Reid's Travels

The true confessions and real adventures of a professional travel writer—bizarre stories, amazing characters, and comic mishaps that never make it into the guidebooks

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Braumeisters and Bullseyes

They call the Pegnitz a "river," but on my drive downstream I didn't see it get any wider than about 35 feet, if that. Most of the time is remained a little brown brook meandering through the wildflowers and half-timbered hamlets. It moved so slowly that stretches of the surface were flecked with lilypads topped by tiny white blossoms. Parting the pads were dozens of paddlers, for this was a Saturday morning and folks were out in force to enjoy nature (Germans adore the outdoors), by canoe and kayak, or walking their dogs down streamside footpaths, or strapping on harnesses and belay ropes to tackle the numerous little rock pinnacles that had calved off the walls of the narrow valley.

I could tell I had entered Bavaria because suddenly, the Guten Tags became Gruß Gotts (in traditionally Catholic Bavaria, the Protestant "Good Day" never really replaced the old "God is Great" greeting), and the first station the radio's auto-search feature hit upon as I crossed the border was called "Bavaria 1"—and it was playing oompah band music. That and ordering a beer didn't elicit contemptuous looks. What's more, no longer was anyone trying to force wine "from one of Germany's best grape-growing regions" down my throat.

I worked my way across back roads through the gentle farmland of upper Bavaria, avoiding the official Romantic Road route with its giant buses and ready-made tourist traps and churches charging $5 to see their Renaissance altar carved by Riemenschneider. My goal was the secondary capital of the Romantisches Straße region, the aptly-named Dinkelsbühl, a dinky walled medieval town that is a little too perfectly preserved and polished, the result of dedicating itself to servicing the needs of mass tourism. Still, it suffers a mere fraction of the international hordes that overrun nearby Rothenburg ob der Tauber (a veritable Bavarian Disneyland of gift shops schneeballen pastry makers).

In fact, the only horde in evidence this day in Dinkelsbühl was a troupe of American teenagers hailing from up and down Middle Atlantic. They spent the afternoon alternately wandering the streets (the girls in giggling clumps, the boys in strutting trios) and hanging out in the local pool hall/Internet café, where I had to wait until one of their harried-looking minders arrived to shoo them back to their hotels—to don the red vests, grab their instruments, and pack into the church to give their concert—before I was finally able to get a terminal to myself.

I was staying in Dinkelsbühl, in a huge $40 room under the beamed attic ceilings of a microbrewery called Weib's Brauhaus, because the castle I had picked in the area was fully booked. (Not bad: it was the only one of the ten on my list that had no rooms available.) I dropped my bags, told the young waitress who checked me in that I'd see them for dinner, and hit the road again to drive to Colmberg and check out its castle. Damn shame I couldn't stay there, as it was handily one of the best of the lot, but at least, after a little bullying and a little pleading, I finally convinced them to give me a pretty extensive tour (more to get rid of me before the dinner rush than anything else, I think).

Heading out of town, I decided to try a different road—never go the same way twice—and nearly ran over two medieval peasant girls, an archer with a full quiver and a six-foot bow, and a monk in a brown frock leading a goat on a rope, all of them crossing the road towards a sunken field with some tents. I pulled over and followed the motley crew into a medieval market and full-blown archery competition.

Little kids dressed in their medieval finery were nervously petting a pair of docile ponies and the monk's goat, which attempted to eat the kids' medieval finery. Two women were selling chunks of homemade soap scented with local wildflowers. An old man sat methodically weaving baskets out of straw. A wood carver hawked his hand-carved bowls while older boys tried their hands (and feet) at working a foot-pedaled lathe to turn out decorative posts. A seamstress was selling Renaissance dresses, doublets, and vests. And a man in the booth next to the massive pigs roasting in spits sold me a giant bottle of beer for €1.50.

There were also professional bow makers and fletchers, demonstrating their craft to the curious, hitting on the peasant girls, and then turning serious to sell their best works to some of the archers, who were killing time as they waited for their time slots in the competition. Seventy-five archers had come to test their skills against targets set in a mowed-out section of the field—and this wasn't just some medieval fair fancy. These guys were pros. Only a handful of them were dressed in period costume and using simple long bows. Most were clad in jeans, T-shirts, and baseball caps, wielded impossibly complicated-looking compound bows, and peered through a monoscope mounted on a tripod next to them after each shot. I dunno; I was kind of rooting for the guys with enough sense of fun to show up in tight jerkins, leather pants, and blowsy shirts.

Back in Dinkelsbühl and the Brauhaus, I kept my eye out for the evil Brewmeister (I was on a quest for one, see) whilst I chewed my salty but tender steak-on-toast, but no one looking like Max Von Sydow made an appearance. I finally asked my waitress, and she said the owners were out, but that they'd be around tomorrow for breakfast. Ah, I thought, tomorrow morning then. That's when I shall finally meet the Brewmeister and have the chance to foil his evil plan.

Problem is, the Brewmeister turned out to be the most relentlessly cheery German I think I've ever met. Not only that, she was a woman, Melanie Gehring, and though she did indeed have a diploma in Braumeistering, she didn't seem all that evil. In fact, with the apple cheeks of late middle age and a mass of dyed-blonde curls piled atop her head in a kind of hammerhead bouffant, Frau Gehring was downright motherly.

When I politely asked if she could replenish the empty milk pitcher at the breakfast buffet, she exclaimed "Naturlich!" in her sing-songy voice, and bustled away, When she returned, she insisted on pouring the milk over my bowl of meusli herself. I think it was all she could do to stop herself from tucking my napkin at my waist.

With an attitude like that, she's never going to conquer the world.

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