by Dianne Vita
I am of German ancestry. My maternal great grandfather, Balthazar Schmitt emigrated from a tiny town on the border with France in the 1890’s. He left a beautiful mountain village for the hustle and bustle of Bushwick, Brooklyn. His father, Matthias and another brother had already come to the US a few years before. They all settled into the same apartment, and ran a butcher shop on Bushwick Avenue.
After being in Germany, I cannot, for the life of me, understand why he left. I asked my mother and she said that money was scarce, and that the region was controlled by a baron that nobody liked. I guess I get that, but yeah, not really. Germany is, to me, like a fairy tale. It is enchanting. The rolling fields that erupt in small towns or large cities. The walled cities, like Nuremberg or Rothenberg are idyllic. I loved all the Altstadts (old cities). I loved all the schloss (castles) that crowned each city. I loved the people – they were warm & forgiving of the fact that I only spoke English. No one ever made me feel unwelcome. They were always willing to help.
My first night in Germany was a little grueling. I had spent the previous 18 hours traveling on a 3 leg flight from Melbourne, FL to Atlanta, GA, then from Atlanta to Amsterdam, where I went through customs to enter the EU, then finally a commuter jet to Nuremberg. It was arduous. I arrived in Nuremberg around 8am, and my wonderful husband met me at the airport. He insisted that I would acclimate to the time difference better if I stayed up as late as I could. He took me to the Altstadt (Old City) of Nuremberg to see the sights. We parked our rental car outside the Hauptmarkt, then walked over to it. The Hauptmarkt is a large square in the center of town. It is where local farmers come to sell their fresh fruits & vegatables, as well as snacks & flowers. There are even food trucks. This big open square is paved with cobblestones, and surrounded by shops & businesses. Now, Nuremberg was Hitler’s favorite city. He called it “the most German of German cities”. During World War II, the Allies literally bombed the shit out of it. Very little of the city remained untouched by the bombs. The entire city has been rebuilt to look as it did before the bombs came down. The only thing that is different is that the Altstadt is basically just an open air shopping mall, with many familiar shops: H&M, Mango, Zara, Douglas Cosmetics, Lush, etc.
Certain parts of the city was spared the bombing, specifically the area close to the Kaiserschloss, Nuremberg Castle. Albrecht Durer, the world famous Renaissance painter and world’s first graphic artist, had a house opposite the wall, near the castle. Built in the 1100’s, the house was left untouched during the war. It is a beautiful example of the traditional wood timber & plaster houses that one associates with Germany. It is converted to a museum, where you can tour the old rooms & see reproductions of Durer’s work. Durer’s paintings were prized by the aristocracy of the time. Many a grand duke or wealthy burgher wanted his portrait painted by the talented Durer, however, Durer is most famous for his talents as a graphic artist. Gutenberg invented the printing press in Nuremberg just a few years earlier, and Durer helped to create the use of copper plate engravings to add illustrations to the text of a printed book. Most Germans at the time were more familiar with Durer’s work in printed materials then they were of his paintings.
Durer’s work as a portrait artist is amazing. The self portrait he did, depicting himself as a Jesus-like man, was used as advertising art. The actual work is small, allowing him to send it to possible patrons as an example of his fine portrait skills. He portrayed himself in this manner to further the feeling of his piety.
Nuremberg is divided by the Pegnitz River. The area north of the river is called Sebaldestadt (St. Sebalde’s City) and the area south is called Lorenzstadt (St Lorenz City). The river allows for the free motion of trade before the road system was established. Nowadays, it is just picturesque. There are small islands in the middle of the river, and in some cases, buildings that are bridging one land mass and another. There is also a lovely covered wooden footbridge, as well as a more modern suspension footbridge. Many people in Germany rely on public transportation, bicycles and walking to get around. It is often the best way to get around. The wooden bridge starts in Lorenzstadt, and enters the other side at the Henkerhaus – the Hangman’s House. I found it interesting that they had a special home for the Hangman in town.
Other cities that we visited in Germany included Bamberg – a beautiful city that is well preserved from the 12th century. Bamberg is the center of Catholism in this part of Germany. It was the location of the ‘Dom’, which means diocese. The Dom was the home of the bishops. The cathedral was built in the 12th century, and is quite beautiful. It sits on a square that you could almost see James Bond racing through the street, being chased by the villian. Inside the cathedral are two notable sculptures: the tomb of Saint. Kaiser Henry II and his wife, Saint Kaiserin Kunigarde. The tomb sits raised above the floor of the cathedral, but between the stairs that lead to the choir. You can climb up the stairs to see the tomb better. The other famous sculpture is the Horseman of Bamberg. Sculpted in the 12th century, the sculpture is very life-like. I was lucky enough to be able to use my zoom lens to get a great shot of the details of the horse’s face.
There are certain things you will find in every German town or city: a church, a bakery and a city hall. The city hall, in German, is called a Rathaus. I loved that they called it that. I mean, Rathaus as the name for city hall??? How fun & appropriate! I spoke with a friend in Nuremberg, and mentioned to him my amusement at this. He could not understand it. I explained, “RAT” – rodent with long tail & “HAUS” like house or home. Then he explained that “rat” in German means “round”, and because the city hall had a round table in it where the burghers would discuss town business, city hall was called the “Rathaus”. We both giggled. The Rathaus in each town is usually the most ornate & important looking building, and is usually in the center of town. The Rathaus in Bamberg is particularly lovely. Built on a small island in the middle of the river, with bridges that connect it to either shore, it has beautiful paintings on the side & a water wheel.
We also visited Heidelberg, which has an amazing Schloss (Castle) and is in partial ruins, with lovely parade grounds. The Schloss is home to the largest wine barrels in the world. Back in the day, the locals would pay their taxes in wine, so the barrels made a convenient place to store this happy dividend. The castle itself overlooked the city & is accessible via car by driving up the narrow side streets to the designated parking OR by taking a tram up the hill. When you get to the castle, your tickets to tour the castle include the charge for the tram, whether you took it or not. Be prepared to walk up & down some pretty steep hills & stairs.
We took the time to drive up into the mountains between France & Germany to visit the town my family emigrated from. It is a small village of about 700 residents called Kröppen. It was cold & rainy that day, and the roads were mostly single lanes. Natives drive around in little smart cars. We were in a Ford SUV. Everytime we had to pass another car, it got a little scary. Once we arrived in the village, we found the church. I was able to see the names of some great uncles on the lists of dead from World War I and World War II. I still have distant cousins living in this village.
My favorite place that I visited was Munich. It was an hour train trip from Nuremberg to Munich. I was lucky enough to go to Munich on Rosenmontag – Rose Monday, the Monday before Ash Wednesday. This is Carnival!! There were stages in the street with dancers & musicians. People were dressed in costume, drinking and enjoying themselves. The Carnival court was parading around the town. I wanted to have lunch at the world famous Hofbrauhaus, but because of the holiday, it was packed. I couldn’t get in. I also wanted to go into the churches to take some pictures, unfortunately, two of the three were closed because of the holiday. Anyway, it was fun to see everyone having a great time.