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Germany's Tuscany hides historic treasures

Sunday, August 18, 2002

By Doris Dumrauf

ST. MARTIN, Germany - It has been more than 1500 years since the Romans occupied this corner of southwest Germany, but their enduring legacy has been a mainstay of the economy in this region. It is also my home. I was born and lived here until moving to the Pittsburgh area in 1997.

A federal state and Germany's largest wine-growing region in Germany, the Pfalz (Americans call it the Palatinate) actually consists of two parts, the Vorder-pfalz (Upper Palatinate) and the Westpfalz (Lower Palatinate).

Wine grows only in the Vorderpfalz, because of the volcanic origin of the Rhine valley. It is several degrees warmer than the western part of the state and enjoys more than 1,800 sunshine hours per year, ideal conditions for wine growing. The vineyards cover the flat river bottoms and climb up the side of the Haardt mountains.. Because almond trees, kiwis and lemons grow there, the region is also called "German Tuscany."

Like a string of pearls, small towns with centuries-old half-timbered houses dot the edge of the Haardt. A scenic route, the Deutsche Weinstrasse -- German Wine Road -- connects all these towns from Bockenheim in the north to Schweigen at the French border.

The best time to explore the wine road is in September and October, when the grapes are harvested and wine festivals are celebrated everywhere. The most famous of these festivals, the Bad Duerkheimer Wurstmarkt (sausage market) attracts a half-million visitors each year during two weeks in September. Visitors can sit in the large wine barrel, ride on the Ferris wheel or other attractions and -- of course -- drink Schoppen (half-liter) glasses of wine.

Hiking and biking are popular pastimes in Germany, and recreational trails connect many towns. When you're tired from roaming through vineyards, you can fortify yourself on the hearty food served in the many inns on the way. Bratwurst, schnitzel, liver dumplings, spaetzle and potato dumplings -- it's all good.

    If you go ... The Pfalz

GETTING THERE: US Airways flies directly from Pittsburgh to Frankfurt. From there, drive south on A67 and then west on A6 toward Saarbruecken and exit at Gruenstadt. The Deutsche Weinstrasse runs south toward the French border.

FESTIVALS: There are too many festivals to list. Perhaps the most important, the Duerkheimer Wurstmarkt, is Sept. 6-10 and 13-16.

A festival without cars (Autofreler Erlebnistag) will be held next Sunday along an 80-km stretch of the Winestrasse; it's called the longest wine festival in the world.

The final festival of the season is the St. Martinus Fest in St. Martin from Nov. 8-11.

-- Doris Dumrauf


In early summer, asparagus appears on every menu, and it grows right there. In the fall, you may want to eat Zwiebel-kuchen (onion tart) with your new wine (Federweisser), a slightly cloudy drink that can get to your head if you are not careful. I also confess that it took me a while to try Saumagen, a minced meat and potato mixture baked in the stomach lining of a sow, but it tastes much better than it sounds.

St. Martin, one of the quaint towns along the Wine Road, has been under heritage protection since 1981. With its half-timbered house facades, statues in niches and decorated courtyards, it is often called the most beautiful village on the Wine Road. Its prominent features include a former Renaissance palace, the church of St. Martin and the "Briefmarkeneck," a bay window that was subject of a postage stamp in 1949.

Deidesheim is another town well worth seeing. Its historic city hall with its large flight of steps is the scene of an annual auction where a billy goat is sent by the citizens of nearby Lambrecht as payment for grazing in local fields. Walking through town, you'll see remnants of the old town wall, charming old houses decorated with flower baskets and gardens that seem to be ages old. You may also stroll through the park which is a medieval moat. Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl often brought foreign dignitaries to Deidesheim, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Don't leave the Palatinate without making a trip to the Wasgau. When I was in ninth grade, I went on a two-week field trip with my class. We stayed at a youth hostel in Dahn in the center of the Dahner Felsenland (rock country). The teachers, a husband-and-wife team, took this trip every year and knew all the hiking trails around the area.

We visited many castles then. Several were on top of or were carved into the red sandstone that dominates the geology of this area. Often, the castles were just ruins. One day, we visited six castles, several of which were in France, without ever crossing an official border.

The isolation of the valleys before the age of the automobile must have led to the many fables and tales surrounding these rocks. Many formations had colorful names like Braut und Braeutigam (bride and groom), Jungfernsprung (maiden's jump) or Teufelstisch (devil's table).

The Jungfernsprung, was the site where, according to the legend, a young maiden was collecting herbs when a strange man began to follow her. The frightened girl finally jumped off the rock but her skirt acted like a parachute, and she landed safely on the ground, where a spring developed.

When we weren't hiking, we learned about the history of the area. Scary stories about the ghost of the White Woman and Hans Trapp of Berwartstein gave us goose bumps.

We also found out the history of the area's most famous castle, the Trifels near Annweiler. Burg Trifels was once the imperial fortress of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and the crown jewels were kept here.

The Trifels was also a state prison, and its most famous prisoner was Richard I the Lionheart of England. On his return from the Third Crusade in 1192, he was captured by Leopold V, Duke of Austria, and was handed over to Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. Richard was released two years later, after paying the hefty ransom of 150,000 Marks.

According to the legend, his troubadour Blonde wandered from one castle to the other playing his mandolin and singing, hoping for his master to answer. He finally found him in a dungeon at the Trifels. I later learned to my disappointment that it didn't happen this way and that Richard actually could walk around the Trifels relatively freely.

I grew up in the Lower Palatinate, a region with less fertile soil and fewer resources than the wine region. When we had visitors, we always took them to the Lichtenberg in Kusel, one of the largest castle complexes in Germany. From the keep, you have an impressive view over the whole region. The castle houses a youth hostel, a restaurant and a Musikantenlandmuseum (musicians museum) in the tithe barn. It depicts the history of the many itinerant musicians that once lived in the Westpfalz.

During the 19th century, unable to make a living at home, these ensembles made their way to France and Holland. Later, they traveled to England, Scandinavia, the United States, Australia and China to play in orchestras, hotels, seaside resorts, circuses and on ocean liners. When they were traveling in Europe, they spent the winters at home, but when they ventured overseas they were often separated from their families for years. The money they brought home was used to purchase farms and to build houses which follow a peculiar building style known as the frontispiece.

Several of these Pfalz musicians became quite successful. Georg Drumm of Erdesbach composed "Hail America," the ceremonial march of the White House and was conductor of several theater orchestras in New York. Hubertus Kilian eventually became director of music to the imperial family of China. Others played in the orchestras of Kansas City and Cincinnati. In its heyday between 1880 and 1900, some 6,500 musicians were in the counties Kusel and Kaiserslautem. World War I put an end to this era.

At the museum you can listen to samples of their music, view sheet music, letters and diaries and -- of course -- musical instruments. It is unclear what caused so many of the men in these counties to choose the musical profession. Maybe it was a certain wanderlust in their blood. My own great-great-great-grandfather -- and his father and grandfather before him -- were musicians.

Perhaps it was their passion for travel which I inherited and eventually brought me to Pittsburgh.

Doris Dumrauf is a free-lance writer who lives in Coraopolis.

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