‘An unpaid internship was like an investment’

In the latest instalment of My German Career, The Local spoke with Costa Rican architect Roberto Ovalle about mastering the language, and how German bureaucracy can be both a blessing and a hindrance in the building world.

'An unpaid internship was like an investment'
Photo: DPA

Ovalle studied in Norway before making the move over to Bielefeld, a city tucked up in the north-eastern corner of North Rhine-Westphalia. After a prolonged search, he managed to secure a job working in an architecture firm and a German wife but is still weighing up whether to move back to Costa Rica.

Where are you located and what do you do?

I’m originally from Costa Rica but these days I live in Sennestadt, a suburb outside of Bielefeld in North Rhine-Westphalia. I studied architecture in Norway and I am lucky to be working as a design architect in a local firm here in Sennestadt.

What brought you to Germany and how long have you been here?

I came here because I got married to a German. I have been here two and a half years now but before things got serious with my now-wife, I never even imagined learning German, let alone moving to Bielefeld!

How did you land your job and do you have tips for anyone seeking similar work?

I looked and looked and looked! As simple as it sounds, I googled architecture offices around my region and started writing emails to all the ones I found interesting. The majority didn’t reply, but eventually I found an internship in Münster (I had to commute three hours every day but it was worth it), and after a couple of months I found the position I am in now. Architecture is very different from fields like IT or engineering, my first recommendation is – surprise surprise – to learn the language. Very few architecture offices in this country work in English (or Spanish, my native language), so you must learn the language and try as hard as you can with the technical vocabulary. Another tip is to start small, in my case with an unpaid internship. I saw it as an investment: I’d live on a very tight budget for a while but I sharpened my language and professional skills.

Is it important for you to be able to speak German in your position?

Not only is it important, it’s the only way to work. Being an architect, you have to speak with everyone from clients and authorities to engineers and craftsmen, and be able to understand their needs and requirements. Also, speaking the language, even with a very strong accent and evident mistakes, shows people that you take what you do seriously.

What are the key differences practising your profession here versus in your home country?

The amount of regulations, codes and guidelines involved in designing almost anything in Germany can be overwhelming. There are guidelines for things I didn’t even know existed. While this keeps the standards of work very high, sometimes these regulations can become goals in themselves instead of serving a purpose. And of course, in my country one of the main problems to solve is how to keep the warmth out, while here it’s how to keep it in!

What are the best and worst parts about working in Germany?

The best thing about working in Germany is that the quality of technical work is regarded with high esteem everywhere in the world – which is great for your CV. I can’t think of much particularly negative about being an architect specifically here, as in my experience architects in Germany face the same challenges that architects all over the world have to deal with.

Do you plan on staying?

It’s hard to tell. To have a job in my field in Europe in the middle of the current economic crisis is a great feeling but I do dream of doing something for my country.

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Weekend Wanderlust: From water to wine in the Rhineland’s beautiful Boppard

After nine months of living in beer-obsessed Munich, I was ready to delve into the delights of another of Germany’s fine alcoholic products and explore the country's wine-growing haven.

Weekend Wanderlust: From water to wine in the Rhineland's beautiful Boppard
Steep slopes besides the Rhine provide extensive views of the valley. Photo: DPA

Located close to student cities such as Mainz and Bonn, Boppard is in the western state of Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate).

Although I had already seen the German town in the depths of winter, I knew a visit in early summer was necessary to get the full experience, so I visited a friend who was living there for her year abroad.

Internationally recognized beauty

Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2002, the so-called romantischer Mittelrhein (romantic middle Rhine) denotes the steep Rhine gorge stretching between Bingen and Bonn. The dramatic landscape is scattered with a deluge of small towns nestled in amongst its natural beauty.

Directly on the river Rhine and surrounded by vineyards, Boppard is well-known as a wine-growing centre and provides an idyllic setting for a relaxing weekend away.

Ancient history

Upon my arrival in Boppard, Roman ruins on the outskirts of the town centre reminded me that this now thoroughly Germanic town was in fact once inhabited by Germany’s neighbours to the south. Indeed, it is assumed it was the Romans who first planted vineyards in this area and started the over 2000-year long tradition of wine production.

READ ALSO: 10 beautiful and secluded German villages that everyone has to visit

Aside from the 4th Century castellet on the town’s outskirts and the pervasive presence of wine-growing as the town’s primary economic driver, little else remains of the Roman influence as the ruins give way to traditional German timber framed buildings dating from the 17th Century onwards.

Why wine?

High levels of sunlight help with the wine-growing process in this region. Photo: DPA.

As a wine growing region, the Mittelrhein is best known for its Bopparder Hamm wine, most commonly made from Riesling, Rivaner and Spätburgunder (meaning late ripening pinot) grapes.

The area lends itself to grape growing by virtue of the Rhine valley’s steep slopes as well as the slate soil’s fertility and heat-retaining qualities. 

The wine-making tradition which the Romans started has been kept alive by many of the town’s residents past and present. 12th Century monks were responsible for planting a significant number of vineyards, many of which are still in use today.

Whilst wandering Boppard’s cobbled Gassen (alleys) I lost count of the number of Weingüter (wineries) that I encountered and, luckily for wine enthusiasts, there are a plethora of ways you can enjoy the beverage this area produces.





Let's drink a glass or two 😉 near the @hunsruecker_hof_cityhotel

A post shared by Hanna Leheida (@hanna_leheida) on Jun 13, 2019 at 5:00am PDT

Most of the town’s wineries offer a 30-minute wine-tasting experience where you can try three local wines and find out about them in more detail. Head to 'Vineum' Weingut to try Eiswein (ice wine). This dessert wine owes its name to the vines from which it is produced from. The grapes freeze during the winter months, giving the wine its distinctive taste.

Some of the wineries even offer guest rooms if you want to stay as close as possible to your favourite beverage. The award-winning Weingut 'Weinhaus Heilig Grab' doubles as a hotel and boasts of being Boppard’s oldest winery.

More of a night owl? Night time wine tours see you led by a expert with a cart of wine around the town. Surprisingly, this runs even in winter, when the town is otherwise rather sleepy and some wineries close.

Sat at the Bellevue hotel with a delicious glass of Riesling, watching the sun set over the wooded valley whilst the golden hues filtered through the valley and reflected on the Rhine’s waters, it was easy to see why the adjective ‘romantic’ is so readily applied to this part of Germany.

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Food to match the wine

For a relatively small town, Boppard has a large number of good quality restaurants. Particularly notable is 'Severus Stube' where we ate on my first night in Boppard. Located on one of Boppard's tiny alleys and featuring low ceilings and dark wooden beams, its appearance is certainly very old-fashioned, while the food mixes traditional and modern. This restaurant even has a vegan option.

The 'Richard von Cornwall' restaurant offers hearty fare in a clean-cut and modern space. As would be expected from any respectable German restaurant, Spargel (asparagus) featured prominently on this restaurant’s early summer menu.

A number of Italian restaurants line the town’s promenade and Café Zeitgeist offered excellent Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) as a mid-afternoon treat.

Roaming along the Rhine

Boppard’s valley location makes it is a walker’s paradise. After an energizing brunch at the Chocobar café on Boppard’s main square the following day, we took the Hunsrückbahn, a tiny one-carriage train, to Emmelshausen.

We got off the train at what was more of a field than a train station and swiftly found the signs for the Hunsrückbahn Wanderweg (Hunsrückbahn walk) which we followed down the valley.

Shrouded by woodland and dotted with wandering brooks and delicate wildflowers, the relatively steep walk provided some respite from the glaring sunlight. We eventually emerged from the wooded right side of the valley to a magnificent view of the Rhine and Boppard itself.

The town’s medieval façade rose up against the deep green of the wooded right side of the valley, while vineyards on the valley's slopes dominated the left side. In the distance, the remains of a number of medieval castles were visible to the eagle eyed.

READ ALSO: Weekend Wanderlust: A pilgrimage to Germany's sacred sites

Medieval marketplace

Upon our return to Boppard we encountered the Hamburger Fischmarkt (Hamburg Fish Market) which livened up the Marktplatz (market square) with fish and delicatessen vendors.

Throughout the year a variety of events arrive in Boppard's main square to entertain locals and tourists alike. If you are a fan of Zwiebel (onions) Boppard hosts a Zwiebelmarkt (onion market) annually in September, a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages when merchants would bring their wares on boats to sell in the Stadt.

The market square is also the focal point of the town’s bi-annual wine festivals.

Valley views

On the Sunday we took the Sesselbahn (chairlift) up to the Vierseenblick (four lake view). Contrary to the name, this does not provide a view of four lakes but rather four parts of the Rhine which appear as separate lakes.

If sitting on a chairlift for 15 minutes is too static an option then it is also possible to hike up to the view. A steep path which runs directly below the chairlift is popular with mountain bikers and hikers alike.

The view was a spectacle of undulating landscape and we took it in from one of the two restaurants located at the top.

Budget-friendly boat trips





When in Germany ??

A post shared by Madelyne Barba (@madelynebarba) on Jun 19, 2019 at 7:00am PDT

After so many stunning views of the Rhine it would be a shame to not spend some time on Germany’s second longest river. There are many ways to enjoy the water and cruising along the Rhine does not have to break the bank.

If you purchase the Rheinland-Pfalz ticket, which allows up to five people to travel anywhere in the Bundesland for 24 hours, you can hitch a ride on the car ferry from St Goar to St Goarshausen as part of the ticket. We did this on the way back from a trip to Rüdesheim am Rhein, a more touristy but still beautiful winemaking town.

READ ALSO: Weekend Wanderlust: Getting my feet wet in Wiesbaden

This ferry ride was a mere four-minute experience but still gives you a taste of travelling on the Rhine and was the option we chose as students wanting to prioritize wine over the water with our more limited budgets. This ticket is particularly worthwhile if you are considering travelling out of Boppard to the other side of the Rhine. A a lack of bridges connecting the two sides of the Rhine means getting a ferry is often the only choice.

A number of boat trips leave from Boppard, with a meal included in the price. These normally end at another small town along the Rhine, giving you the opportunity to discover more of the area.

Boat trips from Boppard normally provide visitors with a view of the mythologised Lorelei. Reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the Lorelei is often called a mermaid but is more akin to a siren.

The Lorelei statue stands on a small island in the centre of the river. Shallow waters caused by silt deposition around the island mean that this area is more accident-prone than other parts of the Rhine. As myth would have it, it was a siren named Lorelei who lured sailors and thereby boats to their deaths. This myth holds a strong place in German culture and is the basis of one of Heinrich Heine’s most popular poems about the eponymous woman, ‘Lorelei.’

If you do plan a visit to Boppard, or its beautiful surrounding area, be sure to leave space in your suitcase for wine and a place in your heart for the slow pace of life, spectacular scenery and gorgeous waters of the Rhine. Whether you go with friends, family or a partner, you will certainly appreciate the romantic landscape the region has to offer.

Have you been to this region? Would you like to? Let us know by emailing [email protected]