Friday, 8 July 2016

"Teutonic Chronicles" 2: Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, Hambacher Schloss, München

Link to Part 1.

I'm told that I should have put in a bit more detail about who I was staying with in Neustadt, so for the record these delightful few days were spent with the wonderful Böckmann family (or 3 members thereof): Christine and her parents, who were immensely kind and really did see to everything I needed. The breakfasts in particular were a highlight - as much Wurst/sausage, cheese, yoghurt, spread, bread rolls, juice and coffee as you could possibly ask for - but every aspect of staying with them was a pleasure: a lovely way of starting my 3 months in Germany. Through them I got to learn about the wine-growing culture of Neustadt and how seriously it is taken by the young people there, many of whom take 3-year-long degree courses in wine-making and do genuinely grow up to be vintners of their own (no surprise really, when your parents produce award-winning internationally-popular wines!); there's a very charming community aspect to it all, no surprise when most of the people here are going to primary and secondary schools in the same place and no one's university is very far away. Then a lot of them may stay on to work as vintners (I met a couple of Christine's friends who came round for Sunday Afternoon Waffles, both of whom are going to become vintners). I was taken for a walk or two through the vineyards and the culture here of just picking apples, blackberries, blackcurrants, cherries, etc., as and when you like from any tree, every tree, is of an almost halcyon childhood quality: we hear talk about 'scrumping apples', of course, but very few of us actually do a lot of that sort of thing.

One particular touristy excursion Christine set in motion was as follows. High above Neustadt an der Weinstrasse - surrounded by trees all the way up to the top - is a mountain called Schlossberg ("Castle Mountain") on the outskirts of the Palatine Forest. It is topped by an eponymous castle that goes by the name of Hambacher Schloss. It's little known in England, but an event took place here that is in some ways almost as important as the Magna Carta in British history or the Declaration of Independence in the US. At Hambacher Schloss, as any one of the German schoolchildren there on their class trip could tell you but until this point I (apparently) could not, the German democracy movement was born - in the year 1832, as part of the Hambacher Fest. This was an occasion on which 30,000 people marched on the castle in protest at the repressive measures of the Bavarian administration, which since 1816 had slowly been retracting the rights that had been granted to citizens by French Revolution soldiers. If 30,000 doesn't sound that impressive a number now, it's worth bearing in mind that the population of Neustadt back then was about 5,000, and that members of this crowd came from France, Poland, England and other German city-states. Although it didn't lead to any conclusive results in the short term, the fact that it started off the German democratic movement has meant it has become iconic in successive generations' eyes (and it established the Schwarz-Gelb-Rot, black yellow and red, as the "colours of Germany"; they now form the German flag). Nowadays the Hambacher Schloss is the site of a fascinating exhibition into all this history but perhaps even more dramatically it looks out over the Rheinland-Pfalz countryside: a stunning view in all directions of this most lovely of regions.

And of course how could I fail to mention the football. I don't think I've ever cared so much for a game as for the German v Italy Euro 2016 match last Saturday; surrounded by Germans, biting their nails and exuding worry and angst, I sat in one of Neustadt's local bars as the terrible, agonising penalty shootout went on and on. Eventually our faith was vindicated, and the jubilation was of a kind I haven't experienced at home in England: driving up and down through the city centre, cars honking their horns, and whooping, and waving flags, and so on. A pretty dramatic atmosphere, and a great thing to be a part of!

All things come to an end, of course, applicable equally to Italy's Euro 2016 chances (and Germany's - but more of that later) as to my time in Neustadt. After a delightful stay, I boarded the regional train service for München (Munich), Germany's richest city, one of its oldest, and the capital of Bayern (Bavaria): in every sense one of the pivotal cities in this nation. Speeding along on a German train and watching the countryside slither by is always a delight, but even more so when Munich is your destination. Upon arrival in the modest but perfectly serviceable (and quite central) hostel where I would be staying the next 5 nights, I spent some time relaxing in the shade of a 19th century statue in the Alter Englischer Garten (not the more famous Englischer Garten - more of that later too). 19th century statues are ten-a-penny in Munich, to the point that you almost become inured to impressive old buildings, archways, and commemorations of poets and princes. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. I then went to pick up my friend Ben from Munich Airport - he's here for the next 5 days too, and was an interesting case study as I believe he's never spent any substantial time in Germany before, so I was looking forward to seeing how he would adjust to life here. Rather swimmingly, as it turns out.

That evening we stumbled quite by accident on a number of things, none of which are classic parts of Munich's Old Town (which I'll probably save for the next blog post): first, we ate dinner in Munich's oldest brewery - established in 1328 - a tucked-away little place that does marvellous authentic Bavarian cuisine and a great range of beers, and where one is free to sit and enjoy the summer evening on a beautiful roof terrace [right]. We then more or less stumbled across a large green space called the Theresienwiese, in itself not especially beautiful (though it has a certain industrial charm; some kind of rebuilding project is obviously going on at the moment), but is topped by all kinds of dramatic monuments and statues, and has great views over to the older part of town. And finally, most surreal of all, we were stumbled across - I think it's fair to say it was that way round - by a cluster of thousands and thousands of roller-bladers, in Munich for one of the city's weekly "Blade Nights", where roller-bladers of every description, old and young, fat and thin, blaring out music or wearing costumes, pushing babies in prams or partners holding hands, all of them together, blaze a trail through the city's streets. Quite quite strange. We were held up at our traffic light crossing for about 20 minutes as about 10,000 of them went past; but didn't especially mind, as that isn't something you see every evening.

More in Munich anon. I haven't even got started on why it's so marvellous.

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