Munich Tales 2018: Everything I like about Germany is tied up in one great package called Bamberg.


At this point in my life, there’s probably nothing I can add to numerous previous statements of intense personal affection for the city of Bamberg. When I first began traveling, Munich was my Mecca, and I didn’t visit Bamberg for the first time until 1991.

Since then, it’s been an ongoing fascination, one scheduled for renewal later today when we hop a northbound train from Munich for one evening in the town I love so well.

There are far too many beer-drinking stories to fit into this post, so instead, consider these dispatches from our 2009 “The Baylors Do Christmas In Bamberg.”

I originally composed and posted these comments from a balky computer, with internet access having been included in the price of our quasi-Airbnb lodging. The trip began as we dodged a blizzard in Paris, although our luggage wasn’t as lucky.

It got better after this, although I had no way of knowing at the time that the trip would be our last until 2013. The years 2010, 2011 and 2012 were spent engaging in ultimately demoralizing trench warfare at Bank Street Brewhouse.

Now, back to Bamberg in 2009.

I. Monday 21 December ’09: Apart from one tiny glitch …

We are safely in Bamberg, but our luggage is not, and only Air France has the information, although CM Coffey still does not and probably never will. If we do not have our bags or a suitable lead by Tuesday, it will be time to buy clothes. Needless to say, this was not a primary reason for us to visit Germany, but so be it.

Know this: German keyboards are different.

ü, ä, ö, ẞ … although nothing compared to others I have used.

It snowed quite a lot here over the weekend, and temps today probably were in the low twenties. Fortunately, we are staying a stone’s throw from both Fässla (the bottling line is just outside our window) and Spezial. Last evening’s Ochsenbrust in horseradish sauce with dumpling took a bit of the sting out of wearing the same clothes for 24 hours, now 48, although perhaps it was the gently smoked amber Lagerbier that Spezial does so well.

My initial take on Franconian Christmas: It is festive, and there is much excitement, and even Christmas music in the Biomarkt down the street, but all of it seems to take place without the considerable surface glitz that we enjoy in the States. Decorations are subdued, and very naturalistic for the most part.

More as we go. Tchuss.

II. Tuesday 22 December 2009: To buy or not to buy.

Through the ever helpful offices of Bliss Travel, we now have the scoop.

We’re in Bamberg, and our bags are still in Paris. They had been rerouted onto a flight Sunday night, which was cancelled. Then, with the northern regions of Europe beset with snow and ice, with resulting snafus, our luggage was placed back in the queue to await storage space on one of Air France’s four dailies to Nürnberg, all of which were sold out on Monday and Tuesday.

But it’s better knowing than not knowing, and with temperatures now up in the forties and the snow all melted in Bamberg, we spent the morning shopping for a set each of replacement wear and light toiletries. There as yet has not been the first communication from Delta or Air France as to when we might expect to receive our things, and in this uncertain atmosphere, it seems senseless to spend too much until necessary.

Then, when necessary, comes the complete Lederhosen outfit.

Here in an hour or so we’ll be heading out to the Jako Arena for a German Bundesliga basketball game between the Bamberg Brose Baskets and Paderborn. Gerhard at the Cafe Abseits, a good beer bar on the east side of town, is a basketball fan and was running a ticket promotion from the cafe. He graciously set aside two, and we visited him at lunch to redeem and chat. I had a fine Helles Bock from Mönchsahmbach and an equally good countryside Rauchbier from a brewery that slips my mind. Will there be beer at the game? We’ll know soon enough.

Tomorrow I’m slated to meet beer importer Dan Shelton at Spezial for a summit that should include a visit to Mahr’s. All this, and there has not been time to have an Eiche at Schlenkerla. Matthias understands. Spezial has been the attraction thus far, and there’s nothing shoddy about that.

III. Wednesday 23 December 2009: Tale of one city and many breweries and basketball therein.

Lunch at noon at Spezial the day before Christmas Eve turns out to be something that leads elsewhere, namely Mahr’s, Schlenkerla and Klosterbrau. Whoa.

And, ending at Fässla to jostle among the high schoolers for carry-out bottles as part of the process of laying in for the holidaze. Whoa again.

Last night’s Brose Baskets win over Paderborn was lopsided. Bamberg’s team is good, but I can’t say that the quality of play was much beyond mid-major college in the States. Entertaining, but limited. I’ll remember Casey Jacobsen and Elton Brown, but moreover, I’ll remember the way the crowd reacted to the American named Eric Taylor, a European league lifer (born in 1976). Also, there’s Predrag Supat, the Serb, who dominated the first half for Brose. Bamberg is a basketball city in German terms. Bob Knight would approve.

I’m fairly blitzed at this point, and will say Tchuss.

Thursday 24 December 2009: The French have not released my bag, and I, too, shall surrender soon.

We spent the morning shopping for little knick-knacks and more groceries to tide us through until Saturday, when many eateries and stores reopen. Quite a few will be closed through the weekend, meaning that I may have to trek to the train station for beer. Let’s hope that the people’s choice, Fässla, is open for carry-out bottles.

The students and youngsters were out in force last night. With a drinking age of 16 for beer, this translated into long lines at the “to go” windows and mayhem in the streets. It was a long day, with lunch at Spezial with Dan Shelton (of the importing company) and his wife. We met Urban Winkler of the Weissenohe brewery, toured the Spezial brewery, then walked to the Wunderburg neighborhood for quality time at Mahr’s with Stephan Michel. Dan and Tessa split to return to their digs west of here, and after checking at the flat for the first of our bags (where in Paris is the other one?), we adjourned to the impossibly packed Schlenkerla tavern.

Unable to find Matthias Trum, and desirous of some peace for dinner, plans changed and the next stop was Klosterbrau for an excellent meal of venison, boar and a special seasonal black bock. Back home, I vaguely recall watching an interview with Michael Palin while snacking on pickled herring before passing out.

After greeting Bamberg in a blizzard, all the snow has gone and the sun is brightly shining as I type. The Christmas market in Maximillianplatz disappeared overnight, and all morning today and into the afternoon, businesses closed one by one, and the streets grew more and more quiet as people retreated to their homes and families. The next two days will be subdued, but I’m guessing that by Saturday, they’ll have had enough of domesticity and will be looking for a place to get their drink on. I aim to be right beside them when this happens.

Friday 25 December 2009: Luggage in our time? Perhaps.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
When the French bring your bags and the fridge is still full of Bamberger beer
It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Yes, we’re told that a Weihnacht miracle will occur and the second of two suitcases will arrive via courier at around 19.00. I’ll believe it when I carry the weight up the stairs, but there it is.

In spite of the baggage difficulties, it has been a fine holiday.

We set off this morning at ten to stroll through the Altstadt and climb Altenburg hill to the medieval castle that affords a sweeping view of the valley and Bamberg’s dizzying number of church spires. The streets were deserted on Christmas morning. Pleasingly, some food and drink businesses already were open and serving, indicating that the city is blessedly free of the archaic blue laws that exist in Indiana and prevent alcohol from being served on a purely Christian holiday.

Clouds rolled overhead, and with temperatures in the low thirties and a brisk breeze sweeping the hilltop, it was a bracing and exhilarating walk. Descending the commanding heights back to our riverside starting point, we passed the city museum in the old town hall astride the Regnitz and saw that the doors were open. Inside was a fine collection of 18th century Porcelain from Meissen, and one of 38 nativity scenes on display in and around Bamberg during the holiday season.

A reconnaissance of Ludwigstrasse’s expanse revealed that Bamberg’s Chinese restaurant owners are not as ambitious as metro Louisville’s, with all three closed for the day. However, at the train station, the bakery and small grocery both were open, and I bought a handful of half-liter Schlenkerla Märzen lagers to accompany the evening’s home cooked vegetable soup.

From the beginning, we had agreed that in the absence of truly close friends in Bamberg, it was perfectly acceptable to spend the 24th and 25th keeping ourselves loving company in our rented apartment, hence the bags of groceries and liquids procured in advance. This led to a Thursday evening with the hundreds of channels available on the telly, and a Fässla or two.

First we chanced upon the Basque network from northeastern Spain, and a public Christmas celebration, presumably in Bilbao, with crazy costumes, quasi-operatic tunes and the inexplicable, pre-historic language spoken by the world’s first cod fishermen. The whole time, I kept expecting a Muse concert to break out.

Next, we viewed a 2006 performance in Salzburg of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and while entirely unrelated to Christmas, the choreography was inspired, and the female singers displayed much cleavage. Thumbs up. This was followed by snippets of a schlocky Bavarian idyll, rather like the Osmonds meeting Lawrence Welk in lederhösen and dirndls, then a quick bout of channel surfing to Berlin and a performance by Max Raab and the Hotel Palast Orchestra. For the uninitiated, Raab and the boys do 1920’s arrangements of popular music of the day. He sings in the style of the society orchestra hearthrobs, all the while cultivating a dry stage presence reminiscent of Joel Grey in “Cabaret.”

Finally, the Arte network was screening “City Lights,” the not-so-silent masterpiece by Charlie Chaplin. There is no dialogue, but a soundtrack as a concession to the new technology of 1931. In it, the Little Tramp falls for a blind flower girl … and meets a drunken millionaire along the way. For the first time in years, I remembered checking out Super-8 versions of Chaplin’s one-reelers (“Tillie’s Punctured Romance”?) from the New Albany Public Library, taking them home, and resolving to make silent films.

I must go now to await the Nürnberg airport courier in precisely the same way as kids look for Santa. Tomorrow, the Cafe Abseits beckons, with Schlenkerla reopening Sunday. Monday is a short bus ride to Memmelsdorf and a meeting with Herr Straub at the Drei Kronen brewery (and restaurant, and hotel), and on Tuesday, I hope to locate Stephan at Mahr’s for a brewery tour.

Sunday 27 December 2009: Settling down to smoked beer.

Damn … I skipped a day, eh?

After two days spent walking quite a lot, we cut back on Sunday and had a lie-in. Breakfast was at 11:00 a.m., and consisted of black coffee and herring salad prepared with beets. I thought of my friend Suzanne’s late mother, whose herring salad is the stuff of legend, omitting the beets, and adding voluminous onion and garlic. Wonderful memories, indeed.

It was another sunny winter’s day, not quite as bright as yesterday, but still blue. We walked to the top of Michaelsberg hill and observed the grounds of the monastery, and then descended to Schlenkerla tavern for a meeting with the owner Matthias Trum and a few drams of smoked lager. After a bit, a Haxe (pork knuckle) magically appeared, and was duly devoured. The Eiche (oak-smoked) Rauchbier was especially interesting.

I’ve little else to say. Bamberg rewards leisurely exploration, and good beer and conviviality never are very far away. The city has been slumbering during the weekend, but will reawaken on Monday. Lunchtime at Spezial seems a certainty. Bock, anyone?

Wednesday 30 December 2009: Adaptive reuse and a Biomarkt on Obere Königstrasse.

Our lodging is located on a narrow side street that runs past the Fässla Brewery, which is running full tilt and contributing wonderful aromas to the neighborhood, and into Obere Königstrasse. Spezial’s brewery and restaurant face Fässla’s across Obere Königstrasse, and both have been there for a few hundred years. I’d guess that these are the oldest buildings on the east side of the Main-Donau Canal.

When we came here in 2007, there was a huge hole in the ground just off the corner of Obere Königstrasse and Luitpoldstrasse, which leads from the train station toward the Altstadt. The 19th-century building on the corner still stood and was being incorportated into the building that eventually would rise from the hole. It still wasn’t finished a year ago, but now is: A sleek, modern Best Western hotel that still fits into the historic architecture of the area. The ground floor of the Best Western is a Buck Rogers-style Biomarkt, sort of a Whole Foods kind of place dedicated to organic foods.

What’s interesting about this to me is that even though you might not notice, I’ve been coming here long enough to grasp that the section of Obere Königstrasse running past the new hotel and the old breweries has been in transition. A very high level of transition compared to New Albany, but flux nonetheless. Formerly there were established businesses (an apothecary, retail shops) that have now gone. The ghost signage gives them away. They were beginning to be replaced by kebap stands and Chinese trinket shops, and these newcomers remain, but now there are two “natural” juice and tea bars, as well as a recent organic bakery.

I’m not sure if the Biomarkt’s arrival spurred their establishment, or if their presence encouraged the Biomark’s capitalists to set up shop. It is encouraging to note that the ancient breweries fit perfectly even if we can’t vouch for the origins of the voluminous pork dishes on their daily menus. Their beer is fresh and brewed on the spot – ’nuff said.

We tend to come to these places and imagine that nothing has changed, but it doesn’t take long to see that it’s patently untrue. The key is: Do they encourage and manage the inevitable change? I think so, and quite well.

Thursday 31 December 2009: Silvester, but no Tweety.

Here in Germany, New Year’s Eve is known as Silvester, and appears to be another handy excuse to close down the shop (whatever it is) and relax. Same goes to a lesser extent on January 1.

Previously, Christmas Eve counted as one such excuse, followed by Christmas Day I and II, the latter corresponding to Boxing Day for those Anglophiles reading, and although I’ve found two Irish pubs in downtown Bamberg, neither greeted me with the smell of black pudding or the flavor of black gold on the day after the day.

The only other time I spent New Year’s Eve in Europe was during the transition from 1991 to 1992, in Kosice, Slovakia, where the most memorable tradition was proof that the warnings of my students not to stroll along the streets precisely at midnight were spot-on, because that’s when people began throwing empty wine, champagne and beer bottles out of their windows. One needn’t be a practitioner of nuclear physics to grasp the results, especially beneath the stories-high Communist era housing blocks.

Given that it is raining and most businesses are closed, we have not left the apartment today, having visited Spezial’s handy bottled beer carry-out window Wednesday night upon returning from a fine session at Schlenkerla with Matthias Trum and his wife, Sandra.

During the course of roaming, we have met a pleasant young couple who run an espresso bar adjacent to the construction zone that marks the spot where a new replacement bridge for the vanished Kettenbrücke will soon rise. It’s been open since November 1. We stopped there several times because it’s on the direct route home from the Altstadt, and we bonded over professional basketball fandom, as they are fervent supporters of the Brose Baskets. They have invited us to coffee today even though the bar is closed for the holiday. We’re told to knock conspiratorially on the door. If only Spezial offered the same option.

We seem to be winding down now as the end of the holiday draws near. The likelihood of time- consuming security checks at Nürnberg for the first leg of the outbound flight compelled us to shift gears and book a room at the airport hotel for tomorrow night. The flight is at 6:30 a.m., and would have required a 3:30 a.m., 85 Euro fixed-rate cab ride, but this way, we’re only meters away from strip search after the early alarm sounds. There’ll be a chance to spend the afternoon in Nürnberg, and perhaps eat some of the city’s famous Wurst.

Excuse me … I hear the sounds of pre-packing taking place. Is Fässla open today?