various tools and machines the agricultural industry had developed in Austria.

In another display, we were fascinated by several maps that show the German enclaves in what used to be called the “German-Austrian empire” before 1918.

Our understanding of the Upper Austrian dialect was also tested (we passed!), when we watched museum staff perform several humorous sketches about Wels personalities.

Pferdeeisenbahnmuseum in der Maxlhaid

At the end of the night, Ulrike's cousin gave us a private tour of hisHorse railway map Budweis to Gmunden own horse railway museum, which is located in a large barn behind the hotel. The museum, a longterm hobby, is his love and passion.

The history of the horse railway is quite interesting. The Italian Franz Zola, (father of the French writer Émile Zola, 1840-1902) was an engineer/surveyor during the construction of the first continental horse railway between Budweis (now Czech Republic) and Linz (Austria).

That was the northern route of the horse railway, which opened in 1832.

Franz Zola received a license from Emperor Franz in 1828 to continue the southern route from Linz to Gmunden. However, when his financing fell through, Zola left for the Foreign Legion and settled later in France.

Subsequently, the southern route of the railway was completed by others in 1836. The 123 miles of track from Gmunden to Budweis could then meet their real purpose: transporting goods, especially salt from Gmunden to Bohemia.

The station Maxlhaid, at the location of the current hotel, was one of several stations where horse changes occurred and a tavern already existed there in 1835.

By 1855, however, steam engines replaced the horses and the horse railway became history. (See the map above and the German Wikipedia entry for further details of the Budweis-Gmunden horse railway).

Linz, Austria

The next day, we visited Linz, the capital of Upper Austria. It is Austria's third-largest city with a population of over 200,000.

Linz is only 19 miles from the Czech border. Founded by the Romans and called “Lentia,” Linz was the most important city in the Habsburg Empire, but lost its status to Vienna and Prague after the death of Emperor Frederick III in 1493.

Today Linz remains one of Austria's main economic centers. Its harbor on the Danube (one of four in Austria) attracts logistic and trading enterprises as well as manufacturing plants along the river banks.

"Winged Piano" in Linz, AustriaFrom the Pöstlingberg, a 1700-foot hill on the left bank of the Danube, we had a wonderful view of the city.

We were intrigued by “Höhenrausch 2016,” an exhibition now in its ninth year, with always changing art. This year angels were the main topic.

The “Höhenrausch” tour takes you through large rooms of the Ursuline Church, the top of a parking garage and terraces with various sculptures. It was all both fun and instructive. We learned about the history of angels in different religions, and in literature and art.

We were amused by various interactive exhibits (click on the picture above or this YouTube clip to see a piano with wings).

The views across the roofs of Linz from one of the wooden towers were spectacular.

Our short stay did not allow us to visit any of the many museums along the banks of the Danube, for example, the Schlossmuseum, the Lentos Art Museum, the Ars Electronica Center, but we got a glimpse of them during our walk through the city and along the Danube.

The Danube

Seeing the Danube wind its way through Linz Map of Rhine - Danubeprompted me to look a little further into this great European river.

Indeed, with a length of about 1785 miles, the Danube is the second longest European river after the Volga.

And, as no other river in the world, it touches 10 different countries on its way: From its source in the Black Forest in Germany, it flows through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria, Moldavia, and Ukraine, where it empties into the Black Sea.

With the completion of the Main-Danube Canal (Main-Donau Kanal) in 1992, linking the Rhine with the Danube, a waterway connection between the North Sea and the Black Sea was established.

Thereby even more European states were linked through their own connected waterways. (On the map above, the Rhine and Main are shown in green, The Main-Danube Canal in red, and the navigable stretch of the Danube in blue.)

We would be amiss if we didn't mention the poster child of German compound words:

Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitän (Captain of the Danube Steamship Company)

(However, it even pales against this one which contains 79 letters and, reportedly, holds the 1996 Guinness Book of World Records. Click HERE for the translation and history:) 

Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft,

Vienna, Austria

Austrian National Library: Prunksaal - Gamesforlanguage.comA few days later found us walking through the streets of Vienna, a city we both know well. But you can always find something new to do in Vienna!

This time we happened to walk by the Austrian National Library and were attracted by the exhibition about the life of Emperor Franz Joseph I. It was held in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of his death in 1916.

Franz Joseph's long life (1830-1910) made him the “ewige Kaiser” (eternal emperor) to many Austrians. He reportedly was the most painted and photographed person of the 19th century.

The exhibition described his life from young child to teenager, young man, media star, and statesman, with portraits, letters, news reports. It was was set up in the Library's grand “Prunksaal” (State Hall).

The Austrian National Library is not only the largest library in Austria with 7.4 million books, but the “Prunksaal” of the old imperial library takes your breath away.

It forms part of the Hofburg Palace and everywhere you look, there are sculptures, frescos, marble statues, and paintings.

So next time you go to Austria, consider going a little of the beaten track. And don't forget, when you come to Vienna, take a look at the Austrian National Library.

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. He is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below. 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

The Other Swiss Languages: Italian and Romansh

Swiss map with CantonsBesides German and French, there are two other official Swiss languages: Italian and Romansh. (See also our previous post: Language Learning: German and French in Fribourg, Switzerland)

Like German and French, Italian has full official status on the federal level in Switzerland: all laws and official documents have to be written in these three languages.

Romansh has "partial" official status, i.e. it is used on the federal level when needed for communication with Romansh speakers.

However, each Swiss canton and, generally, even each community can choose which language to use for its own official communication.

Italian is the only official language of the Canton of Ticino and one of the three official languages of the Canton of Graubünden.

Romansh is recognized as an official language only in the Canton of Graubünden, (the largest Swiss canton, but with less than 200,000 inhabitants, also the canton with the lowest population density).

According to an article about Swiss languages published in July 2016 by swissinfo.ch, German (both High German and Swiss German) is spoken by about 63% of the population, French by about 23%, Italian by about 8%. Romansh is spoken by less than 1% of the total population.

The Third Swiss Language: Where Italian is Spoken

Swiss Italian is the Italian spoken in the Canton of Ticino and in the southern part of the Canton Graubünden. Ticino on Swiss map(see map of Ticino, right and map of Graubünden below)

The territory of present-day Ticino was annexed from Italian cities in the 15th century. With the creation of the Swiss Confederation in 1803, the lands were named Ticino, after the largest river in the area. To read up on the history of Ticino: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ticino

The official name of Ticino is Repubblica e Cantone Ticino (Republic and Canton of Ticino). Because of historical ties, the people of Ticino have a strong cultural affinity to their Italian neighbors.

Ticino is the only canton where Italian is the sole official language. Over 87% of the people speak Italian as their native language, around 666,000 according to Ethnologue. (About 10% speak German, and about 5% speak French.)

In the Canton of Graubünden about 15% of the population speaks Italian (just under 30,000). 

Please note: The numbers and percentages I'm quoting show some variation in the French, German, English, and Italian articles I consulted about Swiss languages.

Swiss Italian - Svizzero Italiano

Over the centuries, the Swiss Italian language has been influenced by the local Ticinese dialects and the other national languages, French and German. There are Helveticisms (words typical for Switzerland), differences in idiomatic usage and syntax, and loan words (not known in Standard Italian). 

Here are a few loan words that come from French or German:

To book, reserve (a room or table)
Italian: prenotare.  Swiss Italian: riservare.  French: réserver.

Change, money back
Italian: resto.  Swiss Italian: ritorno.  French: retour.

Sticker (for car)
Italian: bollino.  Swiss Italian: vignetta.  French: vignette.

Discount
Italian: sconto.  Swiss Italian: ribasso.  German: rabatt.

Blind, roller shutter
Italian: taparelle.  Swiss Italian: rolladen.  German: Rollladen. (yes, 3x "l")

Here's a nice little YouTube podcast in Italian about the Swiss Italian language. 

More Swiss Languages: Ticinese

In addition to Swiss Italien, a part of the population of Ticino speaks Ticinese, which is a group of dialect varieties of the Lombard language. For many Italian speakers, Ticinese is difficult to understand.

Ticinese has now been named an endangered language. (According to Ethnologue, there are 303,000 speakers of Ticinese in Switzerland.)

The Lombard language is also spoken in the Northern Italian regions of Lombardy, Piedmont, and Trentino. https://www.ethnologue.com/country/CH/languages

The Fourth Swiss Language: Where Romansh/Rumantsch is Spoken

Graubünden on Swiss mapThe Romansh language is spoken primarily in the southeast of Switzerland, in the Canton of Graubünden, where it has official status alongside German and Italian. (Besides the two spellings above, there are a number of other ways to spell the language.)

Romansh is a descendant of Vulgar (or spoken) Latin. In 2012, it counted just over 36 thousand people who called it their main language. At 0.9% of Swiss citizens makes it the least spoken of the four official Swiss languages.

The spoken Romansh language is generally divided into 5 dialect groups, which together form a continuum. Still, there are recognizable differences even from village to village. The most widely spoken dialect is Sursilvan, which is used by more than half of the speakers of Romansh. In addition to the 5 major dialects, there are a number of other recognized dialects.

Although they are closely related, the Romansh dialects are not always mutually comprehensible. For that reason, when speakers of different varieties talk with each other, they tend to use Swiss German rather than their own dialect. Apparently for Romansh speakers, identity is tied largely to the local dialect region.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, grammar and spelling guidelines were developed for the regional written dialects. Now, each of the 5 Romansh dialect varieties has its own standardized written language. Romansh is taught in some of the local schools.

In 2000 a bilingual high-school diploma was introduced in Graubünden. Since then, if they wished, students have been able to follow studies and graduate in Romansh/German or in Italian/German. 

Pan-Regional Rumansch Grischun

There were attempts to create a unified written Romansh language in 1867, and again in 1958, but these did not gather much support during the early days. A main criticism was that such a created language would be artificial and destroy the Romansh cultural heritage.

Nevertheless, attempts to introduce the standardized Rumansch Grischun in local schools have continued. Finally, in 2015, a hesitant compromise was reached: This unified version of the language is not to be introduced before grade 7. As expected, both supporters and opponents are unhappy.

How do the Swiss Manage?

In researching this topic, it became clear to me that accommodating these four languages and various dialects remains a challenge for Swiss communities and their government.

Resentments between language groups continue to exist. And still Switzerland, a small country of only 8.5 million inhabitants, is somehow managing.

One key may be the autonomy that the individual cantons and communities have in choosing their official language(s), and how and where the languages are taught, etc.

Maybe direct and frequent voting gives the citizens a sense of control? Maybe becoming bilingual by the time they get to school let children become more tolerant towards other languages?

Whatever the reasons, it seems to work. And it reminds me that South Tyrol may have emulated the language success of its neighbor, as we wrote in a previous post: South Tyrol – A Multicultural Success Story.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right below!

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

“Gruezi” and Other Swiss German Expressions

Saaner's Loch - Switzerland by Gamesforlanguage.comIn our previous post, we focused on the bilingualism of many Fribourgers. The German spoken in Fribourg is clearly of the Swiss German variety, with a few French expressions mixed in at times.

And while Swiss German is the generic label for the dialect, there are plenty of regional differences that a foreigner would only detect after a while.

When you're traveling in countries where you speak the language, you may notice that both formal and informal greetings often vary from region to region.

For example, when we were traveling in Northern Germany a couple years ago (see our post: From Utrecht to Hamburg: Dialects and Travel Tips in Northern German), we first couldn't make out the informal greeting we heard everywhere: “Moin.” We first thought it was an abbreviation of “Morgen,” as in “Guten Morgen” (Good morning), but it was clearly used all day.

Digging a little further, we found that while “morgen” may be one etymological explanation for “Moin,” another one could be the Dutch, Frisian, and Low German word “moi,” meaning “beautiful” or “good.”

This week we are exploring a few Swiss German expressions we encountered while skiing in the "Berner Oberland". (Above picture of "Saaner's Loch)

Grüezi” and a Swiss German Ear-Worm

To get a little taste of the Swiss German language, The Minstrels singerslisten to this YouTube Video of a popular song by a Swiss group, The Minstrels, from the late 60s.

It was the #1 song in Switzerland in 1969 for 10 weeks, made it to #3 in Germany, and sold over 1.5 million copies in 27 countries.

Even if you know some German, you'll have a hard time understanding the simple refrain. But listening to it a few times, you'll start distinguishing verbs, their grammatical modifications. You'll also pick up a few Swiss German idiosyncrasies.

Grüezi wohl Frau Stirnimaa: The Lyrics, Standard German, and Translation

Ja, grüezi wohl Frau Stirnimaa
Ja, grüß sie wohl, Frau Stirnimaa
(Hello there, Ms Stirnimaa)

Sagget sie, wie labbet sie, wie sind sie de so dra?
Sagen Sie, wie leben Sie, wie sind Sie denn so dran?
(Tell me, how's life, how's it going?)

Grüezi wohl Frau Stirnimaa
Sagget sie, wie labbet sie, wie gaht's denn ihre Ma?
Sagen Sie, wie leben Sie, wie geht es ihrem Mann?
(Tell me, how's life, how's your husband doing?)

Quick note: There is no standard written form of Swiss German. Letters and letter combinations are mostly attempts to express the way words sound.

And while you'll notice how the verb forms and endings are different from Standard German and hear how the “n” and “m” endings are dropped, we won't try to explain much more.

Just listen to the Swiss German language melody.

Swiss German in the Berner Oberland

Swiss Restaurant Terrace with guestsThis week the public schools in the canton of Bern have vacation, and besides a little French, we hear mostly Swiss German in the villages and on the mountain between Zweisimmen and Gstaad.

Even for us German speakers, some of the Swiss German we come across is a little hard to understand.

Briefly: In general, the dialects spoken in Switzerland (collectively called Swiss German) belong to the Alemannic variety of German.

Greetings: “Grüezi” vs. “Grüess eech”

Grüezi is arguably the most well-known Swiss German greeting. It's an abbreviation of “Gott grüez i” or literally in German: Gott grüß euch. (May God greet you.)

A variation of “Grüezi” is “Grüezi mitenand,” with “mitenand” (“miteinander” - together) making it clear that the greeting is for more than one person.

This greeting is used mainly in the Zurich area and in the east of Switzerland.

In the western part, around Bern and Basel, it's more common to hear “Grüss eech,” which also means literally: Gott grüß euch.

Indeed, here in the Berner Oberland, we've been hearing “Grüss eech” or “Grüess eech mitenand,” all over the place: when entering a restaurant, going into a shop, when sharing a gondola or chair lift with others. People even greet you as you're walking in the village.

In a restaurant: the verb “sein” - “sii” and “gsi” (or “gsy”)

Today, we ate on the terrace of a mountain restaurant. After greeting us “Grüess eech mitenand,” our waitress asked: “Was derfs sii?” - Was darf es sein? (Lit: What may it be? Meaning: What can I get you?)

When we finished our meal and she started to clear the table, she asked: “S isch guat gsi?” - Ist es gut gewesen? (Lit: Was it good? Meaning: How was the meal?)

Swiss German uses a shorter and older form of the verb “sein.” Instead of “sein,” it's “sii” and instead of “gewesen,” it's “gsi.”

Meal time: “Ä Guätä!”

It was a beautiful, sunny day and the terrace was A Guätä - Signcrowded. So, as is typical for many European countries, we shared our table with other restaurant guests.

We ordered “Röschti” (Rösti), which are fried potatoes prepared in a typical way in Switzerland. A meal of Röschti comes in all kinds of combinations: with a fried egg, with ham, with vegetables, etc.

Note also: The letter combination “st” (appearing anywhere in a word) is pronounced “sch.” The German word “ist” becomes “isch” (the -t is dropped)

We were served first, and when our meal arrived, our table neighbors wished us “Ä Guätä!” This is literally, “(Have) a good one!” and best translates to “Enjoy your meal!” The equivalent in Standard German would be: Guten Appetit! literally: Good appetite!

When we finished and were ready to leave, while our table neighbors received their meals, we wished them “Ä Guätä!”

Other useful words and phrases we heard

We often heard teenagers saying “Sali” or “Sali mitenand.” - Hallo, alle. - Hi everybody.
“Sali” is less formal than the greeting “Grüezi.” It comes from the French “salut” (hi/hey).

The French “Merci” (thank you) has been appropriated by Swiss German as well, and you hear it alone or also as “Merci vilmals” - Vielen Dank (Thanks a lot).

The German “Auf Wiedersehen” (Goodbye) has the Swiss German equivalent of “Uf widaluege,” and means the same, “luege” - sehen (to look).

Probably a leftover from the old telephone technology of bells, if you want to say “I'll call you,” you'd say “Ich lüt dir a.” This literally means: Ich leute dich an, or Ich leute bei dir an (I'll ring you.)

For more Swiss German expressions see also our previous posts Swiss German Language Lessons in Gstaad (1) and (2).

Don't Despair

If you're just learning German and are trying to understand Swiss German, don't despair. Even native Germans have a tough time understanding rapidly spoken Swiss German, even more so speaking it.

But as with any language or dialect you want to learn, there are many ways to do it.

Here are three iPhone apps that will help you: Gruezi Switzerland (free), Schweizerdeutsch Lernen ($0.99), and uTalk Classic Learn Swiss German ($9.99).

We have not tried any of these yet, so let us know what you think below.

Bio: Ulrike & Peter Rettig are co-founders of Gamesforlanguage.com. They are lifelong language learners, growing up in several European countries before moving to Canada and the United States. You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Language Learning: German & French in Fribourg, Switzerland

Fribourg, Switzerland - Gamesforlanguage.comLanguage Learning in Switzerland  

Visiting the town in Switzerland where I spent several years working in my first job, reminded me of my French language learning days. Fribourg or in German Freiburg (im Üchtland) is a bilingual city, and not to be confused with “Freiburg im Breisgau,” which lies in the Black Forest.

Pure immersion aficionados may well scoff at this: But working and learning French in a town where my native language German was well understood, had many advantages for me.

For one, I could always revert to German when my French instructions to the draftsmen in the structural engineering firm where I worked, were met with a doubtful stare.

Also, when the rapid French in a shop or restaurant was still beyond my listening skills, I could typically get a German, or Swiss-German translation, thereby generating “comprehensible input.”

CANTON FRIBOURG'S ROAD TO OFFICAL BILINGUALISM

The canton of Fribourg is one of three Swiss cantons that are officially bilingual. The other two are the cantons of Bern and of Wallis/Valais.

Fribourg entered the Swiss Confederation in 1481. Throughout the centuries both French and German were spoken in the region. For the canton of Fribourg the road to official bilingualism was a complicated one, with plenty of detours.

Since the early days, there have been various shifts. At first, German was the language used by the government (1483-1798). Fribourg, Switzerland language mapThen between 1798 and 1856, French and German alternated.

From 1857 on, both languages have had official status in Fribourg, but until 1990 only French was legally binding. Since 1991 both languages can be used for a binding contract.

Only the two north/northeast districts of the canton (of a total of seven), are predominantly German- speaking. It's more likely that residents of those districts learn and speak French, than residents of French-speaking districts learn German. (A possible reason? Many French speakers may be reluctant to learn Swiss-German.)

At this time, around 63% of the about 300,000 people in the canton of Fribourg speak French, 21% speak German, and close to 4 % speak Italian (which is not an official language in the canton).

A few years ago, the “Day of Bilingualism” (Journée du bilinguisme/Tag der Zweisprachigkeit) was set for September 26 and coincides with the European Day of Languages to foster language learning and bilingualism.

In the public schools of the canton of Fribourg, students learn a second language from grade three on. In communities where German is spoken, students are encouraged to learn French as the second language, and vice versa.

Nevertheless, in spite of such efforts and policies to foster bilingualism, language differences remain a point of discussion and sometimes also of controversy.

THE CITY OF FRIBOURG

The city of Fribourg is right on the language border between French and German. About 40,000 inhabitants live within the city proper. This number increases to 60,000, if adjacent suburbs are included and to nearly 100,000 for the larger metropolitan area.

Fribourg Bridges - Gamesforlanguage.comA few years ago, the completion of a new suspension bridge and the closing of the arched Zähringer Bridge diverted traffic from the neighborhood near the Cathedral and created another Fribourg landmark. (see picture)

Official city statistics mirror the language distribution of the canton as a whole. Still, it seems that there is a greater concentration of bilinguals living in the city, which may be in part because of the university.

The University of Fribourg (created in 1889) is Switzerland's only bilingual university. Both French and German are used as languages for teaching and for the administration.

In 2009, the Institute of Multilingualism was founded, which conducts research of how multilingualism affects education, the workplace, and migration.

Because the two languages intersect throughout the city, you'll find interesting signage in French, German, and also in Swiss-German dialect (which has no standard written form).

During a visit a couple of years ago, Ulrike had a tiny cameo role in a YouTube clip "We are Happy from Fribourg" by a Fribourg film maker. He used the Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" from the movie "Despicable Me 2", similar to what other Swiss cities have done. Maybe you can spot her at ~2.36 minutes into the clip, which also shows many images of Fribourg.

In fact, she was walking through the Farmer's Market where you can always find many delightful language tidbits. This time as well.

FARMER'S MARKET

On Saturday morning, Fribourg has a farmer'sFribourg - Snails for sale - Gamesforlanguage.com market that stretches from the City Hall Plaza down the Grand Rue. Vendors from the region as far as (French-speaking) Lausanne come to sell their wares. When I'm around, I spend an hour or so poking around and I always find some language learning opportunities.

Interestingly, the vegetable and fruit stands seem mostly set up by farmers that speak Swiss German.

For the first time in all the years, I saw a stand that sells snails. The “Schneckenpark” translates into French as “Élevages d'Escargots.” The above picture on the front of the stand explains both expressions: the raised, slanted boards of the snails' park.

Bio-Bread market stand sign - Gamesforlanguage.comAnother stand advertises in typical German compound-word fashion: “HOLZBACKOFENBROT AUS BIO GETREIDE” and with the wordier French: “PAIN FAIT AU FOURNEAU DE BOIS & CEREALES BIO.” Both translate to something like “bread made with organic flour in wood-burning oven.”

Not all stands advertise bilingually. Some have signs that are only in French or only in German. When it's Swiss German, even I sometimes need the help of a local person.

Take this sign of a Swiss-German butcher:Swiss-German Butcher sign - Gamesforlanguage.com The word “Metzger” (butcher) abbreviated to “Metzg” presents no problem. But hey, how about “gglùschtig's ù säüber gmacht's”? To decode that, I had to dig deep into my Swiss-German language memory.

The word “gglùschtig's” means “tasty, a pleasure to eat” - not to be confused with the German word “lustig” (funny). I'm not sure about the double “g” and the grave accent on the “u.” Probably, it's a way to represent Swiss-German pronunciation.

The word “säüber” is as tricky as “gglùschtig's.” One could easily confuse it with the German word “sauber” (clean). But the letter combination “äü” suggests the sound of a word closer to the German “selber” (self).

The word “gmacht's” is easy and just means “made.” The suffix “-'s” (for “Gemachtes”) adds the idea of a “made” product.

So “gglùschtig's ù säüber gmacht's” would best be translated as: “tasty and homemade (or self-made) products.”

LANGUAGE LEARNING WITH FRENCH & GERMAN SIGNS

With its medieval town center and old ramparts, the city of Fribourg is a great place to walk around and explore. When you pay attention to street signs or signs on shops and restaurants, you'll see some interesting words and language combinations.

"Croutes au fromage" sign - Gamesforlanguage.com French sign in a restaurant window: Les croûtes au fromage

These are bread slices dipped in white wine, topped with cheese, (often also with cornichons and tomatoes) and grilled in the oven. The advertised prices and types of preparation indicate a substantial meal.

la croûte – the rind

le fromage – the cheese

Street signs combining French and German.

One of the quarters Chemin de Schoenberg sign - Gamesforlanguage.comof Fribourg is called “Schoenberg,” a German word meaning “beautiful mountain.” (Note that in the French spelling, the German umlaut is replaced by an oe.)

One of the roads leading up to the quarter is called “Chemin du Schoenberg” (chemin – the French word for way, path.)

Not everybody loves this French specialty: Beef Tongue

Rindszunge/langue de boeuf sign - Gamesforlanguage.comGerman/French sign in a restaurant window: Rindszunge/Langue de Boeuf

la langue, die Zunge - the tongue

le boeuf, das Rind - the beef

les capres/die Kapern - the capers 

German speakers may notice a spelling error on the German sign: It should say "Rindszunge IN Kapernsauce"

Strolling through the city streets you'll see many signsRues es Epouses Sign, Fribourg  - Gamesforlanguage.com that make you smile.

A favorite of mine is the one above the Rue des Epouses, which I described in a previous post 11 Language Clues from German and Swiss SignsLook for item#11, if you need a translation of the French or the German, which is on the other side of the sign.

If you ever visit Fribourg and the Cathedral, or are looking for the above sign, you'll also pass by the bookshop Librairie "Bien-être" on one side, and the modern furniture store "Forme + Confort" on the other side of la Rue des Epouses.

In "Bien-être" you'll find all kinds of books (in French) about well-being, alternative medicine, etc. And - you can say hello to my sister Ingrid.

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. He is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below. 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Italian Travel Memories 1 - Marco in Pisa

Travel Memories with Leaning Tower of Pisa - Gamesforlanguage.comThe Italian Travel Memories expand on our GamesforLanguage travel-story based courses, which use the cities' real street names, places, restaurants, hotels, etc. We visited many of them ourselves and tell you a little more about each Italian city.  

With this post we'll now cover the first city that our Italian traveler Marco visits on his trip through Italy. (Previous posts followed our German traveler Michael in Frankfurt, Daniel in Paris and David in Barcelona.)

The travel stories, which are the basis of our GamesforLanguage courses, use real street names, places, restaurants, hotels, etc., many of which we visited ourselves.

In future blog posts, we'll provide additional details for the other cities our young travelers visit in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.

Pisa is Marco's first stop in Italy, a university town with a long history, and known the world over for its Leaning Tower.

Visiting Pisa? Here's a short introduction to this historic Tuscan city to help start your own Italian travel memories.

We'll follow Marco's discoveries in Pisa, for those of you who have done or are doing our Italian 1 course: Marco in Italia.

In our travel-story course, you learn everyday conversational language. Here, we've listed a few basic terms in Italian that will help you in your travels.

Quick Facts about Pisa

The city of Pisa is located in Tuscany, one of Italy's 20 Regions. Map of Pisa and surroundingsIt lies near the mouth of the Arno River, about 50 miles west of Florence and around 5 miles from the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

(Note: Italy is further divided into 96 provinces, with the city of Pisa being the capital of the Province of Pisa.)

Pisa's origins date back at least to the time of the Etruscans, 5th century B.C. Later, it became a Roman colony and rose to the status of an important port city. During the early Middle Ages, the Republic of Pisa developed into a powerful maritime nation, involved in lively trade and power struggles around the Mediterranean.

Pisa's decline was accelerated after the 15th century when the Arno River started to silt up.

Now a quiet university town of around 90,000 inhabitants, the city of Pisa is renowned for its art and architecture.

[Please Note: PISA is also an anagram that stands for The Programme for International Student Assessment. That has nothing to do with the city. PISA is a recurrent study that measures the scholastic performance of 15-year-old pupils worldwide.]

Pisa Airport

Marco Magini is a young student who learned some Italian at home and later studied it in school. However, this will be his first visit to Italy.

During his flight to Pisa, Marco chats with the flight attendant and with the woman who sits next to him - all in Italian. It's a perfect way for him to practice his language.

His flight lands at the Pisa International Airport, also named Galileo Galilei Airport, and the main airport in Tuscany.

Marco continues to use his Italian as he goes through passport control. He explains to the officer why he is traveling to Italy and how long he'll stay.

Corso Italia and Ponte di Mezzo

Ponte de Mezzo over Arno riverMarco's aunt, uncle, and cousin Valeria live on Corso Italia, which leads through the city center, from Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II to near Ponte di Mezzo.(see picture)

If you're in Pisa at the end of June, you could watch a traditional spectacle, the Battle of the Bridge (called "Gioco del Ponte") which takes place on the Ponte di Mezzo. Two teams battle it out: the Mezzogiorno (the neighborhoods south of the Arno) against the Tramontana (the neighborhoods north of the Arno). It's Pisa's most important annual event. (Find more information HERE .)

The centrally located Ponte di Mezzo takes you over the Arno River to the other side of the city. Standing on the bridge, you get a stunning view of the river bank and the shops and buildings there.

  • la città - the city
  • la bocca - the mouth (of a river)
  • mezzo - central, half, halfway
  • il gioco - the game
  • il mezzogiorno - the south, midday, noon
  • la tramontana - the north, north wind

Travel Memories in la Piazza dei Miracoli

No Italian travel tips about Pisa without the Leaning Tower! It's just a 15 minute walk from Ponte di Mezzo to the Travel memories on Piazza dei Miracoli - Gamesforlanguage.comPiazza dei Miracoli (also called Campo dei Miracoli).

The Piazza dei Miracoli includes a number of magnificent buildings: The Cathedral (begun in 1063), the Baptistry (built between 1153-1284), the Campo Santo cemetery (started in 1278), and the Leaning Tower (completed in 1350).

The buildings combine Moorish elements (arabesques) with Romanesque colonnading and spiky Gothic niches and pinnacles. 

Apparently all of the buildings on the Piazza dei Miracoli lean to some extent (which you can see on the picture above). They're constructed on soft soil composed of mud, sand and clay, which started settling soon after building began.

Because of its height, the Tower was most in danger of eventual collapse. It was closed to the public from 1990 to 2001, as an international team of engineers found a way decrease the lean and to stabilize the tower.

  • la passeggiata - a walk, stroll
  • 15 minuti a piedi - a 15 minute walk
  • l'edificio - the building
  • il campo - the field
  • il duomo - the cathedral
  • la torre - the tower
  • pendente - leaning
  • il campanile - the bell tower
  • la terra - the soil, earth

Borgo Stretto

Borgo Stretto shoppingOn the way back to Corso Italia, Marco and his cousin Valeria stop at Borgo Stretto, a picturesque street with shops, bistros, and cafés, on the northern side of the Arno. There, Marco buys a travel guide.

Afterwards, they go to a café for an Italian-style coffee and pastry: Marco orders "un macchiato," Valeria "un cappucino," and they both have "una crema di mascarpone con i cantuccini."

(And, if you are like us: Many travel memories come back with the food or drinks, we tried while there.)

  • il borgo - the borough, district (in a town), village
  • stretto - narrow, tightly bound
  • la strada - the street
  • i negozi - the shops
  • una guida turistica - a travel guide
  • un macchiato - an espresso with a "stain" of milk
  • macchiare - to stain, add a splash (of sth)
  • crema di mascarpone - dessert made of Italian cream cheese
  • cantuccini - twice-baked almond cookies, biscotti

Other Places to visit in Pisa

Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knights' Square): Historically View of Arno  river in late afternoonthe headquarters of the Order of Knights of St. Stephen, the square is located in Pisa's student quarter.

Banks of the Arno: A walking tour along one of the banks of the Arno River is especially beautiful in early evening.

Mural "Tuttomondo" by the artist Keith Harding: 1989, painted on the back facade of the church of St. Anthony. It shows 30 characters put together like a puzzle, each one representing an aspect of the world in peace.

Museo delle Navi Antiche (Museum of Ancient Ships): Archeological museum of ancient ships with nine well-preserved Roman ships, discovered during an excavation in 1998. 

Marco's Next Stop

From Pisa, Michael takes the train to Florence. There he gets together with a friend he had met in Boston.

Have you been to Pisa and have more travel memories and suggestions? We'd love to hear from you!

Register, or log in again and continue with the Italian 1 course.

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here!

Posted on by Peter Rettig

European Travel 4 – From Utrecht to Lake Constance

German Intercity TrainTraveling to and exploring Lake Constance 

In an earlier post, I wrote about Dutch Canal Boating. After a fun trip around Dutch rivers and canals, we said goodbye to our American friends. We then began the next stage of our European travels.

In the Dutch city of Utrecht, we boarded one of the fabulous European Intercity trains. It took us through Cologne and along the Rhine River to Basel. There we changed to a regional train.

On previous train trips we had always regretted that we could not access our website or google sights we passed by (without depleting our phone data allotments!) This time we still had our Webspot pocket WIFI we had rented for canal cruising.

We could also follow our train route on the iPad map and find information about the various castles we passed along the Rhine.

In Basel, the Rhine bends sharply to the east and for long stretches makes a natural border between Germany and Switzerland.

Initially, the train tracks follow the Rhine River Valley. At dusk we passed the well-known “Rheinfall of Schaffhausen” - the waterfalls of the Rhine at the Swiss town of Schaffhausen. (German students, don't forget to note the spelling of “Rheinfall” versus “Reinfall”! The latter means “letdown, failure, flop, disaster.” It is often used in wordplays with its sound-alike cousin.)

Überlingen at Lake Constance

Our destination that day was the city of Überlingen, located on Ueberlingen - St Nicolaus Cathedralone of the two major arms of the “Bodensee” (Lake Constance). (In Überlingen we met up with my sister, who had come from Switzerland.)

I had last been in Überlingen as a young boy with my parents. And while there was little that I recognized from that time, I vividly remembered climbing the bell tower of the St. Nikolaus Cathedral with my father. (see picture) As we neared the top, the huge bells suddenly started to ring, scaring me both with their powerful sounds and the vibrations they generated in the tower.

A good part of the city, including our hotel, is located on a sandstone cliff overlooking the lake. The 100 steps of the “Teufelstreppe” (Devil's Stairs) made it less than a 10 minute walk down to the lake. There, we found a “Promenade,” a wide walkway along the lake, leading to the town center with its restaurants, cafés, ship wharves, etc.

We were told that Überlingen has become one of Germany's favorite retirement destinations. That also makes it one of the oldest cities in Germany (in reference Ueberlingen wharfto the age of its inhabitants). The “seniors” we saw strolling down the Promenade, sitting in cafés, riding their bikes, or waiting to board a ship, all looked fit and active to us. (see picture)

While we were sitting in one of the cafés, we were surprised to see many bikers board a ship. We found out that there are several bicycle organization that organize tours along the “Bodensee-Radweg” (Lake Constance-bicycle path). It calls itself “Europa's beliebtester Radweg” (Europe's favorite bicycle path).

We often took advantage of the wonderful, warm fall weather and enjoyed people-watching while sitting in one of the many outside restaurants. There, we couldn't help but overhear conversations in various German dialects spoken at nearby tables.

Some German Dialects

Überlingen is located in Baden-Württemberg, the third-largest German state, German dialect mapwhich has close to 11 million inhabitants. Stuttgart is its capital and largest city.

Two distinct dialects are spoken in the state, with various variants: the Alemannic dialect of Swabian and Franconian. Swabian is spoken in the southern part of Baden-Württemberg, up to the border of the neighboring state, Bavaria. Franconian is spoken in the west/northwest along the Rhine including in Mannheim and Heidelberg.

[Note also: The Swiss German language is another variant of the Alemannic dialect. And, Franconian can also be heard in the northern parts of Bavaria [Germany's largest state], around Nuremberg, Bamberg, etc. The most recognizable dialect of the state of Bavaria is Austro-Bavarian, spoken in the southeast of the state and reaching beyond the border into Austria in a continuum of local and regional variants.]

We also heard the very distinct Saxon dialects from regions around Leipzig and Dresden.

And how could I forget the Hessian dialect, spoken around Frankfurt and Bad Nauheim (the city where I spent most of my school years, and subject of an earlier post: Where “Bad” does not mean “bad”...)

You can see the various German dialects on the chart.

Der Bodensee

The Bodensee, or Lake ConstanceLake Constance is the largest lake in Germany and Austria. It is only a little smaller than Lake Geneva, the largest lake located on the border of Switzerland and France.

Lake Constance is also the huge water reservoir which feeds the Rhine, the second largest European river after the Danube.

The Rhine River begins in the Swiss canton of Graubünden in the southeastern Swiss Alps, enters Lake Constance at its eastern Swiss/Austrian border and then leaves it again near Konstanz from the Lower Lake. (Note: It's the town of Konstanz/Constance which gave the Bodensee its English name.)

I have fond memories of the Bodensee, where I started first grade in the town of Friedrichshafen. It was in there that Ferdinand von Zeppelin established the first factory to build his famous dirigibles, the Zeppelins, around 1900.

I remember going fishing on the lake with my grandfather. Later,Sailing with alps in the background a sailing trip on the lake with my father, as we ghosted by the Mainau (see below) at night, made me fall in love with sailing. On clear days you can see the Alps in the background, as in this photo.

This time, Ulrike and I took advantage of sunny weather and took several trips with the Bodensee's “Weiße Flotte,” the White Fleet of motor ships, with which you can explore the lake.

There are also two car ferries to take you across the lake: (1) Between Meersburg and Constance and (2) Between Friedrichshafen and Romanhorn (Switzerland). On this Bodensee-Schifffahrt site – yes, the word is spelled with three “f's” - you can download the “Fahrplan” (schedule) for the various seasons.

Our first lake trip took us to the Island of Mainau.

The Mainau

I visited the island first as a young teenager and remember thatisland of Mainau I was fascinated by its history. The island has changed owners many times over the centuries.

In early years, it belonged to the Order of Teutonic Knights. Then, after falling into private hands, it was purchased in 1853 by Grand Duke Frederick I of Baden to serve as a summer palace.


Later, through inheritance, the island fell to the Swedish Prince Wilhelm, who in 1932, gave it to his only son, Lennart Bernadotte. He then owned it until 1974, when he transferred it to a foundation.

Currently, Lennart's oldest daughter Sonja and her brother Björn Bernadotte are managing the property.

The island is a flowering paradise. Over 30,000 rose bushes Mainau flowersof more than 1,200 varieties grow there, as well as 20,000 dahlias of 250 varieties, and many other kinds of flowers.

We were there at the time of a dahlia exhibition. Walking through the gardens, we saw stunning arrangements by local garden shops, which where competing for the exhibition honor roll.

The island attracts more than 1 million visitors a year and it serves as a favorite destination for weddings. You'll find more information on the island's website.

Another car trip took took us to the town of Meersburg.

Meersburg

Meersburg - Old CastleMeersburg is located on the eastern shore of Lake Constance, at the midpoint between Überlingen and Friedrichshafen.

We visited the Old Castle, which towers over the town, and learned that it is still the oldest inhabited fortress in Germany. (There is also a Baroque New Castle.)


The guide, dressed in a medieval costume, took us through the part of the castle that is open to the public and now a museum. It included the Knight's Hall (see picture), the Arm's Hall, the dungeon, etc.

She told us much about the castle's history and the various legends surrounding it. The castle dates back to the 7th century and the Merovigians under King Dagobert I.

In 1268, it became the seat of the Bishop of Constance until Knights Hall - Meersburgthe bishops built the New Castle at the beginning of the 18th century.

The Old Castle then came under the control of the Grand Duchy of Baden. The collector and business man Joseph von Laßberg purchased it in 1838.

For German language enthusiasts, the castle is also noteworthy as the sister of Laßberg's wife, the famous poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, lived there the last 8 years of her life.

In 1877, Karl Mayer von Mayerfels purchased the castle and established the Medieval Museum. His descendants still live in the building during the summer months.

As in many of the towns along the Bodensee, there is a Promenade along the lake with pleasant cafés and restaurants. The small streets and squares bustle with boutiques, shops, and street merchants.

We just happened pass through when grapes were unloaded at the local winery. That was a colorful spectacle.

Other Sights along the Bodensee

There are many other places along the Bodensee that are worth a visit.

I still remember the little town of Unteruhldingen where I visited the Unteruhldingen Stilt Houses - Gamesforlanguage.com Pfahlbaumuseum” (Stilt-House Museum) during my childhood. The stories the guides told at the time were fascinating. This time, we did not visit the rebuilt village, but we could see the stilt houses from the ship as we docked (see picture).

I've already mentioned Friedrichshafen. While more of an industrial city (heavily bombarded during World War II because of its airplane and bomb factories), the modern Dornier aerospace museum shows the various Dornier airplane models, engines, satellites, and products of the Airbus Group.

Lindau Harbor ENTRANCEThe historic town of Lindau is located on a small island connected by a dam to a strip of land that allows Bavaria access to Lake Constance. The Lindau harbor entrance with the light house and its Bavarian Lion statue (see picture) is a beautiful sight. I remember it well from my youth when we entered or left the harbor on one of the white ships.

Traveling just a few miles further southeast, you'll enter Austria and will have reached the end of the lake in Bregenz, the capital of the Austrian state of Vorarlberg.

If you are an opera lover and happen to be there during the months of July and August, be sure not to miss the Bregenzer Festspiele. Most memorable will certainly be a performance on a floating stage in the open-air amphitheater. (But be sure to reserve your tickets early!)

On the other side of the lake, right on the border to Switzerland, lies KonstanzBlick auf Konstanz (Constance), a lively university town and for over 1200 years the seat of Catholic bishops. (See photo of Constance, with a view of the "Untersee" and continuation of the Rhine)

The city has an interesting history. Konstanz was refused entrance into the Swiss Confederacy in 1460, then joined the Swabian league and became part of the German Empire in 1871.

The city avoided being bombed during World War II by a clever ruse – it left the lights on and allied bombers could not distinguish it from neighboring Swiss towns. The large and well-preserved “Altstadt” (Old town) is dominated by the “Münster” (Cathedral).

Our stay in Überlingen and our various excursions along the lake brought back many vivid memories from my childhood and later vacations at the Bodensee. We can see why this region has become a favorite place in Germany for retirees. Austria and Switzerland are only a boat ride away. The cultural offerings in the nearby towns and cities are amazing. There are many things to see and do in each of the seasons.

If you are interested in more photos, see our Niume picture gallery: Überlingen and Lake Constance.

And you can also follow our European travels with Discoveries in Austria.

Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. He's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Spanish Travel Memories 1 - David in Barcelona

W-Hotel at Barcelona Beach - Gamesforlanguage.comThe Spanish Travel Memories expand on our GamesforLanguage travel-story based courses, which use the cities' real street names, places, restaurants, hotels, etc. We visited many of them ourselves and tell you a little more about each Spanish city. 

In future blog posts, we'll provide additional details for each of the cities our young travelers visit in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. (You'll already find posts on Frankfurt and Paris.)

David is our traveler to Spain. His first stop is Barcelona, often named as one of the top ten travel destinations in Europe. (And no, the photo above is not Dubai, but of the W Hotel right at the beach in Barcelona.)

Visiting Barcelona? Here's a short introduction to this lively, bilingual port city. We'll also list a few basic terms in Spanish and Catalan that will help you make your own travel memories.

We'll follow David's discoveries in Barcelona, for those of you who have done or are doing our Spanish 1 course: David en España.

In our travel-story course, you learn daily conversational Spanish. The Spanish vocabulary listed here is a combination of some words taught in the course as well as other useful terms. We've also added Catalan equivalents.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón's Barcelona Novels

We wish we had read these books before or during our stay in Barcelona in 2012. Zafon's novels El Juego del Ángel (The Angel's Game),  La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind),  and El Prisionero del Cielo ( The Prisoner of Heaven), all are set in Barcelona. They are a combination of mystery and adventure tales. (Reading them in Spanish - maybe with the English translation beside it - will advance your Spanish quite a bit!)

The first published novel actually includes a “Walk in the Footsteps...” to “give a flavor of the setting for 'The Shadow of the Wind', and can be used as a starting point to explore more of the world of the novel, many of the locations and sceneries.”

Many places that we're familiar with and our traveler David visits as well, are described in the novels which span the first half of the 20th century.

The Catalan language

Because our course teaches Spanish, we don't include information about the Catalan language. However, the city is clearly bilingual. 

Catalan is a language spoken in three regions of Spain: Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, as well as just across the border in southern France and a small community on Sardinia, Italy. It's also the official language of Andorra. 

While 98% of Barcelona's population speaks Castilian Spanish, a majority, around 60%, also speaks Catalan. You'll hear Catalan spoken as you walk around town and you'll see many signs in both languages. You'll notice that many of the names of streets, parks, villa, museums, etc. on your street map will be in Catalan.

If you'd like to know more about the Catalan language and why one should not consider Catalan a “melting pot” of Spanish, French, and Italian, read this excellent post by the Spanish Linguist. 

The Autonomous Community of Catalonia

Catalonia has been in the news of late because of aSpain's autonomous areas map - recent vote by the Parliament of Catalonia for its secession from Spain. (See also our previous post: Spain and Catalonia – Not Just a Language Conflict)

The territory of Spain, according to its constitution of 1978, is organized into 17 autonomous communities, and 2 autonomous cities. (see map)

In its second article, the constitution “recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all.” [Wikipedia]

While the “autonomous” label and “self-government” language in the constitution would indicate a substantial degree of independence of many communities, the tax levies and its distribution by the central government in Madrid remain an area of contention for many, not only for the proponents of secession in Catalonia.

A referendum in 2006, gave Catalonia an higher degree of autonomy than stated above. But a wish for more independence has obviously remained. And language has long been part of politics, with some bitterness on both sides.

Quick Facts About Barcelona

Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is a cosmopolitan port city located on the Mediterranean Sea in the northeast of Spain. It is the second largest city in Spain, with over 1.6 million inhabitants. Its metropolitan area has a population of over 4.6 million.

The history of Barcelona appears to go back over two thousand years, though details of its founding and early times remain elusive.

Ruins from Roman Barcelona (then called Barcino) date back to the 1st century AD. These can be visited in what is now the gothic part of the Barcelona's medieval city. In his Blog, the travel writer Richard Varr describes the site as “The world's most Extensive Underground Roman Ruins.”

Barcelona belongs to the world's major global cities and has been called one of the world's leading tourist, economic, trade fair and cultural centers.

Catalan Art Nouveau architecture, called “Modernisme,” developed between the years of 1878 and 1910, and was an expression of Catalonia's striving for its own national identity. Barcelona claims to have the greatest collection of Art Nouveau Buildings of any city in Europe.

Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics, which revamped the harbor area and many buildings, and created a several mile-long beach area with cafés, restaurants, promenade, etc.

David Arrives at Barcelona's El Prat Airport

David is a young student who learned some Spanish at home and later studied it in school. His father is from Spain and his mother from Mexico. This will be his first visit to Spain.

On his flight to Barcelona, Michael chats in Spanish with the flight attendant and with the woman who sits next to him.

He arrives at the busy International El Prat Airport, which is located 12 miles from the center of the city. (Visitors using certain discount airlines may also arrive at the Reus and Girona airports, which are about 60 miles from Barcelona, so watch out!)

David's aunt picks him up. Otherwise, he would have gotten into town by taxi, bus, or train.

As David goes through passport control, he continues to use his Spanish. Responding to the standard immigration/passport control questions, he has to explain why he is traveling to Spain and how long he will stay. Following the Spanish, you'll see the Catalan equivalent in parentheses.

the flight - el vuelo (el vol)
the flight attendant - el auxiliar de vuelo (el auxiliar de vol)
the airport - el aeropuerto (el aeroport)
the passport control - el control de pasaportes (el control de passaports)

Districts of Barcelona

Districts of BarcelonaDavid's aunt and uncle live on Carrer de Mallorca (Spanish: Calle de Mallorca). This large street runs through the neighborhood (Spanish: barrio) of la Dreta de l'Eixample, and is close to Plaça de Cataluña and el Passeig de Gràcia.

Barcelona is divided into 10 administrative districts, which consist of 73 “barrios.” Each of the 10 districts is referred to by number and a name. (see map)

The old town stretches mostly across districts 1 (Ciutat Vella) and 2 (Eixample). It's in the latter where the barrio “Dreta de l'Eixample” is located.

During our 1-month stay in Barcelona, we stayed in Gràcia, and liked this district very much. You can read about our travel memories in several blog posts.

Again, some relevant vocabulary, first Spanish, then Catalan in parentheses. 

the street - la calle (el carrer)
the neighborhood - el barrio (el barri)
the square - la plaza (la plaça)
the promenade - el paseo (el passeig)
the district - el distrito (el districte)
the old town - el casco antiguo (el nucli antic)
the city - la ciudad (la ciutat)

Travel Memories: La Sagrada Familia

David and his cousin María walk over fromLa Sagrada Familia 2012 - Gamesforlanguage.com Calle Mallorca to Antoni Gaudí's spectacular church “La Sagrada Familia.”

Begun in 1882, the project became Gaudí's life work. At his death in 1926, only part of the church was finished. Construction resumed after the Civil War (1936-1939) during the reign of Franco, and continued after Franco's death (1975). The building is now projected to be finished in 2026.

“La Sagrada Familia” has been called the most unconventional church in Europe and will certainly be part of your Barcelona travel memories. Gaudí used the natural world and its curves for his inspiration and avoided straight lines and angles as much as he could.

For his constructions, he developed his own architectural techniques. Some of these are on display in the museum of the church as well as in the Casa Milà Exhibits (see below).

the church - la iglesia (la església)
the Civil War - la Guerra Civil (la Guerra Civil)
the nature - la naturaleza (la naturalesa)

El Paseo de Gracia (Passeig de Gràcia)

Paseo de Gracia from Predrera RoofAs they walk through their neighborhood, his cousin María asks David if he wants to join her for some shopping on the Passeig de Gràcia.

The Passeig de Gràcia is a wide avenue with shops and businesses that leads from Plaça Cataluña to the neighborhood of Vila de Gràcia. (The photo left is taken from the roof of Gaudí's Casa Milà, see also below)

A little history: Originally, Passeig de Gràcia was called Camí de Jesus and connected the city of Barcelona to the nearby town of Gràcia. With time, small houses, cafés, restaurants, shops, theaters, and dance halls were built along the stretch.

In 1897, the town of Gràcia was formally annexed by Barcelona. It became fashionable to live on the Paseo and to have one's house build in the Modernist style, by architects such as Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and others.

Today, the Passeig de Gràcia has retained its appeal. Most of the older buildings have been restored; villas, shops, and fashion houses have multiplied. Along the avenue, which is lined with trees, there are street lamps and benches. 

Here is a link to more history and a walking tour along the Passeig.

On the Passeig de Gràcia there are also many restaurants and cafés. In Spain, a café is called “una cafetería.” David and María order “una horchata” (a tiger nut milk drink; in Catalan: orxata), “un cortado” (espresso with a dash of mik; in Catalan: tallat), and “magdalenas” (small cupcakes).

Parque Guëll 

In 1900, Count Eusebi Guëll, a wealthy and influential CatalanParque Guell - Gamesforlanguage.com owner, bought land in Gràcia. He employed his friend Antoni Gaudí to design an estate for the rich. The park was built between 1900 and 1914. Gaudì's imaginative designs and architectural solutions were inspired by natural organic shapes.

Only two houses were built, though neither was by Gaudì. Because the project was not commercially successful, the family Guëll gave the land to the city in 1923 as a public park. It officially opened in 1926.

Gaudì lived in the park between 1906 and 1926 in a house built by the architect Francesc Berenguer.

In 1984, the park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

the park - el parque (el parc)
World Heritage - Patrimonio de la Humanidad (Patrimoni de la Humanitat)
to design - diseñar (dissenyar)

Other Places to visit in Barcelona

The Olympic Stadium (Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys): Built for the 1929 International Exhibition, the stadium was renovated in 1989 for the 1992 Summer Olympics. It is located on Montuïc, a hill in Barcelona that overlooks the harbor. 

travel memories with Gaudí's Casa Milà 2012 - Gamesforlanguage.comCasa Milà  (picture left) popularly known as “La Pedrera” was Antoni Gaudì's last civil work and built from 1906 to 1912. It is an apartment building located around an inner court yard and incorporates many innovative features of its time.

The gallery in the building's attic exhibits many examples of Gaudi's design and engineering concepts. From the top you get a stunning view of the city. (see photo)

The building is a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Picasso Museum (Museu Picasso)The museum opened in 1963 and houses an extensive permanent collection of Pablo Picasso's works presented in five medieval palaces. 

Joan Miró Foundation (Fundacío Joan Mirò): A collection of Miró's art, exhibitions of contemporary art, and Espai 10 and Espai 13, a Laboratory for Contemporary Art - “where artists have the right to fail.” 

David's next Stop: (and Spanish Travel Memories 2)

From Barcelona, David takes the train to Granada, for more travel memories. There he gets together with a friend he had met in Boston.

(Going from Barcelona to Granada by train, is a nearly 600-mile trip. Taking the train is the most inexpensive option, and the trip can take between 8 to 12 hours. You can, of course, also fly to Granada, which takes about an hour and a half.)

Register or log in again and continue with the Spanish 1 course. 

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments below or with contact.

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

European Travels 3: Dutch Language & Canal Boating

Pénichette 1020FB layoutIf “fietsen” (bicyling) is a Dutch favorite, “bootjevaren” (boating), which includes “zeilen” (sailing), is certainly another.

With about one third of the Dutch mainland BELOW sea level and another one third very close to it, it's no wonder that the Dutch have a special relationship with water.

Yes, Italy has Venice, which has romantic canals but also more frequent flooding. Venice also needs to worry about its future as it is slowly sinking into the Adriatic Sea.

On the other hand, Amsterdam with its many “grachten” (canals) is a vibrant international city that has well adapted to the challenges and opportunities of the ever present water.(See also European Travels 1 and European Travels 2)

And, the canal network in the Netherlands is nothing but astounding. It's a great way to explore the country.

For the fun of it, we'll sprinkle in a few Dutch words. Because Dutch is a Germanic language just like English and German, you may find some cognates.

  • het land - the country, land
  • de stad - the city
  • de fiets - the bicycle
  • het water - the water
  • de gracht - the canal (in a city)
  • het kanaal - the canal (outside of a city)
  • de rivier - the river
  • de zee - the ocean, sea 

Dutch Canals and Rivers

Traveling by boat on a canal or river lets you experience the countryside in a different way Dutch windmill along canal - Gamesforlanguage.comthan driving through it. At 7 to 8 miles per hour, you can observe your surroundings in a leisurely way.

You'll notice the different designs of houses and various building methods, admire beautiful gardens, wonder what crops are growing in the fields, what type of cattle is grazing on the pastures.
Often the canals are higher than the adjacent pastures, as water is pumped continually from the lower lying fields into the canals.

While most pumps in the Netherlands are now electrically operated, there are still old windmills that are doing the job. We certainly observe more and more of the modern wind turbines every time we visit.

The ABC of Dutch Canal Travel

Operating a motor boat on Dutch canals is not really
difficult, although sometimes when in tight quarters, you have to keep calm and go slowly. 

You don't need a license. If you haven't sailed or operated a motor boat before, don't worry. The charter company will instruct you in how to handle the boat.

Obviously, prior boating experience helps, not only for operating a boat, but also for knowing a few basic facts:

  • Boats have no brakes
  • Boats are affected by wind and current
  • Boats have various electrical and plumbing systems
  • The forward/backward gear of boats is operated with a throttle
  • Larger boats respond more slowly to throttle and steering commands
  • A “bow thruster” greatly helps maneuvering in tight quarters
  • Locks” connect waterways with different water level elevations
  • The lower the boat, the more bridges you can pass (without their opening)

Our 2016 Charter Choice

For our previous three canal cruises in the Netherlands, we had chartered from different local charter companies. This time we selected Locaboat, a multinational charter with locations in France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Poland, and the Netherlands.

Pénichette 1020FB layoutTheir location in Loosdrecht, just north of Utrecht and close to the Dutch family reunion we attended, as well as our good experience with them during a charter in France a few years earlier, made them an easy choice.

Péniche” is the French word for a barge. A “Pénichette©”, Locaboat's trademarked name for its motorboats, is therefore a small barge.

We selected a “Flying Bridge Pénichette© 1020FB, which had two cabins with toilets and showers, just right for our American friends and us.

The “Oude Rijn” (the old Rhine), as our mini barge was called, had inside and outside steering – perfect for either rainy or sunny weather – a bow thruster, and the two bicycles we had reserved.

With its 10.20 meter length (about 34 feet), it suited us fine.
The midship saloon and steering station provided a great view during any meal. The compact kitchen (galley) had a refrigerator, a two-burner stove and oven, and all the pots, pans, and dishes we needed.

I noticed several improvements since the last time we had chartered from Locaboat:

  • The bow thruster
  • Electric instead of pump toilets
  • No switch to change from inside to outside throttle operation
  • A spacious refrigerator working well either on motor or shore power
  • An easily operated diesel heater for the hydronic heating system

Dutch canal chartThrough the charter company we had ordered some basic supplies from the local grocery store, such as water, beer, etc. These arrived shortly after we boarded.

After reviewing our intended itinerary, (see map) learning about the boat's systems, and a quick test-outing into the canal with me backing into the slip, we started our trip.

While Locaboat reportedly makes WIFI available on its boats in France, we had to arrange for internet access ourselves in the Netherlands.

After some research I had selected my-webspot.com. The Paris, France based company had shipped the portable WIFI to our hotel. After an easy set up on the boat - it just plugged into the 12-V charger - we were connected. As we also had guests, with phones and iPads, the ability to connect up to 10 devices worked great for all of us.

It was late afternoon and we had to pass one lock and bridge before starting our round trip as shown on the chart.

  • de winkel - the shop
  • de boot - the boat
  • de sluis - the lock (on a waterway)
  • de brug - the bridge
  • het dorp - the village, town
  • het huis - the house
  • de tuin - the garden, yard
  • de boerderij - the farm

Locks

In a lock adjusting lines - Gamesforlanguage,comShortly after leaving the Marina, we encountered the Mijnden Sluis, the first of the few locks that we had to pass on our trip.

When approaching a lock, you'll know from the position of the gates (open or closed) and the red or green lights - whether you have to wait (red) and possibly tie up, or whether you can enter (green).

Once in the lock, your crew loops a couple of lines around the bollards and holds on to them. But they should NOT TIE UP.

As the lock gates are closed and the water level rises and falls, the crew adjusts the lines so the boat glides along the lock walls, protected by its fenders. (In this picture our friends are adjusting the lines in the biggest lock we encountered, behind a large commercial barge.)

As the lock gates open again, you motor out the other side to a different water level.

In the Dutch inland canals, such level differences are often only a foot or two.

(In French canals, we had encountered a level difference of 10 feet or more in many locks. Also, in an earlier blog post, we describe how the boat lift in Henrichenburg, Germanyovercomes a 42 feet level difference.)

Bridges

We had chartered a motor boat for the first time in the Netherlands, over 20 years ago in Utrecht. Our teenage sons loved it right away. At that time, a few of the bridges still had to be opened manually. The boys had to jump ashore, open the bridge, let us pass, close the bridge, and then hop on board again.

This time, we were told that we would not have to open any bridges ourselves on our trip.

The moving bridges we encountered, called “Beweegbare Bruggen,” and labeled “BB” on the chart, were operated as follows:

  • By an operator at the bridge or a person who monitored it remotely via cameras
  • By a push button, typically located on a piling before the bridge
  • By phone call to an operator or on an automated line

Many bridges opened as we approached, adding a yellow light to the red light before it turned green. Sometimes we called. (Telephone numbers were on a sign at the bridge. In addition, nearly all bridges had a telephone number listed in the boat manual or in the chart app on my tablet.)

More instructions were provided in the boat's handbook, but Ulrike's command of Dutch was clearly helpful for the third option.

under fixed bridgeThere are only very few bridges left where the operator collects a fee with a wooden shoe on a long pole. We passed only two.

In towns and cities, operating hours often consider morning and evening traffic rush hours. Commercial vessels always have priority over recreational boats and you learn to be patient.

Your chart tells you the passing height of each bridge. Our “Oude Rijn” was listed as 2.92 m. Passing under a 3.00 m bridge left only 8 cm or a little more than 3 inches – and when steering and sitting outside on top of the upper deck we certainly had to duck. (In the above picture there were only a few inches to spare...)

Mooring Sites

The waterway chart (as well as the Dutch app for my tablet I
had downloaded) not only shows all the locks and bridges, but also the marinas and mooring sites that one can tie up to. Some of the mooring sites in small towns are free.

At others, you can replenish your water or hook up your shore power (for a fee). We only did this a couple of times. 

However, you're not limited to the designated mooring sites. Especially in the countryside, you can just hammer in two steel spikes ashore and tie up your boat along the canal bank.

No Hurry

After passing through the Mijnden lock, we turned north and were immediately faced with our first challenge.

The bridge operator of the first moving bridge we were to pass in Loenen, informed us that the next bridge had mechanical problems and could not be opened. He thought it could be fixed in an hour or two and suggested we should just tie up. 

We did and explored the little town of Loenen, with its narrow cobble stone streets and its two picturesque bridges across the river Vecht. We also found a bakery and stocked up on fresh bread and pastries.

Bridge opening in LoenenThis short delay taught us again not to be in a hurry. Canal traveling has to be done leisurely.

Yes, we would not get very far this first day, but no matter. Waiting for bridges or locks to open is as much part of canal travel as finding a nice restaurant for lunch or dinner or a good mooring spot for the night.

Indeed, when the bridge operator told us that the problem was fixed, we continued north on the Vecht. (see picture above)

As it was soon going to get dark we made fast near the small town of Overmeer.

After a 10 minute walk we found a very pleasant restaurant for our first dinner ashore.

Returning a few hours later to our “Oude Rijn,” we were glad that we had not forgotten the flashlight to unlock the door.

We had a quiet and peaceful night and the next morning greeted us with sunshine and ducks and other birds in the water around us.

Sightseeing

The Netherlands is very densely populated country. In traveling
along the small rivers and canals, we passed through cities and towns, as well as commercial and industrial areas. But we also came through long stretches of farm land and pastures.

In addition to the many small towns and villages we came across and explored, the major cities on our itinerary were Amsterdam, Gouda, and Utrecht.

We've written a blog post about Amsterdam, as we stayed there before getting on the boat. But visiting Amsterdam by boat is even more fun.

You can easily get to the marina in the center of town from where you'll explore the city on foot. There are a few more marinas in the outskirts, but then you have to find a way to get into the city.

Gouda is a wonderful town with a stunning 15th-centuryGouda City Hall - Gamesforlanguage.com city hall (see picture) and a spacious market place, where during the spring and summer a traditional cheese market is held every week (Thursday mornings).

You can actually moor right in the center of town, but we chose to tie up and stay overnight on the Hollandsche IJssel, just south of the city.

When we came to Utrecht, it was not possible to go through the town with our Flying Bridge Pénichette, as the many arched bridges of the Vecht were too narrow and low for the “Oude Rijn.”

However, mooring in the “Singelgracht” close to the center of town, allows you to explore the city easily on foot.


Along the Vecht, there are many restaurants tourists and locals alike seemed to enjoy on a late summer day. 

The town has over 20 museums, ranging from the Aboriginal Art, to the National Military, the Railway, and the Waterline Museum Fort Vechten. 

This is often one of the major benefits of sightseeing from a boat: You can moor in or near the center of a town or city (where finding a parking space for your car may often be difficult).

  • het stadhuis - the city hall
  • het centrum - the center (of town)
  • de jachthaven - the marina
  • de buitenwijken - the outskirts (of town)
  • de marktplaats - the market
  • de kaas - the cheese
  • de Noordzee - the North Sea
  • de Oostzee - the Baltic Sea

The European Canal system

While we traveled mostly on small canals and riverscontainer barge on canal - Gamesforlanguage.com (such as the Vecht and IJssel), there were also a few stretches where we encountered commercial traffic.

When a large container-laden barge is heading towards you (as on this picture), you realize how important the waterways are still for the European economy.  You also do your best to keep out of  the way! 

Leaving Utrecht and before we could re-enter the
Vecht near Maarsen, we had to travel on the wide Amsterdam-Rhine Canal. This canal serves as an important commercial link between Amsterdam and the Rhine.

Indeed, barges can make it up and down the Rhine all the way to Basel, Switzerland, or via the Main river, the Main-Danube Canal, and the Danube to Budapest, Vienna, and the Black Sea.

No wonder, traffic is heavy and recreational boats like ours have to keep well out of the way.

The European canal system not only connects the North Sea with the Baltic Sea, but barges and boats (even sailboats with a lowered mast) can find their way into the Mediterranean Sea, via the Mosel and the Rhone.

Breukelen

Our last overnight stop before returning to our base was Breukelen. Breukelen, by the way, gave New York's Brooklyn its name.

We again were moored right in the center of town, behind a typical old-style bascule bridge and several restaurants. In one of them we ate dinner.

There we met the Dutch artist, Toos van Holstein, who was elected the Netherland's “Briljanten Kunstenaar 2016” (Dutch Brilliant Artist of 2016). She had just organized a special art event “25 Karaats Briljant” at the gallery Peter Leen, which is adjacent and connected to the excellent Thai Same Same restaurant.

Traveling on Dutch canals leaves you with many
impressions, memories and pictures, certainly more than we can relate here.

On our last evening we could again enjoy a spectacular sunset across the huge Dutch sky - a fitting end to our canal cruise.

If you're interested in trying canal boating yourself in the Netherlands or France and have more questions, drop us a line via contact and we'll be happy to help.

For more photos from the trip see our picture gallery Canal Boating in the Netherlands.

You can also follow our European travels from Utrecht to Lake Constance, and Discoveries in Austria.


Bio: Ulrike & Peter Rettig are co-founders of Gamesforlanguage.com. They are lifelong language learners, growing up in several European countries before moving to Canada and the United States. You can follow them on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

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