Travelogue LXVII: Rheingau

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarch 22, 2017 I’m back in Germany for just a couple bittersweet weeks, before the start of the new semester in California. I wanted to wait for a sunny day to climb into the vineyards on the Rhine to take pictures like the ones I took almost exactly 13 months ago, but waiting for clear weather in Germany in spring can be an entirely unproductive undertaking. So we went out anyway and walked into a misty gray morning, which had in the end its own sort of loveliness.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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The vines have been pruned and trained along wires for the next growing season…

The vineyards on the Rhine are full of walking paths, zigzagging back and forth across the slopes. It is possible to hike the entire length of the Rheingau, sometimes through the vineyards and sometimes through the woods, dipping down into the villages in the valleys. The roads that crisscross the vineyards are primarily there for the winemakers, enabling them to ferry workers or small equipment high up the steep sides of the mountain. But they are also there for those who want to enjoy the beauty of the valley for its own sake, from curious tourists to serious hikers to locals out for a Sunday stroll. The paths are dotted with benches and the occasional gazebo at the particularly lovely spots.

And, because this is Germany after all, every once in a while there is a tiny self-serve kiosk where you can open a door and take out a bottle of local wine and glasses, pay by the honor system, and then sit and drink. It’s the perfect mix of nature and culture, I think: the gorgeousness of the Rhine River valley all around you, and then community over a shared bottle of wine. The last time we were here, an hour at a picnic table turned into two, and then three, and we shared stories and then walked with new-found friends all the way back to the village. It’s things like that that make me miss Germany.

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Checking out the wine selection at one of the many self-serve stations along the way, although it was too cold and too early in the day for a drink.

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Into the woods..

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Travelogue LXX: Sweden

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The wood-fired sauna in the back garden of friends. In Germany, saunas are a sort of Holy of Holies–no talking, no eating, no nonsense. In Sweden, well, there are often beer bottle openers nailed up to the doors.

June 3, 2016 Last Friday morning I found myself for the first time in six months suddenly no longer writing a thesis. A surreal experience, that, to hold in my hands the culminating project of the degree I came to Germany to get. At any rate, a bit of celebration was in order.

Jonathan had been invited to give a lecture at the Swedish Wine Association, and I took the train up to join him a few days later in Varberg, a tiny town on the Western coast. He spent a couple years helping build up a young winery there, and still has deep connections to the people who run the place.

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Ästad Vingård, the winery.

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Consulting services for a small-scale ecological wine grower.

And so we spent the first couple days attending to business at the winery, or rather Jonathan attended to business and I looked at everything and tried simultaneously to learn Swedish and to not break anything and also drank a lot of wine. On the second day, we spent six hours perched on the back of a four-wheeler spreading natural fertilizer on grape vines and singing Irish drinking songs at the top of our lungs. On the third day, we cleaned out and tilled a little garden plot for a friend and then ran and jumped in the North Sea, which was disgustingly frigid. It doesn’t get much more romantic than that.

Even if I hadn’t been experiencing it all with a particularly dear human being, I still would have reveled in it. This new world I have been introduced to in the last few months–the vineyards, the people who work them, the wine cellars and shops and curious tourists who keep the family business afloat–is something I knowSheep people are not that much different than wine people, at the end of the day. Agritourism is agritourism, no matter which side of the pond you are on. I find the same vocabulary and passions on a winery on the coast of Sweden that I do on a tiny sheep farm in central Vermont. And the more I journey on into the heady world of academia and scholarship, the more I find myself eternally drawn back to these things.

Anyway, in exchange for the work we got two nights in the winery inn–lovely room, wood-fired saunas, three-course dinners in the restaurant followed by all the delights of an open bar. A fair trade, if you ask me.

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Barefoot gardening 100 meters from the North Sea.

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There were wood-fired hot tubs next to the saunas, yo.

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Typical Swedish architecture–wooden construction, straw roofing (below).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the last day, we walked up the coast outside of Varberg–a surreal, rugged world of rocks and seaweed and trees bent over backwards from the wind off the sea. Gray and monotone when shot through a macro lens, but infinitely detailed and colorful and rich when viewed up close.

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Looking back at Varberg’s fortress and harbor.

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Varberg’s harbor.

Then it was over, and we made the 15-hour journey back home–through three countries, change trains in Copenhagen and Hamburg, take the ferry into Germany, arrive in Mainz in the pitch black and catch the last bus home.

After so much time on trains, their rhythm and swing get into your bones. For hours afterwards you feel like your entire world is moving, like you are still rushing on into the night with rain water slanting off the windows.

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Half-way between Denmark and Germany.

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Travelogue LXXI: Weinbergen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFebruary 28, 2016 Yesterday, the sun shone in Germany–really shone, with a strength and warmth that have been absent for months. And when the sun shines in Germany in the winter, you leave the libraries at the university behind and you get out and you do something.

So we packed a picnic lunch and tea and tools into the back of a rattly rainbow Volkswagen and drove into the Weinbergen (vineyards; literally “wine mountains,” which I think is much more poetic). In the late winter the vintners begin the process of pruning the grape vines in preparation for the next growing season, and I was lucky enough to be invited by one particular vine-pruner to tag along.

And it was marvelous.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe vineyards of the Rheingau are almost ridiculously steep, falling straight down to the banks of the river. The slopes are covered in slippery silver-blue or red slate. Standing upright requires strong legs and a good sense of balance; actually doing something at any level of efficiency while standing upright requires genuine skill.

In these vineyards, the steepness means that all of the work is still done by hand, using techniques that have been in place for centuries. Pruners now use battery-powered clippers, but the process is still the same: cutting away old or unwanted growth from each plant and training selected shoots to grow in the proper directions. It all sounds simple enough, but is in fact anything but–every plant is a decision, a tiny work of art, shaped and re-shaped over a period of decades by dozens of hands.

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Stone steps are built into the walls to access lower terraces.

And so we worked. Or rather, J. pruned like a professional while I took pictures, did not fall off any walls, tried not to cut off the wrong things, and generally enjoyed myself more than I have in a long time.

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Hands down the most excellent vine-pruner in the Rheingau.

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Different types of slate.

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Battery-powered clippers.

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Yes, that’s me cutting grape vines in a flannel shirt from Vermont in a vineyard on the Rhine. With thousand-year-old-castle ruins in the background. Sometimes it is possible to get the miraculousness of existence into a photograph. 

I think the rest of the pictures speak for themselves. Even from the most distant of perspectives, the Rheingau in late February, perched on the dividing line between winter and spring, is pretty dang gorgeous.

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I’ve never been one for meditation in any traditional form. But this, I thought, sitting on a bench and looking at the mountains and not being alone, this comes pretty close.

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A gazebo at the very top of the mountain, with a self-service shelf of wine and glasses for hikers.

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Gloaming. Dämmerung.

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Sunset. Sonnenuntergang.

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Travelogue LXVI: Herr, es ist Zeit

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Herbsttag / Autumn Day

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Herr: Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß. / Lord, it is time. The summer was immense.

Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren / Lay your shadow on the sundials

Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren / Lay your shadow on the sundials

und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los. / and let loose the wind in the fields.

und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los. / and let loose the wind in the fields.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten reif zu sein / gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage / Bid the last fruits to be full; / give them two more southerly days

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein / Bid the last fruits to be full

gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage / give them two more southerly days,

gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage / give them two more southerly days,

dräng sie zur Vollendung hin und jage / die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein. / press them to ripeness, and chase / the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

dräng sie zur Vollendung hin und jage / press them to ripeness, and chase

die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein. / the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein. / the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr / Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr / Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore

wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben, / Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,

wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben, / Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,

wird lesen, wachen, lange Briefe schreiben / will stay up, read, write long letters

wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben / will stay up, read, write long letters

und wird auf den Alleen hin und her / and wander the avenues, up and down,

und wird in den Alleen hin und her / and wander the avenues, up and down,

unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben. / restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben. / restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

Rainer Maria Rilke

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Travelogue XLIX: Weinkultur

 

At the Weinfest am Kirchenstück.

At the Weinfest am Kirchenstück.

July 5, 2015 Most Americans associate Germany with beer–Pilsner and Weizen, Oktoberfest, etc etc. But I am living in Rheinhessen, the single largest wine-producing area in the country, which means that the Germany I know is the land of wine. Weinkultur–Wine Culture–is definitely a thing.

Here, wine is much more than something you pour at dinner, is about much more than the alcohol content. You don’t just drink wine–you talk about it, you debate and discuss, you admire. You make a trip once a year to your favorite tiny winery somewhere in Flomborn or Büdesheim or Bingen and come back with a trunk full of €600 worth of champagne. You sit every Friday night in the same Weinstube you have been going to since after the Second World war and make speeches about the Riesling for the benefit of the Mädchen from America.

It’s an art form in and of itself, talking about wine, and the amount of knowledge and genuine passion the average Weinstube-goer brings to the discussion is absolutely staggering. It’s like the way my little brother talks about baseball, or the way my piano teacher could compare the voices of Fischer-Dieskau and Wunderlich–the finest of nuances spun out into story, with a whole poetic vocabulary and symbolism to match.

I’m learning, too. After a year, I know what I like–dry Riesling, a good Rosé, and every now and then an Auslese because they taste like whatever the gods were drinking on Homer’s Olympus. But I’m no expert, can’t work out all the tiny differences that transform the drinking and talking about of wine into a sort of creative act.

Yet, anyway.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Mainz, the opportunities to celebrate, learn about, and, most importantly, to drink wine abound. The city is one of the eight Great Wine Capitals in the world, after all, and people are verdammt proud of it.

At the University of Mainz, for instance, the student-run group Uni Vinum organizes a “Wine Express” once a month for students–€15, a charter bus, an afternoon of wine-tasting at a couple of the hundreds of wineries in the area. Most are small family businesses run by multiple generations, with histories that go back hundreds of years. A wine-tasting includes a tour of the vineyards and a presentation of the wines by a member of the family, with plenty of opportunities to ask questions and peek behind the scenes. For newcomers such as myself, it’s perfect.

The drive to diversify--many wineries have a small Gästehaus, or bed-and-breakfast inn.

The need to diversify–many wineries have a small Gästehaus, or bed-and-breakfast inn, alongside the wine business.

For me, equally as fascinating as the wineries themselves is the chance to be on the other side of agritourism for a change. When I am at home, on the farm and bed and breakfast in in Vermont, I live the family business. There, I am the second generation, the daughter on the family farm who serves simultaneously as actress, tour guide, and seductress of the curious strangers whose money allows us to do what we do. At home, as in Germany, it is all about storytelling. My ancestors purchased the land in 1650, I grew up in these vineyards with my father, we are the only fully organic winery in the area–my parents came from the city and started the business from scratch 30 years ago, I spent every summer in the garden with my mother, we are the only farm with Gotland sheep in New England. A family business is a family business, whether in Germany or America, and the rhetoric is always the same.

A multi generational affair: above, the son, below, the father.

A multi generational affair: above, the son (on the right–to the left is Max Lindemann, the force of energy behind Uni Vinum), below, the father.

Storytelling.

Storytelling.

And a cute cat, of course. The presence of a small and fluffy animal is guaranteed to increase the buying power of tourists.

And a cute cat, of course. The presence of a small and fluffy animal is guaranteed to increase the buying power of tourists.

Champagne reception in the garden....

Champagne reception in the garden….

Then into the cellars...

Then into the cellars…

...and then a tractor ride up to the top of the vineyards for wine tasting.

…and then a tractor ride up to the top of the vineyards for wine tasting.

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About 8 wines in. 🙂

For those who want access to more than one winery at a time, however, there are the dozens of wine festivals taking place in the area at any given moment during the summer. They range from tiny–a few stands at the corner of some vineyard on the Rhine–to immense–the Weinmarkt in Mainz lasts for two weekends and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Last night, for instance, I went to the festival on the Kirchenstück, a small vineyard right outside of downtown Mainz. It was a local affair, almost entirely free of international tourists–no live music, no fancy show, just picnic tables set up between the rows of grape vines and a field turned into a make-shift parking lot. The German couple I was with knew many of the wineries personally.

And it was absolutely gorgeous.

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Weinschorle--half wine, half sparkling water--is very popular when the temperatures are in the mid 90s, as they were last night....

Weinschorle–half wine, half sparkling water–is very popular when the temperatures are in the mid 90s, as they were last night….

A family affair....

A family affair….

The spoils.

The spoils.

Rosé.

Rosé.

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When we left it was nearly midnight, and people were still coming in. Lanterns strung up over the road, crates of empty wine bottles stacked behind the stands, children running down between the long rows of grape vines. They were probably going to be there all night.

Travelogue XLIII: Rheinromantik

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMay 24, 2015 This afternoon, a trip down the Rhine to Bacharach, a tiny town in the midst of the Loreley region. There was still and warm air, birdsong, and solitude in the midst of the Sunday tourists. The chance to get out into the green and move and breathe a bit.

The town itself was lovely, of course, full of timber-frame homes and grape vines climbing up stone walls, built up around a 1,000-year-old church. Wine and religion–the two great shaping forces behind the appearance of so many small towns in this region of Germany.

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I first hiked up to the castle, high above the town–Burg Stahleck, originally dating back to the 11th century, and now a youth hostel.

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The only way one can get up to the castle was by climbing steps.

Lots of steps.

Lots of steps.

So. many. effing. steps.

So. many. effing. steps.

The top step. My poor calves.

The top step. My poor calves.

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But the castle was lovely–very rustic, partially carved out of the mountain side.  It serves as a youth hostel today, so you can actually come and spend the night.

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There was also an abandoned Gothic cathedral on the way up.

….And then back down into the gorge and up the other side, into the vineyards. The air smelled like freshly-cut hay–the smell of a Vermont meadow in high summer, here in May and thousands of miles from home.

Along the Rhine, the vineyards plunge right down to the water’s edge. There are zigzagging paths along the tops of the stone terraces, and one can walk for miles, high above the river and the slate rooftops below.

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The views down into the town were lovely.

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Vineyards--plunging down to the Rhine, almost impossible steep. Here, Riesling and Scheurebe....

Vineyards–all the way down to the Rhine, almost impossibly steep. Here, Riesling and Scheurebe….

Teeny tiny grapes!

Teeny tiny grapes!

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I stopped at one of the Weinstuben in the town on my way back to the train station to eat a bowl of excellent potato soup and drink a glass of wine grown from the grapes on the slopes behind me. I sat across the table from an older gentleman who was on his yearly bicycle tour, from Stuttgart to the Rhine, and then down river all the way to Koblenz.

Zum Wohl,” I said, when my wine arrived. “Cheers.”

He spoke about the Rhine as if he was talking about a person. “There is such power there,” he said, “and such violence. You have to accept it, have to give yourself to it heart and soul. It is impossible to do otherwise, especially if you are out on the water itself. Even those great powerful barges you see can’t escape it. Vater Rhein–Father Rhine–there is something to that, I think.” We talked about the Rhine as a creator of art, of Mythos, of music, from the Middle Ages to Wagner and back again. I told him I most likely wouldn’t be in Germany at all without the opening chords of Wagner’s Das Rheingold–E-major swelling into the sun, the Rhine as creator, as Father and Mother and God all at once. “That river is the original Genie,” he said. Yes, exactly.

Lorch on the left, Bacharach on the right. Father Rhine, indeed.

Lorch on the left, Bacharach on the right. Father Rhine, indeed.

Travelogue IV: Wuerzburg Spaziergang

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23. Juli, 2014 In Würzburg, my apartment is high up on the hill above the river, and my patio opens out onto a foot path that leads directly to the vineyards outside of town. In the evening, when the entire Nachbarschaft takes their dog for a walk, it is especially stunning. Since Germany is so northern, it is possible to walk very late and still have bright daylight–it won’t be fully dark till nearly 11. I don’t have too much to say, except that the romantic in me rejoices at all of this.

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IMG_0217The vineyards all belong to the Juliusspital, the 16th century winery in the center of town.

IMG_0209Back towards town, one slope is covered with hundreds of Kleingärten–little summer cottages, each with an impeccably kept garden, patio, hammocks hanging on the porch.

IMG_0232Also there are blackberries, which I have taken advantage of almost every day since I found them.

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And dessert, on a stone wall covered in honeysuckle. Wine grown very probably on the slopes across the path.

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It’s hard to believe I only have a week left here.