Fort Knox

Fort Knox is a real Army base in the city of the same name, in the state of Kentucky. I am not sure what it’s like today, but “back in the day” – as this snap shows – you weren’t allowed into the main building that stores the gold, but at least you could get pretty close and take some pictures.

A migrating muster of storks

Yesterday I spotted a muster of storks (sometimes, at least according to Wikipedia, called a phalanx of storks) overflying the Zurich airport in Switzerland, at an altitude that made them nearly impossible to see:

In fact, I could not see whether they were in fact storks. Fortunately, I had my camera with me, and it has a terrific photographic lens:


I mentioned in an earlier blog that when storks are juveniles in Europe they are taught flying skills by their immediate peers, and there are in fact two groups of storks: those with lessor flying skills that overwinter in Spain, and those with better flying skills that overwinter in Africa.  Interestingly, scientists have attached accelerometers to storks, and they can determine within seconds to which group of flyers the storks belong.

Local French oddity becomes INTERNATIONAL MYSTERY!

They don’t have hurricanes or tornadoes in Alsace- never have, likely never will.  So in a recent blog I observed was quite odd for the French to take time from their favorite hobby (namely, wrapping historical buildings in atrocious glass bubbles) to build a nuclear-war-proof bird house, complete with high strength structural steel and (I assume) titanium bolts attached to a deep rebar-reinforced concrete piling:

To me, this was an oddity but no more than that.

But . . . something amazing happened this week. The situation has now suddenly turned from French oddity to international mystery!

For this week I spotted exactly the same type of bird bunker, in a completely different country!

This high strength bird bunker is located near the Zurich airport in Switzerland – and unlike France, outside of the European Union!

So it is now truly an international mystery: who designed this bunker?  Who decided where and when it would be used? Who paid for it? Who maintains it? And especially, when someone decided this was needed, how did they go about sourcing it?  I haven’t checked, but I am pretty sure the local do-it-yourself stores don’t stock massive bird bunkers!

Villinger Gargoyle – and an unbelievable language gap

I spotted this gargoyle in the historic Middle Ages Southern Germany village of Villingen-Schwenningen:

But then something amazing happened!  I realized I did not know the German version of this word, so I looked it up: der Wasserspeier.

OK, fair enough. Gargoyles were primarily designed to direct the flow of rainwater off of a building.

But here’s the amazing part: in English, the word gargoyle immediately invokes terrible emotions involving monsters and demons and people with ugly faces – whereas (I’m pretty sure) the word Wasserspeier does not. In fact, just about any native speaker would define gargoyle as monster – not as e.g. water spout.

I’ve often thought that the German word for battle, die Schlacht, is a good example of this in the opposite direction: battle connotes fight in English, but in German it connotes slaughter.

The mystery of the Middle Ages dormer cranes – solved!

In earlier blog posts I’ve mentioned that some – but only some – Middle Age villages have cranes on their dormers, like this:

and like this:

The cranes are obviously for hauling loads to the top of the building.

But here’s the mystery: if these cranes are very useful, and indeed they appear to be, then why don’t more Middle Age villages have buildings with such gable-cranes?

I recently learned the answer from a tour guide in Villingen-Schwenningen: ground water!  In the Middle Ages it was preferred to store grain and food underground, in cellars.  But in villages where this was not possible, due to a high ground water table, it was stored on the highest (and architecturally, less useful) part of the building.  Therefore, if you spot a dormer crane it generally means high ground water!

Romäus, unstretched

I was on a guided tour of the historical South German village of Villingen-Schwenningen last week when I learned that the local town hero was a man named Romäus, their version of Paul Bunyan.  His image is painted on one of the tower gates of the village wall:

The story goes that he travelled to the neighboring village of Rottweil, stole the massive, multi-ton doors to their village, and walked all the way back to Villingen, carrying the doors with him, no less!

As a tribute to the many friendly townpeople I met, I used Microsoft Lens to unstretch him!

According to Wikipedia, just like Paul Bunyan there are many stories, but here’s the one on the wall:



Some of my photos are quite boring to Europeans, because they show very common European scenes – but having never seen them, Americans are fascinated.

In this case, the situation is reversed.  No American would hardly raise an eyebrow at this:

It’s a bank!  Although cash machines and cash cards have been around in America for a long time, many Americans still write checks by hand, and pick up money from a so-called “bank teller” – a real person who works at a bank!  The money and checks are transferred back and forth to the cars via pneumatic tubes.

The Mighty Bishops of Konstanz – and a Duke?

If you go to the German city of Konstanz you’ll find some imposing statues along the Rhine River:

OK, so let’s have a quick look at who these guys were. Unbelievably, three of them are bishops that lived and died a long, long, long time ago.

Here is Bishop Berthold, who died in 1078:

Here is Bishop Gebhard, who died in 995:

And finally, here is Bishop Conrad, who died in 975:

But who is the fourth guy?  It’s Leopold, the Grand Duke of Baden, who died quite recently, in 1852:

Quite an interesting conundrum. Was this a vanity project commissioned by the Duke before he died, to have his statue next to these old guys?

Somebody must know – but not me!

Imminent Danger

OK, not right at this very moment when I took the snap.

But there could be, and that is precisely why this tiny neighborhood nestled deep within a cornfield of Central Illinois is equipped with a powerful siren:

I remember many, many times laying in bed at night, window open, and hearing the screaming sirens in villages far away, as incoming tornadoes attacked the towns. In one case, in 1996, 39 tornadoes struck within hours, there was huge loss of life, and an entire village was completely flattened.


I am not really sure if aquaforming is a word.  I’m talking about the terraforming of streams, like this example in Algäu, Germany, shows:

I think just about everyone has seen numerous examples of this in just about every country. But, if you stop to think about it, when / where / who decided to add this to any given stream?

In some (wonderful) cases, there is documentation nearby.  There are some incredible examples of this in Germany’s Schwarzwald, or Black Forest, where the villages undertook massive terraforming projects to project the villages against torrential flooding.

And if you go hiking in the forests around Stuttgart, you are likely to encounter dry man-made canals, empty brick-lined reservoirs, and stone bridges over nothing – all the features of a sophisticated water abatement system that sits quietly for most of the year, and really only comes into its own during a downpour.

I’ll post some snaps of these as time permits.

Bubble architecture – 5

Continuing the series, maybe this is even the first bubble that kicked the movement off?

By movement I mean the French wrapping historical buildings in atrocious glass bubbles.

To be fair, the earliest example of bubble architecture I know is the encasement of the computer sciences building at the University of Illinois in a bubble; and also to be fair, there are some extraordinary examples of bubble architecture, such as the Gare Central in Strasbourg.

The amazing history of the Jews in Switzerland – 2

Continuing the series, here is a nice house in Lengnau that shows the double doorway that is characteristic of the Jewish/Christian houses built in the eighteenth century:

It was forbidden for Christians and Jews to co-habitate, so the problem was carefully avoided by splitting the house into two areas, each with its own door.  The village of Lengnau in Aargau, in North Central Switzerland, has many fine examples of historical buildings with this characteristic.

The town of Lengnau is filled with historical plaques that discuss legacy of the historical Jewish community in this area, and in fact there is a self-guided walking tour that leads visitors to important historical locations within the town.

The amazing self-service flower stands of Germany and Switzerland

I’ve seen these things for years – but like so many things, I only just realized that for Americans this concept might be kind of strange.

The countrysides of Germany and Switzerland are filled with little “self-service” stands owned by local farmers. You can stop anytime and get flowers, vegetables, and sometimes even eggs.  There’s a little jar for you to put your money, and it run 100% according to the honor system.

I took this snap of a flower stand just outside of the Northern Swiss village of Embrach: