Comfort zone crusher: Col du Tourmalet

Prologue

How to deal with a broken pedal in high altitude mountains

I am on around 1300 meters altitude and the snow is glittering in the early afternoon sun.

It is the beginning of December, but I am wearing a simple cotton T-shirt while standing at the roadside ditch, my hands on the handlebar of my MTB.

As I was climbing up this mountain half an hour ago, a jeep was passing me by, and the French driver asked me through the lowered window if I am okay, with a curious (or rather concerned) expression in his face.

“Oui, oui, je vais bien!”

How I look right now is one of my lesser concerns, and cold sweat is still standing on my forehead.

It is quite lonely here. There are some housings and one can see cars driving down the slope occasionally, but I’ve seen no inhabitants around for a long time.

A technical problem interrupted my climb all of a sudden. My pedal broke apart five minutes ago, and I have of course nothing in my backpack to repair, let alone replace it.

I am about 800 meters altitude difference away from my ultimate goal, the Col du Tourmalet, and in about thirty kilometers distance from my hotel and any bike workshop.

As one might probably imagine, it is not a very comfortable experience standing somewhere in the French Pyrenees with an out of service MTB during a cold winter day.

I should come up with some sort of a plan before the cold gets hold of me here in my inappropriate outfit.

The Pyrenees

At the end of 2016 I visited the Pyrenees (French: Pyrénées) for the first time with a bike in my luggage, but without any precise idea what to expect.

The Pyrenees represent the geographical border between France and the Iberian Peninsula, and they are a popular destination for outdoor-enthusiasts who love skiing, hiking or biking.

The summits in this mountain range are well over 3000 meters, with the Pico de Aneto as its highest elevation (3400 meters AMSL), and the Vignemale as the highest peak in the French part (3300 meters AMSL).

Andorra
Andorra la Vella, Pyrenees in the background

Besides Spain and France one will find the the microstate of Andorra with its capital Andorra la Vella (which is a popular skiing-destination as well).

Pyrenees
The Pyrenees in December

The Pyrenees are also the setting for a couple of stages of the Tour de France in July.

And the most notable stage is definitely the Col du Tourmalet (2115 meters AMSL, col stands for mountain pass) the highest mountain pass that can be passed by vehicles in the French part of the Pyrenees.

Col du Tourmalet

As I was overlooking the valley from my exposed spot, I concluded that it is not such a big deal to get back to Luz-Saint-Sauveur respectively to my hotel in Argeles-Gazost (Agos-Vidalos). It was almost completely the hill down, so basically I didn’t need a driving gear at all. Just let gravity do the work.

But this meant that I had to abandon my tour right now, there was no other option beside that. It was Friday evening, and I had to find a bike workshop as quickly as possible.

So I fastened the loose pedal with a cable tie for the purpose of having some support for my foot, and commenced to roll back towards the valley. As I arrived at the tourist-office in Argeles-Gazost two hours later I found it open – what luck outside the season!

The girl who was working there was a priceless help. I got the address of an open bike workshop in Lourdes, and so I was able to buy a replacement part and conceive a further attempt the next days, provided that the weather conditions are good enough.

When you climb the Col du Tourmalet you have to conquer 1252 meters altitude difference stretched over seventeen kilometers.

The grade on the route is between seven percent and ten percent for the most part, which is quite intimidating when you are an amateur like me.

Luz Ardiden
Preparation near Luz-Saint-Sauveur (Luz Ardiden)

So the days before I tackled the Col du Tourmalet for a second time I scheduled some light training sessions, intended both as preparation as well as recreation.

Just beautiful is running on the voie verte, a bike trail of around eighteen kilometers length from Lourdes through Argeles-Gazost to Pierrefitte-Nestalas.

Cycling from Luz-Saint-Sauveur onto the Luz Ardiden is also a quite adequate preparation since the steepness is very similar to the Col du Tourmalet, but the length of the trail is only about nine kilometers.

As the day of my second try for the peak ultimately arrived, I was anxious. Would it work this time?

Hunt for the summit

My first stage was once more from Argeles-Gazost (my hotel was on around 450 meters AMSL) to Luz-Saint-Sauveur (on about 700 meters AMSL), where the endless seventeen kilometers up-hill were waiting for me.

Yet there would be a further obstacle: I would have to hike the final two kilometers through a thick layer of snow since the mountain pass was actually closed for all vehicles due to the wintry weather conditions (winter closure). Beside from that, weather was perfect.

Col du Tourmalet
On my climb to the Col du Tourmalet after I passed Barèges – note the white sign on the left. It reads “Sommet à 7 km”

Nevertheless I calculated with about three hours for the ascend which would have been quite sufficient in terms of using the daylight most efficiently.

I plugged in my earphones and started my journey at the first sign – every kilometer of the trail has a white rectangular road sign that provides you with information about the current altitude, the average grade (moyenne de la pente), and the distance to the summit.

The first six or seven kilometers I completed quicker than a few days ago without any major difficulties.

After I passed Barèges, the last small town on the western ramp on one’s way to the Col du Tourmalet (and in whose proximity my pedal fell apart on my first attempt to reach the summit – no part of my bike would refuse its service this time), it was getting tremendously exhausting with every 100 meters passed.

The cold was not the problem since I was cycling up-hill. Quite the opposite, I was sweating heavily.

But my body showed more and more signs of fatigue. It was getting unbearable as I passed the ten kilometers sign, and I slowed down decisively. What confronted me with the serious problem that I was getting measurably off-schedule.

I noticed also more and more snow (more snow that I wanted to see), but no people. I was a solitary figure around here.

In about three kilometers distance from the sommet, a heavy and deep cover of snow was hiding the streets. It was shortly after three o’clock, and there was no much time left before sunset.

Cycling was no longer possible at this point. I dismounted my bike and carried the eleven kilograms on my back the next one and a half kilometers, until I reached what seemed the last serpentine. It was half past four.

Col du Tourmalet
Near Col du Tourmalet, photo taken with a self-timer camera at around 16:30h

Epilogue

How to not complete a bike tour

As I sunk deeper and deeper in the snow while simultaneously observing the sun approaching the horizon and trying to protect my face against the icy wind, I got an uneasy feeling in my guts.

It seemed that I was pretty naïve in my assumption I could smoothly hike the last one or two kilometers.

Who cares if I hike the last kilometer anyway, there is just one further geographical point, isn’t it?

I tossed my bike and my backpack in the snow and prepared for one last photo with my self-timer camera. Then I walked the two kilometers back, climbed on my MTB and darted back towards the valley.

Later in the hotel I pondered over the question if I had been too poorly prepared and too negligent, or if I made a successful tour and quitting was wise at this point. Probably both.

But one thing is for sure. I have a pretty good reason to come back to this magnificent mountain scenery. And I hope to see you during one of the coming summer seasons.

Featured Image: Luz-Saint-Sauveur

Jeanne d’Arc: Faith and successful military leadership

FAITH is the basis of all “miracles” and mysteries that cannot be analyzed by the rules of science

– “Think and grow rich”, chapter 3

Introduction

It is the 29 April 1429.

English troops have been besieging Orléans, a city situated on the powerful Loire river in north-central France, for over six months.

The French royal army faces once more its main adversary in a gruesome and complicated conflict which is smoldering for several decades now (this long period of consecutive military campaigns will later be denominated as Hundred Years’ War1 by historians) and on the whole it appears that the English crown wins a further important battle of this war.

1 the war lasted more precisely 116 years, from 1337 – 1453

Despite the desolate military situation for France (or what is left of it at that point – its northern territories had been occupied, and the Duchy of Burgundy is an ally of England), a seventeen year old peasant girl from a small village in Lorraine is sailing downstream the Loire river with a small fleet, about to set her foot into the starving city.

Accompanied by her most loyal companions, she wants to join the fierce fight immediately.

And she does. Within a week, the tide has turned.

The royal army of the dauphin Charles (the heir apparent) smashes the siege troops and claims a major and entirely unexpected victory. It will be the turning point of this war.

Contemporaries as well as the posterity will ponder over the question: how was it possible?

Visiting North France

France is one of my favorite destinations for educational leave and recreation.

I visited Germany’s western neighbor probably more than a dozen times the recent years, especially the south, but the northern and central regions of France as well.

Maison de la Voûte near Verdun
Maison de la Voûte near Verdun – one of the many sights on my trip from Lorraine to Orléans
Inside Cathedral Sainte Croix
Orléans – Inside Cathédrale Sainte-Croix (right a model of the cathedral consisting of chocolate)

One of these journeys was a trip from Lorraine in eastern France to the Loire valley area.

The city of Orléans with its 110.000 inhabitants is located around one hundred kilometers south-west of Paris, with the river Loire, which is crossed by five prominent bridges, cutting the city in a northern and a southern part.

Château de Sully-sur-Loire
Château de Sully-sur-Loire, some fifty kilometers upstream of Orléans – Jeanne d’Arc had a short stay in this castle in 1429

Orléans’s popularity is explained by its important role in the Hundred Years’ War, where the historic likeness of Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) – today worshiped as a national heroine and Sainte Jeanne d’Arc (Saint Joan of Arc) by the Catholic Church – led the French to the cardinal victory.

She will be the main focus of this article.

For readers who are rather interested in sightseeing: during a stay in Orléans I can highly recommend visiting the Cathédrale Sainte-Croix (Orléans Cathedral), the Musée des Beaux-Arts (museum of the fine arts) and the Maison de Jeanne d’Arc (house of Joan of Arc).

Jeanne d’Arc

Childhood

Jeanne d’Arc was born around the year 1412 into a family of comparatively wealthy craftsmen.

Her birthplace was the small village Domrémy2 in Lorraine, about fifty kilometers south-west of Nancy.

2 to honor Jeanne, the town bears the name Domrémy-la-Pucelle today – la pucelle is the French phrase for “virgin” or “maid”

Maison natale de Jeanne d'Arc
Maison natale de Jeanne d’Arc

She had four siblings, with two of her three brothers belonging to her entourage during the campaigns in 1429 and 1430 (Pierre and Jean d’Arc).

Her education consisted solely of subjects relating to running a farming business, that is: feeding livestock, sowing and harvesting, spinning, and guarding sheep.

Religious Revelations

Jeanne was thirteen years old as she reported her first revelations – it was the same time as Burgundian troops (England’s allies in this devastating war that had been waged for ninety years at this point) raided villages in Lorraine, which bordered immediately on the enemy territory and was therefore an easy target.

The revelations ordered her not to accept her predetermined role as a peasant woman and to refuse marriage.

She was also ordered to keep her maidenhood (virginity) for the rest of her life.

Monument in Domrémy-la-Pucelle
Monument in Domrémy-la-Pucelle (Marius Jean Antonin Mercié)

During her whole adolescence she reported about celestial messages and visions (especially from Saint Catherine of Alexandria), giving her the divine mission to lift the siege of Orléans, to expel the English from French territory and to make the dauphin Charles king of France.

Military career

At the beginning of 1429 Jeanne headed to Vaucouleurs twenty kilometers northwards of Domremy, where capitaine Robert de Baudricourt, a supporter of the dauphin, was residing.

Monument in Orléans (Statue équestre de Jeanne d'Arc)
Monument in Orléans (Statue équestre de Jeanne d’Arc)

She told him about her holy mission, and her demeanor was of such confidence and full of belief that she got send to Charles at Chinon on 12 February 1429, where the firmness of her religious beliefs and her maidenhood was examined.

Well-equipped and obsessed about her assignment she made off to Orléans with her entourage at the end of April, where she gained massive momentum among the demoralized Frenchmen and eventually generated the force to lift the siege on May 8.

Following this outstanding military achievement, the dauphin was crowned on July 17 in the cathedral of Reims, as king Charles VII of France.

It was the peak of Jeanne’s military career. And the story could have ended here.

But the peasant girl wanted more, and marched northwards, towards Paris. She underestimated the strength of the enemy, lost gradually the faith of the soldiers (and the king) in her, but never the belief in herself.

The following excerpt from a French film (1994) depicts the last stages of Jeanne’s military career before she got captured by Burgundian soldiers in May 1430 on her unsuccessful last campaigns.

She was burnt at stake with nineteen for supposed witchcraft but had made her indelible entry in the history books at least.

My own interpretation

There is nothing more intoxicating than victory, and nothing more dangerous

– Robert Greene

Jeanne d’Arc may serve as proof that one needs no formal education or experience when one has strong beliefs in one’s capabilities and coincidence and circumstance are in one’s favor.

There is no doubt Jeanne d’Arc had a charismatic personality that spellbound the soldiers (the majority of them twice her age) in her entourage.

Without the desolate military situation for Charles, a devastating war for about ninety years, the deep-rooted religious beliefs in the middle ages and a popular prophecy that had announced the arrival of a holy maid there would have been no peasant girl with the chance to get a military command.

The dauphin was open to almost every suggestion to resolve the invidious military situation, however preposterous it may appear in the first place. And here she was, the perfect means of psychological warfare against the English troops.

But Jeanne’s reckless creed about the inevitable victory sadly turned out to be fatal – she was burnt at stake in Rouen at age nineteen, after been captured, sold (for a large sum), and condemned to death by a religious court3.

3 a retrial thirty years later proved the injustice of the verdict however, and she was eventually canonized in the 20th century by Pope Benedict XV

For me, Jeanne d’Arc is nonetheless an inspiration.

Regardless of your family background or your formal education, you can achieve stunning successes with a charismatic personality and bold action when you are at the right time at the right place.

But this story is also a cautionary tale. Bold acting must also be guided by reason and pragmatism, careful planning and – if you think in bigger terms – a large-scale strategy.

Something you cannot necessarily expect from an eighteen year old girl who just accomplished one of the greatest military feats in recorded history.

Sources and further reading

Domremy-la-Pucelle: Histoire et patrimoine, ISBN: 978-2-86088-087-9

Wikipedia – Siege of Orléans

Featured image: River Meuse in Domrémy-la-Pucelle, the birthplace of Jeanne d’Arc

Visiting Poland

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Cities and places
  3. Genealogy
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

My mother’s parents are from small towns near Wrocław, a city in Lower Silesia which belongs to Poland since 1945.

My grandparents met in the mid-1930s as my grandfather was working as a butcher in and around Breslau1 (which was the German name of Wrocław) and my grandmother was occupied in her father’s business (Konditorei) in Breslau. They quickly fell in love and married at the end of 1939 only a few weeks after the 2nd World had broken out.

1 German names of places, sights, cities etc. will be rendered in italics

The ancestors of my grandparents had been living in the region of Lower Silesia (Niederschlesien) for presumably over five hundred years, and they were to great extent descendants of German settlers from the Rhine area (“Ostsiedlung“).

But in my family tree there exist further ancestry lineages, namely Ukrainian and Polish, as well.

I learned that from genealogical DNA tests and from historical records like so-called “aryan certificates” (“Ariernachweis“), which were mandatory documents in the German Reich as my grandparents were young adults.

On that account, I will provide you a very personal blog-post about that country I have more emotional connection than to any other country I have visited so far.

It is both a short travel-experience illustration about Poland as well as a depiction of my family roots in a region which bears the name Województwo dolnośląskie today.

2. Cities and places

I visited Poland in April 2000 for the first time, with close family members and my grandmother (who unfortunately passed away in 2005).

We were solely in Wrocław and in some of the small towns around, where my grandmother recollected memories of her childhood (see also paragraph 3 – Genealogy).

Except for Łódź and Gdańsk (the latter I plan to visit during this Christmas), I have visited all major cities in Poland the recent years.

In the following, I want to provide you some background information about Kraków, Warszawa, Poznań and Szczecin.

Unfortunately, I cannot give you any up-to-date footage about Breslau however. There will be further articles about Poland on this website in the near future.

Kraków (Krakau)

Most people would pick Kraków (750.000 inhabitants) in the south of Poland (Województwo małopolskie) if they had to choose one destination for a tourist visit.

The main reasons are that Krakau is one of the oldest cities in Poland and escaped structural damages during the 2nd World War (Kraków escaped war-destruction for 800 years), though a great percentage of the inhabitants of Kraków (above all the Jewish inhabitants) did not survive the German terror regime.

I visited Kraków twice, not least because of the convenient direct flight connection from Nürnberg to Krakau (duration 90 minutes).

Kraków, Wawel
Kraków (Krakau), Wawel Cathedral

The Wawel-complex on the Wawel-hill is an absolute must-see. It comprises essentially the Wawel Cathedral , where the Polish kings had been crowned until 1795, and a castle with several attached buildings.

Only a few hundred meters away from the Wawel one will find the Rynek Główny (Hauptmarkt), the vast main square (two-hundred meters wide and two-hundred meters long), with dozens of historical buildings, plenty of shops, boutiques and restaurants and hence usually crowded with tourists.

Kraków, city center
Rynek Główny, horse-drawn coaches for tourists in the foreground, Saint Mary’s Basilica left
Nowa Huta
Nowa Huta, in the background the typical panel buildings from the communist era

What you also shouldn’t miss is the historical district Kazimierz and the district Nowa Huta (“New Steel Mill”) in the far east of Kraków, the latter one testimony of the communist era and the planned economy during that time.

Further notable sights – among many others – are the Fabryka Schindlera (Schindler Factory), the Wieża ratuszowa (Town Hall Tower) and the Barbican (fortification).

Warszawa (Warschau)

Among all cities in Poland I’ve visited so far, I spent the most time in the capital Warsaw.

Warsaw has probably the most tragic history of all cities in Poland.

For the German aggression during the 2nd World War, the capital was the embodiment of the (what they considered) inferior Polish culture. Already heavily devastated during the invasion of Poland (Polenfeldzug), the city was completely razed to the ground after the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

Rebuild measures were carried out soon after the war, with many architectural elements of the then forced communist system in Poland and with the Palace of Culture and Science as the most prominent example.

Warszawa
Warszawa (Warsaw, Warschau), Pałac Kultury i Nauki right in the picture

The 21st century Warsaw is for the most part what one would expect from a prospering capital in Eastern Europe with roughly two million inhabitants.

A noisy, bustling, and exciting place that has a low unemployment rate, an amazing nightlife, and an abundance of cultural offers.

Warsaw
Mały Powstaniec near the Old Town
Warsaw Uprising Museum
Warsaw Uprising Museum (Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego)

Parade on the Piłsudski Square, December 2018:

Among the many sights one should not miss are the Zamek Królewski w Warszawie (Royal Castle), the Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego (Warsaw Uprising Museum), Stadion Narodowy (National Stadium) and the Piłsudski Square (see video).

Warszawa, Old Town
Old Town, Kolumna Zygmunta III Wazy (center) and Zamek Królewski w Warszawie (right)
Nightclub in Śródmieście
Nightclub in Śródmieście

Praga is situated on the eastern bank of the river Wisła (Weichsel).

This district was not devastated by the Germans after the Warsaw Uprising in autumn 1944, because the Red Army had already taken the eastern areas of the city at that point.

Praga
Praga, eastern district of Warsaw (Wywórnia Wódek Koneser)

So unlike the western districts, it is possible to see older building structures when one makes a stroll through these quarters.

Poznań (Posen)

The city of Poznań changed hands many times in the course of the centuries, but belongs to Poland since 1920 (except a brief period during the 2nd World War).

Poznań, Warta
Poznań (Posen), river Warta

What impressed me most in this city with half a million inhabitants was the Ratusz w Poznaniu (Poznań Town Hall) on the Old Market Square, the Poznań Cathedral and the Brama Poznania, a museum near the cathedral.

View onto Posen, Poznań Cathedral on the left

Szczecin (Stettin)

Szczecin with its about 400.000 inhabitants is situated only a few kilometers away from the German border.

Like other cities in the Province of Pomerania, Stettin belonged to Germany until 1945.

If you are short of time as I had been during my weekend in 2016 I would recommend visiting at least the Wały Chrobrego (Hakenterrasse) at the southern bank of the Odra (Oder) and the Plac Brama Portowa (Berliner Tor) near the Centrum.

Szczecin
Szczecin (Stettin), fountain as one eye-catching element of the Wały Chrobrego

3. Genealogy

As my mother’s parents planned to marry in 1939, Nazi-Germany demanded proof for “aryan” descendance.

I am in possession of “Ahnenpass“-copies of my grandparents, official and certified documents which served as so-called “aryan certificates” during that time.

Which notable facts regarding my family history do exist?

Almost all my mother’s forbears were born in small towns in Lower Silesia (Niederschlesien). My grandmother was born in 1919 in Kunersdorf (which bears today the name Długołęka), my grandfather in 1912 in Pohlsdorf (Pawlikowice).

Some Polish surnames are decipherable in the ancestor passes (Nowak or Brutscheck for example), but most were common German surnames like König, Wagner, or Schuster.

Warschau was the birthplace of the grandfather of my grandmother, but here my family history is somehow obscure and not exactly traceable.

Family photo around 1918
Family photo around 1918 (my grandfather standing in the right center of the picture)

For the most part, my forebears were simple people from the countryside in Lower Silesia, who made their living as butchers, bakers or gardeners.

4. Conclusion

My mother was not born in Lower Silesia, but in Weiden/Oberpfalz in Bavaria seven years after the war, where my grandparents found a new home after they were expelled by the Red Army in 1945.

Other family members fled to North Germany or to that part of Germany, which became later the “German Democratic Republic” (GDR).

For me personally, visiting Poland is always highly interesting and enlightening.

An illustration of the most important city is missing in this blog-article however.

But Breslau will be the subject-matter of one of my future blog-articles.

Featured image: Twierdza Modlin

Back in Slovakia (part 3): High Tatras, Bratislava, Poprad

Slovakia, October 2019

With a break of about one month, I returned to Slovakia for hiking in the High Tatras (Vysoké Tatry) and for visiting my friends in Bratislava.

Here you can find part 2.

My hiking-journey started in in Poprad in Central Slovakia, as it did in August.

High Tatras

Focus was this time on the western parts of the High Tatras.

Kriváň , October 1

Kriváň (2494 meters AMSL), that got its name from its peculiar shape1, is the most famous mountain and a national symbol in Slovakia.

1 according to most sources

This mountain has such big popularity that it is even depicted on the Slovak Euro cent coins.

So any hiking adventure wouldn’t have been complete if I had had omitted this peak.

Štrbské pleso
Štrbské pleso, south bank

The weather was excellent on this first day of October.

Start (and destination) was the beautiful Štrbské Pleso mountain lake, which is situated in a small town that bears the same name (1350 meters AMSL). Here I followed the red marks on the first sector of the trail (red is the color for long distance trails).

Ascending the steep mountain slopes was exhausting, but technically not overly difficult.

Near Štrbské pleso
Near Štrbské pleso, view southwards

After the climb to the peak one will be rewarded with a magnificent view to Poland in the north and onto the Low Tatras in the south.

For climbing down there had been the option to take the green marked path to Tri Studničky. I walked the blue marked path back to Štrbské Pleso instead (green and blue marked trails connect red marked trails with further noteworthy spots).

Kriváň (summit)
Kriváň (summit), Slovak double cross
Heading back to the hotel
Near Štrbské pleso, heading back to the hotel

Predné Solisko, October 2

Climbing this mountain was not very difficult and on the whole the tour took only about four hours.

Start and destination was again the train station in Štrbské pleso.

Furkotská dolina
Furkotská dolina, near Chata pod Soliskom

On my climb I had a rest at the Chata pod Soliskom on 1840 meters AMSL. From there it is only one hour to the peak.

Rysy, October 3

I started once more at the Štrbské pleso mountain lake on this third day, with the plan to conquer the popular Rysy.

The peaks of this mountain (the highest of three is 2503 meters AMSL) are located exactly on the border between Poland and Slovakia.

Rysy is the highest mountain in the High Tatras that is accessible for normal visitors without a certified mountain guide2, so there is a marked trail available.

2 at the same time Rysy is the highest mountain in Poland; climbing up from the Polish side is more difficult however – please check the weather before you plan such a trip

Hiking trail to Rysy
Hiking trail to Rysy, mountain lake (Žabie plesá)

Some sections of the trail are via ferrate, but even with a thin snow layer there exist no real technical difficulties.

Hiking trail to Rysy
Hiking trail to Rysy, mountain lake (Žabie plesá)

The tour took me almost the entire day, but the reward was again a magnificent view from the summit and new-made friends in the Chata pod Rysmi (2250 meters AMSL).

This refuge is the highest-located in Slovakia and quite small, but very inviting and comfortable.

Chata pod Rysmi
Chata pod Rysmi
Váha, near the Rysy peaks
Near the Váha mountain saddle

Occasionally you can see porters carrying supplies to the refuge, since there is no other way to feed the refuge.

Rysy, on the peak
Rysy, the author on the peak

Skalnaté pleso, October 4

The last day I made a short tour of about four hours from Starý Smokovec to the Skalnaté pleso mountain lake, and back to Tatranská Lomnica.

My friend the fox at Rainerova chata
My friend the fox at Rainerova chata

On the way one can have a rest at the Rainerova chata, the oldest refuge in the High Tatras (built in 1863). You will encounter many hikers and sometimes wild animals there in all likelihood.

Conclusion

The end of September and the beginning of October is probably the best time for hiking.

Sudden thunderstorms are less likely compared to the summer months. One doesn’t have to deal with sweltering heat. Accommodations are usually cheaper in autumn than in summer or winter (high season for skiing).

Disadvantages are fewer hours of sunlight and occasional snowfall.

The hiking season comes slowly but steadily to an end however. I hope you enjoyed this small article about Slovakia and the High Tatras, and I look forward to the next hiking experiences in the coming year.

Featured image: Štrbské pleso

Engineering series 9: Astronomical clocks in Prague and Münster

Prague, 14/09/2019

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Astrolabium
  3. Astronomical clock in Münster
  4. Astronomical clock in Prague
  5. Summary

Introduction

For plenty of reasons, Prague is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, and if you had the pleasure to spend a few days in the capital of the Czech Republic (aka Czechia) for a sightseeing tour you would probably visit the Old Town Square in the city center with its scores of splendid and ancient buildings.

At the southwestern corner of the square one particularly noteworthy complex of houses is located: the Old Town Hall with its famous astronomical clock.

Astronomical clocks (big and prominent clocks are comparatively rare and posed often as objet de prestige) incite one’s interest not merely because of their medieval or contemporary artistic expression, however.

First and foremost, they bear witness to the technical and scientific bloom during the late middle ages, the Renaissance and the dawn of the modern era.

The function of astronomical clocks (beside announcing the time) is to depict the course and the position of the sun and the moon.

And, in rarer cases, to display the course of the planets in the solar system, the movement of the fixed star sky, as well as further astronomical information dependent to the geographic location of the clock1.

1 this information did not serve purely as an ornament but was sometimes used for religious or educational purposes

In the following, I want to give some background information about these engineering masterpieces, and afterwards illustrate the astronomical clocks in Münster/Germany and Prague/Czechia.

Astrolabium

Astrolab(ium) was the name of medieval devices of different sizes which were developed and utilized for astronomical measurements.

Both the clock in Münster and the clock in Prague are Astrolabium clocks.

Every Astrolab consists in principle of four parts:

A base area (mater), the planisphere, a wheel (rete) and an eyepiece.

The planisphere represents the most important circles of the celestial sphere for a certain point of observation.

For the case of a fixed position of the astronomical clock, the planisphere is not an interchangeable device (like in mobile clocks) but is painted straightly on the mater (where also geographical information can be found).

The rete (Latin for net) is mounted on the mater (Latin for mother) and the planisphere, but unlike these parts the rete is propelled by the clockwork. That means more precisely it rotates according to the movements of the fixed star sky2.

2 “movement” of a “fixed star” is by no means a contradiction; due to the rotation of the earth and the orbital movement of the earth around the sun these stars are actually not stationary for an observer; but the positions of the stars to each other (their relative movement) is more or less fixed

The eyepiece is not a mandatory device and is not required for the astronomical clocks in Prague or Münster. The clockwork itself carries out the movements of the celestial bodies, therefore no manual intervention is necessary in this case.

Astronomical clock in Münster

Heavily destroyed in the 2nd World War and (with a few exceptions) completely rebuilt in its original appearance during the 1950s, the city of Münster in North Rhine-Westphalia contains beside many other sights an imposing astronomical clock in the south-eastern parts of the St.-Paulus-Dom (the main cathedral).

I worked near Münster in 2013 and had the opportunity to visit the cathedral and to take a look at the clock (unfortunately I didn’t take photos).

History of the astronomical clock

The astronomical clock in the St.-Paulus-Dom was installed in 1540 as a replacement for a parent clock which was destroyed during the Münster rebellion around 1535 (Täuferreich von Münster)3.

3 the cathedral had also been partially destroyed during the 2nd World War. The astronomical clock remained unscathed however

The ingenious mechanisms and the astronomical components were created by means of contemporary knowledge about mathematics, geography, astronomy, and blacksmith artistry.

That implicates, for example, that only the five then known planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn have hands on the clock-face.

The clock-mechanism was repeatedly modernized during the course of the centuries. This was due to growing scientific knowledge (the pendulum-isochronism discovered by Galileo Galilei, for instance) and the technological progress (like the development of improved escapements), but also due to wear-prone elements in the clockwork.

The last extensive reconstruction of the clockwork was in 1930 (see below).

Description of the clock

Astronomical clock in Muenster
Astronomical clock in Münster (source: www.paulusdom.de)

Excentric to the rotation axis of the rete you can see the zodiac (1) with its twelve signs as a component of the wheel.

The most eye-catching hand is the sun- or hour hand (2). It reaches from one edge of the clock face to the other edge, and carries on one side a small sun and on the other side a rainbow. The sun moves anticlockwise across the clock face (and needs 24 hours for one complete circulation), since it is representing the actual sun course in the sky.

Additionally, the sun (with the sun face always upright) is moving alongside the hand and illustrates the change of seasons over the course of the year with this motion. This small object’s movement is arranged in that fashion that it stands in the right zodiac sign according to the momentary observable position in the sky. During the course of one year, every zodiac sign will be passed through. Then it starts over again.

The moon hand (3) also represents the actual conditions in the sky: it rotates a little slower than the sun hand.

The planet hands (which differ in their length and carry a small golden star at their end) illustrate the in the 16th century  known planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Like the moon and the sun hand, they are rotating according to their real movements (except for Mercury, which is fixed to the sun hand) (4).

Mechanics of the clock

I will merely take a short glimpse at the mechanics of the clock4.

4 part of the reason is that I have only one small sketch from a book (see paragraph Sources) which is for obvious reasons not sufficient to acquire a proper understanding of the clockwork-mechanisms

The last extensive reconstruction of the clockwork of the astronomical clock took place in 1930.

The clockwork consists of numerous interacting cogs with (presumably) no cardinal changes in its basic design since its original creation. The (medieval as well as contemporary) designers put a lot of effort effort in calculating the couplings and the correct gear-ratios in particular since the precise movement of the planet hands is tricky.

An electronic motor powers the entire mechanism. These motors succeeded mechanical power sources (weights), used during the first centuries of the clock’s existence.

Every day at 12 o’clock, the clockwork activates a motor for the Glockenspiel (chimes) and for the Umgang der heiligen drei Könige (procession of the three kings), a small rotating platform on the top of the astronomical clock. It is no surprise that this magnificent exhibition of religious characters attracts a rush of visitors every day at noontime.

Astronomical clock in Prague

Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic with 1.3 million inhabitants, situated at the river Vltava (Moldau).

Fortunately almost unscathed during the 2nd World War, the city possesses an incredible amount of cultural monuments and sights which attracts countless numbers of tourists, especially in the summer months.

One of these sights is the Old Town Hall (Staroměstská radnice) on the Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), as mentioned at the beginning of this article.

History of the astronomical clock

The astronomical clock (Pražský orloj) mounted on the Old Town Hall exists since the early 15th century.

Like other prominent astronomical clocks, the clockwork and the exteriors are prone to wear and deterioration. The most extensive and expensive maintenance procedures had been carried out in the 18th and 19th century.

The clock was also heavily damaged during the end days of the 2nd World War. Fortunately, it was possible to repair the partially destroyed clock in the years after the war.

Description of the clock

Astronomical clock in Prague
Astronomical clock in Prague (14th September 2019, 11:45 CET); below the Kalendarium

In comparison with the clock in Münster, the Pražský orloj possesses solely a sun and a moon hand.

The sun hand with a golden hand attached at one end displays the local time (CET, not UTC+2), and, what had been more important for the designers of the clock, imitates the current position of the sun.

The zodiac also doesn’t look as ostentatious as the zodiac of the Münster clock, possibly because the clock is not an indoor object. Over the course of the year, the small sun on the sun hand will make her way through the zodiac (on 14th September her position is in Virgo constellation).

For more and detailed information regarding the clock, you can consult the Czech wikipedia page: Pražský orloj.

Astronomical clock in Prague
The clock at 17:45 CET – take notice of the sun hand: the hand will reach the area of the sunset (blue sector/red sector) soon (OCCASUS/CREPUSCULUM lines)

Summary

Writing this article was fun. As an engineering-savvy person I love to elaborate matters like this, and I hope you enjoyed reading.

So look forward to your next holiday in Prague or Münster, and don’t forget to marvel at the astronomical clock during your stay.

Sources and further reading

“Die astronomische Uhr im Dom zu Münster” – ISBN 978-3-402-05984-5

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