A Visit To The Biergarten!

Thanks to the fact that Stuttgart is having an unseasonably warm Spring, my very favorite place in the entire city is up and running earlier than expected!  That's right, I'm talking about the Biergarten am Schlossgarten, the most traditional Biergarten in the city proper.

A biergarten in Munich

A biergarten in Munich

What do I love so much about the Biergarten? It's not the food, which is serviceable but nothing to write home about.  The fact that they have my favorite beverage, Swabischer Bauernmost* on the menu certainly helps.  But at the end of the day it's because I've been infected with the European mania for sitting outside once the thermometer rises above 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

But a biergarten isn't just any old place to sit outside.  The roots of the biergarten tradition goes back hundreds of years.  They originated in the Bavarian capital of Munich.  Beer needed to be stored somewhere cool during the warm summer months, so brewers dug beer cellars on the banks of the Isar River, relying on the cold Alpine runoff to chill the beer and keep it from spoiling.  They spread the grounds above the cellars with gravel and planted chestnut trees to further cool the cellars with their shade.  It was convenient to serve the beer where it was stored, and the biergarten was born.

You are most likely to find a traditional biergarten in Bavaria, but they exist all over Germany, and there are several in Stuttgart.  To be traditional, a biergarten must have gravel on the ground, benches for seating, and chestnut trees for shade.  There is no table service, you order your beer from the counter.  Biergartens serve simple regional and Bavarian food, but you are allowed to bring your own food to many, as that is also part of the tradition.

Yours truly enjoying the public viewing of the EUFA Championships in 2012

Yours truly enjoying the public viewing of the EUFA Championships in 2012

As for the Biergarten am Schlossgarten, it had a formerly lovely setting, very close to the main train station, but surrounded by park and trees on all sides.  Sadly, the Stuttgart 21 train station construction has besmirched one edge of park, but it's still a pleasant place to relax after a hard day at work, or listen to live music at lunchtime on a Sunday.  And it's a great place to cheer on Germany during this summer's World Cup!  

Starting tomorrow, Thursday March 20th, all tours will end with an optional stop at the Biergarten am Schlossgarten where I'll be happy to explain more about the local food and beer you can obtain there!  Prost!


*Swabischer Bauernmost means "Swabian Farmer's Juice" but it's actually a kind of apple cider.  It's hard to find, so come with me to try some!

Springtime in Stuttgart!

After an amazingly mild winter (and if you are complaining about the lack of snow, you didn't live here last winter...) an early and sunny spring is upon us!  Which is just the right time for a tour.


I'm especially excited for Saturday, as it's predicted to be sunny and about 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  No need for boots or an umbrella this time!  The sunshine will make for great photo opportunities!

When the weather is nice, I like to end my tours with an optional trip to Stuttgart's largest biergarten, Biergarten am Schlossgarten.  This is a perfect way to enjoy traditional local beer and food and beautiful weather.  The biergarten isn't open quite yet, but until it is I'll end my tours at a local brewery with outdoor seating so those who want to can enjoy a round.


The advent of spring also means some other changes here at Stuttgart Steps!  Our Swabian wine tours will be changing radically to incorporate walks through vineyards, visits to seasonally-open Besenwirtschaft (traditional, family-run wine taverns) and a trip to Stuttgart's wine museum.  Those will be starting by the end of March, and I'll keep you posted!

Come join me to learn about Stuttgart's fascinating history and interesting places with no threat of rain or snow!  I hope to see you soon!

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

I'll be honest with you: when I left the United States, I dreaded Christmas.  That's not exactly a unique feeling for a lot of people these days, I realize, but I really dreaded it.  It was an excessively stressful time of year.  And my complaints are just as unimaginative: the excessive commercialization, the obnoxious constant stream of carols, the traffic, the inevitable lack of funds...Christmas had lost a lot of its magic for me as an adult.  

But my first Christmas in Germany changed that, because in Germany - and indeed, much of Europe, the dreary weather, constant lack of sunshine, all of that vanishes thanks to the Christmas Markets, or Weinachtsmarkten.  And why not?  For a month in the bigger cities, and at least for a couple days in even the smallest villages, everything is transformed.  Adorable huts selling ornaments, candles, and crafts spring up.  The smells of sizzling wurst, roast chestnuts, and spiced almonds fill the air.  Oh, and did I forget to mention Glühwein?

Stuttgart's Alte Schloss at Christmas

It seems silly to complain about commercialization while celebrating what is a market, where one goes to spend money, but there's something different about the European Christmas feeling.  It's not that you don't hear carols on the radio, or have sales in the malls, because that's inescapable, but the cozy feeling you get admiring the booth decorations while warming up with a beautifully decorated mug of glühwein or cider, chatting with friends and family in the cold but bustling night is something really special.

Vin Chaud is just Gluhwein by another name!

Vin Chaud is just Gluhwein by another name!

Stuttgart's Christmas market starts on November 27th, and runs every day until December 23rd.  Sadly, I'll have to suspend my regular tours of Stuttgart during this time, as the market takes up most of the route of my tour through the Mitte, and it's just crowded and narrow to navigate a group through.  I'll still be available for tours during weekday mornings, however, when crowds are more manageable.  It's a great idea for an activity if friends and family are visiting this holiday season, and I'm available on both the 24th and 25th (when most everything else will be shut down).

Esslingen's amazing Christmas Market

Esslingen's amazing Christmas Market

The exciting news is that I am starting my new tour of Esslingen, but only as a private tour reserved in advance.  Regularly scheduled public tours will begin right after Christmas.  You can reserve by contacting me or by sending me a message on Facebook!

In the meantime, you can keep up with my own travels through the regional Christmas Markets by watching this blog, or following me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter!  Have a great holiday season!  


The Holy Roman Empire and YOUR Travels!

This is essentially part two of "Why You Should Care About the Holy Roman Empire" - in which I outlined how the HRE began.  But now I'm going to talk to why it matters to you, the expat or tourist in Germany.  But first, a (brief) continuation of the history.

 Within the HRE, there were countless kingdoms, duchies (lands ruled by dukes), counties (lands ruled by counts), and various tracts of land owned directly by the church or the Empire itself.  Kings, dukes, and counts often chafed at the power of the Emperors and many wars were fought as a result.  (For Games of Thrones fans, think of the Emperor as being the guy who sits on the Iron Throne - and the various kings and dukes as being like the Starks of Winterfell in rebellion against them).  Control of the empire passed through several different families in the early centuries, including local Swabians like the Hohenstaufen dynasty.  By 1450, however, the Hapsburg family had gained control of the Empire and didn't relinquish it until Napoleon put an end to the HRE entirely in the early 19th century (which then made the Hapsburgs "only" in charge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)

Enough with the history, though.  Why does this matter to you?  Because of Free Imperial Cities.  Here's my equation for travelers in Germany: Imperial city + economic decline in the 17th century - Allied bombing in WWII = Great place to visit!

Like I mentioned before, while local lords owned much of the land in the HRE, some of it belonged directly to the Empire. These places were known as "Free Imperial Cities" or Freiei Reichstadt in German.  These cities were not beholden to a local petty lord - the only outside power they answered to was the Emperor himself.  As such, the citizenry had much more control over their lives than those living under the thumb of a lord.  Imperial Cities also enjoyed many special privileges as a result of their status, which meant more trade and wealth during the high middle ages, which the townsfolk used to build beautiful buildings and impressive fortifications (important because local lords of neighboring lands often went to war with the Empire, and the wealth of Imperial Cities made them a tempting target.)  Because of the HRE's association with the Roman Catholic Church, they were fertile ground for religious orders, so many of the grandest churches and monasteries were built in Imperial Cities.  

However, eventually most of the Imperial Cities went through a decline, starting with the spread of Martin Luther's Reformation in the 16th century, which meant that in much of Germany, the religious orders were kicked out and many churches vandalized and no longer places of pilgrimage.  Another factor in the decline was the resulting Thirty Years' War and following plagues, which killed off as many as half the population of Germany.  Most cities never fully recovered from that war.  To make matters worse, most Imperial Cities gained importance as market towns because they were on heavily trafficked trade routes, but by the 1700's, overland trade was losing out to sea-based trade.

This was all bad for the citizens of these towns, but great for travelers who want to enter a well-preserved bit of medieval history.  Because the towns became impoverished, they didn't tear down existing buildings to make way for more fashionable and modern Baroque and Classical buildings as in the now-ascendant capital cities like Berlin, Munich, or Stuttgart.  The result is a large town center with buildings almost exclusively from the cities' golden period of 1200-1500.  

As for the Allied bombing, well, that's fairly self-explanatory.  But a surprising number of former Imperial Cities did manage to escape WWII relatively unscathed, largely because they hadn't been centers of political or economic power for centuries at that point.  (Cities that retained their importance throughout the centuries, like Frankfurt, weren't so lucky.)

If you look at the list of Imperial Cities, you'll find that they include some of the most famous towns for tourists to visit, such as Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Nuremberg, and Colmar.

But the secret is, nearly all the cities on the list remain beautiful, evocative "hidden gems" that isn't on the typical tourist itinerary.  I'm talking about places like Bad Wimpfen, Ravensburg, and Esslingen, which may be known to people who have lived in Germany for a time but can't be found in a Rick Steves' guidebook. 

Although I've only been to about a third of the Imperial Cities so far, my educated guess is that most of them are well worth a visit by anyone who seeks to get off the beaten path and experience a beautifully-preserved city (just make sure you check the "Allied bombing part before you go - Heilbronn didn't fare so well in that regard.)

And if you'd like to understand more about how Free Imperial status created a dynamic and exciting medieval city, be sure and check out my tour of the Free Imperial City of Esslingen, which debuts next Sunday!  



Why You Should Care About the Holy Roman Empire

I think the "Why you should care" thing is going to become a regular series.  Because there's so many historical things about Germany and Europe that most Americans know little about, that provide the crucial context for really understanding what makes a particular building, church, or city important and interesting.  So with that in mind, let's talk a little about the Holy Roman Empire, shall we?  I'll try really hard not to be boring!


The Holy Roman Empire is one of those topics that's covered for maybe a day or two in U.S. high school world history courses, and maybe slightly more in-depth in a university course, if you're lucky.  I remember being really confused about it in high school.    How was it Roman?  What kind of power did it actually have?  I wasn't the only person to wonder this - the French philosopher Voltaire famously quipped, "The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire."

First, a little backstory:  We're all acquainted with the ancient Roman empire, that huge swath of land that included all of Western Europe and a good chunk of Eastern Europe as well - it was really, really big.  Especially when it was united.  But politics and later, religion, in the Empire led to a split - the Western Roman Empire, headquartered in Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire, with Constantinople (today's Istanbul) as it's capital.  The two segments of the empire recognized each other, but when Rome fell in the 5th century, the Western Empire basically ceased to exist as a political entity.  The Eastern Empire chugged along for many more centuries, and was eventually called the Byzantine Empire, until it was brought down by invading Turks.


When Rome fell, the Western empire was plunged into disarray, and the native tribes  of those areas began many, many wars for control of the land.  Eventually, the Germanic tribe of the Franks managed to subdue the inhabitants of these lands and ruled over an empire that encompassed most of France and Germany and parts of Italy.  Within the Frankish nobility one particular figure rose to power - Karl der Grosse, better known as Charlemagne.  

Charlemagne not only succeeded in administering the Frankish kingdom well, but brought much more of present-day Germany, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, and Spain under his control. In short, he was a badass.  He also followed in the footsteps of his father, Pippin, in being buddy-buddy with the Pope in Rome, often coming to his aid as this or that group of barbarians threatened the Eternal City.  As a reward, or maybe just as a shrewd political move, the Pope crowned Charlemagne "The emperor of the Romans."  

It seems a little silly, since the Franks weren't Romans nor was Rome even part of the Empire. But it was a brilliant symbolic marriage between political power and divinely-ordained rule.  It's worth noting that the Byzantines didn't care much for this arrangement, since they still saw themselves as the only existing Roman empire, not this Germanic upstart band of savages.

But still, this was the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire.  Despite the fact that the Frankish empire had controlled nearly all of France, due to political upheavals (sons of emperors had a habit of fighting against their fathers or amongst themselves for a bigger piece of the pie in the first few centuries of this arrangement) a good chunk of France came to be an independent kingdom, and the Holy Roman Empire was centered mainly in Germany, although it included Austria, northern Italy, and Alsace-Lorraine.  This new political entity would continue to be extremely influential for the next 1,000 years.

"That's great," you say, yawning, "But you still haven't told me why I need to care about the Holy Roman Empire."  True - I'm saving that for part two.