Thursday, 26 November 2015

Great Continental Railway Journeys: Freiburg to Hannover

German Romantic poetry 
Michael Portillo arrives in Freiburg liked the well-heeled public school boy that he is, adorned in a racing green blazer with white pinstripes. He is here to discover the meaning of Germanness. In 1913, the year of his Bradshaw's, Germany was still only recently unified. It was still trying to carve out a national identity, and hadn't yet started the First World War. Shame on me, four sentences in and I've already mentioned "the war" in the same breath as Germany, like Basil Fawlty and The Sun newspaper before me. Back then it seems that we Brits liked Germany as a holiday destination a lot more than we do now. Schiller and Goethe had filled our heads with Romantic nature poetry, and we had fallen for the Brothers Grimm, whose disturbing tales from the forest had been made a lot more wholesome in translation. In fact, we liked travelling to Germany so much that around 6,000 of us were trapped behind enemy lines when World War I broke out.

Most of us were after a cuckoo clock. Some of us still go all the way to Germany to buy one, as evidenced by the customers in a shop in Triberg in the Black Forest. In the shop, Portillo has a go at carving a leaf under the watchful eye of the master carver. Afterwards the carver allows Portillo to keep the leaf as a "souvenir", too polite to say that it's because the result is too shit for him to use. Apparently, the traditional triangular shape of the Black Forest cuckoo clock was inspired by the roofs of new houses built along the Black Forest railway. And originally the cuckoo clock was intended to be a "cockerel clock", but this involved the internal bellows having to play too many notes.

Soon Michael is tucking into a Black Forest Gateau, at pains to point out that we leave out the most important ingredient - the boozy Kirsch - in the English translation. However, the most significant ingredient in his slice appears to be thickly whipped cream, which of course makes it very authentically German. The slab is gigantic, mouthwatering, covered in dark chocolate shavings, and sums up so much of what is marvellous about the world. "Yummy," as Portillo says.

Soon Portillo is heading north to Heidelberg, where I lived for a year in my early twenties. (I always knew this slide of Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof, taken while changing film rolls en route somewhere, would come in useful one day.) Here Portillo's theme of Romantic poetry continues. He wonders why the city has been such a pull to artists over the years, inspiring emotionally charged dramatic works from the likes of Turner to Brahms. An academic claims it has something to do with ruins being fashionable, and Heidelberg's ruined Schloss halfway up the Koenigsberg is certainly spot-on as far as ruins go. What Portillo doesn't know is that there is another ruin directly above where he is standing on the Philosophenweg - it's a former Nazi open-air theatre known as a Thingstaette, built to put on plays of Norse legends for the Volk of the 1930s, now abandoned and overgrown, and beyond creepy.
Heidelberg Schloss, spot on as ruins go

View of Heidelberg from the Philosophenweg
Nazi Thingstaette on the Heiligenberg

Portillo moves on via double-decker train to Frankfurt Main Hauptbahnhof, Germany's busiest railway station, which is a lot more architecturally appealing than Britain's busiest railway station, Clapham Junction. Portillo thinks we need more double-decker trains in Britain. He is possibly right. They could go a long way to solving commuter overcrowding.

Frankfurt Rathaus

In Frankfurt, Portillo visits the surprisingly silent and hi-tech stock exchange, meets a patronising TV journalist charged with explaining finance to the masses, and looks thoroughly undignified trying to get his chops round a Wurst. He also visits the Goethehaus to learn more about the man billed as Germany's Shakespeare.


"Mainhatten" skyscrapers

European Central Bank

And then on to Goettingen, which is famous for its university. Most of what Portillo sees there he could have covered in Heidelberg, since that is also a city with an ancient university (older than Goettingen's) that has produced a number of Nobel-prize winning scientists and has a tradition of Borschenschaften (fraternities). Heidelberg also has a Studentenkarzer (prison) with the same black heads silhouetted on the walls by naughty students of the bygone age. And it has pubs full of pictures of fencing matches and men with facial scars.

Gaenseliesel, Goettingen, kissed and decorated by graduating students

But it turns out Portillo is really there to see Goettingen's wind tunnel, built in 1907 to aid the study of aerodynamics, so people could build aeroplanes less likely to fall out of the sky. Now the research centre has a model railway where people use a catapult to fire engines along a track at 400km/hour. They make the sleek high-speed ICE trains Portillo is using seem like clanking old steamies.

Hannover Rathaus

Portillo's final stop is Hannover, where I have only ever spent an afternoon. Portillo visits its spectacular Rathaus (city hall), which signifies Hannover's importance at the time of the Kaiser, when it was built. Given that I have a photograph of the view from the top of the Rathaus dome, I must also have travelled up the unusual curved lift with sloping floor that Portillo rides. Yet I have absolutely no memory of doing so. Maybe my host was feeling stingy and made me take the stairs. Maybe the lift was closed for refurbishment. Or maybe my vertigo just means I have blocked the experience out entirely.
View from Hannover Rathaus

My afternoon in Hannover was at the end of a month-long interrailing trip I took aged 25, finally done with study but not yet in the world of work. I was trying to brush up my German ready to seek employment. I travelled by train all the way from Luebeck in the north of Germany to Lugano in Italian-speaking Switzerland, which makes this the first of Portillo's railway journeys that I have covered in its entirety, and more. Thanks to the kindness of friends, I didn't pay for a single night's accommodation during the whole trip. I mostly slept on floors, with the odd blissful night on a futon (if such a thing is possible). In Lugano, I had to cram into a narrow single bed with a Danish architecture student. As it was the days before wifi and mobile internet, I finalised my itinerary by sending postcards from one destination to the next and making fleeting calls from coin-guzzling payphones. Yet I was always met on time at each station by whoever I was visiting: it seems that in the pre-Instagram era somehow we coped.

I always refer to the trip as "the march for open windows" owing to the Germans' fear of draughts and penchant for stuffy rooms, which made some of the long train journeys unbearable. In answer to Portillo's quest, for me, Germanness is about strange dichotomies. It's Ordnung surrounded by decadent cake. It's an open-door policy in the midst of blinding bureaucracy. It's the vegetarian health freak in a country whose restaurants serve up the Schlachtplatte (slaughter plate). It's the hypochondriac who on the one hand regularly takes a Kur, peers obsessively into a Flachspueler (stage toilet) and plays team sport, but chain smokes on the other. It's the cultural hybrid of someone who loves David Hasselhoff for his music as much as they do Beethoven. It's rimless glasses to see with, and men wearing jackets so brightly coloured that it's clear they don't use them. (Heck, some of them make Portillo's look if not stylish then at least very much at home.) But for all this, it's a place I love - and miss. If only for the cake.

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