Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Thrones and thrills in Germany

If I told you that in little over a week I traversed five countries, abused four languages and dipped my toes in no fewer than three rivers, you might think I’d ended up somewhere a little more exotic than, well, Germany.

Germany is a nation famous for its sausages and beer, and, you might think, a strange holiday destination for a cider-loving vegetarian. But there was a very specific reason that I wanted to visit Germany. I wanted to see a chair.

At university, a tutor attached a note to my holiday reading list saying: “I suggest you visit the Carolingian treasures in the Ashmolean museum, and why not take a trip or two to Aachen as well?” I was studying the Carolingians — a 8th-10th century Frankish dynasty, that, when divided, gave birth to the nebulous entities that would one day become the countries we now know as our European cousins, France and Germany.

The most famous Carolingian is Charlemagne, who was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800AD, and it was his chair, or, er, “mein Thron” as he might have said, that I went to see. Imagine a stunning seat of incandescent majesty, six-feet high, littered with iridescent jewels, refulgent in its sanctity.

Then forget all that. For Charlemagne’s throne is a simple, slightly squat affair, made from grubby marble that bears the marks of Roman soldiers who used the surface, perhaps as many as six hundred years earlier, to keep score while playing games. But it is beautiful. It’s doubtful whether seeing this humble throne would have helped me do better in my finals, but still, of all the thrones in the world it’s the one I’d most like to sit on.

Once I’d had my moment at the foot of Charlemagne’s throne, I was free to experience the many other treasures that southwest Germany has to offer. From Aachen, it was a short trip to Cologne, which does not so much boast to but smugly taunt the visitor with its monstrous blackened cathedral — Germany’s largest. The view from the cathedral spire is, apparently, breath-taking, but unfortunately, despite making it to the top, I was too petrified to let go of the railing to enjoy the vista — next time I’ll find a gothic bungalow to climb.

After trembling down the steps of the spire to the touristy square surrounding the cathedral, I stepped aboard the Schoko Express to Cologne’s second-most famous attraction — the Lindt schokoladen museum.

Now, Germans aren’t renowned for their parsimony, but I must warn you that the free chocolate that we were given on arrival at the museum was smaller than a slug pellet.

And this is deliberate, for the chocolate museum is a uniquely sensuous experience, as the upper part of the museum is a working factory — the sight of chocolate melts before your eyes and the smell of chocolate maddeningly wafts over your skin as the woman from the Marks and Spencer adverts whispers the sweetest of sweet nothings into your ear. In German. It’s not unusual to see people drool into tissues as they approach the exit, and barge small children out of the way so that they can splash all their euros on a three-inch Lindt rabbit.

After the chocolate museum it was time for something a little more educational in the form of Cologne’s Romisch-Germanisches museum. Visitors are greeted by an enormous and rather intimidating grave monument to Poblicius, but after this rather startling memento mori, we found the museum contains fragments of everyday life for Romans and natives living along the Rhine in the first century AD and beyond — from the patterns they chose for their mosaics to the way they decorated their hair.

From gothic Cologne it was on to Roman Trier, a beautiful city in the Moselle valley dating from 15BC, where the Roman exhibits are not in glass cases but on street corners and in the town centre. The Porta Nigra, or Black Gate, marks the ancient entrance to the city, from which Romans would pour hot liquids on unwelcome visitors. The city also contains three thermal baths, an amphitheatre and the awesome Konstantinbasilika, Constantine’s throne room.

After moseying down the Moselle we were inclined to try the vineyards on the banks of the Rhine Rhine. The journey down the great river lined with tempting vine-yards and fairytale castles was arduous to say the least, with
water, water everywhere and only wine to drink.
But no good journalist with a protestant work ethic could fail to visit the neighbouring Rhineland towns of Mainz and Worms, linked to the birth of printing and Protestantism. It was in Mainz that Johannes Gutenberg —
without whom none of us would have jobs — was born and lived, and the town is extremely proud of its local hero.
Not a romantic genius or a Protestant enthusiast bringing sacred knowledge to the people, Gutenberg was primarily an entrepreneur who invented a printing press in the early 15th century that first allowed bibles, and then all manner of books, to be produced rapidly and accurately, from sacred texts and songs to works of horticulture, anatomy and the first replicated images on the page, thereby paving the way for The Sun, nearly six hundred years later, to delight men up and down the UK with three million neatly printed page three girls each day.
And so would I recommend Germany to other cider-loving vegetarians? Rather than simply “getting by” in a carnivorous country, I discovered that Germany has rather a lot to offer, particularly in May when the fields are splashed with strawberries, when the bakeries offer a delicious variety of cakes and breads including my favourite — to eat not to order — sonnenblumenkernbrot, and when the asparagus, or spargel as Germans call it, begins to be harvested. German asparagus is quite unlike ours. It’s white, slightly stringy but soft and with a texture almost more like a fruit than a vegetable. It is often served with just butter or potatoes, and many glasses of wine. The Rhineland produces some of the most exquisite wine I’ve ever tasted, from the raucous Weinstube taverns of Mainz to the gentle Weingut dotted in the fields around Trier.

And Germany harbours a dark, ciderous secret known as Apfelwein or Viez. It’s not on the menu, it arrives in big ceramic tankers, and it’s pronounced feets — possibly because it’s a mean feat to finish a glass, or perhaps just because it smells a bit like well-worn socks. I first discovered it in an al fresco restaurant on the banks of the Rhine in Trier, while eating some freshly caught fish.

Half-way through the tankard, it occurred to me that a) Viez is stronger than ordinary cider and b) I was sufficiently tipsy to fancy a trip to a nearby rock festival. Three Viez, five euros and ten minutes later I arrived at Rock Total, which can only be described as the Glastonbury festival’s long-lost poverty stricken cousin. Amid the sticky tables, beer-soaked grass and everso cheery Germans — “Ja, I want to be a Rock Star! Neine, Ich bin eine Rock Star!” — I was left pondering gently if Charlemagne ever spilt Viez on his throne.