Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Open Up And Say "Ahr"

Last Saturday we made a pilgrimage to the Ahr valley, which is the northernmost mecca of red wine making. After a bitterly cold morning and unsuccessful perusing of the final flea market of the year, we piled into the Peugeot station wagon with our friends Jeanine and Markus and drove 25 km southeast to the village of Altenahr. Altenahr, like all of the other villages along the Ahr river, is a picturesque cluster of houses and restaurants that thrive on the business of elderly Dutch and German tourists who come to hike among the vineyards, drink wine, and sing songs with neverending choruses.

We started out by hiking up to the ruins of an old castle that towers above Altenahr like a church steeple above a town square. From there we walked along a ridge to the rotwein weg, or red wine path, which is a dirt walking trail that crosses through vineyards whose rows climb up the steep southern slopes of the Ahr valley. Along the path, vendors sell local wines out of the back of their cars to thirsty nordic walkers (people who hike with ski poles, not blond-bearded guys walking around with a horned helmets). We sampled the Federweißer (fresh, still-fermenting wine) and a lovely Fall rosé named Weißherbst. The sun was shining and the temperature never broke 55 F, which was fortunate because the brisk air was the only thing keeping me from laying down among the vines and taking a nap.

I learned that viticulture in the Ahr valley dates back to the 3rd century. Apparently the Romans were not satisfied with just drinking mead and beer, and transplanted some grape vines in strategic locations. I would have thought that the local Germanic tribes hassled the occupying Romans too much for them to do pursue any leisurely pastimes like grape cultivation and winemaking, but that just goes to show you how little I know. Who among centurions or barbarians could resist the bouquet of a fine pinot noir? Certainly not this american.

While the rest of Germany is lauded for reisling, the region through which we hiked is renowned for producing excellent Spätburgunder, the german word for pinot noir (insert favorite Sideways quote here). This is due to an advantageous geological situation in which the moderate temperatures of the greater Rhine valley, the slate covered slopes of the Ahr valley that hold the sun's heat throughout the night, and the deep cold-trapping river bottom team together to provide a suitable climate for red grapes. As we walked along the trail, the volcanic slate was constantly coming loose and sliding down the hill in pie-sized chunks, giving the odd feeling that those hills could never survive the sloughing off of its members, despite the fact that it had been happening for at least nineteen hundred years.

We followed the switchbacks down into the town of Rech. On the far side across the river is a converted barn that functions as restaurant for just four months out of the year. We took a seat around a barrel and ordered up some of Rhineland's finest spreads on homemade bread. Pretty standard fare: headcheese, liverwurst, congealed bacon grease with crunchy bits of bacon, blood sausage, and oddly enough a plain old slice of cheese. It may been the cold weather or the hiking but Katie made her most impressive showing to date in the category of foreign food eating.

A large group of middle-aged women were singing an unknown song as we waited for the train back to Altenahr. They stopped once we climbed aboard and settled down into the warm seats. We looked out the windows as the sun sunk behind the hills of the valley and the long shadows faded into dark evening tones. Out of the train, back in the car, driving towards Bonn, almost dark, and then finally dark when we arrived back at home.

I could have easily gone to bed, but the final game of Rugby World Cup was going to start in a few hours. Drat. Good day though.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Imagine yourself in early nineteenth century Bavaria during the month of October. You were lucky enough to get your name on the guest list for Prince Ludwig's marriage party and now you are sitting on a cushioned chair in a lovely garden area outside of Munich and having a pretty good time. People in frilly starched outfits and powdered wigs are sitting around listening to latest works of Beethoven and complaining about how Napoleon has turned a progressive democratic nation into a neoimperialist power. "I have heard rumors that France is going to invade Russia," someone says, "supposedly they have intelligence that the Russians are destabilizing Europe." "Disgusting," you say, but with little conviction because your attention is really focused on the peasants in the nearby field who are are trying to set up for the big horse race tomorrow but keep on getting their utility wagon stuck in the mud. A servant comes around with more wine, so you refill your glass and wander over the to ballroom where the noblemen and noblewomen are mincing around with clasped hands aloft, their bodies rotating mechanically in predetermined steps like music box figurines. One of Ludwig's second cousins lurches out from the middle of the dancing crowd and leans out over the marble railing, convulsing in a fit of gutteral expulsions that sound to you like Dutch. He wobbles back into the ballroom a few minutes later with watery eyes, straightening his wig and dabbing the corners of his mouth with a silk handkerchief. Someone rings a bell and all the guests slowly make their way to the dining hall, and you hope that you don't get stuck sitting next to the random couple from out of town that nobody knows. Still, this party is a pretty good time and maybe even ranks in your top five. Who knows, there may even be another one next year?

Now fast forward to modern times. You emerge midday from the tightly packed subway car and ride the escalator up towards the light, arriving in front of an archway announcing "Wilkommen Oktoberfest!" You walk through and find yourself in a sea of people on the giant parking lot known as the Wiesn. To your left are rows of amusement park rides and carnival games, and to the right are rows of massive white beer "tents".

Deciding on a large clockwise loop, you stroll past rollercoasters and vendors selling shots of vodka and check out the other festivalgoers. Lots of guys in red checkered shirts, lederhosen, and feathery caps. Women in dresses that range from the conservative length traditional peasant wear, to the more common strappy sexed-up miniaturized dirndles. Gangs of teenagers in oversized mad hatter party hats pass by every few seconds, with their arms linked and singing "ole ole ole ole..." Most everyone is standing upright or at least propped up by a friends, except for the guy sprawled out in front of the phone booth, who is wearing a commemorative Oktoberfest/movie t-shirt that reads "300: Tonight we drink in Hell".

Feeling brave, you and your friends wait in line in front of one of the larger beer tents. After 30 minutes, the security guard lets in a group of you, plus the guy in the wacky hat that has been pleading non-stop. Inside is a massive room of wooden tables and benches with people, mostly Italians and Australians, standing on them. A band is leading the beer drinkers in what sounds like a Mexican Ranchero music sing-a-long. This looks like interesting, so you wander the aisles looking for an open space at a table. After combing the entire tent while silently cursing the no table no beer rule, all you can do is sigh and head though the haze of tobacco smoke to the door. Too bad, even the guy dressed up in a women's dirndle got a place at a table.

You are back out in the sunshine, but it could be worse. Prospects for getting a spot at other beer tents are looking slim considering the long lines just to get into the places. You overhear someone say that only the people there before 9 in the morning had a shot at getting a seat. Still, the carnival stuff was fun and you tell yourself that with some proper planning, next year's trip will be more successful. Feeling wiser but with twinges of disappointment, you sidestep a puddle of vomit and cross under the archway that says "Auf Wiedersehen Oktoberfest!" and head for the subway.

Monday, October 8, 2007

One For All

October 3rd is Deutschen Einheit, which means that everybody gets off work and spends the entire day milling about in the sunshine in celebration of Germany's unification. I suspect that a significant part of the population spends the day grumbling about all of the stores and banks being closed on the only days that they have to run errands. As for myself, I say "hey, alright". Let the cheques bounce and the morning bowl of cereal be milkless, these holidays are about being with family and relearning how to hold a conversation.
We visited the nearby Sülz vineyard, producer of excellent reislings and other weisweins. Outside the farmhouse, wooden tables and chairs are set up in the grassy yard for visitors to sample the wines and local delicacies. I am loathe to use the word quaint, but cutesy fails to capture the feeling as we sat in the yard, admiring the nearby long-haired cows and their lazy grazing, next to the older couple cutting tubers for the house potato salad, and toasted to the unification of East and West Germany. Idyllic is probably a better word.
Grape smuggling is a crime in Germany, but don't tell that to Katie. No amount of sulphur dusting could keep this woman from sampling the varieties on the vine. We walked around the steeply pitched rows and examined the plants, pretending to know more about botany than we actually do. I envisioned grafting hops plants onto vine stock and wondered who would be bold enough to drink my resulting wine-beer chimera.
The inertia of this midweek holiday caused us to take the rest of the week off. This may sound slothful, but please keep in mind that we have Fridays off anyway. Plus, things are brewing for the upcoming weekend...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

There Be Dragons

Sunday afternoon, we set our sights upon the Drachenfels, or dragon's remains. Perched atop one of the Siebengebirge overlooking the river, the Drachenfels is a former 11th century fortress and current pile of rocks, about which a veritable slew of dragon legends have been told.
We recruited friends Tonya and Derick and bicycled over in the mild autumn sunshine to the base of the mountain. Along the way we were momentarily sidetracked by a biergarten by Bad Honnef and the subsequent exploration of the island it is on. Neverthless, we tarried on and soon found ourselves walking up the hypotenuse of a 321 meter high mountain. Halfway up I snapped a few pictures of the schloss Drachenburg, which we might have spent more time if it had the more climatic top-of-the-hill spot.
Up at the top, we marveled at the statues, plaques, restaurants, and coin-operated binoculars. A handful of people, including ourselves, climbed around the ruins and pretended to be dragons or stood at the edge trying to figure out the panoramic function on their cameras. Katie and I reenacted Wagner's famous battle between Siegfried and the dragon Fafner. Having satisfied all dramatic and sightseeing needs, we returned to our less legendary and non-magical apartment.