"Why is it that when you sing your national anthems or raise your countries’ flags, it’s called patriotism?” Leo, the tour guide, asked. “But when the Germans do the same, it’s called nationalism?”
The motley group of 20-odd people – American backpackers, British honeymooners, European high school graduates, Asian shutter-happy tourists, and me – looked uncomfortably at each other and at Leo.
We were gathered in the parking lot of a modern-ish apartment complex in the historical district of what was once East Berlin. One small area was devoid of parked cars and was particularly unkempt – almost by deliberation. The group walked behind Leo to that dusty, weedy, empty patch. We looked around, confused.
The London-born, Berlin-based PhD student of history who volunteered as a tour guide, coolly pointed to the ground we were standing on, and answered his own (rhetorical, or so it had seemed to me) question. “It’s because of one man who lived here, right here, almost 70 years ago.”
The roughly 20-km stretch of road from Munich International Airport to the small town of Erding, in the southern German state of Bavaria, was especially picturesque. Hectares of tall, swaying corn fields rolled away from the tarmac on either side. Picture-postcard houses dotted the town.
Up ahead, a giant Ferris wheel and what looked like King Kong atop a tall pole came into view. “That’s the site of the Erdinger Herbsfest,” my host Oliver pointed out. His wife Nik chimed in excitedly, “The whole town will be there in a couple of hours and so will we!”
The Erdinger tent at the Herbsfest is the biggest and features a live music stage.
An hour later, I sat at one of many cafes in the town square, sipping my third mug of Erdinger Weissbier and devouring a cheese and prosciutto platter.
The 128-year-old Erdinger is the largest wheat beer brewery in the world and is best known for its Weiss bier, "white beer" in German, white for the tinge imparted by malted wheat that is used in the brew instead of the standard malted barley. Townsfolk strolled past us; the men and boys wearing traditional Lederhosen (leather breeches), the women and girls in colourful dirndl dresses.
During the Cold War, Berlin-based giants Siemens and Allianz shifted to American-occupied Bavaria to establish a safe base. Since then, Bavaria has transformed from a pastoral backwater to perhaps Germany’s most successful state with the lowest rate of unemployment, the highest income and the best education system. But it still remains the most conservative too, both culturally and politically.
Bavarians have their own unique heritage, dialect and identity, and the majority still want to preserve the old ways of life. And even though Erding, with its cobbled-streets, wide open plazas, fountains and pretty cafes, could be any of the many fairytale places in Europe, the vibe of the town is still peculiarly Bavarian.
The Erdinger Herbsfest is a prelude of sorts to Munich’s Oktoberfest, with adrenaline pumping adventure rides et al.
“Many of these Lederhosen are handed down generations,” Oliver said, pointing to the nearest man wearing the traditional garb. “They were conventionally worn for hard physical work but now they’re mostly worn during festive occasions. And oh, they’re also never washed.” I looked at him incredulously, he simply laughed and continued, “It’s not because we like them dirty but the leather is very delicate and it can only be cleaned with a special material.”
A nine hour-long bus ride later, I arrived in Berlin and headed straight to the famous creative ghettos of the erstwhile West Berlin with a friend who had extensive knowledge of all things hip in the city.
Also read:Around the world in 90 days
Neukölln, one of the 12 boroughs of West Berlin, is increasingly regarded as the hippest neighbourhood in Germany’s capital. It’s a patchwork of Turkish kebab stands (courtesy the large Turkish immigrant population), obscure art galleries and underground music pubs. But it’s hard to get by in such boho places as these with just a map or Google.
According to a 2013
feature, Neukölln’s transformation is “happening so quickly that not even the Internet’s most invasive superpower can keep up with it.” So I was more than grateful for my friend and his local intel.
We had amazing doner kebabs from a little Sudanese joint, took a walk through the streets dotted with art galleries (some as tiny as your neighbourhood kirana store), gawked at spectacular wall graffiti, and ended up at another hole in the wall with a quirky name and quirkier freestyle turntable music that four guys in caps and oversized tees churned out.
This was creative heaven and I didn’t want to leave ever. “Until some years ago, this was the scary part of the city. Crime was rampant, law and order was non-existent,” my friend said. “Locals say it changed because an airport around here closed, which shot the property prices up and people with better incomes and lifestyles moved in. But I personally think Germany as a whole really wants to forget its past and change for the better.”
Next morning, I took a free walking tour of Berlin which brought me to Leo, the PhD student/ tour guide. He walked and talked us through the regular touristy sites:
The imposing 18th century
, one of the most famous landmarks of Berlin, which has seen great armies, from Napolean Bonaparte’s grand army to Hitler’s SS members, march through its arch, marking some of the most significant moments in Germany’s history.
where the rich and famous stay and from the balcony of which the late
dangled his then-infant son.
, which for 30 years served as the defining symbol of the Cold War, separating East and West Berlin, and the infamous Checkpoint Charlie that served as a crossing point between the two.
The building that served as the
Nazi air force headquarters
and one of the handful that survived Soviet bombing.
And the Holocaust Memorial, also solemnly called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It was unlike any memorial I had ever seen before. There were no tombs, no pillars, no engraved names.
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin consists of 4.7 acres of concrete slabs on a sloping field, right in the middle of a busy neighbourhood.
Leo insisted that we all take a walk through the maze of slabs which, from where we stood, looked like unmarked graves. The group dispersed inside the grid, I walked alone through the rows of slabs. Sometimes they towered over me, darkening my path, the gloom pressing, making me feel suffocated. When I emerged from the grid, I felt exhausted, depressed.
“Now who’ll tell me what this structure represents?” Leo asked. Someone replied, almost shivering, “The blocks are all the same colour, probably representing the depersonalisation that was carried out by the Nazis. You feel cold and dark and hopeless in there. It’s like a concentration camp!” Even though others had other hypotheses, I couldn’t agree with her more.
That brought us to the dusty parking lot of the apartment complex and the man who lived there 70 years ago – Adolf Hitler. Of course, it wasn’t a parking lot back then. It was the site of his underground bunker (image below). Hitler married his long time companion Eva Braun in the bunker. Their marriage lasted some 40 odd hours before they committed suicide together, in the bunker again, by biting into cyanide capsules.
This unkempt parking lot was the site of Hitler’s underground bunker, where he took up residence in 1945, and which was the centre of the Nazi regime almost until the end of World War II.
“So you see this parking lot has a lot of historical interest,” Leo said dismissively, “But it doesn’t have any historical importance for the Germany of today. Hence, it is just this now – a parking lot.”
The more than five litres of beer that I had drunk the night before at the Erdinger Herbsfest hadn’t left any hangover surprisingly. Fresh and stuffed on breakfast of many varieties of sausages, I set out to explore the city of Munich.
The German diary
Munich, situated just 40 kms away from Erding, is a different world altogether. And within Munich exist two different worlds again. The new is in the sparkling futuristic buildings of the BMW headquarters and museum, in the ultramodern design of the Olympic stadium and the exceptional architecture of the Allianz Arena, popularly known as the Bayern Munich stadium.
The old world exists in the Munich of the Baroque-styled 17th century Nymphenburg Palace, in the numerous churches sprinkled in and around the city centre of Marienplatz, and in the Gothic Revival architecture of the 19th century New Town Hall, among many others.
The Gothic Revival architecture of the 19th century New Town Hall in Munich is an example of the city’s old world charm.
Later that night, I set off once again to chug beer and gorge on pretzels and sausages at the Erdinger Herbsfest. A fete that lasts about 10 days, this autumn festival celebrates harvest and is a small scale prelude of sorts to Munich’s famous Oktoberfest. Adrenaline-pumping adventure rides, shooting galleries, stalls selling fares and feasts, and huge tents set up by the biggest German beer brands attract some two lakh odd visitors.
As I downed steins of beer, danced on table-tops to live music along with the 3,000 other people in the tent, and smiled at and toasted strangers, I felt I belonged.
"We love our old customs here in Bavaria, and we miss the old days," a middle-aged local lady dancing next to me said. "All of it?" I asked, before I could control myself. She stopped mid-dance, looked at me pointedly and said, "Yes, all of it. The rest of Germany may want to forget it all, but Bavaria won’t."
I didn’t feel I belonged anymore.
*Berlin and Munich are connected to major Indian airports by connecting flights
* The best time to visit Berlin is May through September. For Munich, avoid the Oktoberfest rush and visit the smaller beer fests instead during early September
* A 500 ml water bottle in Germany costs ¤4 approx (`320). A pint of beer starts at ¤1.50 (`120). So you know what you’ll quench your thirst with there
*The best way to get around Berlin is the U-Bahn train system. In Munich trams are cheap and fun
(This trip was partly sponsored by Hema Connoisseur Collection Pvt Ltd, exclusive importers of Erdinger Weissbeer in India)
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From HT Brunch, November 2
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