Crossing The Rhine
When we first came to France I’d shiver with a little thrill each time we crossed the Rhône. I mean, the Rhône is a truly mythic river, especially for wine lovers, and it took me quite a long time to start seeing it as more or less just the body of water that separates us from Avignon. But when we recently crossed the Rhine I shivered in quite another way.
I have a hard time even admitting this here, not wanting to offend Heinz, or Wolfgang, or any other faithful German friends of French Letters. But like many people with Jewish ancestors, the very idea of Germany is still uncomfortable to me. Living in France, though, where people tend to say “that was the past, and now it’s over and we’re neighbors” has gradually made me think that perhaps I needed to get over it, shake it off, move into the 21st century.
So I started by taking a bath. And a swim, and a shower under a waterfall, followed by several different steam baths, and a couple of outdoor saunas. Baden Baden turns out to be a fabulous place to wash your cares away, and to get over your complexes, if you have any, about bathing nude with several hundred strangers, a disproportionate number of whom seem to be good-looking young men. If you look into the background of this photo you can see steam rising from the outdoor pool, where we cavorted in warm water on a chilly afternoon. And I’m afraid that’s all you’re going to see of the baths, since I couldn’t very well hide a camera under my towel. But if you get a chance, go to the Caracolla Thermes in Baden Baden and see for yourself: four hours there and you’ll be cleaner and more at peace with group nakedness than you’ve ever been before.
Outside the baths, Baden Baden is a lovely little town
with a kind of storybook charm that I found very disarming. It’s a soft introduction to Germany, if you harbor lingerings doubts, a town for the well-off and well-washed, full of restaurants and cute little shops.
Having survived Baden Baden, and even thrived on its charms, we were off to Munich. One could argue that Munich isn’t really Germany, it’s really Bavaria, and I think that perhaps many Bavarians do feel that way. But for us it was Germany, where they speak German and we don’t. Although honestly, everyone we asked seemed to speak English too, much as we hated to make them do it.
The old center of Munich is really gorgeous, in a way we hadn’t been expecting. And right after Christmas it was packed with tourists, most of whom, like me, seemed to have their cameras perpetually pointed skyward.
I would look up and think “you’re in Germany but it’s okay”
and “you’re in Germany which is actually very lovely and where the people are warm and welcoming.” I still shivered a little, but that might have been the December cold.
Our hotel receptionist at the truly excellent Hotel Admiral sent us to look at the Frauenkirche, which was startlingly full of light after the dark Gothic interiors of most French churches.
She also sent us to Zum Dürnbräu, which is where you should go too if you’re looking for an excellent and staggeringly copious meal typical of the region, in a charming spot remarkably free of tourists. Since they’ve been in business since 1487, I think we can assume they’re doing something right, and financial crisis or no, the place was packed with people sitting in front of one litre glasses of beer and heaping plates and looking very pleased to be there.
Walking off our lunch we came upon this example of serious reconstruction right in the center of town
although as soon as we turned the corner we discovered that this painted facade had been put up to hide the unsightly work in progress from passersby.
And speaking of facades, what about this fabulous stonework? Would you believe me if I said there isn’t a stone in sight, that it’s all an illusion created with paint? And it is. A huge building meticulously painted to resemble elaborate stonework. Not everything is what is seems to be.
For example, on one stone-painted wall we found this poster. When you think of the Luftwaffe, what’s your image? It’s probably derived, like mine, from a WWII movie, right? Did you ever imagine that the Luftwaffe has a band that gives live concerts in a building whose facade is smoke and mirrors? Me neither.
We also visited the very nice Viktualienmarkt, a daily open air market, where under the Maypole
beautiful vegetables, impressive even to someone who lives in France,
huge wheels of cheese,
and flowers begged to be taken home, along with a mind-boggling array of sausages and gleaming piles of brilliantly fresh seafood, even though Bavaria is landlocked.
All of which says to me that it’s best to be on guard against the shivers, since things are often not what you expect, and that sometimes listening too hard to those whispers from the past keeps you from enjoying the real beauty of the present. Nicht wahr?