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A quirky kettle of fish

Why is a landlocked town obsessed with the fruits of the sea? And are those statues playing soccer in the park? We look for answers in K-Town

travel Updated: May 08, 2010 15:02 IST

If you are travelling to Germany,
you must consider visiting a small
town of 100,000 residents, called
Kaiserslautern. This town with
the lisp-inducing name snuggles
close to the Palatinate forests, thus
making it an ideal base camp for
trekking or biking trips in the forest.


It is curious why it's not part of the top tourist destinations of Germany, because it offers something for everyone. There are museums, castles and gardens, theme parks and water parks, and enough quirkiness for those looking for an offbeat adventure.

Go to jail for one night
The unconventional choices begin with where to stay. In the city centre, as you hunt for budget hotels, you will come across Hotel Alcatraz. Although the hotel isn't exactly cheap, it has enough thrills for adventure seekers. The hotel was once a German state prison, and it has retained the iron grilled gates, the small windows from which guards used to pass food to prisoners and even the beds that prisoners slept on. If you make a special request, the hotel staff can arrange an 'authentic' jail experience: they will talk you through the bars and even pass food through the window!

If you would like to have a truly lofty experience in the Palatinate forests, you should browse through the eye-catching brochure of a company called K1, which offers an experience in tree-climbing.

The trees in question are not ordinary. They are of such great heights that when you reach the mid-level, you can take a break at the restaurant perched between branches. If you would rather be terrestrial, then the town is small enough to be covered by foot. With map in hand, you can tick off the top places to see within two hours. But it's easy to deviate from the map, as I found out.

Going nuts about fish
I was distracted by a pretty fish in a red polka dotted dress, hanging from the roof of a shop window. I assumed that the shop was selling fish tanks. But I soon realised that the fish theme was something of a favourite in Kaiserslautern.

From where I was standing, I could count eight fish in different colours, designs and costumes. Fishes were perched on school terraces, on top of residences, a hospital and even technical institutes. I needed to understand why this marine creature was being glorified in a land-locked city.

I decided to go back to the tourism office to investigate. As Alice would say, things only got curiouser and curiouser. The lone English-speaking official happened to have just stepped out for lunch and I didn't follow any German. But a lady at the office had a book about the fishes in English, and photocopied the first page for me to read.

The fantasy fish project
I learned that 'kaiser' means emperor in German. Centuries ago, there was a river in the area, called Lauter. So Kaiserslautern means the Emperor's River. Legend has it that Kaiser Barbarossa loved seafood; his favourite was the pike. Apparently, a pike was once caught with a golden chain around its neck. This was the biggest fish ever caught in that region. It was presented to the emperor and he decided to incorporate it in the city's emblem. To mark the 725th anniversary of that founding day, the municipality launched a 'Fishing for Fantasy' project. Two metre-long fish models made of concrete were handed out to people and institutions, and they were asked to colour or decorate them. The project met with such an enthusiastic response that there are more than 300 fish models in the town today.

Soccer-crazy
Then there were the soccer sculptures. The Germans' love for soccer is legendary. But it has special signifance for Kaiserslautern, which was the smallest town to host the FIFA World Cup in 2006. The Fritz Walter Stadium in this tiny town can accommodate more than 45,000 fans. The soccer obsession spills over on to the streets. Don't be surprised if you come across many startlingly life-like soccer sculptures.

And if all this wasn't enough for an utterly engaging afternoon, I also found out that Kaiserslautern hosts the largest American military air base outside the States. In fact, there are 50,000 American soldiers stationed in K-town, as they call it.

That explained why almost all the clothes shops were blaring music by Beyonce and Lady Gaga. Americans contribute nearly $ 1 billion annually to Kaiserslautern's economy, but they are a tough lot to please.

However, the sights and sounds of K-Town were enough to please me. Harshita is a freelance travel writer who lives in Germany