Saturday, September 2, 2017

Ratzeburg: Additional notes

It seems that these days my blog serves little more than to explain how to get to places featured in my “Destination” series, so apologies for that. Nevertheless, here are some additional notes to accompany my video about the town of Ratzeburg, a pretty — and pretty unusual — little place in the far north of Germany.

Thanks in part to the support I’m getting via my Patreon page, I have been able to travel much further afield. This gives me the opportunity to show you something rather different: different building materials were available in different parts of the country, and architectural styles differed as well. There are fewer timber-framed buildings and a lot more red brick.

Rural idyll: the Island Town of Ratzeburg

Ratzeburg is a small place, but worth a day trip if you’re not looking for excitement and adventure — although you could, weather permitting, hire a canoe or simply go swimming. At least one restaurant I saw, on the lakeside right next to the Castle Green (Schlosswiese), offers freshly-caught fish straight from its own doorstep, so to speak.

The closest major city to Ratzeburg is Lübeck, from where it’s an easy day (or even half-day) trip. By car, it’s a quick drive down federal route 207 past the airport: Ratzeburg is signposted from central Lübeck.

As the seat of the local district administration, Ratzeburg is also served surprisingly well by public transport. It’s on the Lübeck-Lüneburg line, and there is an hourly service on, if my experience is typical, full trains.

The service also calls at Lübeck Airport, which some budget airlines fly to claiming it to be a Hamburg airport. Note that this stop is a request stop: you need to make sure the driver can see you on the platform. If you’re on the train wanting to get off at the airport, you need to press a button to signal your intention.

It’s also easily reachable from Hamburg, although it does involve a transfer at Büchen. You need to take a train bound for Schwerin and Rostock, and then transfer at Büchen for a train bound for Lübeck and Kiel. It is also possible to take a train to Lübeck and transfer there, but it takes longer and is more expensive.

There is a better alternative from Hamburg: a regular bus service runs from Wandsbek Markt U-Bahn station to Ratzeburg, taking an hour, which is actually faster than the train, including the time needed for transfers. It will also take you direct to the historic centre of Ratzeburg.

Ratzeburg train station is about 3 km (just under two miles) from the historic centre. A hundred years ago, as briefly mentioned in the video, there was a narrow-gauge railway that would have taken you there, but it is no more. The young and fit can easily walk that distance, but there are also frequent buses into town (including the aforementioned bus from Hamburg). “Demolierung” is probably the best place to alight, as it’s right by the (new) town hall which also serves as the tourist information centre.

Finally, don’t bother getting up at the crack of dawn and rushing to Ratzeburg as soon as you possibly can unless you’re a photographer. The place really doesn’t wake up properly until about 10 o’clock even on weekdays, and even the cathedral is closed until then.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Erfurt: Additional notes

Of all the sights I enjoyed most on my recent trip to Erfurt — and there were many — the one that made me smile the most was not (as you might expect) the exquisitely subversive Bernd das Brot, the depressive loaf of bread forced to work for children’s TV, but these characters:

This is Captain Blaubeer — his name means “blue bear” and is a pun on the German word for “blueberry” — and his sidekick, the rat Hein Blöd. Or rather, not so much the characters themselves, as the sculpture, which is probably the one that is the most dynamic and fun — I especially like the way Hein Blöd has somehow managed to get his leg stuck in the rowlock.

I should also like to express my profound thanks to the staff of the Augustinian Monastery, who basically gave me free (and, I may say, unsupervised, which was brave of them) access to Luther’s cell. Normally, you have to book a guided tour, but it’s well worth doing that if you’re interested in the life and works of Martin Luther.

Erfurt is at the intersection of the A4 and A71 autobahns, so not too difficult to get to. For rail passengers, Erfurt is Thuringia’s most important hub. There is even a small airport, Erfurt-Weimar, from where the number 4 tram will take you directly into the historic centre. For people who prefer travelling by coach, several routes call at Erfurt: the coach stops are a short walk from the train station, next to the bus station.

I found Erfurt to be easy to get around: its historic centre manages to be on the large side, yet compact enough that I didn’t need public transport.

I should point out that the tower of St Giles’s Church and the steps down to the cellar on the Merchants’ Bridge are not for anyone with physical difficulties (and if you’re in a wheelchair, don’t even think about it).

And that was Erfurt: an absolute gem, if you want my opinion, and a great addition to anyone’s itinerary.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Eisenach: Additional notes

Ah, Eisenach — the subject of my latest video. And for the avoidance of doubt, I should stress that I am talking about Eisenach, the historic town in Thuringia, and not Eisenach (Eifel), the village in Rhineland-Palatinate with a population of 355.

It rained the whole time I was there, which was unfortunate in the sense that I (and my camera) got soaked; but fortunate in the sense that I was able to get atmospheric shots like this:

The Wartburg looking suitably forbidding

This, of course, is the Wartburg, one of Eisenach’s top attractions, and it really does sit perched on top of a hill outside of the town. There is a bus that goes to the Wartburg, and a car park as well; but you can walk to it if you’re reasonably fit. Start at Luther’s school and walk up the steepest road you can see (called “Schlossberg”). Signs will tell you it’s 1.4 km to the Wartburg, and much further up is another sign telling you it’s 1.4 km, which will only confirm the feeling you’ve had that you have just walked one kilometer vertically upwards. (In fact, that second sign is wrong.)

At the point where the path to the Elisabethplan branches off there is a “donkey station”, apparently a 100-year-old tradition. In return for a fee, they’ll take you (or, for the sake of the donkeys, your children) the rest of the way.

Eisenach is on the Bebra-Halle line and is served regularly by ICE trains on the Frankfurt-Dresden run and IC trains running between Dortmund, Berlin and Stralsund.

Erfurt lies on the A4 autobahn which links Dresden with the A5 to Frankfurt; a new autobahn is being planned which will link Eisenach with Kassel.

The historic centre of Eisenach is small, and I did all the filming (including the Wartburg) in a single day. Of course, you’ll most likely want to tour the Wartburg and visit at least a couple of the museums, so you could easily fill two days here.

Definitely see the Wartburg. Maybe pick a less wet day than I did, but absolutely see it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Mainz: Additional notes

Well, I certainly had fun filming my latest “Destination” video, this time about the fair city of Mainz (or “Mayence”, as it’s occasionally known). It’s about the furthest a place can be for me to not need to get a hotel for a couple of nights, and I was there on two days. I still didn’t get everything, though: a problem Mainz has is that there’s a lot to see, but it’s quite spread out.

No wonder this lion looks so smug: he’s caught a sheep.

As I mentioned in the video, Mainz has a lot of historic buildings embedded among the more modern stuff, and there are very few places where you feel you’re standing in the middle of an ancient city. This means that wandering off through the quiet back streets isn’t often as rewarding as it is in most places: in fact, it can be a bit dispiriting.

The city is surrounded by a ring of autobahns, so in theory it’s not that hard to get to. You might want to approach it from the south and west, rather than the north and east, to avoid having to cross the river on the one (non-autobahn) bridge that exists, and which dumps you right into the middle of the city traffic.

Mainz is just west of Frankfurt: S-Bahn line S8 goes from Frankfurt via Frankfurt Airport to Mainz (and then on to Wiesbaden), stopping at Römisches Theater and the central station. Lines S1 and S9 go via Mainz-Kastel (confusingly, now a suburb of Wiesbaden), the station being right next to the reduit, and from there it’s an easy walk across the bridge. Mainz’s central station is, of course, a major stop for long-distance trains.

Local public transport is probably quite good in Mainz, but at the moment there are road construction projects going on that have resulted in several tram lines being truncated or rerouted. Unfortunately, information about diversions and replacement buses is very hard to find and confusing when you do: even the locals seem to be unsure about how to get from A to B.

Which way to the river?

Mainz has an interesting quirk which, in theory, is supposed to help with orientation. Street name signs come in two colours: red for streets that run toward the river, blue for streets that run parallel to it. House numbers go up either as you get closer to the river, or with the direction of flow of the river, always with odd numbers on the left.

This would be a very helpful if Mainz was on a grid layout, but of course it’s not. You will still need Google Maps. But at least it was an attempt (in 1853) to make finding your way fractionally less daunting, as Mainz really is very easy to get lost in.

And that, folks, is why I needed two visits and still didn’t get everything.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Bayreuth: Additional notes

My latest video is of the city of Bayreuth, not too far from Kulmbach. In fact, the two videos together represent a whole weekend of filming, which was really tiring.

On reflection, I should have gone there a little later in the year, as many of the fountains were still switched off and crated to protect them from the winter frosts; but for various reasons it was convenient to do it that weekend.

Getting there is fairly simple. By car, Bayreuth is directly on the A9 autobahn .

By train, Bayreuth is about an hour away from Nuremberg.

It has a fairly compact historic centre, much of which is pedestrianized, although this is surrounded on about three sides by a busy ring-road which is a bit of a barrier: at some points footbridges and (rather unpleasant) foot tunnels provide pedestrian access.

The Festival Theatre (“Festspielhaus”) is located a little way north of the station; the Hermitage a few miles east of the city, just the other side of the autobahn. The main car park is at the southern end of the village of Sankt Johannis.

There are a few confusing things about Bayreuth. First of all, there are two “Old Palaces”, one in the city and one at the Hermitage; similarly, there are two “New Palaces”. It doesn’t help matters that the New Palace in the city looks older than the Old Palace in the city.

The buses are also nothing if not confusing. There are two systems: one operates in the evenings and on Sunday mornings, while the other operates at other times. If you’re looking at a timetable and it looks as if the bus you want isn’t running for the next few hours, you may need to look for a timetable for a bus with a different number. That said, the buses are pretty good.

Another thing to watch out for is that Bayreuth is notoriously expensive. And it gets very expensive indeed during the annual Bayreuth Festival, which is usually from 25th July to 28th August: if you’re looking for vaguely affordable accommodation, avoid at all costs the end of July and all of August. If you are a Wagner fan and money’s no object, be aware that ten-year waiting lists for tickets to the festival are not unusual.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Kulmbach: Additional notes

The first “Destination” video of 2017 is up on YouTube — and for this one, I was in Kulmbach. It certainly made a change: usually, small towns are full of timber-framed houses, but Kulmbach was rebuilt in the 16th century and so is more Renaissance. “A bit severe” is how my wife describes it, but I liked it.

A visit to the Plassenburg fortress is a must if you go to Kulmbach: I was there in the morning so that I wouldn’t have to shoot into the sun, but there is a fantastic view of the old town, and the fortress itself contains a few museums that I didn’t have time for but are probably very good.

If you’re planning to do what I did and go up the Rehturm watchtower, it’s really tricky to find. There are no signs in town pointing the way, and striking out in the general direction while looking for roads that have “Reh” in their names, while ultimately effective, is not the best way to do it.

Looking at a map, you might think you need to go due east, but in fact you need to go south and find a road called “Am Rehberg” which takes you to a nature trail, and this takes you right to the tower. The tower, by the way, is free to go in.

Central Kulmbach, showing the historic centre,
the Plassenburg fortress and the train and bus stations.

The historic centre of Kulmbach lies at the foot of the hill on which the Plassenburg is built, and is fairly compact. The train and bus stations are very close by, and there is also a bus that shuttles between the old town and the Plassenburg for those who can’t (or don’t want to) walk.

Although Kulmbach is quite a long way from major roads and railways, it’s not too difficult to get to. The nearest major railway hub is Nuremberg. It’s actually slightly quicker to take a train from there to Lichtenfels and change rather than a direct train via Bayreuth, although there’s not much in it. If you’re coming from Würzburg, it’s easier to take a train to Bamberg and get a train direct from there. There are also connections to Hof.

By road, Kulmbach is a few miles off the A70 autobahn: take exit 24 and follow the signs to Kulmbach.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why I’m on Patreon

So, it’s official: I have now launched my Patreon page, all the better for my most loyal fans to help keep me from starving. Or, depending your point of view, all the better for me to extract innocent people’s hard-earned cash to splash out on BMWs, private jets, diamond-encrusted bathtubs and so on.
This is what editing a video looks like.

In truth, as much as I would like to be able to make videos in my spare time “for the pure enjoyment of it” (I’ve been told by a few people I should), that’s actually not feasible. It’s a straight choice between giving up making YouTube videos, or trying to earn a living making YouTube videos. Given that my channel is currently on something of a roll, I’m going for the second option.

To better illustrate the amount of work that goes into a video, here are the steps I go through to make a simple vlog:
  1. Think of a subject. This is harder than it sounds: it has to be something people will want to know more about, and it should ideally have fairly wide appeal. It also has to be something that I can actually say something about: the challenges facing working mothers, for example, isn’t a subject that should really be tackled by a childless man.
  2. Research it. Proper research takes time, and I don’t at the moment have enough time to research properly. I can’t just regurgitate whatever I read on a Wikipedia page: you might as well just read the Wikipedia page instead of watching my video.
  3. Write a script. Yes, I script my vlogs. That way, I can minimize the risk of saying something stupid; I also don’t senselessly repeat myself, accidentally leave stuff out, or get sidetracked by some irrelevancy. I can revise and improve the script before I start filming. I have discovered that one page of A4 (the standard paper size in Europe) is about four minutes’ worth of vlogging, which is why my vlogs these days tend to be around the 3-to-5-minute mark, which seems to be about the right length. It’s at this stage I find out whether my chosen subject is going to work: sometimes it doesn’t, so I have to start again.
  4. Divide the script into paragraphs and assign a zoom level to each of them: wide, mid or close-up. The idea is that instead of learning the entire script and having to do it one take (well-nigh impossible for a four-minute speech peppered with statistics), I record it in small chunks, then edit everything together. Doing this at different levels of zoom avoids having jump cuts, which can give the impression they’re covering up for mistakes or the result of sloppy editing.
  5. Set up the camera and lighting. Usually, this is pretty simple, because I have the lights and tripod right where I want them.
  6. Start recording. I don’t record the entire thing in chronological order: I first record all the parts marked as “wide”, then zoom in and reposition the camer to record all the “mid” parts, then zoom in and reposition for “close”. I make sure I have at least two (ideally three) usable versions of each paragraph so I can choose the best take.
  7. Transfer the data from the camera to the PC. That part’s as simple as it sounds.
  8. Edit. This is where I slice the footage up, discard the bits I don’t want, and reassemble what remains into the correct order. It doesn’t take long, but requires precision. Once I’m happy with the rough edit, I can move onto the next stage.
  9. Post production. On-screen captions, graphics and music are added at this point, as well as the closing credits. If I need to create some graphics myself (things like graphs, for example), I have to spend time doing that as well.
  10. Render. This is the process of actually creating the video file to upload to YouTube. For a four-minute vlog in 1080p resolution, that can take something in the region of half an hour, during which time it’s a good idea to let the video editor hog as much CPU power as it wants. Time, basically, for coffee.
  11. Create a thumbnail. I usually take a frame from the video featuring me with a suitable expression on my face (if I can make it an amusing one, that’s a bonus), create a background for it, and then just add the logo to it.
  12. Start the upload. This also means entering all the metadata: title, description, certain settings and so on. I upload as private so that I can get everything just right before publishing. The bandwidth in my tiny bit of rural Germany is really not made for this, so it can take about an hour. In the meantime, I can...
  13. ...write the English-language closed captions. Although YouTube does have a speech recognition system, the technology is still very primitive. It’s actually quicker for me to write my own closed captions from scratch, rather than download YouTube’s automated captions and then try to correct them. And why captions? My videos are watched by many non-native speakers of English who find captions help them understand what is being said, and I want my videos to be accessible to the hearing-impaired. Also — and this is something every YouTube creator should know — closed captions are indexed by YouTube’s search engine, making videos easier to find.
  14. Upload and test the captions. This is to make sure I have no errors in the captions file, and the timings are correct.
  15. Add any cards I need, and the end screen. These are the things that pop up during, or at the end of, the video, begging you to click on them to take you to another video or my website.
  16. Translate the captions into German and upload. Again, although machine translations are available, they generally do a terrible job. There may be a glorious future when machines can do this stuff as well as a professional human, but instantly; but that future is a long way off.
  17. Publish the video, and tweet about it.
So, there you are: my handy 17-point guide to making a quick vlog. This is why it takes me the best part of a day. In theory, I could make a vlog in just a couple of hours from start to finish, but it wouldn’t be anything like as good. And I think you’d notice the difference.

I need to be able to support myself and make a meaningful contribution to our household budget; and this means that if I’m going to continue making videos to the standards I’m currently making them, I have to be making money with them. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m now on Patreon.