Saturday, 11 September, 2004.

I went to bed on Friday night still not decided on my destination for the day... I'd let the weather decide matters in the morning. I woke up on Saturday to find that rain was due to be moving in, so the Rheinetal (Rhein river valley) to the north would be too far and into the rain too early for today. I headed for Bad Wimpfen, up the Neckar Valley from Heidelberg. I decided not to stop at the Mannheim facilities, opting instead to fuel up with my coupons in Heidelberg (the coupons will expire on 30 September).

Ever since Monday in Riqeuwhir, I've had some rough idling, and difficult starts with my car. Had me scratching my head, and beginning to worry. Never seemed to be a problem once I got going. As is my habit, once I started filling the tank, I popped the hood to check my fluid levels. To my horror, I immediately realized WHY I'd been having those problems. I had topped off my oil in Weil am Rhein the previous Saturday, and apparently forgotten to replace the oil cap. I had gone almost 500k (including Autobahn high-speed runs) with my oil cap off. Not good. Amazingly, it was still sitting where I had left it a week prior. I checked my oil level, and found nothing reading on the dip-stick. Not good. So much for my trip-plans for the day.

I put a quart of oil in, and got a reading, but it was low. The second quart brought me back to a healthy reading. With my oil-cap back in place, and a proper amount of oil, all the engine issues seemed to stop immediately. Still, paranoid by nature as I am, I decided it wouldn't be a good idea to run off to parts unknown until I had done some reasonable trials on the engine. So, I started by driving around the area of Heidelberg.

I took the climb up to Konigstuhl, high on the ridge above Heidelberg. It was very hazy, so I only snapped one or two pictures (and I'm certain they're not worth much). The engine performed flawlessly on the way up, and again on the way down the back-side of the mountain.

Winding my way through some small back-mountain towns, I worked my way towards a town I had seen from a distance on a few occasions, but hadn't managed to get to before: Dilsberg. Turns out, Dilsberg has a normal fairly modern town, and an old walled-town that is a fascinating hybrid of modern and historic. Just inside the medieval gate is a fachwerk house, with a maroon/white color scheme. I believe it dates to the 1700s.

Feste Dilsberg (the walled portion of the town) sits atop a hill with the Neckar river winding around 3/4ths of the base, and Neckarsteinach (and it's associated fortification of three castles) on the opposing side - only one of which is actually visible through the trees on the hillside. There was a Fest setting up there for Saturday and Sunday - but I was there too early in the day to partake.

Leaving Dilsberg, I wandered the back-hills of the Kurpfaltz... eventually landing in Sinsheim. On my way towards the Transportation Museum, I passed the Sinsheim Bahnhof. I noticed a fair number of people clustered around the tracks opposite the station itself. I decided it must be worth checking out. I stopped, and dashed across the road to the cluster of people with cameras. There was an older DB engine (Diesel/Electric) at the near end. I figured it was worth a couple pics (you don't see them very often anymore). Working my way along the train, I noticed it was a Swiss train - it had the markings SBB + CFF (the plus was a White Cross on a Red Shield) Schweitzer Bundes Bahn.

As I passed the dining car, I noticed a plume of white smoke from the far end of the train, and a cluster of people with cameras at that end as well. I suddenly realized what the audience was there for - a genuine Dampfzuge! An actual vintage Steam Engine! I put the museum on hold, and proceeded to document this rare opportunity.

This steam engine was built in 1938 in Stuttgart. It turns out (I learned later in the day) that this particular engine had been on the eastern side of the border at the end of WWII, and had been operated by East Germany up until the mid 1980s. This particular train was on a Basel-Sinshiem tour for the day. I took quite a few pictures of the engine as the engineers worked over it preparing it for the return trip to Basel. What those pictures (and associated audio/video clips) don't convey is the distinct smell of a coal-fired steam-engine.

I realized it would probably be hours until the train would start its return trip, so I continued on towards the Transportation Museum, and the neighboring countryside. I didn't actually enter the museum on this trip, but did get some nice shots of the new aviation exhibits that surround the buildings today (including an old Tupelov Supersonic aircraft - still with Soviet markings, and one of the retired Air France Concordes. To the south of town stands a fortress "Burg Steinsberg" or "Fort Stone-Mountain" dating to the middle 1200's. Surrounded by vineyards, there is also a quaint chapel of similar age. I didn't get to explore the interior of the chapel, as there was an active wedding ceremony in progress.

Returning to the Sinshiem Bahnhof, I found that the train had moved. Not far, to be sure, but to line up with the platform. I got an opportunity to chat with some locals, who quite evidently thought I was NOT an American. I fudged my way through most of the conversations... the technical terms were a little difficult for my conversational German to follow. It was during these conversations that I learned of the history of this particular engine.

I had planned to get plenty of pictures of the departure... recalling the slow acceleration rates of steam engines I had witnessed in the states over two decades prior. I distinctly recall the sheer amount of power and effort required to get a steam-powered train moving. It is not a rapid acceleration. It quickly became apparent to me that the diesel-electric engine at the rear of the train was the real power-plant for this trip... the steam engine - while functional - was mere window-dressing. Within moments, the train was moving, and within a minute, was well down the track. I had chance to only snap a handful of pictures before it was well down the track and out of sight beyond the next curve. I was disappointed, but not really surprised. A true vintage steam-engine is a fragile machine - not one you'd want to saddle with doing much in the way of real loading. Also, the smoke and steam output of a steam locomotive under power is substantial - probably more than is typically permitted by local Environmental Laws.

By this point, 1700 CEDT, I decided it was best to call it a day, and return to my quarters to catch the VT Football game. Unfortunately, I was about as successful in my objectives for the evening as I had been in my original objectives of the day. Better luck next time.

That's the news from this side of the pond. Tune in next week when you'll hear Miss Piggy say....... or, um, rather, uh, until next time,