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Crystal and Glass

November 19

Written December 9


Dear Friends and Families,


Sometimes we need an excuse to travel and one of our favorites is to go to factories for cookware. We have done it for Le Creuset enameled iron pots and for Solingen steak knives. Such trips significantly increase the cost of the house wares, but allows memories every time we cook. Now, we had a Thanksgiving dinner coming up and we had no crystal glassware. I know, it's not a requirement, but once one gets past the need-want question, crystal shopping makes a good trip.


Our goal was the glassworks region of southeastern Germany, part of the area generally called Bohemia. Old Bohemia included glassworks now in Austria and the Czech Republic as well, but the 30 or so German factories of the region offer plenty of opportunity, and we were going to make a four-day weekend of it.



The drive down from Pommersfelden took about three hours. Our first stop was Bodenmais, a town filled with touristy glass shops. Each shop was filled with clear and colorful glass "things". Great, it was mostly so tasteless and ugly, that I figured this would be a cheap weekend after all. Not an accurate prediction.


We had reserved a place in Zwiesel, because that seemed fairly central and it is the home of Schott-Zwiesel, one of the crystal brands we had read about. The drive from Bodenmais was quick enough, although winter darkness had already descended. On the way to the hotel, we stopped briefly at the Schott-Zwiesel factory outlet, but only long enough to conclude, yes, we need more time and no, this will not be a cheap weekend.

Our hotel, the Hotel Zur Waldbahn (http://www.zurwaldbahn.de) was a pleasant, old resort hotel, just across from the train station. (Travel hint: Hotels across from train stations are a good bet even if driving, because there are always signs to the "Bahnhof".) It had a large, indoor pool, which we thought we'd use, but looking for crystal just took too much time. Nevertheless, we did enjoy our view of the town, including a silhouette of St Nickolas church and its 270 foot (86m) tower.


We started the next morning with a leisurely breakfast, one of my favorite parts of travel in Europe. Of course the time spent doing this meal - and the others - is one reason why it takes us so long to see an area!

After breakfast, we headed down hill to the Schott factory and store. (http://www.schott-zwiesel.de) We started by looking at the small displays of glass making, including a diorama of the various steps in hand-making a single wine glass. We would not end up with completely hand-made glasses like this, but it was still fascinating to imagine all the steps.



Next to the displays and the outlet store, I went into the small tourist-centered glassworks and watched the glassblowers turn sand into crystal. (http://www.zwiesel-werksverkauf.de) Over the next couple days, we saw these processes repeated at various glass workshops and it always fascinated me.



This must be hard work and we saw a discrete piggy bank, asking for donations "for the thirsty workers". We gave a beer or two.


Schott is a huge company, with factories world wide. They even make high-tech lead-windows for radiation shielding of some of my industry's facilities. Zwiesel was a small, exclusive glassworks, started in 1872 and today, it is a part of the larger firm.

In the namesake town of Zwiesel, the specialty seems to be a combination of Schott technology and Zwiesel design and tradition. In the end, the engineer in our pair could not pass up the idea of "titanium glass" for durability and the artist liked the touch and feel. But, before we reached that conclusion, we had to check out the competition.


In Theresienthal, on the east side of Zwiesel, we visited a glass museum, housed in a turn-of-the-century home, next to another factory. The house was almost as much an attraction as the glass object of the same vintage. The traditional and Art Nouveau pieces were each a work of art and they were as bright and clear as the day they were made a hundred years ago.

Next door in the Theresienthal glassworks (http://www.theresienthal.de), the craftsmen were still making pieces in the same tradition of art and style. We watched two- and three-person teams combine pieces of molten glass in a dangerous ballet. In the small shop beside the furnace, painted crystal glasses could be picked up for 200 to 250 euro ($250-$300) - per glass. Nice, but not our budget.


From here, we just wandered around, looking for "Glashütte" (glassworks). Some were unremarkable. Some were the sources of the tasteless "things" we first saw in Bodenmais. But, no matter what, the West Virginia-like scenery made the drives pleasant. At Glashaus Ludwigsthal (http://www.glashaus-ludwigsthal.de/ ), after a wonderful soup and tort at the cafe next door, we saw some very artistic pieces, both practical serving glassware and decorative pieces, whose creation defied imagination. How did they do that?


Somewhere along the line, we ran across this VERY LARGE crystal glass. I accidentally brushed against it and it moved like a combination tuning fork and metronome. This glass was 250 euros too and still not in our budget nor decorating plan.


We went as far south as Spiegelau, another factory town and outlet (http://www.spiegelau.com ). Spiegelau is a division of Riedel, a famous Austrian wine glass designer, and we had originally been interested in Riedel products, until we saw prices. Not 250 euro each, but still above our taste and needs. Trotter rule of thumb: a couple glasses should cost about as much as a good a bottle of wine. Going higher in glass price would imply going higher in wine prices, not a course we favored.

Speaking of avoiding costs, we hurried to the other attraction in Spiegelau, the Penninger schnapps outlet (http://www.penninger.de ), but discovered they were closed for vacation. Off-season travel has advantages, but sometimes drawbacks too. Oh well, an excuse to return.


A couple valleys over from Spiegelau is Frauenau and we were looking for a Glass Museum that our tour book had recommended. When we found it, we were hit again with the off-season thing. The museum was closed and the only exhibit we could see was a glass-boat-in-hand that decorates the park in front of the museum.


Nevertheless, Frauenau seemed like a nice place, so we started walking down a nearby side street and saw yet another Glashütte sign: Poschinger (http://www.poschinger.de ). The side street was industrial, as was the building, but there was a story here.

This glassworks, started in 1568, belongs to one of the oldest families of Bavaria and claims to be the oldest glassworks in Germany . It also claims to be the world record holder for length of time a glassworks has remained in a single family.



Inside was the by-now-standard combination of glass furnace and sales shop. Both were impressive. I could have watched the craftsmen all day as they dipped their iron poles into the glass furnace, drew out molten material, turned it in molds, blew into it, added color, connected pieces, and set it aside in tempering ovens to gradually cool down over night.

The Poschinger shop held wonderful products. Glasses with style and grace. We would have been tempted, if money were not a consideration. But, it is, and after all this looking around, we knew we'd end up back at Schott-Zwiesel


In the end, that was our purchasing decision: nice glasses, with the techy sound of "titanium glass". We filled the back of our little station wagon for about the cost of a couple of the glasses we'd seen.


Not everything was shopping for crystal. We took the time to walk around Zwiesel, starting with St. Nickolas church. The outside was dominated by the tower and the inside of the 1902 church was properly impressive, but also peaceful. The few windows that seemed original demonstrated that this was indeed a glass artist town.


Downtown Zwiesel ( http://www.zwiesel.de) was three or four blocks long. There were a few shops for glass tourists, but mostly it seemed like a normal small town.

In one direction, the view from downtown was of St. Nickolas and, in the other, the stacks of the Schott-Zwiesel factory. There was a balance that other towns might envy.


We drove back north via the back road that runs along the Czech border. In places, we were a few hundred meters from the old Iron Curtain. Nowadays, we could look at the untended boarder posts and believe it had always been so peaceful. From that border road, we could look out on the Bavarian valleys below us and be thankful that Curtain collapsed peacefully.



So, that was it. A nice trip. A bit of learning. Purchases that will carry both our wine and some good memories.


John and Marianne.





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