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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Traveling in Germany




I love travel. I think there is almost no place in the world where I won't enjoy going and find something to learn. When my boss asked me if I wanted to present a talk in Heidelberg, Germany, I jumped at it. Sadly, my family couldn't join me both because of school and work schedules as well as economic constraints, so only I was able to go.

The conference was in Heidelberg on the Neckar river. Or actually, was at the European Molecular Biology Labs up in the hills above Heidelberg. I stayed in the Hotel Kohler, which is an old-style, family run (from what I can tell) hotel near the Bismarckplatz. The rest of my lab stayed at the Crowne Plaza, which was a more modern hotel but also more expensive. I liked the Hotel Kohler. Nothing fancy, but very friendly and accommodating service and it's off on a quiet street. Though it seems no street in Germany is quiet on a weekend night during the World Cup! Have to say there seemed to be quite a bit of drunken revelries during the weekend in Heidelberg. Of course it is a college town so that isn't surprising.

Mostly I had to eat at the conference center, which was mostly not great. But I did get to have a couple of dinners in town. Vetter was a good, traditional German eatery and brewery. They serve their own beer which is really quite good. I decided to pass up the pigs knuckles and stuffed pig stomach, and opted for goulash instead. It was excellent. Nearby, with a view of the Neckar, was the Schnitzelhaus Alte Münz, which serves over 100 types of schnitzel from traditional to topped with fried banana or mole sauce or chili. I had one with chanterelle mushrooms and bacon. And of course some really good local beer.

All the beer I had in Germany was good. Not quite the sublime, transcendental experience I expected given the praise German beers receive, but really consistently GOOD, satisfying beer with a nice variety. One beer that seems quite popular that I wasn't too keen on was a Radler. It is basically beer and lemon soda (similar to a Shandy). Now I can imagine it being extremely refreshing on a hot day, but on a cool, early summer evening I preferred the more standard beers. While we are on the topic of beverages, the coffee was uniformly wonderful in Germany as well. In that sense being back in NYC, the land of bad restaurant coffee, is a let down. In German hotels you usually get a small pot of coffee all to yourself with breakfast and it is nearly perfect coffee. All together, uniformly good beer and uniformly good coffee, cool weather and beautiful forests are hard to beat. Below I will discuss German wines...surprisingly good, at least the ones I tried from the Ingelheim area.

German food is kind of notorious for not being anything to write home about. Perhaps it doesn't have as bad a reputation as British food, but it isn't like traveling to Rome or Thailand or Turkey. Still, German food is basically the ideal comfort food. I think there is no food that is MORE comfort food than German. Now I liked the bratwurst in Madison, Wisconsin, but it is a pale imitation of the German version. Schnitzel and goulash are solidly good, satisfying food (particularly with good beer!) Dinner (when you are visiting Germans at home) are light affairs: one place routinely had good bread, cheese, sausage and cured hams, all very good. That is the kind of old fashioned food, probably going back to the Middle Ages, that is hard not to enjoy even though it isn't gourmet. And there is also the German tradition of coffee and cake in the afternoon. The coffee, as I said above, was near perfect. I have heard the cakes aren't reliably good in stores, but in a German home they are generally great. And the more rural and traditional the home, the better the cakes seem to be. My favorite one I had at Autishof, the ancestral home of the Wasem family from the 17th century until today, where I was served a wonderful version of a cheesecake with apricot (locally grown, I think) and crumble on top. Amazing stuff!

In Heidelberg I didn't really get to see the sights as much as I would have liked because of the conference. But I did get to walk through the old town (the longest pedestrian-only road in Europe, I am told, and it did seem to go on for ever) which was nice but a little too tourist/shopping oriented. It still has a nice, Medieval feel with old prisons and monastic buildings making up a good chunk of the University of Heidelberg buildings. I also got to enjoy some hiking in the hills above Heidelberg, around the EMBL and Max-Plank Institute of Nuclear Physics. Beautiful green hills. There were some neat, orange colored slugs (not as dramatic as the neon yellow banana slugs in Santa Cruz, CA, but still striking) and some snails almost the size of my palm.

From Heidelberg I took the train, via Frankfurt, to the Spessart mountains to find my Kunkel and Englert family roots. First thing I should observe is that, although the German trains are good and go all over the place, they are NOT, contrary to stereotypes, always on time. In fact they have a reputation of often being late. So the idea that trains run on time in Germany is false. This is unlike Japan where I can personally attest that the trains run on time to the very minute. I took the train to Heigenbruken, which is the closest stop to where I wanted to go, which are the two tiny towns of Rothenbuch and Neuhutten where Kunkel and Englert are still among the most common last names.

The Spessart mountains (really more like hills in my book) are thinly populated, quiet and beautiful. Well off the beaten path, the air is about the freshest I have ever smelled and the tap water is better than the water NYC brags about. It is a mixture of small villages, farms and forest. It seems surprisingly prosperous, with new construction everywhere. Solar panels are also surprisingly common given the fact that the area is not all that sunny. But it seems it is sunny enough to make solar panels cost effective. I stayed in Neuhutten (which means "New Glassworks," though "New" is in European time, which means something like 16th century) with a very, very distant relative named Linus Kunkel who, after retiring, got interested in history and has been digitizing the local records, mainly in Latin, from the local church. From his role as amateur town archivist he has become a wonderful resource to many Americans searching for their roots in the area. It is surprising how many people in America today are descended from Kunkels, Englerts and Karls from the Neuhutten area. Linus Kunkel is also trying to preserve the local Spessart dialect, a form of German that is fairly different from High German and is slowly dying out. He has written a book telling local stories in the local dialect. One of them has had some very real consequences. Here is that story and its oe1utcome (I may not be getting all the facts right).

A man from the town of Neuhutten (I saw the actual building that is part of the story, still standing) went hunting in the forest. Problem is, though the town itself was its own territory, the forests belonged to the Lord who controlled the area, the distant Archbishop of Mainz. The court at Mainz mainly used the Spessart mountains as a hunting park, and the locals were banned from hunting. However, poverty and hunger, as well as a general anti-establishment sentiment, led to a fair amount of poaching.

The man from Neuhutten was one such poacher. But as he was hunting, he heard the Archbishop's men looking for him and he ran away. Unfortunately, he dropped his handkerchief which was found by the Archbishop's men.

The local sheriff (or equivalent) took the handkerchief to the local school and ordered the teacher to ask the children if anyone recognized the handkerchief. A little girl answered that it looked like her father's, and so the sheriff set off to find her father.

At the last minute, the man from Neuhutten was warned of the sheriff's coming. His brother had applied for papers to emigrate to America and had gotten them. So to save his life, the man from Neuhutten took his brother's papers and left for America...leaving his daughter behind.

That is the story. But it didn't end there. Linus Kunkel, in his efforts to help Americans find their roots in the Spessart mountains, actually found the descendants of the man who lost his handkerchief and had to flee to America. Linus was able to reunite the descendants of that man with the descendants of his daughter and so the two lines of the family were reunited long after the lost handkerchief.

That is the kind of story that surrounds Neuhutten and Linus Kunkel in particular.

In return for helping me while I was in Neuhutten, Linus has asked a favor of me, and maybe someone out there can help me help Linus. Linus was 12 years old in 1945. On April 1 of that year American planes bombed the center of Neuhutten, destroying the center of the village. The locals say there was one fanatic who refused to surrender and that is why the town was bombed (though I think there must be more to it than that). The following day, Linus remembers American troops coming into town, including a photographer who photographed the destruction. Linus would like to find out if any of those photographs still exist in an archive, either as original prints or digitized. As the town historian he would like copies of those pictures. I also would like to find out why Neuhutten was bombed. As far as I can tell there is no strategic value to the town, so it is not clear to me why, even if there were some people unwilling to surrender, it was worth a bombing mission and ground troops. I suspect there is a good reason it was a target, so I'd like to find out. I have put out a few feelers but will need to put some more effort into it. But I am open to suggestions from anyone who knows how to find out this kind of military information from WW II.

In Neuhutten I saw the buildings my ancestors would have seen and done business in as well as the old border stones marking the territorial divide between Neuhutten's lands and those of the Archbishop of Mainz. In nearby Rothenbuch I saw the actual building where my great grandfather, Martin Kunkel, was born. Linus tracked the house down from the records he had and through his connections in Rothenbuch.

Linus also showed me a map that showed why so many people left Neuhutten and the Spessart in general for America. The map showed all the fields that belonged to people in the town and, although originally the property of each family was adequate to scratch out a living, large families combined with inheritance customs that required diving the land up among all sons meant the parcels of land each family had ended up too small to support a family. So people left for America, particularly places like Iowa where land was available and the government offered incentives for immigrants.

From Neuhutten it was back on the train and off to the Ingelheim area. Ober-Ingelheim is where my Wasem ancestors emigrated from. And I learned the story behind why my particular branch of the family emigrated.

Ingelheim is a small, beautiful city in the heart of German wine country. I stayed in the wine hotel owned by very, very distant relatives in the Wasem family. Here is a website in English discussing their winery. I got a chance to try their wines. The whites are quite pleasant. I am not a big fan of white wines, particularly fruity ones, but the Wasem wines included some nice whites that had just the right blend of dryness and fruitiness. Among their reds they have a wine made from a grape unique to the area which I liked. It was not the best wine I have had, but had a flavor that was both different from the usual reds and which was quite decent. They also had a wine that was a very light red. Often a light red will taste like a watered down red, but in this case it was very nice. Ample flavor but not overwhelming. They designed this wine to be like this because usually reds, because of their heaviness, are best to drink during a meal. But Germans often prefer to eat their meal, then linger over some wine and conversation afterwards. The lighter but still flavorful wine is perfect for an after dinner wine that isn't a dessert wine. I liked it a lot. If I recall it was based on a pinot noir grape and was called a "Spätburgunder," but my problem is that though I bought some of their wines, I don't know which ones I bought because through a mishap my luggage got left in Ingelheim...will have to figure out how to ship it (with those wonderful wines) from Germany. The Wasems also sell basic Merlots and Cabernets that are quite good, though not that unusual for their genre. The most amazing thing was how cheap they were in Germany. A very good wine in Ingelheim cost under $10 a bottle. However, the same wine sold in America would be at least twice as much, but on par with similar wines from California or France. You can order some Wasem wines (at US prices, not the cheap German prices) from Truly Fine Wines in San Diego. They do have the Spätburgunder which, if it the one I remember it to be, was the nice light but still flavorful red. Give them a try!

While in Ingelheim I explored the castle area. This is a major archaeological site, only some of which is exposed, which begins with a Carolignian structure built by Charlemagne. There is also an Ottnian period wing and a Staufen period wing. Very cool with informative English brochure (you have to get it from the visitor's center since all the signs are in German).

I also got to travel to Autishof and Dorrebach, which are kind of in the middle of nowhere. Dorrebach is the first place where the Wasem family is known to have lived. There is remembered (though I am unaware of any records supporting this) of a Jakob Wasem as town assessor working for the local authorities in 1508 (the date seems oddly precise, suggesting an actual record somewhere is the origin...or a misunderstood translation into English). His house, a large, stone building, is still standing. My earliest Wasem ancestor for whom there are clear records is Johannes Heinrich Wasem, born in 1682, who was born in Autishof. Autishof is a farm in the hills above Dorrebach that belonged to the Lord of Ingelheim but we bought or rented from him. For several generations after that Dorrebach and Autishof are both featured in the birth and death records of the Wasems. Then, after a brief time where Wasems seemed to only be in Autishof, the farm land grew too small for the growing family and some Wasems started moving to the surrounding area: Ingelheim itself and Ober-Ingelheim, the area between Ingelgeim and Mainz. Eventually the family split into several groups. There were the Autishof branch who stayed on the farm. The last generation of that branch lives there today, but have no children. Not sure what will happen to the farm after them. The Ingelheim branch is the one that later started the winery and still lives in Ingelheim today. One group of the Ingelheim branch moved to America, primarily Idaho, at later date. Finally, my branch moved to Bingam, where Adam Wasem, my great-great grandfather, was police commissioner and burgomaster. From Jakob Wasem as local assessor to Adam Wasem as burgomaster, seems the Wasems were connected with The Man.

But that didn't last. Two of Adam's sons, John and Jacob, joined the German revolution of 1848. When that failed, needless to say they had to flee to America, where another brother and a sister already lived. Adam and the rest of the family soon followed, settling first in New York, then Iowa. One of Adam Wasem's daughters was Mary Wasem...who married Martin Kunkel, born in Rothenbuch but emigrated to Iowa. And they were my great grandparents.

As travel destinations Heidelberg, the Spessarts and Ingelheim are all great. Heidelberg is on many people's itineraries. Lots of history, good food, good beer and shopping. Everyone spoke English it seemed and were extremely nice. The Spessarts are off the beaten path and are perfect for relaxation, fresh air, hiking and a nice sense of the true heart of Germany. Fewer people speak English, though some do just fine. I don't think there are hotels or many restaurants in Neuhutten, but there are in places like Rothenbuch, Lohr and Rechtenbach, all of which are quite nice. Lohr is the biggest town in the area and is a beautiful, well preserved Medieval looking town on the Main river. Leans a bit too touristy, but nothing overwhelming. In Rechtenbach they have a replica of the glass ovens that used to operate throughout the area making glass that the area was famous for before the glassmakers joined the farmers in rebelling in what is locally called the Farmer's War...after which the Archbishop of Mainz banned glassmaking in the area. I have not been able to confirm that this was the same as the famous Peasant's War that began in 1524. I should note that the records I have indicate that the Kunkels were still living near a Glassworks after that date, so it is not clear what exactly happened. Ingelheim is all about wine, plus some nice old ruins. For an inexpensive but still great wine experience, Ingelheim is worth checking out. There are many wineries and wine hotels, but of course I am partial to the Wasem ones.

A book I recently read observed that Germany is kind of a dead zone for travel. Few people think of it as a destination. Well I am glad I went and I recommend it highly.


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