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Trip to Karlsruhe, a bike-crazy college town in southwest Germany


Because the art world is small place, it was predictable but still a surprise that when Stella and I touched down at the Frankfurt airport we saw two Philadelphia friends! As we were going up the escalator to the train platform (yes, the train station is in the airport–how great is that!) I heard “Hey Philadelphia!” and there, across the way and coming down the escalator were Adelina Vlas, assistant curator of Modern and Contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (follow her on Twitter!) and Janet Kaplan, director of  Moore College’s Curatorial Studies program. They had just been to Documenta and were going home.  Ah, Documenta, we would get there too.

Bikes parked at Karlsruhe Hauptbahnhof (central train station)

Steve is a visiting professor at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology this summer (it’s like the MIT of Germany he says).  Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany near Strassbourg, France, was founded in 1715 as a summer get-away for Margrave Charles III William, Margrave of Baden-Durlach.  Carl was a German prince (one of several who ruled a principality before Germany was unified as a state). When we arrived at the Karlsruhe train station, an hour after landing at Frankfurt (bullet trains do in fact go fast), the first thing we saw outside the station was the bike parking lot. Carrumba–Karlsruhe is a mad biking town!

Anti-fracking signs in a cosmetics store on Kaiserstrasse, the main shopping street

The city is actually a medium size college town, reminiscent of Ann Arbor, MI or Madison, WI, both of which we know well, having lived there. The ambiance is not that of a chic town, but of one with lots of farmer’s markets, Birkenstocks and socks and anti-fracking signs in a shop window on Kaiserstrasse, the town’s main street.

Signs in Kaiserpassage, where Stella’s hostel shared a building with a sex discount place

Stella stayed at a Gastehaus Kaiserpassage, a hostel that was a 10 minute walk from Steve’s hotel.  Steve’s place, Hotel Acora is an apartment hotel with tiny suites. His was too small for three people, so we had to split up, but it worked out fine. Stella’s hostel was great, and the signage outside the hostel was a wacky jumble.  We never explored what “Sex Discount” was (can you find it?  upper left) but thought it was very Euro that the sex discount place and the hostel were in the same building — although the hostel had a separate elevator entrance, which it did not share with the other building tenants.

We called it the Batmobile. Photo by Stella


Batmobile, detail. Look at it large to see the texture. Photo by Stella

Even though bikes were the mode of transport in Karlsruhe, we noticed the cars, especially one we called the Batmobile, a black Mercedes that was parked a couple times in the plaza near the hostel. The car had a low-slung feel and a matte finish and texture we had never seen before.

Euro Cup soccer merch for Germany’s team. We saw people wearing the wigs, carrying the flags, etc. A major soccer craze

We were in Karlsruhe during the early rounds of the Euro Cup soccer games and the Germans got their colors on for that. By far the cutest “I support Germany’s team” merchandise we saw was the wing mirror covers in the colors of the German flag, which we saw on cars all over Karlsruhe.  They made the cars look like they were wearing ear muffs.

Stella in Karstadt department store checking out the fabric department

Stella, our shopper in chief, found the fabric department in the city’s big department store Karstadt truly eye opening. Some of the fabrics that she knows from Cloth and Bobbin, where she works, were selling there for almost double the price they sell for in Narberth (apparently the VAT and shipping costs add up).

One observation Steve had clued us in to. German pedestrians obey the walk/don’t walk signs. At intersections with nary a car in sight, pedestrians dutifully perched on the corners until the green light came on for them to cross. Amazing. One time I was waiting at a corner with a bunch of people, one lone pedestrian crossed against the light.  He promptly got yelled at by a couple of construction workers nearby who were on their lunch break.

“Temple” 2012, Benoit Mabrey, American-born German artist, outside the ZKM

Karlsruhe, which is the home of several courts has a couple of  contemporary art museums. Sadly they were closed when we were able to go. The ZKM museum, run by artist and curator Peter Weibel (who showed at Slought in 2009) had a sound art show, which would have been great.  What we did see was a nice piece by Benoit Mabrey outside the museum on an otherwise forlorn plaza.  Made of discarded stereo equipment the piece groaned and clacked and seemed to be transmitting some radio program from the great beyond.

Typical architecture on residential part of Sophienstrasse in Karlsruhe

Next up, our trip to Kassel for Documenta 13. More photos of Karlsruhe at flickr.