Another View of Tübingen

This is the old part of town, which has parts the date back to, like, 1400 or something. If you’re an American, your experience with buildings that look like this comes out of animated Disney films, which means that when you see them in real life you have a hard time grasping that they are authentic, and possibly older than your country. And the bottom floors of these buildings are filled with cell phone shops and hair salons, which feels incongruous, but isn’t, because after all, humans actually live in these places, and they live in the 21st century.

Yeah, you can tell I don’t get out of the US much, and when I do, I go to places like Canada and Australia, where, as nation-states, they have the same thing going that America does, i.e., not a whole lot of free-standing structures more than a couple hundred years old on the outside. I remember going to Boston and thinking, wow, there’s a lot of old stuff here. Brother, I’m an idiot.

48 Comments on “Another View of Tübingen”

  1. I had a similar feeling/experience when I took a trip to Ireland. Both the feeling of incongruity seeing modern things like cell-phone shops and internet cafes in the bottom floors of these old, late-medieval-era buildings and the sense of “Wow, this is really old“. Which was immediately followed by “That’s so cool.”

    I love that old stuff… which is tough when you’re an American living in a country of the perpetually-new.

  2. I had the opposite experience coming to the States. The college I went to was founded in 1857, and I remember fellow students being a bit unhappy when i wasn’t impressed, and mentioned I lived in a house back home that was older than that. Yes, I was a snotty idiot.

    On another note, it’s cool that you’re finally posting at reasonable timings during the day … (yes, still a snotty idiot. Europeans, feh!)

  3. Yeah that is by far the thing that impresses me the most when I’ve visited Europe: how much history is just lying around and how old things are. The exception was Hamburg where most of the city was laid to waste during WWII and as a result there’s not too much that’s older than the 1950s or so. But Munich and Amsterdam and Austria and England it just takes your breath away to realize there are structures around that are hundreds of years older than anything in the US.

  4. What a pretty town! Did you ever hear the old saw that says the difference between an Englishman and an American is the Englishman thinks 100 miles is a long distance and an American thinks 100 years is a long time? I think it sums things up pretty well.

  5. Tübingen is a lovely old university town. Visited there a couple of times in the late ’90s. About old buildings in Germany: Well, in some towns and cities, some of the old-looking houses are really old, but some of them were rebuilt to look old (as they were before) after the World War II but are actually mostly new (made of new materials). Lots of destruction because of bombings by the American and British air forces…

  6. I went to the Vatican about 10 years ago, which is a freaking incredible building, and was pretty stumped when I realized they started building it only 14 years after Columbus discovered America.

    Then we went to the Coliseum…

  7. …but I’d like to add that the old town of Tübingen is indeed really old. It was spared from the bombings because Tübingen did not have lots of heavy industry.

  8. Heh. I have much the same reaction when I visit Spain, including the comparison to Boston.

    During one visit, I had the indescribable experience of being invited by an archeologist to stand in a by-then-carefully-emptied Phoenician grave. Also notable: standing in a cathedral made from a former mosque, which had been built on the ruins of a Visigothic church. *Layers* of history.

    I can’t imagine what it must be like to visit the Chauvet caves of Southern France — 32,000 to 30,000 BP. Yes, the dating *margin of error* is roughly as long as Christianity is old.

  9. When I was young, we lived in Lincoln (England), which has a cathedral and castle dating back to just after 1066, one of the earliest extant medieval houses in England, and a standing Roman arch which still has a road passing underneath it. My cousin from the Canada came to stay, but was almost as amazed by the Victorian terraced housing as by the really old architecture, which I think was just too much to really believe in at the age of eight or so.

  10. I guess I’ve gotten used to the age-of-things thing after over a decade, although I do still notice myself thinking like an American occasionally. Our house was built in 1820 and from time to time I’m still impressed by that. I suppose that also shows that I’m a western American, since on the East Coast that isn’t necessarily all that old.

    Also, thank you for, despite not giving a shit, coming up with an umlaut this time. I know you’re mostly working with an American keyboard, which is why I also noted the “ue” workaround last time. (It also works for ö and ä. But not for the Dutch “ÿ”, which is actually a ligature of “ij”.)

  11. I like it when old buildings get used – I remember sitting in the Great Hall in Charney Manor (a Quaker study-place near Oxford) underneath an 11th century hammer-beam roof during a course…

  12. I used to say that bridges described as historic in Australia are just recent roadworks in London.

    I think the most gorgeous medieval streetscape that I saw in Germany was in Quedlinburg (check the Google street views of the central pedestrian area). It seems to be right off the tourist map for non-Germans.

  13. I remember a Billy Connoly stand up routine where he was talking about Boston (I think). He was talking to a woman who said, “There’s a building over there that’s almost 200 years old. You can really feel the history.” He replied, “Where I’m from, there’s a town called ‘Newbridge’ because they got a new bridge 500 years ago, and the old bridge is still there.”
    I’ve visited cousins in the Cotswolds in England, and the oldest part of their house was built in about 1610. Their village church is 12th century.
    It’s a big difference from Seattle, where the oldest building is about 130 years old.

  14. Not an idiot, John. Just inexperienced. It’s good to be reminded that there’s a lot of things in the world older than the USA. It brings a certain sense of historical perspective that’s sadly lacking in many Americans these days.
    Having grown up in Puerto Rico, I remember as a kid standing in Spanish forts like El Morro and San Cristobal and imagining how it might have looked when the Spaniards ruled a good portion of the Caribbean. There were times I would look out over the Atlantic waves and visualize Spanish galleons on the horizon, laden with exotic goods for the King and Queen. Maybe there was an English or French pirate out there too? ;-)
    Take the time to look around and let your imagination walk you around the history you’re immersed in. It’s always been worth it, at least for me.

  15. When I visited Tübingen I got a double dose of incongruity, first cell phone shops in old buildings. Then second, a 4th of July celebration down by the river, I hadn’t clicked on the significance of the date until I saw the party.

  16. Yeah, I love some of the really old stuff over here (Europe). On the other hand, I remember visiting a rock shelter in northern Australia that had been used continuously over a period of around 40,000 years – it had wall paintings of what are now extinct animals, as well as pictures of first contacts with traders from Asia as well as Europeans… and a musket.

  17. I had similar thoughts the first time I went to an English cathedral. The idea of a building built (at least the first time) when years were still measured in triple digits blew my mind.
    Honestly, one of my favorite things about places like London or Cambridge is seeing very old buildings standing side-by-side with modern ones. Such an cool situation that simply can’t exist in the US.

  18. In situations like these I always flash on “L.A. Story”, where Steve Martin is showing his English visitor around L.A. and boasts that “Some of these buildings are over 20 years old!” Followed of course by the views of a Tudor house and then a four-door house.

  19. I get this feeling in Scotland ALL. THE. TIME. It’s especially hilarious to come across a dental office and a bookie in a building that’s all sandstone and majesty and old gargoyles. I’ve been living here now for four years and it was the first time I’d gone to the UK, and I *still* cannot get over it.

    I went to the old part of Estonia, and the buildings were just like that, too. I felt like I was in (shh!) Disneyland… yes, I’m a dork, too.

  20. Yes, yes, yes. I remember standing in a small town in Italy trying to encompass the age of the building I was in, and trying to get past that “built by Disney” sensation. It was like I was scared to trust that it was authentically old, and someone would jump out at me and yell, “Hah, sucker! We put it up last week! Couldn’t you tell?”

  21. Boston is one of the oldest cities in the US. Some buildings there are approaching 400 years old.

  22. Like BearPaw, I was stunned by the *layers* of history, especially in a town like Caen in Normandy, where I spent six months on foreign study. The family we stayed with lived on what translated to “D-Day Street” and we walked to the university by taking a shortcut through William the Conqueror’s castle, and there were buildings and bits from every era in between. It never became old (in the sense of trite).

  23. I assume that the Disney designers looked at many castles. The one that I have generally seen attributed as the inspiration for Disney is Neuschwanstein.

    This is particularly appropriate since the place is a 19th century romanticized version of a castle to start with.

  24. I have a friend who knows the Lebanese ambassador to Canada. When they were taken to their residence in Ottawa they were given rules as to how they could decorate and paint and what not because the historical building was two or three hundred years old. He couldn’t help but point out that they have houses approaching a thousand or more.

  25. If it makes you feel any better, last year I was at a conference and was discussing some things with another attendee from Ethiopia. I asked him if Ethiopia had a long history.

    Now, in comparison to that, you aren’t an idiot – you are a genius.

    And when I was getting ready to move to Hungary people would ask me all the time, “What language do they speak there?”

    When I told one person “Hungarian” her husband started to give her a hard time. She tried to defend herself, “Well, it’s not like that everywhere. Like, what language do they speak in Norway?”

  26. That incongruity always blows my mind. Especially when it’s taken one step further, and a brand new ultra modern building is standing next to one over a thousand years old, side by side, as normal traffic and commerce go on around and inside them both…

  27. As a Brit, I remember watching an ep of a US TV show with incredulity as an “Historical Society” took a tour around an early-twentieth-century house. Honestly, my own house is half a century older than that.

    I live in Liverpool, which doesn’t have anywhere near as much really old architecture as some other UK cities – it was founded in 1207 (according to the Wikipedia search I just did) but most of the very old buildings don’t exist anymore (including the castle, which I always think is a real shame) – but it does have the odd Tudor manor etc. You would, however, most likely find the mix of different eras very odd because there are numerous roads where every building looks completely different from every other, built in different eras with different architectural styles. Even the road my own house is on has a whole bunch of different types of houses from different decades over the past couple of centuries (and it’s a fairly short road). (This may be at least partly due to the fact that Liverpool was heavily bombed during WWII.)

    You mentioned phone shops in the bottom of old buildings: on my way to work I go past a church (no idea of the era, I’m guessing perhaps 19th century?) which has a Boots pharmacy built into it, complete with bright-blue sign. It’s very odd (and not very tasteful or respectful, in my opinion).

  28. Your post reminds me of a joke about the same phenomenon, seen from the European point of view. A guide is showing tourists around Washington and he says “…and here is the Capitol Building, which is very old, built in 1800” An Italian puts his hand up and asks “Sorry, is that AD or BC?”

  29. I suspect that reaction is common to Americans, at least the first half-dozen times out of the country. I was “cured” of it, I think, by seeing Ġgantija, a megalithic temple on Gozo, the north island of Malta. It’s some 5500 years old, one of the oldest known freestanding structures in the world. It’s visibly, tangibly fragile.

  30. When stationed in Italy 76-79 we traveled constantly to see the wonders. Our fellow Americans had slept through their Western Civ classes and were woefully unable to place what they saw in the context of history. At the time Italy’s preservation budget was very small and so we were able to wander through, touch, pose in, and experience up close the history where the Italians lived because it was not behind armored glass and rent-a-cops. Sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Athens on a moonlit night under the Acropolis called up the music and dancing votaries from my imagination around the temples.

  31. The picture and comments remind me of a trip to France. Actually, two trips. On the first we stopped in the lovely town of Rouen where I first encountered the modern shops in really, really old buildings. There was a little boutique that you literally had to duck into, because the doorway as a good foot shorter than me (and I am not tall by any stretch of the imagination), not to mention that you had to walk down two steps from the street to begin with. The buildings were half-timbered affairs and many of them had a definite tilt to them, and yet there were shops, homes, satellite dishes – it was a bit of a cognitive disconnect for me. The second was in the town of Vienne (not far from Lyon), where I came around a corner from gawking at a very old building (15th century, I believe) to find myself in a very pretty town square, complete with a Roman temple. You can take a gander on Google Earth, it is pretty darn cool.

  32. During my trip to Italy, we were visiting the Palermo Cathedral, in Sicily, and the tour guide was pointing out the various architectural styles reflected by different additions at different times, including 12th century Norman, Fourteenth century Gothic, Fifteenth century Catalan, and Sixteenth century Neo-Classical. He then pointed out the impressive dome, and said, “we don’t talk much about the dome. It’s modern, from the eighteenth century.” Yes, it’s older than any piece of architecture in North America, but they consider it modern, and uninteresting.

  33. That mix is one of the things I love most about Europe. Japan has a little of that, though most of the buildings were actually never made to last and have rebuilt time and time again, even the ones not touched by the war. But Europe has it everywhere.

    When I was at University in Germany, I lived in a student housing thing, which just happened to be in the refurbished armory of a castle built in 1200…that was a mind blower and a half.

    That, and when I was in Sicily, I stayed at a hostel in an 800+ year old building that hadn’t been refurbished beyond the addition of electricity and ehternet. Bare stone walls and worm-eaten wooden floors…and youtube.


  34. John, I grew up in Darmstadt, which translates to “Bowel Town” and is located about 2 hours north of Tübingen. Your posts and pics are making me very homesick. I’m so pleased you’re having a good time. : )

  35. Two things:

    1. “Ist das nicht ein Fachwerkhaus? Ja, das ist ein Fachwerkhaus!”

    2. I thought Tübingen was when the wave goes all the way around the surfer, forming a cylinder. Twice.

  36. I suppose the closest I had to this was a trip to the little Mediterranean country of Cyprus (the land of my ancestors, as it would happen) and went to the village my grandmother lives/grew up in. Down the road from her house (a two minute walk!) was this little beauty:

    The idea of standing in something dating back to the 6th century is pretty scary, if you ask me! The great thing was that Kiti (the village) is NOT a tourist spot so there was none of the silly tourist signs or people with camera’s everywhere. In fact… the only person snapping pictures like a ridiculous tourist was me!

    The name, Aangeloktisti, means “Built by Angels” in Greek. Supposedly it is called that because it is so old.

  37. Paul, there are some buildings in Santa Fe, New Mexico that date from 1610, and a few Native American structures that predate Columbus, so there is architecture from before the eighteenth century.

    Still, the sense of history in Europe can be palpable. I was in England and Scotland this summer. One of the first places I went to was Carlisle. The castle there was built in 1092 on the site of a Roman fort. Later I went to Dunadd in Scotland, where the sixth century kings of Dál Riata placed their foot in a foot-shaped hole in a rock on the top, as part of the coronation ritual. It was an Iron Age hillfort that is near Neolithic burial cairns.

    One of the best places to get the feeling of history is York, where the Romans, Anglians, Vikings, and Normans all left their marks.

  38. Oh, and before someone beats me up, I was looking at a list of the oldest structures in the USA. I know that Mexico and Central America have a lot of pre-Columbian structures.

  39. Living in Oxford, England, one of my favorite historical things was a plaque near our bank that was memorializing a pub that had closed in the 1700s. I just thought, “This pub closed before America was founded and they’re still unhappy about it!” Another great spot in the city for weird history is the chalkboards at the Turf Tavern, which chronicle its founding in 1381 up through when Clinton didn’t actually inhale (yes, it was there). This one is about how a future Aussie prime minister set the world record for drinking a yard of ale:

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