Thursday, September 20, 2012
It’s the journey, not just the destination that counts. Sometimes, on the way to doing something else, you do something you never expected, and it changes you. You learn things, your mood changes, and you see everything around you in a new light.
So it was for us, on the way from something else, to something else, that we happened upon Leistadt in Germany’s Rhine wine valley. It was a perfectly beautiful Sunday morning, just at the beginning of the “new wine” time of year and at the end of summer. We were driving along the narrow main street, craning our necks, dodging the other cars and longing to stop and look at each house in the village. And because we had the time, and it was a lovely morning, we parked at the other end, and walked nearly every street, marveling and photographing.
Leistadt is a very old town surrounded by vineyards in the southern Rhine valley, about an hour’s drive from our home in Karlsruhe. This part of the Rhine valley, also known as the Palatinate or Pfalz region, is blessed with the nicest weather in Germany, and Leistadt is believed to be one of the sunniest towns there. The Pfalz region was occupied long ago by Roman soldiers who planted grape vines on the gently sloping hillsides. Leistadt is said to date back to the 6th century, but the evidence must be purely archeological because the village first appears in written records in the 13th century, and none of the buildings dates back before the village was completely sacked by the French in 1689.
But then it was rebuilt, and today many of its 300-year-old houses are summer and weekend retreats for the wealthy of western Germany’s larger cities. The homes are generally courtyard style, built directly off the sidewalk but sheltering a private garden and patio area within their walls. Most houses were impeccably painted, planted, and maintained. And it seems everyone in Leistadt has grapevines flourishing out of even the smallest bit of dirt available.
Several passersby made the mistake of asking us (in German) for directions to a local site: the Bismarck Tower, or the hiking paths. As soon as I opened my mouth to say that I had no idea, they knew me for a foreigner and clearly wanted to kick themselves for picking me to ask for directions. Leistadt, like many small towns in the Rhine valley, is surrounded by paths to give hikers and cyclists access to the surrounding Palatinate hills. The trails lead past Celtic and Roman ruins, to ruined castles, through areas of geological interest, and always amidst areas of great natural beauty. The vistas from many hiking paths are said to be breathtaking. A wonderful month or two could be spent hiking the Rhine valley trails.
Vineyard vista, from the edge of Leistadt.
Above is the Leistadt Rathaus, or Town Hall, built in 1730.
Small rustic cafes along the way are a part of the hikers’ goal. Naturally, they serve some local white wines, often as a “schoerle” (which we would call a wine cooler or spritzer), and local delicacies such as Winzersteak ( or “wine-makers steak”, a boneless pork chop marinated in Riesling and grilled with onions) or Leberknoedel (liver dumplings) with sauce or sauerkraut. Fortified with such filling treats, a hiker would have strength to complete the loop trail, whether it’s 2 miles or 20.
However, we were not to see any vistas yet, and were content with the views we got of the charming homes and courtyards of tiny Leistadt. Having walked from one end to the other, and worked up a little sweat, we were happy to get into our air-conditioned rental car and continue on our way, changed by the unexpected.
Friday, September 14, 2012
Who knew? We, exhausted from our economy class flight from Boston to Frankfurt, thought we’d muddle around Karlsruhe, scraping together enough food for Monday breakfast, and trying to stay awake long enough to beat jet lag. But Karlsruhe knew better. It planned a beer and food festival for the day of our arrival, and situated it in our backyard, the grounds of the Schloss Karlsruhe.
After unpacking, and taking an all-too-short nap, we set out to walk with some non-essential goal, mostly to keep from sleeping away the whole day. Music we could not avoid identifying as a live band drew us towards the grounds of the Schloss, just to see what kind of a party the locals were throwing there. Stunned, as we entered the greenspace, we saw tents—and more tents—dispensing such beloved German treats as flavored almonds, lebkuchen with sayings like “My Sweetest” or “World’s Best Grandma”, smoked sausages—and yes, beer. As we strolled among the tents, we realized it wasn’t just a tent or two selling beer, it was dozens, selling beers not just from the big local brewhouses, but also beautifully crafted small batch brewers, and also such exotic lands as Scotland, and the Czech Republic. And Poland. We’d entered Beer and Pork Wonderland.
You could buy a cute little one-ounce glass, curvaceously shaped like a wheat beer glass, and bring it to any beer vendor for a low-cost taste of one of their offerings. What a way for a couple of jet-lagged, stressed-out Americans to readjust to life in Germany! We were able to sample several offerings before exhaustion took over.
We couldn’t help noticing that many of the food and beverage tents used a medieval décor theme. Eventually, even my jet-lagged brain realized that there was a simple reason for this: many of Germany’s breweries date back to the Middle Ages, when monks developed recipes still used today. Many beers are called “Klosterbrau” (or “Monastery Brew”), boast of origins several centuries back, and term their product “heavenly”! Such a long and proud tradition may in part explain Germany’s comfort with public drinking. After all, if the monks made it, it seems at least endorsed by the Church.
All summer in the US, we’ve tried to eat foods we’d be hard-pressed to find or prepare in Germany. We must have succeeded because we now discovered we had a craving for exactly the pork specialties we encountered today! There were many varieties of sausages, with curry sauce and without, but best of all the hams, delicately smoked, skin sizzling from the rotisserie, tender and juicy. The lines were longest at the ham vendor, but the meat was well worth the wait.
There were also bands playing at either end of the lawn, so that their styles didn’t conflict. Grandparents, parents, children and teenagers, all danced to the same music. Therein lies a key to the European enjoyment of food and drink festivals: if you dance, you burn calories! You also get pretty tired, and before nightfall, we strolled back to our little apartment, and slept well for our first night back in Germany.