Custom Optics goes to Europe
are some of the kindest, smartest, and most interesting people in the
world. I could add many more positive adjectives to that
sentence, but it would get too long. It holds true in many
countries, as I found out in the summer of 2013 when I visited quite a
few in Europe.
I'd never been "across the pond", so when the possibility came up that I could combine a tour with visiting a number of friends and clients, I couldn't turn it down. Though travel has never really been at the top of my list of things to do, it turned out to be a fantastic experience that I hope to repeat in a few years.
I always think of clients as friends, and I hope they do the same. Knowing that I might get to use the mirror someday helps keep me highly motivated to do my best work, and also gives me something to look forward to. So, when I travel, I try to visit these new and old friends, and do some observing if possible. This makes the trip better because I'm doing things and socializing with "locals" rather than being a tourist.
I hate being a tourist. Sightseeing for the sake of sightseeing is pointless to me - you have to meet people and see how they live.
What follows will be a LOT of photos, because they are worth a thousand words that most people won't bother to read.
First, though, let me tell you my strategy for dealing with the time difference. Being an amateur astronomer and having attended a lot of star parties, I have no problem staying up quite late at night. So, on the flight over, I tried to nap a bit, but didn't have much luck. One coffee later at Heathrow Airport in London and I was doing OK. When night finally came, I actually had no trouble falling asleep, and I was fairly well adjusted after that. So, try staying up until your first nightfall in Europe, and see how that works for you. It also worked for me on the way home - I just stayed up for the very long day, and then slept well when I finally got home.
The astronomy portion of my trip started out with a fairly short train ride to the central train station in Cologne, Germany. Of course I had to figure out that "Hauptbahnhof" means central train station in German, but I had already seen the word at another point on my tour, and had a hunch it was right.
I arrived and met Matthias Wirth, a talented and detail-oriented telescope builder and afficianado of fine optics whom I had met a couple of times at the Winter Star Party in the Florida Keys. Matthias loves to visit the warm shores of Florida in winter, just like many of us who have become addicted to the 25-degree latitude and steady seeing.
We stashed my luggage in his car. Let me mention that I fit everything I needed into a modest-sized backpack and a one carry-on bag. This makes traveling much simpler, since one is not lugging a huge suitcase around everywhere. Also, I did not take my DSLR on this trip, using a Canon G15 point-and-shoot instead.
The first sight was the famous Cologne cathedral, seen at upper right, but poorly represented by the photo - a picture simply doesn't do the 475-foot tall structure justice! It is truly massive. We briefly walked around inside, but it had been a long day, and it was time to relax a bit.
And what better place to relax than with a good beer along the Rhine. Matthias said this was the best beer, and I wasn't arguing. We watched some people boating and wakeboarding, and I noted the swift current, something I surely wasn't used to when I go waterskiing on a lake. There were also large barges barreling up and down the river, making navigation interesting for smaller boats, no doubt.
Cologne is a typical German city to me as an American - lots of interesting streets, buildings, and bikes, pedestrians and a few motorists all getting along. After a nice outdoor dinner it was off to the observatory to see one of Matthias's creations.
It was a short drive from the restaurant, and we parked near a school. After passing through a gate we went inside and up several flights of stairs to the roof, upon which sat a wooden dome that is full of character.
The shutters pivot open in a unique manner, as can be seen in the photo at right, where Matthias stands in front of it for scale. The telescope is seen through the slit, but doesn't look that large.
The beautiful 24" Cassegrain can be seen in its full glory below, and it is truly magnificent, with nice machining and good optics.
A wooden bench rings the inside of the observatory building, helping to get observers out of the way a bit when there are lots of people around. Of course the seeing is degraded by the body heat, but that's what you often get with a dome. Matthias tells me, though, that he has had nights of absolutely superb seeing on top of this roof, no doubt when there aren't too many people in the dome.
Below I included a shot from the dome after dark - not many observatories have a brightly lit tall building just across the road. Oh well, at least there should be some interesting things to look at through those windows on a cloudy night!
We looked at a few bright deep-sky objects, a double star or two, and Saturn, and it was clear that the telescope had very nice optics (Zerodur substrate, I believe) to go with the excellent mechanics. A few of Matthias's friends stopped by to say hello and observe a bit, so it was a nice, relaxed evening.
Quite tired, Matthias had found a place for me to stay for the night, and in the morning he took me back to the train station where I continued on to my next destination - Belgium.
I was about to get a crash course in European train travel. I couldn't recall ever taking a train for transportation, and I was looking forward to not being crammed into a plane for several hours. Trains generally run on time, and it's not too difficult to figure out the system.
The photo above shows some of scenic Belgium through the train window. I think I changed trains twice on this leg of the trip, and even with the first train being delayed a bit by heat-related problems (there had been a couple of weeks of record heat just before this), I still made the connections with no problems.
I felt slightly more at home in Belgium, since I was in the French-speaking part and I had studied French in high school for four years. Granted I had forgotten most of it, but I was able to read the signs with no problem and order lunch. I had some time to spare in a station somewhere along the way and I remember thinking this was the first time I'd had some time on my own to just sit and relax for a while. The break was refreshing after a fairly full schedule of activities, and I listened to music as the countryside rolled by.
A couple of trains later I walked into the station and met Hugues Laroche, a client and telescope builder. He has a couple of primary mirrors and flats that I made for him a number of years ago.
The photo above was a joke - I certainly enjoy good beer, but I don't drink that much. I do like to sample, though. We sampled many of these, not just Hugues and I, but also his family. Through dinner and trying to speak some French, I forgot all about taking pictures, which was a good thing socially, but I didn't manage to get any photos of his telescopes, etc. I did manage, though, to have a great evening of conversation with him and his very kind family, whom I hope to visit again. There should also be a couple of large telescopes to play with in the future!
Hugues sent me some photos after I got home, and below you can see the upper cage assembly for his 26" scope. A much larger instrument is in the works, being built here in the USA, tested thoroughly, and then shipped to Europe. I would love to take it to a star party here in the US, but I'm not sure we can easily transport it!
The next day it was on to the Netherlands, to visit Jan Van Gastel.
After making some last-minute itinerary changes to other parts of my trip, Hugues and I got to the train station just in time for me to make the first of my FIVE trains that would get me to Jan's neighborhood near Amsterdam. I only had one tight connection, and I want to apologize to the person that I nearly ran over trying to get to the escalator. To that person - please don't block the stairs, people have trains to catch, and I really didn't understand what you yelled at me in French, speak more slowly next time, s'il vous plait. I made it to my train with a couple of minutes to spare, and found out later there would have been another one without too much delay if I had missed it.
One leg featured a very modern train with wifi - that allowed me to make the last of my final travel arrangements for a side trip to visit a non-astronomer friend.
I had made a 20" mirror for Jan some time ago, and he is quite the mirror maker himself. His machine is seen below. He met me at the nearby train station.
He also builds his own telescopes, has made many mirrors, and has been known to refigure a mirror or two. His web site can be found here.
Jan is seen at right with his very lightweight, minimalist 12" scope, with his mirror in it. He's an avid runner, and stays quite fit. Since he is retired he has plenty of time to do all of those things.
It was cloudy while I visited, so we didn't do any observing. We had dinner at a very interesting restaurant - kind of the European version of a buffet, deli, and restaurant all under one roof. Just pick up whatever looks good, go to the cashier, and enjoy your meal.
After a nice walk around the local area for some exercise, we talked telescopes, optics, and enjoyed a good beer. This was timed well, because during the evening it began to rain a bit, and the next morning was kind of damp. Definitely not astronomy weather, but it's what you'd expect not too far from the ocean.
Jan doesn't live that far from the Amsterdam airport, and the next morning he was kind enough to drive me there so I could catch a flight off to my next destination - southern Norway and Sweden, where I would visit a friend, relax, and do a bit of waterskiing. (Next time I'll have to catch up with a Swedish client who has a 30" f/3.6 mirror from me.)
Then it was back to Munich, Germany for some serious astronomy.
This is what breakfast looks like when you visit Stathis Kafalis.
It's a fantastic mix of German food and Greek food, and it really hit the spot! Stathis is Greek originally, but now lives in Germany. He can bike hundreds of kilometers in a day, and he has made quite a few mirrors and telescopes. He is enthusiastic, full of energy, and a great host. The English version of his web page can be found here. He also sells good-quality mirror blanks to ATMs in Europe.
On my first evening in Munich, we toured the facilities of the Munich Astronomy Club. It is an amazing space, with rooftop observatories, a control room for the telescopes, workshops for mirror making and machining, a dining room and beer storage area (!), a small planetarium, a presentation room, a small "museum" with exhibits, and more rooms that I have probably forgotten about!
The planetarium projector is seen at right - it's not large, but I took a photo of the control panel to show to one of our astronomy club members, who often runs a larger planetarium.
It was the most amazing facility that I have ever seen for an astronomy club, and it makes sense that this club has a large number of members.
We're talking multiple floors of a good-sized building here, with a labyrinth of hallways, stairways, strange doorways, and lots of unique features. It is hard to describe, so here are some photos.
Let's start with the rooftop observatories. Of course after some record heat, the weather when I got there was cool and rainy, and of course cloudy.
If I remember correctly, there were five or six telescopes on the roof of this building.
There were some really impressive instruments here, such as a folded 10" f/16 Shear APO-refractor refractor on the right, and a 7" f/16 non-folded one at left.
This building housed a 32" f/10 Cassegrain with 2 Nasmth foci on a computerized alt/az mount, in an extremely compact building. It was so small I couldn't get a good photo of the entire telescope with my camera.
Of course I was the only one wearing shorts, expecting the same warm weather that had been around just before. Oh well, it wasn't that cold. Some more of the domes and buildings are seen behind us. I may or may not be holding a beer behind my back.... remember this is Germany.
Look at all the astro-stuff! So much that it makes Stathis smile. He smiles a lot, though, and is one of the most positive people I met on the trip.
Yes, that's right, a nice meeting room with huge astrophotos on the wall, and a projector for presentations, talks etc. Overall, an amazing facility, unrivaled by any club I have been in.
After a nice tour and a good beer, it was time for dinner.... in Munich.... at a Greek restaurant.
Yes, that's right, Greek food in Munich, and it was really good, too!
Stathis picked the restaurant because of his heritage, and we had a great meal. A thin Pyrex casting was passed around to show one glass-melter's handiwork, and a travel telescope emerged from a backpack, assembled right on the table!
I was truly among kindred spirits.
This telescope was made by Martin Brückner, who brought it to dinner with him! It was fun to watch it go together, and I don't think anyone in the restaurant batted an eye. It is seen in the fourth photo on this page, as well as in this thread on a German site. What a memorable dinner.
Soon it was time to head back to Stathis's apartment and get some sleep for more adventures the next day, which would prove to be quite memorable too. Below, on his Munich balcony, an again-smiling Stathis shows a blank that he has in stock.
I awoke to a beautiful sunny day with pleasant temperatures. The rain had brought in some nicer weather, and after another deliciously mixed German/Greek breakfast, it was time to head south to southern Germany and Bavaria.
Picture-postcard scenery rolled by as we drove, heading closer to the German Alps with every mile.
Our destination was on top of this mountain, known as the Wendelstein.
And how to get to the top? Take the cable car, of course.
Other options for getting to the top were a cog railway and hiking up. The cable car was probably the most scenic. Houses, huts, farm animals, meadows and trees glided beneath us as we ascended.
This shot looks down on the valley floor where the station is.
This is the view from the level where the cable car stops, standing in front of a small church that sits at this level. The very top is a short hike up a couple hundred more meters of switchbacks on a foot trail. It was a good workout.
Above left is a map of the peak, and at right Volker threatens to go off the trail and take a shortcut.
We wound our way up the trail, steep in places (left side of the map above), up a bunch of switchbacks shown in the photo above until finally reaching the top, at an elevation of 1838 meters. A professional two-meter telescope resides there, but it is not open for tours.
So what did we do at the top? We ate cookies of course, and enjoyed the spectacular view and beautiful weather.
Above left is the observatory dome behind Stathis, Frank, and Volker. In front of them, inscriptions in a stone table shows the distances and directions of various mountain peaks that are visible from the top. Above at right, Frank does some observing during the daytime. It really was a nice place to just sit, relax, and look.
Finally it was time to descend, taking the trail around the backside of the peak which would bring us back to the cable car station. It was time to meet up with Marc, who would be taking me to Austria for some high-altitude observing.
We met up with Marc (second from left) at the bottom, and went just down the road for some dinner.
I know, I know, there are too many photos of food on the internet, but I couldn't resist this one. I substituted veggies for fries, and the burger was great. Now it was time to add another country to my trip list - Austria.
This is really a beautiful part of the world. No, that's not snow - these mountains weren't quite tall enough for that, but there would be snow at our final destination, the Edelweissspitze, where we would set up Marc's 24" f/3.3 telescope and observe for the night. This is a tall mountain peak with a parking lot at the top, where people often stayed overnight and set up telescopes. Elevation is 8441 feet!
At this point it started getting a bit dark, and I was saving my camera's battery for the evening and night-time shots. We arrived at our hotel not too far away, and drove back up to get the telescope set up.
Above, Marc and a friend wave. The telescopes would be set up just past the camper that was set up for the night, back by the benches.
Here I am on the somewhat windy upper observation area overlooking the parking lot, right where the previous photo was taken from. There was just enough light to get this photo. I am getting ready to put on some more layers to stay almost warm. Luckily the wind calmed down a bit for our night of observing.
As it got darker, looking the other direction from the observation level, my Canon G15 (on a tripod) recorded this image of a lake (Zell am See is the German name, Stathis tells me) and lights far down in the valley below. These were quite far away. As someone who lives in the plains of the United States, I'm not used to looking down on lakes and lights from above.
I tried to take photos with my G15, but it would not expose for longer than one-second (thanks Canon firmware), even with a manual shutter control attached. That was rather irritating.
Luckily, Friedl, a very generous amateur set up next to Marc, had a Canon 5D, the predecessor to my Canon DSLR. He graciously allowed me to borrow it to record some images of a night of observing that was one of the most memorable of my life.
In the image at right, the summer Milky Way streams down into a small amount of light pollution.
Marc pointed out that this light was not from Austria - it was in fact from Italy!
We weren't that far from the Italian Alps, after all.
Don't get me wrong - this site was dark and had excellent transparency. It was clearly worth the long drive.
Marc is seen observing with his 24" f/3.3, with my optics, telescope built by Tom Osypowski of Equatorial Platforms.
This is a superb, all-metal telescope that breaks down into very manageable pieces for transport. All that is needed is a short step-stool, like Marc stands on in the photo.
At right, part of Friedl's scope can be just be seen in front of the mountain peak.
At left, Uwe Glahn uses his 27" scope to observe high in the summer sky.
Obviously he has a bit taller observing ladder.
The views through Uwe's scope were very, very nice. I wish I had gotten to use it more.
I observed through the evening with Marc, and munched on some cookies that I had bought at a shop on the way to the mountains.
However, as 1 am came along, I simply couldn't stay awake or stay warm. A good amount of traveling, the altitude, and cold combined to drive me into Marc's van where I warmed up under a blanket or two and napped. It could not be counteracted with caffeine - I was simply beat.
While I slept, Marc tracked down many faint objects without a goto system and without a tracking system. That is dedication, especially given the altitude. He did, however, have warmer clothing than I did, despite the many layers people had loaned me. I simply hadn't had space to pack clothing for ~32F temperatures in the middle of a summer of record heat in Germany.
After a few hours the zodiacal light and the light of dawn began to reach up over the partially snow-covered eastern peaks, a sight I had not seen before. Our memorable night in the Alps was drawing to a close. It was time to pack up the van. Despite the cold, I had enjoyed it thoroughly.
In my sleepy state, operating on half a brain, I helped Marc disassemble his telescope, and we made the short drive to the hotel where we got some sleep before we were awakened mid-morning and told to come get breakfast so they could clean up the dining room! So much for sleeping in, but Marc had to get back home at a reasonable hour. As usual, breakfast was much more elaborate and had far more choices than at most American hotels, and this is the norm in Europe. I enjoyed most the smoked salmon that I found at many hotels, in addition to countless other foods.
After packing up we drove back up to the top of the mountain past where we were observing. It was now filled with cars, motorcycles, and cyclists heading up and down the long, steep incline. I can only imagine biking up the entire mountain - I doubt I would ever have enough time to get myself into that kind of shape. Absolutely amazing.
The descent down the north side of the mountain is the most scenic road I have ever traveled. While Marc drove, I shot photo after photo of the beautiful Austrian alps. Above a sign marks turn or curve 11, at an altitude of 2155 meters. I don't recall how many curves there were, but I think it was close to 20.
The image above shows the road with cars and motorcycles ascending while we go the other way. This was morning, so most people were coming up. I am told that traffic can become quite bad on this road, so we were trying to get down and out of the area without getting caught in too much traffic because Marc needed to get home at a reasonable time.
It was fantastic to have the time during the drive to talk to Marc and absorb the scenery of a beautiful part of the world. I want to thank Marc for taking me along on this trip and sharing his telescope, I truly will never forget it, and I am very grateful to have met him and to have had the opportunity to spend the night observing. I know his observing time is scarce, so thank you Marc for sharing your free time with me and for making my trip so memorable. I am truly proud to have produced a mirror that is being used by a very knowledgeable, dedicated observer under excellent skies. Experiencing things like this makes my efforts worth-while.
All good things must come to an end. Above was my last meal in Germany - potato salad, a weiss beer, and a tasty dessert. I thought it was fitting, and couldn't resist as I sat waiting for my flight to London, and then the longer flight home.
This was truly a memorable trip, and I hope to go back in a few years. Thank you so much to everyone that I met, and to those who were all so kind and gracious (which is basically everyone).
Thank you Matthias, Stathis, Hugues, Jan, Frank, Marc, Volker, Uwe, Friedl, and everyone else that I met. It is inspiring to see astronomy so alive and well on the European continent, and I only just scratched the surface of what is going on there. I hope to see some more of it in the future.
-Mike Lockwood, Lockwood Custom Optics