Published on August 25th, 2016 | by Boris
EUROPEAN VACATION – PART THE SECOND
In which I consider the superb quality of German life, the wonderful efficiency of cowbells, mowing as a national imperative, how banning McDonalds from erecting giant advertising beacons for its food is a sign of national maturity, how few fat Germans there are, that service is something Australians do not get in Australia, and the ramifications of stealing heavy weapons from the Abwehr.
The Germans live well. The Bavarians, who I understand are the ‘Fun Germans’ live very well. Certainly they live better than we do for all sorts of reasons. But primarily it is because they are German and they have decided that very well is the way they will live, and then made it so.
And fair play to them.
Maybe one day, Australians will decide they too wish to live similarly well.
That decision is but the first stop on a most worthwhile journey.
My first stop in Germany was a petrol station on an Autobahn.
“You gotta see this,” Ray said to me.
He was so right.
We should be ashamed of ourselves as a nation, I thought for the first time but certainly not the last.
That we could screw up something as basic as a petrol station on a busy motorway is almost as much of a national disgrace as the kiddie-torturer Dutton.
Pick a roadhouse in Australia. Any roadhouse. Tell me the food is varied, good, fresh and cheap. I dare you.
In contrast, the Germans offer travelers polite service, cold beer, brilliantly rendered sculptures of cows, wonderful fresh food, six-packs of locally brewed beer at bargain prices, very good coffee, impossibly clean toilets, newly-baked bread and pretzels, and beer.
The normal fast-food giants don’t get much of a look-in. Sure, you see them from time to time, but they are not allowed to erect giant billboards, or 100-metre high towers spruiking their crud. Most roadhouses just offer fresh food, including fruit, at very good prices. If the fast-food wonks have an outlet, then their signs are the same size as the surrounding signs. Blink and you’d miss them.
I had a beer and some outstanding pickled herring on a crusty bread roll. I paid five dollars. Ray ate chips, drank espresso and told me we had an hour to go before we got to our hotel.
“What’s the name of our hotel?” I asked.
“I cannot pronounce it,” Ray confessed. “But it’s got a spa where Germans get naked.”
I could not see many positive aspects to this revelation.
Ray and I were on our way to the town of Sonthofen and then on to the Tyrol. The reasons for this can be explored HERE. Essentially, Ray and the German motorcycle clothing manufacturer, Held, were the reason I was in Europe in the first place.
Ray, on the other hand, was in Europe for two reasons. One was to do with him importing more beaut Held gear into Australia. The second, and obviously just as vital, was to abuse and denigrate the poor lady who offered ongoing navigational instructions from his Garmin.
“That can’t be right!” he would howl when he was told: “In 200 metres turn left onto B17 Partinkircher Strasse. Continue on B17 for five kilometres”.
“You’re lying!” he would shout. “It says ‘Ausgang’ not Patachakatchastrass!”
“I’m thinking ‘Ausgang’ means ‘Exit’, I said. “Or every road in this country leads to Ausgang. In which case we should go and see it.”
A week later I was also screaming at the measured instructions the calm Google Maps lady was proffering. And I was far more deranged and manic about it than Ray. I had my reasons, as you shall see.
But right then, I was jet-lagged and just overjoyed to be in Europe.
It was a heady combination.
So with a good beer and some excellent herring gurgling around in my belly and hopefully dispelling the dreadful airline food I had been gagging back for the last 27 hours, we rejoined the Autobahn and headed southeast towards Sonthofen.
“There’s probably a real good reason why you have this diesel-power Nissan mum-van,” I said to Ray as we eased our way up to 120km/h. “You wanna tell me about it?”
“The bastards at the rent-a-car agency screwed me over,” he replied. “I told them I wanted something German with a bit of stick. I got this instead.”
A convoy of hate-black German automotive engineering went past us on our left at way over 200km/h. I felt the Nissan rock from the airblast.
This was subsequently repeated with maddening regularity. Three or four dark German vehicles with AMG, S and M markings would whomp past everything and disappear into the distance.
“What have you got to say about that?” Ray asked the Garmin lady when one of Audi’s grimmest saloons broke the sound barrier past his window.
“Continue south on B19,” she replied.
Personally, I could not wait to get my bike and get me some of that speed stuff. I’d show these Germans what going fast was all about. Just wait.
Germans appear to like black cars. They buy a lot of them. Then they drive them very fast and very well on their autobahns and secondary roads. They are polite and skilled drivers, which is why they are permitted to do that.
Their autobahns are no better than say the Hume Highway from Sydney to Melbourne. And their secondary roads are maybe better surfaced but scantly wider than ours. They die on the roads far less than we do. The numbers say Germans have 4.1 deaths per 100,000. We have 5.1 per 100,000. And they drive at speeds which would have our police befoul themselves in anguish.
There is only one conclusion I am able to draw from this. We are very shit at driving.
National disgrace Number Two.
We are neither polite nor skilled. We hog the overtaking line because we are arrogant swine, and we seethe with feral anger each time someone treats the road rules with a contempt that interferes with our contempt.
And so our cops treat us with utter contempt because we deserve no better.
Suddenly mountains reared up before us.
“Check that out,” Ray smiled. “Proper mountains.”
I was also smiling. They were indeed proper mountains. I had only ever seen such mountains 30 years ago when I visited Salzburg. They dropped my jaw then and they dropped my jaw now.
Three wrong turns and two furious debates with the Garmin lady later, we pulled into the carpark outside the Held store in Sonthofen.
It was now just after lunch German time. It was something like three-am in the morning in the time-zone my body was enjoying.
“Ray,” I said to Ray. “I need to go to the hotel and faint for a few minutes. I probably also need a shower and some food. And I certainly need more beer. I’m not sure in which order any of that needs to occur, but if it doesn’t, then let’s organise a couple of dairy cows and race to the top of those mountains out there.”
Ray looked at me and grinned. “You are so jet-lagged, aren’t you? You’d probably win.”
A short but vicious Garmin-argument later we pulled up outside the Sonnenbichl Hotel am Rotfischbach, which lies between the towns of Fischen and Oberstdorf.
Whatever breath was left to me departed.
Certainly, the hotel was splendid; a stone-based wooden masterwork of immaculate German timber-craft. It was two-and-a-half stories high, maybe 150-metres wide, and facing the nearby iron-grey Mt Rubihorn (1957m), which climbers say is the first “real” mountain you come to as you enter the Allgäu Alps.
And as splendid as the hotel was with its ridiculously appropriate flower-fringed balconies, perfectly-oriented dining deck, and flagstoned beer-drinking area beside the fast-flowing and crystal clear Rotfischbach (whose banks the industrious Germans had paved centuries ago), it was as nothing beside the alps it faced.
The hard-edged Mount Rubihorn, the range it was in, the forests it bursts up from, and the uber-green meadows (there are no paddocks in Germany. There are only meadows) surrounding it was on another level.
Bavaria’s overwhelming natural beauty is a fascinating mix of the man-tamed and the simply untameable. You don’t so much look at it as behold it in awe.
“Pretty special, isn’t it?” Ray remarked as I stared.
I had no words. I just continued staring.
Then I found some.
“It’s like some bastard mows the whole country every weekend. Edges, the lot,” I breathed. “Just so these mountains would look even more fantastic.”
“There’s no rubbish,” I went on. “I have never been anywhere so clean.”
This was true. Stop on or near a main highway in Australia, and the sides of the road are like a tip. Bavaria is spotless. Clearly, taking pride in one’s country means something different to the Germans than it does to us.
It was all too much. I vaguely remember checking in with some lovely young lady dressed in a dirndl, and thought it was nice of her to put on her national costume for the foreigners, then blankness.
It was still daylight when I regained consciousness. I had been on tilt for two hours and now I was starving. My room was neat, my bed was soft, the pillow was vast (the Europeans have a preference for pillows the size of dog-beds) and the view of the mountains from my flower-topped balcony, now that it was evening, was every shade of darkening purple majesty.
The air itself was special. It smelled and tasted of both alpine grass and iced wind. The day had been warm, but the evening was certainly brisk.
Unknown-to-me birds sang, the Rotfischbach gurgled away and a cow-bell sounded beneath my balcony. I heard an alpenhorn boom in the distance.
They really know how to turn it on for the tourists, I thought. First the national dress downstairs, now the hooting of the ancient mountain trumpet.
Except, as I subsequently discovered, none of this had anything to do with tourists, and everything to do with Germans. The cowbell? Well, that hangs in the beer-garden by the stream, and when you ring it, a girl comes out and asks how much beer you’d like her to bring you.
Ray and I were the only non-Germans for maybe 100km in any direction. The Allgäu, and specifically, this hotel in the Allgäu, seemed to cater quite exclusively to Germans who came here to get their German on. There were no English translations on the menu. There were no English signs anywhere – there weren’t that many signs anyway, especially compared to Australia, the sign capital of the world. Sure, the staff all spoke English far better than I spoke German – and I certainly knew enough German to get into all sorts of trouble – but this was not a place that catered for the foreign tourist market.
Which was fine by me. I hate tourists. And I was very pleased someone had murdered all the feminists in the name of national pride. The dirndl is a most flatteringly feminine item of clothing.
Thus was dinner an entirely German affair.
One head waiter, two dirndl-clad waitresses and a trainee waiter, attended to the dining needs of maybe ten middle-aged German couples, and me and Ray – who stuck out like a large dog’s testicles on a small cat.
The German couples all ate in dignified peace, conversed in quiet clipped sentences, and sipped beer and wine in gracious measures.
I was deranged by jet-lag, fueled by two-and-a-half litres of impeccable beer and onto my second schnitzel. Of course I was going to honk loudly with laughter as Ray necked whisky and complained about his steak.
“This is not a steak!” he lamented, prodding a wallet-sized chunk of sad, dark meat billed as Rumpsteak on the menu.
By Australian standards it certainly wasn’t, but then I had not noticed masses of beef-cattle in the meadows.
I was OK with that. My dietary tastes are wide-ranging. Ray’s? Not so much.
“The schnitzel is damn fine!” I trumpeted. “You should have had that. More beer is also fine!”
The Germans politely ignored me and went about their dinner-eating. Their equanimity was exemplary, as was the wait-staff’s. They remained crushingly polite and efficient throughout my loud four-day stay.
I gargled more beer, chewed schnitzel, laughed at Ray and watched the head waiter training up the young bloke. This was done with measured dignity and impeccable manners. The head-waiter would discreetly whisper instructions to the young bloke, deftly demonstrate if required, and hover discreetly nearby as the apprentice waited upon the customers.
They did not come near us. That was the job of Helen, a cheerful girl, who served me beer after beer with solemn poise. She even brought me an ashtray when I adjourned to the balcony for a breath of mountain air between schnitzels, and she noticed I had a packet of cigarettes.
“It’s OK to smoke here?” I blinked.
“Of course,” she said, as if I had just asked if it was OK for that mountain over there to remain a mountain.
“I love this place,” I said to Ray when I returned. “You going to have dessert? I need to eat strudel. It doesn’t dare be anything but spectacular.”
Ray had espresso, while I wolfed down strudel made with inky bitter-sweet berries. All this as Marlene Dietrich sang softly through a hidden sound system. I shit you not.
I don’t remember going to bed, but I remember waking up at dawn, grabbing my camera and walking off along the track outside the hotel.
I was so glad I did. The little road I was on led uphill through a dark coniferous forest, complete with babbling brooks. I emerged to see more meadows, more mountains, and gorgeous little villages scattered…well, hither and yon among the ordered meadows. There is no other way to describe it. This was quintessentially Bavaria; just as you have seen in the movies. Photoshop could not have made it any more picturesque.
I was feeling strong. The crisp air invigorated me and there was no physical hint of last night’s beery excesses. There is much to be said for the German Beer Purity Law.
Breakfast at the hotel was served at a civilised 8am. It was now just after five. I had three hours – so one-and-half-hours to somewhere and then back. And there were lots of somewheres. Postcard villages were literally several hundreds of metres from each other. Each one more idyllic than the other – Neiderdorf, Oberdorf, Obermaiselstein – lay in the softly serried folds of a valley so peacefully beautiful, bountiful and verdant, it looked to be staged by Hollywood.
I finally understood what a ragged Russian peasant-soldier advancing through Germany in the closing stages of WWII, meant when he commented upon what he saw.
“Look at this!” he had said, ignorant of the concept of Lebensraum. “Why did the Germans attack us? What did we have they could have possibly wanted?”
Australia is a hard country; mostly flat, mostly mean, and geologically ancient. The soil, where it is not sand, is rarely rich. The grass, where it exists, is rarely green. The scattered eucalypt forests and dull green scrublands are full of birds that scream and shriek, and crawl with venomous snakes and nightmarish insects with far too many barbed legs and fangs. It has its own innate beauty, but it is so different to this sweet and verdant nonsense, and so much more…well, difficult, it may as well be on a different planet.
I trudged back to the hotel. Every German I had met along my walk had greeted me with automatic but genuine politeness.
Which made me ever so favourably disposed for breakfast.
This was a smorgasbord affair, with swathes of hams, salamis, prosciuttos, freshly baked rolls (four kinds), fruits, cereals, eggs, cheeses – the job lot. Hell, they even had five different types of sugar.
I ate hugely, fought off a fainting spell and set about holidaying.
That evening I met a very large Oberstabsfeldwebel (the highest non-com rank in the German army) called Gunther, who had been in the Abwehr for the last 20-plus years.
He was the husband of a lovely lady called Kim who had worked at Held, and Ray and I were in their local beer garden with two wide-boys from England, Loz and Guy.
And we were getting drunk.
Because, that is what happens in German beer gardens with Poms and German soldiers.
Now you may go and order your beer at the bar like an Australian tourist. Or you may sit at your table and be served like a local.
Because I was in the company of a most genial Oberstabsfeldwebel and two dastardly Pommie louts, I sat and was served.
It was a messy, love-filled evening.
Towards the end, I had almost convinced Gunther that we must head back to his barracks and acquire, upon the instant, some heavy weapons.
“Schwere waffen?” he growled, grinning like a fiend.
“Ja, Oberstabsfeldwebel!” I grinned back. “The Schwerest waffens that you have.”
“Vi have some sehr schwere waffen.”
“I bloody well hope so,” Guy chimed in. “I’m not going to do 20 years for fucken pistols.”
I had visions of spraying the tops of the nearby alps with .50-calibre tracer rounds while Gunther fed me more ammo belts and the Poms passed me beer.
But of course it was not to be. I think Gunther’s wife may have taken the car keys from him as we drunkenly planned the mechanics of hooking a howitzer to his bumper bar.
Still, it was instructional to note how the local publican and his staff dealt with four very drunk, noisy and happy men loudly planning to knock off the army’s artillery.
They served us more beer.
They did not call the police. They did not ask us to be quiet or keep it down.
They just served us more beer.
This, friends and relatives, is what civilisation feels like.
The next evening, The Poms, Ray and I, attended the annual Sonthofen harvest festival. Every town has one of these. And I can highly recommend them.
Imagine a square kilometre of medieval German town, with three soundstages, 100 food outlets, 80000000 bars and maybe 5000 people having a party.
Everyone is drinking out of big glass containers. Everyone is drinking a lot out of big glass containers. People have drunk so much beer out of big glass containers, they have bought more big glass containers full of beer and are dancing to Credence Clearwater Revival covers. Old people are dancing. Young people are dancing. Children are dancing as well.
The Poms and I were a little nonplussed.
“You couldn’t do this in London,” Loz said. “There’d be ten blokes shivved before sundown and the water cannons would be deployed.”
“They wouldn’t even let us assemble in such numbers, let alone drink out of glass-based weapons” I told him. “It’s just not safe for anyone.”
We wandered around for a bit, I met a giant who didn’t kill me and eat my head, and then we found Gunther and his lady sitting at a table outside a bar near a stage where a band was rocking some great AC/DC covers.
They made room for us and more beer was ordered.
I leaned close to my favourite Oberstabsfeldwebel so he could hear me over the music.
“Where are the police?” I asked. I had been walking around for two hours and not seen a single cop or security monkey.
“Vy? Do you need ze police?”
I blinked in horror. “Hell, no! I just wondered where they are. I have not seen any. If this was to happen in Australia, not that it ever would, our police would be walking through the crowd in large packs, bristling with weapons and intimidation.”
Gunther looked concerned. “Vy vould they do dat?”
“For our safety!” I declared.
Obviously, this was a concept alien to Gunther, but he was far too well-mannered to question it.
“If ze police are needed, they vill come,” he said. “But they do not walk around because ze people don’t like it. It is wrong.”
I nodded. It certainly was wrong.
“Have you no schwere waffen?” Gunther smiled slyly.
“We have no waffens at all any more, Oberstabsfeldwebel.”
“Ja,” he nodded. “I heard you were all disarmed.”
I ordered more beer. The Oberstabsfeldwebel looked thirsty.
The next morning, Ray and I set off for the Tyrol. On the way, we stopped, and I climbed onto a small wall beside the road to take pictures of the mountainous majesty unfolded before me.
And things went to shit.
I went to step off the wall. No biggie. Small step. Small wall. Maybe half-a-metre high. Well-built, in the German style, as are all their things.
As my left foot hit the gravel, it slipped, and I miss-stepped. I then fell horizontally, arms and legs flailing, for maybe three metres and shoulder-charged Ray’s mummy-van. During the fall, I felt something go ‘Ptang’ in my right foot.
I got up, dusted myself off and took a step. My right foot kinda shlumped forward and when I put weight on it, it felt like I had ripped the sole of my boot in half.
“Great,” I muttered as Ray tried not fall down the cliff with laughter. “Now I need new boots.”
I took another step. Yep, the sole of my boot was certainly split in half. I propped myself against the car, bent my leg and looked at the bottom of my boot.
It was intact.
Oh, I thought, as searing pain began to blossom through my instep. I have clearly torn important gristly things inside my foot.
“You OK?” Ray asked.
“Sensational,” I growled through gritted teeth. “My foot hurts a bit. But I shall live.”
“Did you twist your ankle?”
“Something like that. How far is the hotel?”
“Maybe an hour.”
After a lengthy argument by the side of the road near a town called Reutte, Ray discovered his Garmin was struggling to find an Austrian town on a German map. We were now in Austria, but thanks to the Schengen Zone, border-crossings can be a blink-and-miss thing in many places. Especially when they are as closely aligned as Germany and Austria.
We were in the Tyrol. Innsbruck, former host city of the Winter Olympics, was not far away. The glamorous ski-resort of Kitzbuhel not much further. Hell, Italy, Switzerland and Lichtenstein were all nearby, as was the famous Grossglockner pass. Motorcycles had been overtaking us – actually, pretty much everything had been overtaking us – and my waters were timorous with the desire to ride these amazing roads.
It had reached the point where I did not know where to look or what to point my camera at. Each perfectly cambered bend revealed another fairytale vista. Traffic was heavy – it was high summer, after all, and the good people of Europe where on the move. Still, now and again a posse of fast-ridden bikes would hammer past and I’d make silent eeping noises. If I made them out loud, it would only have interfered with Ray’s on-going abuse of the Garmin lady.
She was much happier now that Ray had uploaded Austria into her circuits, and we were making good progress. But Ray still didn’t trust her.
“You lie!” he’d growl each time she suggested we turn left, so he’d turn right. She wasn’t lying, so Ray and I saw many of the picturesque back-streets of Nesselwängle, Weisenbach am Lech, and Heiterwang.
I didn’t mind. It was all new and all stunning. I soaked it all up like a sponge as my foot throbbed like a working forge.
The Austrians are, to my mind, purified and pasteurised Germans. Somehow, they have an even higher standard of living than their neighbours. Austria is more expensive – more on par with Australia in terms of beer prices, which is the correct fiscal barometer for these judgements – and somehow neater than Germany. The houses boast the same flower-trimmed balconies, but the Austrians’ seem more ornate. Their cows appear sleeker and their meadows edged with a superior precision. Both countries stack their firewood in OCD-worthy piles of symmetry, but you will never forget that Austria was once part of a mighty empire, along with its Hungarian neighbour.
But exactly like the Germans, if there is a view that is worth seeing, then there is a wonderful restaurant built so that you may behold it at your ease while drinking beer and eating schnitzel.
Both countries are dedicated to ensuring you enjoy yourself as much as possible, with as much ease as can be managed. There are almost no signs warning you of anything or forbidding you from doing something. Smoke where you please, walk where you will, and drink your happy fill of the best beer on earth, even as you’re graced by insane alpine beauty.
To come to these countries from a place like Australia, where your every action is subject to some kind of nanny-state stricture, and everything worth doing is forbidden or requires some governmental oversight, is very humbling. To see people who are industrious, proud, and unfailingly polite to each other and to visitors, is even more humbling.
We live well in Australia. But compared to the Germans and the Austrians, we are ill-mannered, cultureless serfs, too isolated, xenophobic and introspective to ever understand how life can and should be lived. We lick the boots of our masters. The Germans and the Austrians put theirs on and march up and down mountains every Sunday enjoying the fruits of their labours, while being healthy and nice to each other.
And the Road Gods knew I needed them to be nice to me as I levered myself out of Ray’s car at the MyTirol Hotel at Biberweir.
The grandeur had been dialled up another level. Again.
Biberweir was named after the beavers that used to live here, and lies astride the old Roman road, the Via Claudia Augusta. It was the first real road through the alps, linking the Adriatic sea-port of Altinum with the Danube.
The beavers are gone now. The Austrians are clearly better at building dams than they were.
But the mountains overlooking the MyTirol hotel are eternal. The Zugspitze Arena. Iron grey and always dusted with snow, Sonnenspitze (2416m), Drachenkopf (2303m) and Wamperet-Schrofen (2303m), rake the clouds even as they are dominated by Marienberg (2561m) and Grunstein (2661m) behind them.
At their base is my hotel, and my now gronkingly swollen foot. Both were very special for different reasons.
The hotel is geared at skiers in winter and mountain-bike riders in spring and summer. You can spend days catching chair-lifts to, then hurtling down the best mountain-bike tracks on earth (I imagine the ski-runs are pretty good too). Then you can ride your bike into the hotel all the way to your room via the ramps, and use the ante-chamber outside your room to get changed and leave all your dirty gear.
My swollen and now useless hoof, on the other hand, was three days away from being heaved onto a Victory Magnum’s footboard and used to ride further east into Europe.
How much more special could all my collective shit get?
Lots, as it turned out…
THINGS I HAVE LEARNED THUS FAR
The only things open in Germany on Sunday are restaurants and petrol stations. On Sundays, Germans rest. By climbing mountains and fighting wolves with their bare hands.
I struggled not to visualise every German I saw wearing a WWII uniform. I watched a lot of war films when I was young.
I could live in Germany. Happily. I do not blame the Middle East for wanting to live there.
Jet-lag made me want to climb the mountain. I understood that I would die very early in the attempt.
Jet-lag and beer made me want to ride cows. Their contentment grated on me.
Parmesan cheese actually comes from the Allgäu. German cows eat German grass and leak German milk which is made into German cheese that is then taken to Parma in Italy so the Italians can call it Parmigiana.