Sunday, June 23, 2013

Chapter 25: Weaving along the German Weinstrasse

When Lawna asked me where I was going to take her for our Saturday excursion, I thought that it might be good to go for a ride in the country rather than fight city traffic. I mistakenly thought that driving in the country would be less stressful. I browsed through some tourist stuff I'd picked up in different places and looked for ideas on Google Maps. I had read an appealing article about driving through the Palatinate wine route, or Weinstrasse, and it looked doable for a day and pretty stress free.

Now I've begun to think that there is no such thing as stress free driving in Germany. The autobahn is a pretty wild place to drive, as are the crowded, narrow streets of most European cities. Add to that list idyllic country roads.
Patron saint of grapes?
To follow the ancient wine road, we first had to get there, which is by winding roads through the deep Palatine forest. These roads are quite beautiful and often breathtaking, and also treacherous, at least to a south Texas boy who is used to straight, wide highways between home and Dallas or El Paso. Nothing is straight in Germany because there are so many hills (I'm not even talking about mountains here). Forest roads are narrow. They are two way, but often are marked with no dividing lines, and they look like they can only accommodate cars in one direction. In fact, two vehicles can get past, but it is a snug fit. When you are traveling along ledges and hairpin turns, these exchanges call for utmost concentration. Additionally, Germans who are used to these roads, drive on them pretty fast and become impatient when you slow them down. These roads are also popular with weekend motorcyclists, who drive even faster, leaning at low angles into their turns, and don't hesitate to pass you on a blind curve, and bicyclists who appear suddenly, pumping slowly, as you round a curve. I'm hate to even blink on these roads. We took no pictures in the forest--both of us were pretty focused on my driving. Sorry about the loss. The forest is quite beautiful.

Wine tasting center


Finally, we crossed the Hansel and Gretel woods and emerged into wine country. The wine areas of Europe tend to be unusually dry parts of an otherwise damp continent. On this day, it looked like it could rain any moment with dark clouds scudding across a pale, blue sky. After days of unseasonably hot weather, there was finally a brisk, cool breeze. I thought that maybe the driving would become more relaxing. It is, between the picturesque towns, but the villages themselves are crazy networks of narrow cobble stoned streets with terrible visibility and plenty of walking and biking tourists to watch out for. The best thing to do is find a vacant spot to park along a medieval alley, get out of the car and do some wine tasting. That's what we did.

At our first stop (and I'm sorry that I don't remember the names of the towns--we sort of lost track and just followed the Weinstrasse) we ate a salad garnished with German sausages and, of course, drank some local Riesling. After a leisurely meal, we hopped back in the car and traveled to the next lovely town, found a wine tasting station populated by many other pilgrims of the grape, sitting at tables outside and speaking a number of different languages, drank some more Riesling (a good summer wine) and purchased a few bottles to go. By this time, the grape was going to my head. Driving the narrow village streets was still treacherous, yet somehow I felt more relaxed. Still, after bumping along cobblestones on steep, medieval streets, I decided that we needed to find a good cafe to get some coffee to offset my bacchian reverie. We found a lovely town with an eis cafe open, which specializes in ice cream treats. I mainly wanted coffee, which they did have, but Lawna and I also shared a banana split, probably the first one I've had since college. Yes, friends, I have gained some of my weight back. It's a never ending battle.

Eis cafe

Restaurant service is slow in Europe; you are supposed to relax and enjoy a meal or snack. After an hour and a half, only part of which was spent eating and the rest spent talking and watching two toddlers paint their faces with chocolate and play outside, pretending to feed a statue an ice cream cone, I finally asked for the check, paid, and we set out to walk it all off in the picturesque village. It was late enough in the afternoon so that most businesses were closing, and we found a pharmacy named Luckenbach, like in Texas. We also found an old country church open and walked around inside and took pictures. Eventually, we wandered back to the car and headed back home, yes, along the same narrow forest roads. More white knuckle stuff!

Days are long here in the summer, and it was still light when we made it back to the Kaiserslautern area. Instead of going home, we drove to the base theater and took in a movie. It was a full, fun day.

We didn't see much of the wine road. It extends from Germany's southern border with France all the way to the Netherlands. When you are sampling wine along the way at restaurants that serve you at a leisurely pace,  it's hard to rush through the area. Nor is it advisable. There are also castles along the way, none of which we saw. We would probably need at least a week to get a decent sense of the region and its offerings. People have been making wine here since Roman times, and there is plenty of interesting history to be learned. We scratched just the shallowest skin of the surface. As I keep saying, we have three years.

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