Listening to the stories that my home tells me: My dad’s book about Diesel’s car drive in Europe in 1950/51 / 2

In March/April/Mai 2020, the virus has stopped me travelling. Instead I listen to the stories that my home tells me.

In my former blog, I have started to talk about Eugen Diesel’s book “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch” or “Philosophy at the Steering Wheel: A European Travelling Book”).

The book belonged to my dad and I have read it during the lockdown. In my former blog, I have talked about who Eugen Diesel was and how he drove to Auch in southern France. I now continue with his excursions around Auch and about his tour back to Germany, intertwining that with my own memories.

 

While staying with their friend in Auch, Eugen and his wife go for excursions in the south of France

In Auch, Eugen and his wife stay with their friend, and from here they go for various excursions, one of them being Pau.

In the Renaissance castle, Jeanne d’Albret gave birth to the later king of France, Henri IV (born in 1553).

We know Henri IV for the words “Paris vaut bien un messe”. He may never have spoken them out, though he adopted the catholic religion to take over the crown of France, and, luckily, he was tolerant towards other religions.

Henri IV had children from various loves, and he played with his children. When this ambassadors entered, Henri asked him: “What do you do with your children?”. I believe that Henri IV is one of the most fascinating personalities of the history of France.

In Pau, Eugen visited the castle and he was invited to the local exhibition of furnitures, cars and engines at Pau; some people believed that it was him, Eugen, that had invented the Diesel engine, though it was his father.

In 2017, my friend and I were in Pau. We visited the castle and the medieval city center.

From Pau, Eugen drove up to the Pyrenees, to the Col de Pourtalet (1795m).

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 123)

The roads are narrow, but I do not think, he had to cross many cars coming down, as the border to Spain was closed. The customs officer let Eugen take a few steps in Spain. The sky was inviting blue south of the Pyrenees (Spain), while the north (France) was covered with clouds. Eugen had to return to the clouds, to France.

The Col de Pourtalet is one of the few passes in the Pyrenees that we have not yet used to get from France to Spain. I would love to take it, once the border to Spain opens up again and the situation looks safer after the current pandemic. This is the view of the Pyrenees in the direction of the Col de Pourtalet, taken at Pau.

In Lourdes, Eugen did not dare take photos, because it is a sacred place. But then he noticed an elderly lady take photos using an expensive camera, before laying down to pray. Lourdes is an important pilgrimage site that bases on Mary having appeared to a young girl in 1858. We were in Lourdes in 2017 and visited the grotto and the Rosary Basilica from 1899. When leaving Lourdes, the boot of our car would no longer open. A miracle? No, it turned out that the strip of one of our backpacks got caught in the lock, a problem that was solved all by itself later on a bumpy road. Perhaps not a miracle, but a reminder?

In Moissac, Eugen and his wife watched a lady ring the abbey bells manually. We saw the Abbey Saint Pierre in 2017 and in 2019. It has one of the most beautiful Romanic portals that I know; here, the 24 wise men playing music are looking up to Jesus,…

… and in the the cloister we found this beautiful Petrus.

After having visited Bordeaux, Mimizan and Toulouse, Eugen and his wife left Auch to return to Germany performing a round tour to the Mediterranean Sea.

 

Eugen and his wife leave Auch and return to Germany via the Mediterranean Coast

Eugen drives along the Pyrenees and tries to enter Andorra. But the customs regulations (two large books in a drawer) did not say, how to handle Germans, and hence the couple was not allowed to cross the border to Andorra. Eugen and his wife continued their way in France crossing the Cerdagne, a high plateau shared by France and Spain, with one Spanish exclave called Livía. Eugen could not find the reason for Livía being a Spanish exclave surrounded by French territory. Today, we have the internet, “Dr. Google” and Wikpedia. They tell me that in 1659, Louis XIV did not know that Livía was a town. In the Treaty of the Pyrenees, he had agreed with the Spanish crown that France would integrate all the villages of the northern half of the Cerdagne/Cerdanya in France. Livía, once the capital of the Cerdagne and registered as a town, consequently stayed with Spain. If this is the reason, it could be an indication that, even as a powerful king, you may have to study the local details, before finalizing an agreement.

We were in the Cerdagne in May 2018, and we got caught in heavy snowfall, while on the way to Seu d’Urgell in Catalonia on the Spanish side.

Here we are on the road up to the Cerdagne. On the plateau, 1200-1600m, we will find some 10 to 20cm of fresh snow on the roads. We are in the mountains – “real” mountains – and even in May, the weather can be rough in the Pyrenees. My friend took the photo, while I was driving carefully; my car is a four-wheel drive.

Not far from here is the beautifully shaped sacred mountain of the Catalans, the Canigou (seen from Prades, where the road up to the Cerdagne plateau starts).

After having followed the river Têt down to the Mediterrenean Sea, Eugen stayed overnight at Collioure with the harbour and the lighthouse (“phare” in French)…

… that André Derain painted.

In the beginning of the XXth century Fauve artists around Braques, Matisse and Picasso used to meet here. Eugen enjoyed the atmosphere of this charming village with the castle and with the colorful narrow streets, and so did we in 2016.

Along the beautiful coastline, Eugen and his wife drove south from Collioure to the border between France and Spain, at the Col de Belitres.

The border to Spain was closed for Eugen and his wife, also here. The customs officer talked to Eugen’s wife, while Eugen was allowed to enter Spain, just for a few steps, to admire the landscape and the huge train station squeezed between the mountains and the sea. The small settlement, Portbou, has such a large train station, because the engineers in France and Spain had selected different gauges for their railways, as Eugen, son of an engineer, explained.  The enormous train station was required for the passengers to change trains and for the goods to be reloaded.

In 2018, we were at Portbou, and felt the tragedy of this border: Here, the philosopher Walter Benjamin escaped to Spain in 1940 with a transit visa in his pocket that should allow him to emigrate to the US, but Spain had just cancelled all transit visas. Walter Benjamin was about to be sent back to France. He committed suicide and since 1994, this haunting monument has reminded us of Walter Benjamin’s tragedy.

I found a beautiful blog “The Passage to Portbou, Seeking Walter Benjamin in Catalunya”, by Martin Kalfatovic. He translated the German words facing the sea like this: “It is more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the anonymous. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (1940)”. Yes, in the 1940-ies, many of the “renowned” wrote history in a way that I prefer would not have happened and that I hope will never happen again – however, sometimes I am worried about our “renowned” now. Then and now, there existed and exist courageous “anonymous” that deserve to be honored.

After having seen Portbou standing at the closed border, Eugen’s next stop is Carcassone, the fortified town…

… with the charming small streets inside.

We were here in 2016. In a welcoming restaurant, we watched some Asian tourists eat the “Cassoulet”, which is a local hotpot made with sausages. It is heavy stuff for people that work in the fields all day. I was not sure, whether the Asian tourists liked the dish or just found it interesting. I had a delicious lamb dish with fine herbs.

Eugen and his wife stopped in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer at the Mediterranean Coast in the Camargue. Three Saint Maries landed here with her Egyptian servant Sarah. This is the church that commemorates the landing of the sacred boat.

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 155)

We visited the church in 2017, under dark blue sky.

The Romani  people venerate Saint Sarah, the Egyptian servant, in the crypt of this church.

In Arles, Eugen and his wife attended a bullfight. He described it in detail with the eyes of a German that did not really enjoy the elegance of the bullfighters and the killing of the bulls. The fight took place in the old Roman arena that we saw in 2017 (but without such action, fortunately, not something I would like to watch).

Still in the Camargue, Eugen and his wife stayed overnight in the small town called Les Baux which is the origin of “Bauxite” (a rock containing aluminium, needed to build cars).

The next day, they saw Nîmes with the arena and the Roman temple (called Maison Carrée). We stayed overnight at Nîmes in 2018 and admired the Roman arena with the statue of the bull fighter.

After having strolled through the city center with its narrow streets, we had a wonderful dinner (onglet steak) just across the arena, at Chez Hubert.

Not far from Nîmes is the Pont du Gard that, in Roman times, provided Nîmes (then called Nemasus) with water.

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 181)

In 2011, I was here with Ernst. This was our last sightseeing point on our last journey that we did together – we were on our way home from Morocco. I keep wonderful memories of all the travelling I have done with Ernst during our 18 years and now he travels with me in my heart.

In Avignon, Eugen and his wife visited the Palace of the Popes. With my friend, I was here in autumn 2016, when the cold mistral blew down from the mountains. This is the second courtyard of the Pope Palace built in the 14th century, when six popes resided here (and not in Rome).

Since kindergarten, I had known the Pont d’Avignon, as we had been taught the song “sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse… (on the bridge of Avignon, this is where you dance, this is where you dance).” Not yet understanding French, we created our own versions of the text; this was the version of the sister of my friend: “ooni Dasse, ooni Dasse”, which in Swiss German means “without cups, without cups”. The French word “danse” sounded like “Dasse” to her.

Now in my sixties, I saw this famous bridge for the first time, and I was so disappointed! Because it is not a bridge that crosses the river, as bridges ought to do, but it ends in the middle of the river Rhone.  In the attached museum, we learned that it was conceived as a toll point on the Rhone and not really as a bridge for people and carriages.

Eugen and his wife drove “up” the Rhone valley, with stops at Montélimar, the city of nougat, then at Vienne, another Roman city, and finally at Lyon and Bourg.

They crossed the border between France and Germany near Huningue (close to my home city Basel) using the ferry (the three countries bridge will be rebuilt 57 years later, in 2007). The French customs officer, Eugen remembers, was easy going, whereby the German customs officer was tense and eager to fulfill his duty according to the regulations. Eugen and his wife had left France with its somewhat light-footed atmosphere and are now back in “dutiful” Germany. From now on, he wrote about his tours in Germany and to Switzerland. In Switzerland, Eugen reflected about the fact that a German writer, Friedrich von Schiller, became – in a way – the national writer for Switzerland, as he wrote his play “Wilhelm Tell” about the Swiss legendary national hero of the 13th century.

 

Epilog: France… like Eugen I love the French atmosphere and I long for being there again, be it just across the border or be it travelling farther

While not being allowed to cross the border to France due to the pandemic until mid-June, I enjoyed to follow Eugen Diesel and his wife through France to places that I have been to as well. I like to be in France, in the rural towns, in the restaurants that serve soigné meals, soaking in the rich cultural heritage and enjoying the French atmosphere. I wish that France will recover well, having been hit seriously by the pandemic of spring 2020 and having been churned by turmoils recently. I look forward to returning to France.

Source: Eugen Diesel, “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch”, Reclam Verlag Stuttgart 1952 and my own photos from travelling to the same places.

 

 

 

Listening to the stories that my home tells me: My dad’s book about Diesel’s car drive in Europe in 1950/51 / 1

In March/April/Mai 2020, the virus has stopped me travelling. Instead I listen to the stories that my home tells me.

This small Kazak carpet is a souvenir of my dad. He bought it, when being in the Caucasus region as a meteorologist in the 1940’s.

I love this small carpet. It is a symbol for the good memories I have of my father that we called “Vati”. He died much too early, on Saturday, 14th of March 1970. This was my last school day, just 50 years before the Corona virus lockdown was announced in Switzerland in 2020. What a breath taking coincidence that I felt intensely.

In addition to the carpet, I have some books of my father, one of them being “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch” by Eugen Diesel (Reclam Verlag Stuttgart 1952; “Philosophy at the Steering Wheel: A European Travelling Book”).

I have kept this book for the signature of my dad. So far, the book has waited in my bookshelf.

Now, being confined at home, I took it out and read it. This was a fascinating experience for me.

  • At some of the places that Eugen Diesel talks about, I have been as well, but almost 70 years later.
  • Eugen Diesel reflected about what Europe – now resurrecting from the war – would be in 50 years. Some of it is interesting to read now, 70 years later.
  • Closed borders in Europe? In 1950, the borders, having been closed during the war, slowly opened up. Now, in June 2020 we expect the European borders to open, after having been closed for three months due to the pandemic.

Let us see who Eugen Diesel was, let us travel with him to places in France that I have been to later and hence have memories that I like to revive, while being at home.

 

Who was Eugen Diesel?

Eugen Diesel  (1889-1970) was the son of Rudolf Diesel who invented the Diesel engine in 1892. In the early 20th century, the Diesel engine replaced steam engines (such as for trains or ships), while passenger cars used gasoline only. With his father, Eugen travelled through Europe in 1905, in a red NAG car (p. 13, NAG = Nationale Auto Gesellschaft, 20-24 PS).

(Drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 13)

Instead of becoming an engineer, Eugen Diesel decided to become a writer. Eugen learnt French culture from his father Rudolf, who was bilingual French-German, as he had grown up in France until the age of twelve, when, in 1870/71, the war between France and Prussia/Germany forced the family to return to Germany.

 

Trains full of hoarders in 1947 – Eugen Diesel gets stuck in overloaded trains and decides to buy his own car

In 1947, Bayern had no apples and Württemberg had no potatoes… Hoarders from Bayern took the trains to Württemberg to buy apples and hoarders from Württemberg went by train to buy potatoes in Bayern, though hoarding was forbidden. The trains were full and the people carried large baskets that added to the mess. Eugen wanted to get from Stuttgart to Munich – and he got stuck in the overloaded trains.

Hoarding must be in the human genes: We have seen empty toilet paper shelves for weeks during the corona lockdown of spring 2020.

To travel more freely, Eugen acquired his own car in 1950. It was a Mercedes Diesel. Mercedes had just started to build passenger cars that run on Diesel.

(Drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 187)

Eugen had not driven a car four eleven years. Nevertheless, he left the factory at the steering wheel of his new Mercedes. He started to drive through churning and distressed Europe and enjoyed to be mobile again: “A city, 100km away, is now again becoming a neighbour”, he said (p.19). His book “Philosophy at the Steering Wheel” tells about driving 45’000km in Europe, above all in France, in 1950/51.

 

First excursions by car in Germany

With his new car, Eugen Diesel started to explore the area around Munich. Among his destinations was the Romanic St. James church in Urschalling with gothic frescoes (now on my agenda, when travelling to Munich again) or the Bosch Factory in Memmingen and the Daimler-Benz Factory in Sindelfingen (he had inherited the interest for engineering from his father). Then he went beyond Bayern to cities such as Augsburg or Stuttgart. He observed the ruins and how German cities strived to recover. In Mainz he attended the inauguration of the reconstructed bridge crossing the Rhine. President Heuss made a speech without mentioning the engineers, as Eugen, being the son of an engineer, noticed frowning. He visited friends again that he had been separated from for years. (I can understand the enjoyment – now, in June, I started to see more friends again, as the lockdown is opening up).

Inside Germany, Eugen encountered a new border. Signposts are pointing to Magdeburg or Halle, but these cities had become out of reach for him, as bars blocked the roads to the new Russian eastern zone of Germany and the bridges were closed. Eugen stood at the closed border for two hours and gazed on to the other side; he could not see anyone.

(Drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 49)

The walls built later will separate West and East Germany for 40 years, until 1989.

From March to June 2020, 70 years later, borders in Europe are closed again – for the pandemic. The Sundgau in France is out of reach for me now. I was sad, when seeing this bar on one of my bicycle rides.

Eugen Diesel observed that the traffic in the 1950-ies was growing rapidly. Also my dad was of the opinion that there was too much traffic then. He never sat at the steering wheel of a car again after having returned from the prison camps in France in 1949, though he had driven cars since the 1930-ies – his parents had an Adler. However, compared to the traffic today, this highway does not look very crowded to me.

(Pen drawing made by Willy Wildmann, p. 55)

Eugen reflected that on highways, one accident could cause serious traffic jams, which would ask for more and more roads to connect more and more factories and cope with the rising traffic. Today’s traffic density, the network of roads, the sprawling of cities as well as pollution and climate change exceed Eugen’s fears, I believe.

 

France opens up for Eugen Diesel and his wife – they drive to Auch near Toulouse to visit a friend of theirs

In 1938, Eugen Diesel had connected up with a French scientist and intended to visit him in France, but the war closed the borders. After the war, in 1950, Eugen decided to visit him with his wife, Anna Luise Gräfin von Waldersee. They planned a tour to Auch near Toulouse, where the former scientist now worked for the departmental government. Eugen went through much bureaucratic pain to be able to cross the border to France.

In September 1950, Eugen left Munich with his wife and drove to Altbreisach (still in Germany), where they saw the city in ruins. They crossed the river Rhine and immediately felt that they were in France: The atmosphere was different, somewhat more light-footed than in Germany. Yes, I admit that I also feel the different atmospheres between France and Germany, both bordering my home city Basel.

Eugen continued to Neuf-Brisach, Colmar, Belfort (with Bartholdi’s monumental lion) and Montbéliard (as Mömpelgard it had belonged to Württemberg from 1397-1793, he remembered). In Besançon they had their first lunch break in the restaurant Palais de la Bière (still exists today and looks enticing).

Burgundy was the next station. It was autumn and in Nuit-Saint-Georges north of Beaune, they saw many carts filled with Burgundy grapes.

Well, such carts are now in museums such as in the museum Clos Vougeot that I visited in November 2014.

Autumn in Burgundy can be very misty, as my photo from 2014 shows (taken near Clos Vougeot).

In Beaune, Eugen visited the Hôtel Dieu (Hospices de Beaune). At that time, it was still a hospital, as it had been for 500 years (since 1443). Except, the vaulted gothic room was no longer in use as a hospital in 1950. Eugen was impressed and so was I in 2014. Solemn atmosphere under the vaults…

… with the beds along the wall, covered with red blankets.

However in 2014, the Hôtel Dieu had stopped to be a hospital and had turned everything into a museum. In addition, the traditional wine auctions of November take place here.

Via Autun and Vichy, Eugen Diesel reached Clermont-Ferrand, the city of the Michelin tires (as the son of an engineer notes). I was here in autumn 2017 and Michelin still matters for Clermont-Ferrand. The Michelin tire men, called Bibendum, even decorate the breakfast room of our cosy hotel.

Eugen Diesel visited the old town of Clermont-Ferrand with the gothic cathedral (to the left). Then he drove up to the summit of the volcano Puy de Dome (in the background, 1465m).

I drove up to the top of the Puy de Dome in the 1980’s, but when returning in 2017, I found the road to the top closed. Instead, there is cockwheel train to get to the summit.

A few kilometers south of Clermont-Ferrand, Eugen Diesel and his wife stopped at Brioude and stayed overnight in the Hotel de La Poste. Eugen described, how clean and well renovated the hotel was. The couple enjoyed an excellent meal in the cosy restaurant on the first floor. One waiter served all guests – diligently and carefully. He had fair hair, his name was Erwin Voigt and he was from Pomeriana, formerly part of Germany. It was him that had renovated the Hotel de la Poste at that time; it was owned by an elderly couple.

In 2016, I was in the same hotel, with my friend. It was one of the best and cosiest hotels we have ever been at in France. We had an excellent dinner (in the restaurant on the first floor) and we slept across the street, where the hotel had built modern new rooms, even accessible by wheel chair.

Eugen Diesel did not talk about the beautiful Romanic Baslica Saint-Julien in Brioude… perhaps it had not been renovated then and not mentioned in his Baedecker.

Eugen and his wife continued to Le Puy-en-Velay and were impressed by the needles topped by the church Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe and by the Madonna statue.

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 99)

Perhaps the needles are a little inflated in the pen drawing. In 2016, we look back to Puy-en-Velay. The city has grown considerably since 1950.

We stayed in Le Puy-en-Velay for one night to visit the romanic Annunciation Cathedral built with the typical black volcanic stones that characterize the whole city center.

The small streets are inviting. This butcher’s window illustrates, what Eugen might have meant, when talking about the somewhat more light-footed atmosphere in France.

In Albi, Eugen and his wife admired the Cathedral Saint Cecilia with the red brick walls rising towards heaven. He thinks of the Albigenses or Cathars that were eradicated around 1200. We visited Albi in 2016 in the pouring rain…

… and like Eugen, we entered the church, with the one single nave all painted in blue and with the choir separated by a finely carved rood screen (Lettner) made from stone.

Via Toulouse, Eugen and his wife reach Auch, where they stay with their friend.

 

Let us travel with them around Auch and back to Germany in my next blog.

Source: Eugen Diesel, “Philopsophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch”, Reclam Verlag Stuttgart 1952 and my own photos from travelling in France.