Sometimes, it’s not the destination that’s interesting, but the voyage itself. Nevertheless, over the past eight years (yes, I’ve been writing this column for eight years, which amazes me) I’ve almost always focused exclusively on destinations. Strange, come to think of it. Of course, the majority of my trips have been by airplane, and when you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen them all.
Which is not at all true, come to think of it. Each airport is different, and has its own frustrations, and I’ve only just now decided to write a column about different airports. That will be next month, though. This month, I wanted to write about a trip.
Not long ago, it was my lot to drive across a fair chunk of Germany. I have always regretted the relative paucity of columns about Germany. It is the biggest country in the EC, and it’s right next door to France, and I have nothing against Germany aside from its rather staid and boring atmosphere. I’m sure some of you are protesting… Germany isn’t boring! He’s clearly never been to Hamburg or Munich or Berlin! Well I have, and there are some notable exceptions but face it, compared to France or Italy or Denmark or just about anyplace else except Switzerland, Germany is, um, calm.
The other problem with Germany is that so much of it is new, rebuilt. German cities were largely flattened during the second world war and they have since been rebuilt with an often charmless efficiency. Once again, there are many exceptions, but there are far fewer cobblestones in German cities than in many other European destinations and I do love cobblestones.
Anyway, all of that is about German cities; the German countryside is a different matter. I rarely get into the countryside when I travel, I’m more of a city person and my travels usually bring me to cities. When, therefore, I had a chance to drive from Trier to Mainz, I decided to take my time and take some notes. I instructed my GPS to avoid highways and set out to taste the German countryside.
Not that you should be in any great hurry to leave Trier. It’s a nice little city, kind of like a scaled-down version of Aachen, with its own cathedral and a kick-ass Roman gate. Trier, which is near the Western border of Germany, was the end of the world for the Romans, and they fortified it accordingly with a monstrous gate, which has since turned black and is known as the black gate (Germans aren’t renowned for creativity when it comes to naming things). And Trier does have cobblestones, after all.
Nevertheless, I managed to tear myself away from Trier and headed out into the forest. This part of Germany isn’t the famed Black Forest, but it is something of an extension of the Ardennes and as soon as I left the city I found myself on winding forest roads that tracked up and down and up again, roads with numerous signs warning me to beware of deer, the antlers of which adorned the doors of occasional small, isolated houses. I almost expected to see a couple of fat children wearing lederhosen fleeing from a witch or a wolf or something.
Instead, I saw birds and speckles of sunlight through the pine needles. When the road wound out of the forest I occasionally came across small stands selling cherries. You can bet on two things in Germany: during cherry season you’ll find cherry stands on the side of the road, and during asparagus season you’ll find asparagus stands. Since the two overlap, you’ll sometimes find alternating cherry and asparagus stands, which isn’t particularly appetizing, when you think of it.
You don’t find these things on highways. You don’t hear birds chirp on highways. When you’re on a highway, it’s almost like being in a train: you observe the countryside passing by in the same way you watch barracuda in an aquarium… they’re nearby but worlds apart. When you drive on a small road then you’re part of the place and you can stop and buy cherries.
Not that German highways don’t have their attraction, particularly for young men. I remember when I was a kid and I learned about the autobahn… a highway with no speed limit. At the time, I had a1965 Chevy Cutlass Supreme: under the hood there were 333 square inches of gas-guzzling power and I dreamt of taking it out on the autobahn, which I assumed was some special high-speed playpen for adrenaline-pumped teenage boys. I was half disappointed when I learned that autobahn was just the German word for highway, but no less excited by the prospect of driving on it one day.
I must be too old. I’ve had a couple of fast cars, although now I’m way too environmentally aware to spew that much harm into the air. The thing about autobahns is that they have just as many traffic jams as any other highway, and when they don’t, and you open up your car and wound the atmosphere and zip along, there’s always someone with some zippier car that wants you to get the hell out of his way. It’s quite stressful, actually, and of course if it’s difficult to get a feel for the countryside when you’re driving along at sixty, it’s totally impossible when you’re pushing a hundred and ten and there’s a Porsche coming up fast and flashing you to change lanes.
This road was no autobahn, though—it offered an entirely more pleasant experience, with twists and turns and birds and cherries and some asparagus.
Very few villages, though. I was surprised to see how sparsely populated this part of Germany is. You get used to going through a village every few minutes in most parts of France, but here, I had been driving along for quite some time without seeing any. There were signs at crossroads indicating directions to villages, and they were tempting. I’ve always found directional signs to be tempting. I mean, wouldn’t you like to visit Rorodt? So many of these villages had names like comic book villains: Morbach, Thalfang. You expect one of them to take on the X-Men with an evil cackle.
After a couple of hours, though, the general density of villages increased and I could see a few as I passed by. I started to go through some of them, all with their little white churches and their peaked slate roofs to help the snow fall off. In between the villages was more forest, but the forest was changing from all pine to deciduous trees. These forests were less pristine, sloppier… almost French in attitude, whereas the pine forests had been tidy and ordered and austere and entirely more German.
Finally, inevitably, perhaps, the road started becoming wider and more travelled and then it split into multiple lanes and then there was a MacDonald’s. Is there no refuge? Soon there were corrugated aluminum buildings housing furniture stores and parking lots of used cars and I cursed my GPS for not following my instructions to choose only less travelled roads. Apparently, it had never read Robert Frost.
Eventually, I ended up in Bingen, which is famous for being the place in which a bishop was eaten by mice, and I was able to admire the city, which clings to the Rhine and seemed quite pleasant. As I drove through and looked around I realized that I had actually stayed in Bingen some years before.
That kind of thing amazes me and suggests to my subconscious that I just travel too much. Here I was discovering a part of Germany that I thought I didn’t know when it dawned on me that the small city through which I was driving I actually did know. I had spent three or four days there a few years ago but I had totally forgotten about it.
As I was musing upon this I suddenly realized that my GPS had just said, “After three hundred meters, turn right and board the ferry.” Ferry? What about bridges, for christ’s sake? I suppose my GPS wanted to make a point, that even if it was unfamiliar with Frost, it had read Coleridge and it was going to treat me to a boat ride. As the day was drawing to a close, I thought about reprogramming the thing and allowing it to take the fastest way back to Wiesbaden, which undoubtedly did not include a ferry, but no, if I were going to do this, I would do it all the way.
This was a wise decision. There is something extremely romantic about taking a ferry across a wide, strong river. I don’t mean romantic in the “space cowboy” way, I mean romantic as in Beethoven. Perhaps what I really mean is nostalgic, but specifically, that kind of nostalgia we create for times that never really existed. Kind of like Reagan’s America. Anyway, it was a wonderful little ferry ride. I pretty much drove straight onto the small boat, which held about ten cars, and once it was full it crabbed its way across the Rhine to Rüdesheim, which is a reflection of Bingen. The riverfront of both cities reminds me of a seaside resort—there are the same rows of restaurants with big open terraces, lines of flagpoles with the flags of different nations, probably erected to make tourists feel at home, there are even beaches. The river itself is majestic; you can feel it flow along like Western Europe’s aorta. It’s a very masculine river (unlike the Seine, for instance, which is a very feminine river).
By the time I left Rüdesheim I had nearly completed my journey. Wiesbaden is nice, but it’s nothing to write home about, so neither is it something to write you about. You’ll just have to visit it yourself, and perhaps rent a car then drive west, avoiding highways, heading for the forests, getting lost and taking your time.