Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Pure Essence of Germany

After Zurich, Pat and Bill and J and I embarked on a week's expedition in search of the essential Germany -- the idyllic landscapes of castles and lederhosen-clad farmer-brewers of nineteenth-century romantic poets' dreams.

** Academic's disclaimer: Ok, in case you didn't guess by now, I'm being flippant. For the record, all cultures, ethnic identities, religions, marriage laws, and sports governing bodies are social constructions, and I can't stand it when anyone throws around the term "natural" [exception: it is in fact natural for humans to eat meat]. And it was a cult of the essential Germany that, um, helped get the country in so much trouble. Btw, if you want a hilariously irreverent but still sympathetic book that playfully skewers Germans' obsession with their distant past (often not as distant as imagined), I highly recommend Simon Winder's Germania. It's been the ideal accompaniment to our journeys.

Our quest began close to home, indeed comically close to home considering we almost managed to get lost on a 3k hike departing from the Max Planck. Getting lost in German forests is hard to do: they are extremely managed (Brent says that every tree has been mapped), and they provide a bench suitable for a coffee pause (if not a restaurant) every few hundred yards or so. Poor trail markings behind us, we enjoyed a mystical first view of the Bebenhausen Monastery as it suddenly appeared in the valley through the trees.

(Photo credit: city of Tübingen. Kein sky that day. No leaves on the trees, for that matter.)

Not bad for the edge of town -- our local twelfth-century church.

By the nineteenth century, however, part of Bebenhausen Monastery (a victim of the Reformation) had been converted into a gaudy hunting lodge for the King of Württenburg.

From Tübingen, we embarked on a road trip in the essential German car: a diesel Mercedes (two days, 190 or $250). Our first stop was Ulm, which has the tallest church spire in the world and a very crooked house (see below). I think I could have captured the whole Münster if I had lain down on the square, but it was way too cold for that.

At lunch we didn't have enough Bargeld (great word for cash), and, this being Germany, even the nice Spanish restaurant wouldn't accept credit cards. I mean, we're not talking Discover Card here; J and I have an EC debit card from a German Bank! It then took two trips across the square to secure cash -- two because yours truly had some trouble on trip one with the machine, the details of which will remain shrouded in mystery.

The highlight of Ulm was the Museum of Bread Culture. There's nothing more essentially German than its bread. And just when you think you've seen all the Brueghel paintings known to woman ...

And lest you think that Brueghel wasn't German, let me note that Lotharingia (a political entity created after the Treaty of Verdun in 843) encompassed Germany and the Low Countries. I got pretty excited by all the other art at the bread museum, too.

Good thing bakers no longer blow a horn when their bread is ready. If they did that today, given the bakery on every corner, between the horns and the church bells everyone would go insane here. The pizza painting is Claes Oldenberg. This is the second Oldenberg reference in 50 entries.

But if you want to talk essence of Germany, my favorite was the old picture of a Bretzel baker.

Das Museum der Brotkultur concluded with a Malthusian exhibit about the global food supply, complete with our second population clock of the trip and a painting, "The Last Meal," obviously critiquing the West's hoarding of world resources. I mean, what do Germans think: that if everyone on Earth consumed as we in the WEIRD world do, we'd need more than 4 planets or something?

We loved Ulm's Fishermen's Quarter's quintessentially winding canals.

Gratuitous picture of an Ulm Westie.

After Ulm we proceeded to the mother-of-all romantic destinations in Germany: that famous Disneyland-esque castle -- Neuschwanstein -- you remember seeing on posters in your local travel agency, back when travel agencies still existed (actually, they seem to be surviving around here). And actually, forget about Disneyland-esque: this place really did inspire the Cinderella Castle in Disney World. In any event, at this moment I understood German Romanticism. Nothing had prepared us for the unbelievable beauty of this castle nestled next to a pristine, bright blue lake in the soaring and still-snow-covered German Alps.

Oh right. We were completely fogged in. It was so foggy that we couldn't see a single tree looking out the upstairs windows in the castles. Here's what Neuschwanstein and, below, its sister castle, Hohenschwangau, are supposed to look like. 

I dunno, though, maybe fog is sort of Romantic ...

And at least with the fog you can't see the unbelievable tourist-trap set-up at the base of the castles. 

One experience in the town of Füssen, the gateway to the castle, was unabashedly and purely German, all irony and facetiousness aside. Here I tried two beers that were truly sublime (I also had my second Paulener Pils of the trip, which I hereby vow never to drink again due to its lack of flavor; amazing that it still somehow scores pretty well on Beer Advocate). The first was the Doppel-Hirsh by HirschBrau Höss, a brewery in Sonthofen, the town near Oberstdorf in the far South nearby which, the old women on the train tried to convince us, Hitler was imprisoned. For those of you worried I have been striking a surprisingly negative note about German beer culture, let me say that German doppelbocks are terrific. This one was World Class.

The other was a Kellerbier from Kulmbach Brewery, in the northeastern corner of Bavaria near the Czech border. Kulmbach is famous for its castle, which has the largest tin soldier in the world, at least if Wikipedia is correct. Kellerbier, an unfiltered, unpasteurized cloudy lager, is a Bavarian specialty, one of those wonderfully indigenous-to-Germany varieties proving that Pils only scratch the surface. But look, I can find great bottles of beer in Utah and Kansas. What's it going to take to get this stuff vom Fass at the average restaurant here? Anyone want to franchise an Old Chicago with me?

Our essentialist journey ended in Stuttgart, where we visited the very well done Mercedes Museum. After Pat and Bill headed for the airport, we walked around Stuttgart proper for the first time. The fact that we could find almost-American pillows revealed that the place is not pure Germany, but rather a major international city.

Sadly, however, Stuttgart's rebuilt historic area -- even the churches were largely destroyed -- is as quintessentially German as anything we saw on the trip, a reminder that the recent past should not be sacrificed to the distant. 

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