Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Best and Wurst of Germany

Friend Andrea flew to London before Thanksgiving, and we had a great visit, seeing the sights here and in London. Then, on Thanksgiving day, the three of us took a 6 a.m. flight to Frankfurt(ish) (as with Stockholm, Ryanair puts you down 120 km from where you actually want to go). Our mission: go to German Christmas markets, outdoor craft-fair-like festivals with a fair amount of kitsch but some good stuff too, plus a lot of gluhwein, which is warm, usually blueberry wine that I don't really like at all, and several kinds of wurst (sausage), all of which I sampled, of course.

After a bus ride to Frankfurt, we were welcomed to the city by small market right on our street. We checked into our hotel, went back out, and promptly got ourselves a wurst of some kind. We then headed into town for big Christmas market. Much of Frankfurt was destroyed in World War II, but they carefully reconstructed the oldest part of the city center. Combined with modern, unique skyscrapers, Frankfurt made for a nice city to visit. The market itself was a nice, manageable size, with places to duck into when we were tired of being numb from the cold.

That night we headed to Adolf Wagner, a Bavarian tavern where you sit at big communal taverns and drink pitchers of apfelwein (apple wine). We dragged ourselves here because we were all exhausted; we realized instantly that it had been worth it. Our meal was fabulous, too: we all had various forms of meat (slow cooked beef; pork rib; schnitzel) with various forms of potato.

On Friday, we took a train up the Rhine River to a small village called Bacharach. The whole region is quite beautiful, but if there's not a special event going on, the towns are completely empty and closed. We've encountered this before. So, we made the most of it by wandering around, enjoying the half-timbered buildings, the 14th century fortification wall, and the 12th century castle Burg Stahleck, which is now a youth hostel. Bacharach would make a great base for visiting this region and drinking wine. We knew we wanted to do the latter, so we hovered outside a restaurant called Weingut Fritz Bastian Erbhof until it opened shortly after 1. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. We were the only customers in the cozy dining room heated by a wood-burning stove. We ordered a wine carousel -- a lazy susan of 15 different German wines. We were surprised to learn about the variety and deliciousness of German wines! Coupled with some goulash and cheese, it was a great meal.

Saturday we packed up and took the train to Nuremberg, which hosts perhaps the most famous of Germany's Christmas markets. We stayed in an apartment outside of town but right on the subway line, so it was very convenient. After dropping our luggage off, we headed into the town and came out of the subway in the middle of the old town, greeted by the beautiful Church of St. Lawrence. Our first food sample here was Nuremberg's version of lebkuchen, gingerbread. It was absolutely delicious! We began to wander around the town, which completely turns itself over to the Christmas market. Tons of food vendors (lebkuchen, sausage, gluhwein, bread, cheese, even sushi!) and tons of ornaments, small ceramic houses, and gifts galore.

Eventually, though, the crowds got to us: It's no secret that Nuremberg has a nice market, so the aisles were jam packed with people. We got a break from the crowds by stopping for a beer at the Bratwursthausle, but didn't sample the Nuremberg specialty here -- three small bratwurst served in a weckla (roll). Don't worry; we had it elsewhere. We also stopped for potato pancakes -- definitely high on the list of our favorite festival food. After a few more hours of fighting the crowds, we took refuge in the Barfuesser Brauhaus, a brewery-restaurant in an old grain warehouse.

Sunday, after a leisurely breakfast at our apartment, we headed to the train again to go 45 km or so north of Nuremberg to the town of Bamberg, a beautiful medieval city that escaped the war largely unscathed. It too had a tiny little Christmas market that extended throughout the towns nooks and crannies. We were greeted right way by a community band playing Christmas carols. The whole town was just delightful -- lots to look at and far fewer people than in Nuremberg.

JT's favorite part was that the town boasts 10 breweries. So, our first stop was Wirtshaus zum Schlenkerla, a 16th century restaurant (the guidebook says) that's famous for its Rauchbier, or smoked beer. We tried three different beers here -- all very smoky! Our food was the ultimate in comfort food, too: John ordered the Spiessbraten (absolutely incredible roast pork) mit Kloss (a potato dumpling thing none of us liked very much) und Wirsing (savoy cabbage -- and it was delicious! Who knew!). Andrea and I had kresseschaumsuppe (watercress soup) mit griessklosschen (semolina dumplings). Absolutely delicious. This place was good fun and warm and inviting; had it not been a sunny day, we easily could have spent the rest of the day here.

Instead, we walked the town some more and headed up to the town's enormous cathedral and to a town square with nice views of the Benedictine Kloster St. Michael, a former monastery and now an old folks home.

Monday morning, John left from Nuremberg's airport on an early flight and was back in England before Andrea and I even woke up. We packed up, checked ourselves into a small, cheap hotel near the train station (we clearly got the last room -- the one they try not to rent out unless they have to. The people were over-the-top nice, breakfast was very nice, and the location incredible. The d├ęcor of our room left a lot to be desired; we were in a smoking room that smelled; and we had no hot water. But: for 70 euro a night and 1 block from the train station? OK.), then hopped onto a train to Rothenberg ob der Tauber.

Rothenberg is a popular stop among tourists, and with good reason. It's pretty small and very beautiful. And, has a small market for Christmas. The weather was pretty terrible, though, so our first stop was a German inn (Baumeisterhaus, I think) that I'd love to stay at. Its restaurant was warm, had good food and good beer, which was exactly what we were looking for. We then spent several hours in the Christmas market mecca, the Kathe Wolfahrt Christmas village. It was seriously good shopping, and so well done and decorated you often forgot you were in a shop. Another trip around the city and a stop at Zur Holl for a glass of wine, and we were on our way back to the train station and Nuremberg.

We had been trying to figure out a way to get to the town of Tubingen on Tuesday for the opening of its chocolate festival. Alas, it was not meant to be: We would have had to spend too much time on trains and had to change several times while hauling (now very heavy) luggage. So, we decided to spend our last full day in Nuremberg. We spent the morning going to chocolate shops and yarn stores, which was good fun. We signed ourselves up to take a tour of the city, which was something we hadn't done in any of the other cities we had been to on this trip. It was a lovely tour and we got to learn some of the town's rich history as the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Then there's the part about it being the site of Nazi party rallies and an important military location for the Nazis. Our tour guide talked about the Nazi presence in Nuremberg as being very separate from the history of the town, and she talked about what remains of the rally grounds just outside the city. There's a museum there -- "it's hard," she says. I think this also marks my first trip to somewhere that was destroyed by Allied bombs; 90 percent of Nuremberg was toppled in one hour on Jan. 2, 1945.

After our tour, which ended at Kaiserburg, a castle of medieval knights that's also now a youth hostel, and a quick stop to thaw at the Brauerei Altstadthof, we made our way back to our hotel to grab luggage and head to the train station for an evening journey to Frankfurt. Andrea's flight was in the early afternoon the next day at Wednesday, so it was easiest to get ourselves back to Frankfurt that night.

An aside here: Although the German train system is fantastic, you can spend a small fortune if you don't know a few tricks for avoiding full-price tickets. There's a special weekend ticket that's good for up to 5 people in ALL of Germany -- that's what we used to get to Nuremberg the first time. We also used a Bavaria ticket during the week, which is good for up to 5 people in all of Bavaria. (And kids and, well, anyone, will look over your shoulder at the train station and ask to travel on your Bavaria ticket.) After hours of combing our guidebooks and websites and asking clueless ticket agents at train stations on how we could get from Nuremberg to Frankfurt cheaply on a Tuesday, we discovered the secret: Ask a ticket taker. It turns out we could use a Bavaria ticket (27 euro) to get us most of the way there, and then we had to buy a supplementary ticket from the ticket taker (this ticket isn't available from a machine) from Kahl to Frankfurt, nevermind that the train doesn't actually go through Kahl. You would NEVER come up with this on your own. This scheme was less than half the price we would have paid if we just punched our journey into a ticket machine.

So anyway, we went back to Frankfurt, checked into the adorable Hotel Am Berg, one of the few rooms we could find because of the Christmas market and a giant convention (for the engineers in the crowd, it was EUROMOLD - as in manufacturing molds), and had our final German meal at Zum Gemalten Haus, another tavern a few doors down from the one we had eaten at a few days before. It was a warm, friendly place and a great way to bring our trip to a close.

Well, almost to a close. Due to wretched weather, we hopped in a taxi the next morning to the main train station, and Andrea headed off to the airport. I still had 12 hours before my flight, so I found myself a nice perch in a lounge that looked down on the activity in the train station and worked. Several hours later I put my suitcase in a luggage locker and headed out for one last stroll around the city. Reinforced with potato pancakes and doppelbock, I got on the bus to Hahn airport and back to the U.K. -- for some rest!

Photo album here.

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