The first Proustian callback to childhood that I have in Germany is that typically European mixture of hot sun on concrete, dust, and cigarette smoke set against a background of blocky post-war style apartment buildings. It is in the Frankfurt and Weisbaden train stations, on the way to Rüdesheim. The second is the scent of a country fire from the rhythmic clanging of a fast-moving train. The third comes once I have arrived in Rüdesheim, a small town on the Rhine River: narrow streets dotted with the coos of mourning doves and the smell of honeysuckle.
Everyone around me slips easily into Rüdesheim. This is understandable as most are tourists briefly inhabiting a small cobblestoned resort town that exists, it seems, solely to sell postcards. Half the restaurants and some shops advertise local German food and goods. The rest make at best a halfhearted bid for authenticity: I pass a Scottish pub, an Asian wok eatery, burgers, Italian, and what seems to be a Spanish cocktail bar. The storefronts alternate among souvenirs, square blouses to be worn with cheap scarves and plastic jewelry, and what may be local leather goods. This is Germany but it could just as easily be Switzerland, Austria, even parts of France. It is neither here nor there. It is the perfect nondescript picturesque Old Europe, whitewashed for universal consumption.
And yet it is charming. For anyone who has grown up in a mid-sized European city, the scents and the sounds make it feel like home. Walking around, I remember that my grandmother came from a predominantly Saxon part of Transylvania and that her cooking reflected her Germanic roots. Consequently, I resolve to eat a lot of schnitzel.
Instead of schnitzel, that night I have fresh trout in almond butter with parsley potatoes at the Hotel Lindenwirt restaurant. The trout’s skin is just crispy enough to crunch without making wonder if I should visit my dentist. One of my travel companions orders a rump steak. The waitress does not ask how the steak should be cooked yet it arrives at an ideal stage of pinkness. Another in my party orders a local delicacy, jellied beef head. I have no love in my heart for aspic but he cleans the plate so it can’t be poison.
Hotel Linenwirt has over one hundred standard rooms wrapped around a quiet interior courtyard but its main draw is it six fully-booked wine barrel rooms. They are double rooms. In a wine barrel. The logistics seemed baffling so I had to see for myself.
The barrels are massive, taller than most adults, with a door carved into the front. I have to stoop to get through the door, but once inside I can stand comfortably, provided I stand in the center of the barrel. On either side of me, nestled under the slope of the barrel, are two single beds. This must be a difficult proposition for claustrophobics and those who thrash about in their sleep, but my inner child still delights at the idea of fortresses and would love nothing more than to spend a night in one of those beds.
The bed is the length of the barrel, and on the other end from the front door is yet another opening that leads, cleverly, into the main building of the hotel. Across the threshold is a small sitting area with a sofa, a television, and a miniscule desk. Through the sitting area is a fully appointed bathroom. This is precisely the adult-sized fortress I have been dreaming of. This additional callback to childhood reminds me that I still have not had any schnitzel.
My schnitzel problem is resolved the next day, in Assmannshausen, a sort of annex of Rüdesheim’s. Assmannshausen has 980 residents to Rudesheim’s 10,000. Maybe because it is the off-season, there is no pandering to tourists. Assmannshausen purports to be nothing more than it is: a cozy town inhabited by welcoming happy people with a sense of humor. I pass a bar filled with dozens of elderly couples scampering to a live polka band. Strains of the music continue to reach me at the hotel whose restaurant serves me my next Proustian moment: a beautifully sizzling golden schnitzel. The schnitzel is preceded by a trio of soups: a creamy potato soup speared by a fat little sausage, a seven herb soup, and a pancake soup with chunks of boiled prime beef. The latter has an interesting tang. There really are strips of yeasty pancake floating around in the broth. The seven herb soup is the revelation of the evening – light but filling and forcefully aromatic. So much so that I can even enjoy the scent through my congested sinuses. The common cold has no regard for my travel plans.
Earlier in the day, before moving on to Assmannschausen, we visited Rudesheim’s medieval torture museum. This cold is medieval torture! Never mind 5 kilogram shame masks for adulterers and spiked iron necklaces; try carrying around these sinuses and swollen lymph nodes for a week. I really empathize with the inquisitioned. In Assmannschausen, the Hotel Alte Bauernschänke’s wellness center helps relieve some of the pressure on my sinuses. The spa has, among other mysterious chambers, two saunas side by side: a regular sauna and a Finnish one. Finnish saunas, the attendant explains, are simply less hot than standard ones. I have always thought that saunas were invented by carnivores hoping to stew their victims to a pleasant brisket-like consistency; there is simply no way that those temperatures can be good for you. The Finnish sauna, on the other hand, feels like a perfect summer day without the sunstroke. I can feel my ribcage slowly warming up like kindling, spreading wellness throughout the rest of my disease-ridden body.
The sauna and a good night’s sleep wrapped in the hotel’s soft blankets are all I need to make me well enough for the next day’s three hour cruise down the Rhine. For those who live in the region and commute to work by train along the Rhine to different cities, a cruise down the river must seem like a colossal and inefficient waste of time. Very un-German. We cruise thirty miles from Assmannschausen to Braubach in a little under three hours. Sitting on the top deck assures the best view but when the clouds swallow the sun and a brutal wind picks up, the choice between aggravating my cold and retreating to the indoor lower deck is not a difficult one. Positioning myself at a downstairs table at the tip of the bow, with its wraparound windows, offers a nearly 360-degree view.
Words could never do justice to the undulating green expanse of forest growing out of either side of the river, interrupted only by the occasional medieval castle and brightly painted town. When the sun comes out and drops patches of golden light on the landscape, all my innate cynicism combined cannot stop me from feeling transported.
But let’s go back to these castles for a moment. The ship’s automated guide occasionally interjects in four languages to give a brief history and description of each castle we pass. At the risk of coming off as a dullard, these snippets of trivia start blurring together after the fifth castle or so. It’s better than passing these structures in silence, I suppose, given the mystic hold they have on all us non-castle-owning simpletons, but better still is to put on headphones and choose an appropriate soundtrack to the visual feast.
We alight at Braubach and proceed to Hotel-Landgastof zum Weissen Schwanen for a light lunch. The region’s fantastically large white asparagus is in season so we spend the rest of our time in Germany practically drowning in the stuff. This sounds like a complaint but the white asparagus soup that serves as the introduction to lunch – a soup that manages to be both brothy and creamy – would be a pleasant enough death. After soup, a salad of local specialties: grilled prawn and a spongy cheese. Coffee is served with a large chocolate biscuit.
Looking around this 17th century hotel restaurant, I am struck by the incongruent surrealist art. My favorite is an impossible stack of everyday objects: an orange press, an upright pencil, a light bulb, a jar of flour, a corkscrew, a matchbook, a teacup, and an egg. Each perches precariously atop the other, suggesting some unseen force – perhaps a very gifted circus performer – that is balancing the pile. On the way out, I tell the owner how much I love the art and she lights up. “Do you have a minute?”
One minute turns to many as she takes me through the hotel and shows me every painting, all by Karl Heielbach. Heidelbach studied under Otto Dix, a well loved German painter, and went to art school with the owner’s father. This impromptu art tour also allows me to get a good look at the hotel. The furniture, like the building, dates from the 17th century. “Our hotel is like a museum,” the owner explains, “but we allow you to touch and sleep on the artifacts.”
Reversing direction toward Rüdesheim by train takes about an hour, one third of the cruising time, half as romantic, and much more German. We stop across the river from Rüdesheim, in Bingen, a city of about 24,000. Bingen takes both its past and its future very seriously, celebrating historical figures like Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century abbess and writer, as well as hosting wine festivals and regular sculpture fairs in its expansive main park. This year’s theme is Man and Machine and the submissions range from a missile made entirely of female mannequins (a play on the idea that all bombs have female names) to cubist metal sculpture of a hand (suggesting that it is fragile human flesh that makes machines).
Bingen is a perfect encapsulation of the region it sits in: a small verdant city of people who are engaged in the life and future of their hometown, and in its wine. It is both a tourist destination as well as a place that nurtures its residents and it feels like home for both, with asparagus and Riesling for all.