Saturday, 2 July 2016

"Teutonic Chronicles" 1: Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, Mainz, Ludwigshafen

With this blog post I'm beginning a new range of short updates covering my 3-month stay in Germany. I suspect most followers who'd be interested in following what I'm up to are likely to also be friends with me on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter as well - where I'll probably be posting my own pictures - but I'll try and upload a few images here and there as well (Google ones of where I've been, if nothing else). I've called this blog series "Teutonic Chronicles", which I find rather irritating, unfunny and pretentious, but not *quite* irritating, unfunny and pretentious enough not to use as an umbrella title. So look on this as a sort of Travel Writing. Not quite Bill Bryson; think more a very long-winded postcard.

So, without, further ado: I've been in Germany since late on Wednesday night, making this quite a short entry as it's more of an intro than anything else. Until Monday I'm staying in Neustadt-an-der-Weinstrasse ("new-town on the wine-route"), a charming old town (yes, it's a New Town that's actually an Old Town, founded as it was in the 1200s) in the German federal state of Rheinland-Pfalz. For those who aren't so familiar with the geography of Germany, this is in the south-west - round about that bit just before the big jutting-out chunk in the far south-west where the Black Forest is. We're talking near Mannheim and Heidelberg, and pretty close to the border with France - which you can tell almost straightaway as this feels far more like France than any region of Germany I've been to before. It's not *just* the sun - Berlin can get very hot - but it's the fact that it's the kind of sun you can imagine people drying tomatoes in: a sort of quasi-Mediterranean, South-of-France, olive-trees-of-Sardinia kind of sun. Needless to say, the rather lovely temperature means Rheinland-Pfalz is a great wine-growing region. If you drink Riesling, chances are that it comes from here. Germany's largest Vintners' Parade happens here in September/October and the German Wine Queen is chosen and crowned. And everywhere one goes in Neustadt's charmingly labyrinthine layout, there seem to be vineyard fields around every corner, the vines equally spaced out in huge rows upon rows like an upbeat, spring-time version of graves in a graveyard: the Bible doesn't actually say "we die and feed the soil, and the soil gives forth the grape", but, y'know, it should do. Little hamlets and farmsteads blur together with the edges of the centre. It's the sheer amount of green space here that lends it this distinctive aspect. It's a town, yes (around 55,000 people live here), but it feels like a town that the countryside is gently colonising, and that creates a lovely effect. Neustadt has lovely old streets in its centre, with attractive Tudor-style houses - no really, I've only seen houses of quite the same design in Stratford-upon-Avon - and a pleasing sense of history (the oldest surviving house dates to the 14th century, I think). In a word: idyllic.

On Thursday I also had the great pleasure of going to Mainz, the "Haupstadt" or capital of Rheinland-Pfalz, also a tremendously historic place. One of the medieval texts I studied last year refers to the Mainzer Hoffest of 1184, in which the French and German scholars, poets and merchants, traded knowledge - so it's safe to say it's a city that's been around a bit. The truth is that Mainz goes back even longer: dating back to before the Holy Roman Empire (the one that was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire: I think one of the first things history teaches us is never pay attention to names) and, indeed, into the military expansion of the Romans themselves. It was founded in the 1st century BC on the banks of the Rhine, and is probably most famous for being the home of the first printing press with movable type, courtesy of one Mr Gutenberg, Esq., in the 1450s. This latter event is commemorated in the Gutenburg-Museum, where tourists of all shapes and sizes are invited to peruse printing presses, old Bibles and other paraphernalia - and even see a printing press in action. Having tried out a traditional one the previous week at the Oxford-Bonn Medieval German Colloquium, I am now pretty familiar with the process, and all I can say is, marvellous though it undoubtedly is, and fascinating though it is to learn about, its time-consuming nature doesn't half make me thankful for Microsoft Word. Also to be found in Mainz is a pretty phenomenal cathedral (above) which recently celebrated its 1000-year-anniversary (construction on it began in 1009 AD), and St Stephan's Church, which boasts a stunning sequence of windows designed by Marc Chagall, which couldn't possibly be a greater advertisement for the colour blue if they tried. 

A further jaunt yesterday evening took me to Ludwigshafen - not, I understand, the most popular or beloved of local cities (it's fine, just a bit built-up and uninspired). But it does look out over the river Rhine, and in any case we weren't there to appreciate modern architecture but to visit a local film festival which takes place on an island in the middle of the Rhine (reached by an impressive set of bridges). The atmosphere here was extremely pleasant: a mild summer evening, huge marquees and tents with film-screens, bars, and seating set up inside, and countless benches out in the shade of the trees overlooking the river, with the skyline of Mannheim on the other side (where Rheinland-Pfalz gives way to another state, Baden-Württemberg). The film in question was a new German release called "Eine unerhörte Frau", the tragic but also rather inspiring story of a Bavarian farmer's wife who is convinced her daughter is mortally ill but is ignored and patronised by almost every doctor or medical professional she consults. Her determination to save her daughter - who, it eventually emerges, has a tumour in her head that threatens to blind her forever - sees her fly halfway across the world to find an expert brain surgeon in New York, and bring him back to Germany. This storyline (which, it turns out, really did happen in the 1980s) is movingly interwoven with the mother's own back-story and the ways in which her own mother did not believe her after a traumatic incident in her youth. It's a good film, and comes highly recommended; I won't spoil the ending.

That's all for now, but I'm sure there'll be another update in a few days' time. Bis dann!

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