Monday, June 11, 2012
My uncle once asked me what I thought was the most underrated country in Europe. I didn’t hesitate to say Germany. Despite the country being the economic powerhouse of the continent, it somehow gets overlooked as a travel destination. It’s a shame, too, because Germany has amazing cities, countryside, castles, and festivals. As such, when a friend that was staying with relatives in Bavaria invited me to visit her the other weekend, I readily accepted.
I flew to Frankfurt and hopped on a train to Ansbach, changing at Wurzburg en route. When I arrived, my friend was waiting with her brother and aunt at the station. The four of us hopped in their car for a short ride to the historic city center, where we spent a sunny afternoon exploring.
The first thing that struck me when walking around Ansbach was the prevalence of American English. For a city so far off the tourist trail, I was surprised to hear so many familiar accents. Then my friend explained that there was an American military base in the city. It made sense.
The second thing that struck me was Ansbach’s resemblance to some of the towns I saw on the Romantic Road a few years ago. Again my friend came to the rescue, telling me that we were a mere 40 minutes from Dinkelsbuhl, a storybook town in Bavaria that was my favorite place on the Romantic Road.
Questions answered, I focused on Ansbach itself. It had a beautiful city square with a pretty church and sprawling cafes in front of pastel buildings. Down a pedestrian street was a cafe called Rialto that her aunt considered the best in the city center.
We walked to it, passing by shops selling everything from books to fashion accessories along the way. Apparently the stores had just started opening on Saturdays, a big step for a traditional city that keeps its weekends sacred.
Once we reached the cafe, we sat down for coffee and ice cream. When our giant sundaes arrived, I learned that spending summer afternoons eating ice cream outdoors is a German tradition. And to think the country isn’t higher up on people’s travel lists…
After eating our ice cream, we walked around the pedestrianized streets some more, passing fountains, a historic castle, and a park with a giant piece of the Berlin Wall in it. From there we made our way to a modern shopping mall that used to be part of the American military base in Ansbach.
There we visited a shop called Nordsee, which my friend and her brother claimed had some of the freshest fish sandwiches they had ever had. If I hadn’t been so full of ice cream, I would have had one with them.
Instead I waited until we got back to their family’s house in Bechhofen. A 20-minute drive from Ansbach, the small town had pretty churches, a quiet steam, and all of the traditional Bavarian architecture one would expect from a town so close to the Romantic Road.
There I had a hearty meal of Maultaschensuppe, a soup made with meat dumplings. Alongside it were slices of brown bread, meats, liver pate, and cheeses. It was a great first meal in Germany, and it felt very Bavarian.
What didn’t feel very Bavarian were the camels. Yes, camels. After dinner my friend and I took a walk around the town, passing by the brush museum (the city is famous for its brush factory, which used to produce everything from paint brushes to MAC Cosmetics brushes), rural fields, and carp ponds before happening upon an enclosure full of camels.
My friend laughed as she explained that they weren’t native to Bavaria. We never got to the bottom of what exactly they were there for, but it was fun to see such an unexpected sight in the middle of Germany.
The next morning we were up early to play with my friend’s 9-month-old daughter. She was the reason we were all there, what with her christening having taken place the weekend before in the church next door. We ate breakfast with her, enjoying fresh pretzel bread, croissants, rolls, salami, ham, and cheese.
Afterwards we took a walk up to a hill on the outskirts of town. There we saw the Israelitisch Friedhof, a beautiful historic Jewish cemetery that I learned was the second largest of its kind in Germany. It stood quietly among the fields, shaded by the tall trees of the surrounding forest.
Back at the house, we had a traditional Bavarian lunch of Schweinebraten and Bayerische Knodel, or roast pork and regional dumplings. It was delicious, but filling, and I was glad to have an opportunity to work off some of the calories on a bike ride afterwards.
My friend and her brother took me all through the town, past the camels, and out to a lake called Krummweiher. The wide cycle paths and spring sunshine made it a perfect place for biking in Bavaria, and I could have stayed outside for the rest of the day.
But cake called. My friend’s aunt is an excellent baker, and back at the house coffee and two kinds of cake waited for us. One was Mohnkopftorte, which was made with special cream, marshmallows, and chocolate. The other was Obstkuchen, which was a pretty peach tart. After agonizing over which to try, I indulged my indecision and had a slice of each. They were as good as they looked.
After dessert we headed back into Ansbach for one last walk. We made our way to the beautiful Hofgarten, a large green space in front of the castle. Long lawns lined with trees gave way to flower beds and an orangerie. To one side of the building was a small garden full of manicured hedges inside of which were planted all kinds of herbs.
After exploring the grounds, we stopped by the cafe at the orangerie for Aperolspritz cocktails, which my friend’s aunt told us were the drink to have there. Given that they weren’t on the menu, we felt very much in-the-know as we ordered them.
After our cocktails, we walked to Ansbach station so that I could catch my train back to Frankfurt Airport. It was sad to say good-bye to my friend and her aunt, and to bid farewell to Bavaria. Once again Germany had shown me a good time, and proved itself worthy of inclusion on my European travels. If my friend visits her family there again soon, I will be back to visit her. In fact, I might not even wait that long. I hope her aunt likes unexpected house guests…