Sunday, September 09, 2007

Day 4: Meandering through German wine-country

We woke up to dark clouds and another hearty German breaky. I think I was consuming more bread, rolls and crackers than I do in an entire year, but the bread was fresh and seemed to be the thing to do. I was also getting into the cold meats and cheeses, ala continental breakfast.

Throughout the day, we climbed slowly in altitude and it was starting to get chilly.

We were driving through yet more green hills, and saw what looked to be a concorde perched on a building. Despite Betsy’s nagging and flashing, we detoured into a town called Sinsheim, and into the carpark of a huge open air aeronautical museum. There was indeed a concorde perched aloft the building, and all sorts of other planes held by huge metal struts in really interesting positions. Talk about a random place to build a plane museum!

We carried onwards to the town of Tubingen. By this stage it was pizzing down – our first real unpleasant weather of the trip. We finally found a parking spot and headed into the Old Town.

More quaintness, this time with a little river flowing underneath the front doors of a row of houses. They all had little bridges from the footpath to their front doors. Wouldn’t want to take a wrong step after a big night out…We eventually found the main piazza and the huge Rathouse (townhall). It was ornately decorated and like most places in Germany, sprouted little planter boxes of geraniums and other coloured flowers. Other buildings in the piazza had that characteristic Old Town lean about them. I loved the decorative signs and murals on the buildings. It’s just so much nicer than drab grey concrete.

The rain continued to fall, so we headed back out of town to find a hotel. That was only because we couldn’t find one hotel near the centre of town. The “hotel route” signs seemed to take us round the town in loops, and Betsy was madly beeping and flashing. The Greek-family owned Meteora Hotel became our bed for the evening. They even ran a very large Greek-restaurant, which for some reason made me chuckle. The area – reasonably high in the German alps - did not have a particularly Mediterranean feel about it. Surprisingly, we saw a lot of Greek restaurants during the rest of our travels through Germany, Switzerland Italy.

For dinner, we passed on Greek food and set out to find something a bit more German. We came across what looked like a great restaurant – warm and cosy, full of people and a good atmosphere. They said they were full, but we were welcome to try their downstairs restaurant. So off we trotted – down what looked to be the first and only flight of stairs. There were bathrooms, and two other doors, one of which I gave a mighty push and barged into the kitchen. The other door didn’t seem to lead to anything substantial, so we poked around outside in case we had misunderstood. Again, there was another door right round the other side of the building, but with no markings.

We were slightly exasperated at this stage, and went back in to get clear on the instructions. The waitress ushered us out to the loos and insisted that the next door did in fact lead to steps, and to take them all the way to the bottom floor. Right. So…down we ventured…and down some more, and then the dining space appeared. It was completely underground, dimly lit, full of chairs and tables and a couple of patrons, and a huge collection of homely junk. There were old sewing machines, palm trees, barrows of mock fruit, paintings, kitchenware and quite randomly, a big plastic flying duck attached the ceiling. It was very bizarre – hilarious in fact!

The menu looked great – it featured Swabian food, which we discovered was the region we were in. They had the ever-desirable schweinhuxe, which Dad and I decided to have – again. The Swabian version of pork knuckle was different. They called it suckling pig, and instead of roasting the pork to make the fat crackly, they left it soft. While I probably didn’t need any more lard for the day, it was slightly disappointing that there was no crackle, but the pork was delicious and tender. There was sauerkraut galore – also a slightly different version to what we had been eating in the north of Germany. This version was more pureed. And of course, there was spetzle – German noodles that are sort of like long flat pasta, but more randomly shaped cos they’re homemade. All that was covered in rich gravy and washed down with some fine Swabian beer.

The guts and butts were growing by the day, but we were indeed enjoying the food!

Day 3: Here comes Heidelberg

A big hearty German breaky helped the inescapable hangover, although the bendy little roads did not. By about 11am and a few coffees though, we were starting to feel less shoddy. Ten points to Dad who had the unenviable pleasure of driving for the day – and negotiating with Betsy - with a pounding head.

Heidelberg was our destination, and we meandered through green rolling hills laden with vineyards and orchards. They looked to be mainly apples and stone fruits, and the squat trees were absolutely bulging with fruit. European drivers flew past us. We were doing a respectable 90-100kms/hour on secondary roads, but these guys had to be overtaking at speeds of 120-140kms. They do like to go fast!

Heidelberg finally came into view. The Neckar River runs straight down the middle of this predominantly student town, although the side which houses the Old Town and the huge old Schloss was definitely the side to see first. Parking was once again a nightmare, and we had to do a couple of laps of the town before we could find a space. It was interesting to hear a news report that morning that estimated that by next year, more of the world’s population would live in cities than in rural areas. God knows where we’re all going to park in the future.

Anyway…we eventually found a small gasthoff right in the old town – next to a sex shop I might add. The sex shop looked out of place amongst such grand old buildings. A big hot lunch helped to take the final edge off our Rudesheim heads, and we were then ready to tackle the 320-ish stairs to the top of the Schloss. Our guide book noted that this was one of the oldest castles in Germany.

The main castle was being restored, so unfortunately had scaffolding round some of the turrets. Nevertheless, it was immense and stunning. The grounds were lush green and very well kept, and the huge trees looked like they’d been there as long as the castle. The view over the city from the top of the hill was great – I love looking over Old Towns, with their uneven and colourful rooflines. A charming arched bridge crossed the river and Heidelberg’s cathedral seemed to stand out as the centre of town.

The castle had sustained some fairly major damage in the war, and they had left the remains of a huge chunk of turret where it h ad fallen. Amazingly, huge amounts of the castle remained intact, and while we didn’t go inside, people wandered round the turrets and walls. It would have been a historian’s paradise. I just like very old chunks of rock!

We admired yet more view, then made our way down the 320-ish stairs, headed straight for a café to rest the knees and ankles and pigged out on yet another strudel. We were on holidays after all!

We then walked across the pedestrian bridge to the other side of the Neckar, to get some pics of the town and castle from a different perspective. It was quant and quintessentially German.

By dinner time, we were (surprisingly) up for a beer again, and tried more local lager – or pils as they say. We found a quaint little German restaurant full of old musical instruments used as decorations – violin and tuba light shades abounded!

The food, as it had all been, was hearty and yummy. I had a game-stuffed ravioli, although it looked more like a green lasagne. In any case, it was great.

We called in an early night after a final wander back over the bridge, and a peek of the backlit castle. Wunderbah!

Day 2: Get your motor running – driving down the Rhine

The Rhine beckoned and we were up and out early. Mum and Dad had previously been to a small town called Rudesheim, about 30kms north in the wrong direction, but said it was worth seeing. Lonely Planet chose to differ and said Rudesheim was kitsch, overpriced and a tourist drag. So..I was interested to see what it was like.

The satellite navigation system in the car, which had been nick-named “Betsy”, took us off the freeways and onto the little winding roads through small towns and villages. We weren’t in any screaming hurry, with a week to wind our way down to Stresa.

A little car-ferry punted us over the Rhine, straight into Rudesheim, which I loved straight away. Give me kitsch and quaint any day!

Rudesheim fronted the river, and yes, to be sure, a whole bunch of very touristy shops lined the streets. But the buildings were gorgeous and the cobbled little paths screamed to be explored. We had beaten the tourist buses, so got a good look at the place before it really started to heave.

The stunning Boosenburg Castle, which still touted its 12th Century tower, dominated the foreshore, while cruise boats and a train ferried tourists up and down the river. Old castles perched high on the green hills and vineyards – it was fairytale-esque.

Keen to sample the local fare, we decided an apple strudel was in order, and pottered back up the hill into the old town. With cream and icecream, the warm apple strudel was fab. It seemed a fitting early lunch in this gorgeous little town.

We decided at that stage that we liked it so much we’d stay the night, and found a quaint little guest-house right in the centre of town. They were also able to garage the car for the rest of the day and evening, which got it out of the way. We were noticing that parking in these joints was a complete nightmare!

So…free of car and with a bed for the evening, we set about sampling some of the local lager. After a gruelling search for the best pub, we lurched into a little open air biergarten where a band was just setting up.

There were table-loads of oldies boozing away, and then the band started its oom-pa-pa music. They really would have passed as a German band, but we later discovered they were Czech.

Anyway, one drink turned into a round after round, and our drinking buddies at neighbouring tables started to lean over and chat in broken Germanglish, Frenglish and Italinglish. Eventually we all resorted to the universal language of Slur and understood each other perfectly. Many hilarious things happened in that drinking session – much of it captured on blurry video. History will show a bunch of very drunk people singing very loudly for a long time, but for us it was one of those classic afternoons that you simply can’t plan or manufacture. Our fabulous (and cute) Czech oom-pa-pa band finished their 4-hour set and a “woman” (read, mutton dressed as Suzi-Quatro style lamb) and her two band buddies took the stage for the evening session.

How we managed to eat dinner that evening is beyond me. I do recall that it was great food, but I don’t recall how we managed to find our way home. People partied way into the early hours of the next morning, and sang the whole way home. Together with bells that chimed all evening, and raging hangovers, I can safely say that we had been well and truly Rudesheimed!

Day 1: My Big Fat German and Italian Road Trip

My parents are over, and we’ve just started a driving holiday through Western Europe. I shall declare it my Big Fat German and Italian Road Trip.

I arrived in Frankfurt on Thursday evening and met up with some colleagues in the Dow Jones Frankfurt office for lunch. Thanks to Matthias, Frank and Connie for giving me an introductory German lesson, and introducing me to hanuta – yummy chocolate wafer snacks. For Australians, they’re kinda like inside-out Tim Tams.

I caught the train back to Mainz, a sizeable town about 30kms south of central Frankfurt, and reunited with the folks after their 3-day drive through Frrance. We met at the Mainz Hauptbahnhoff, dumped our bags and set off for an afternoon stroll around the Aldstadt (Old Town).

German architecture is quite distinctive – I have no real clue about which period of architectural history it comes from, but it’s colourful and ornate, and really nice to look at.

We made a bee-line for the Rhine – I didn’t realise it was such a wide river – and then mosied our way through narrow cobbled streets into the Aldstadt.

The Domstrasse (cathedral) dominates the square and there are heaps of little pubs and cafés around. The weather was good and heaps of people were out, having a quiet Friday afternoon drink. As we did too.

We were desperate to find somewhere to have schweinhuxe – roast pork knuckle with sauerkraut – which has long since been a favourite pig-out food in our family. Our recollection of pork knuckle from a little Bavarian restaurant in Sydney’s Beverly Hills brings back memories of hugely lardy, crackly pork, lots of gravy and cholesterol overload. But god it’s good!

A few beers into it, we set off in search of schweinhuxe, and our search ended successfully all of five minutes later, when we found a lovely traditional looking restaurant. We confirmed that they served this pork with attitude, and had ordered three before we’d even sat down. Our collective mouths watered.

Our three big shanks of pork arrived pretty quickly, complete with the symphony-inducing sauerkraut and a creamy horseradish dip, which I’d never seen or tasted. It was like white wasabi, and went fantastically well with the meal, although it had that wasabi-like tendency to nearly blow your head off.

This pork knuckle seemed to be a healthier option – not so much dripping with lardy crackle, but there was a good slab of it, and the pork itself was very tasty. More beers, and we toasted many times to the first of what we knew would be a bunch of spectacular German meals.