Monthly Archives: May 2013

Würzburg on the Main, and its people

The city of Würzburg is one of those places in Germany that is so perfect, it is hard to match. In many ways, it is like a piece of art or a meal with just the right composition of ingredients.

Würzburg lies in the Northern part of Bavaria, and thus is as much middle-German as it is South-German. In fact, quite a few Franconians there do not see themselves as Bavarians and could well imagine independence, or so they say. The city is sweet and beautiful, but at the same time brimming with real life, there is a large river running through it, and it is surrounded by softly rolling hills that are covered with fields, woods and vineyards. Sun and warm weather are plentiful.

The wine produced here is mostly white, as it is in many parts of the country, the typical types of grapes are Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus, Riesling and Scheurebe, with the latter offering a fruity and almost flowery aroma. In one of the many ‘Weinstuben’ you can enjoy a good glass, with two of the nicest places being the Eulenspiegel and the Alte Mainmühle, both offering small recluses on different levels, with a candle on a wooden table in front of you.

Although a university city rich in tradition, Würzburg, with its around 130,000 inhabitants is nonetheless large enough to offer a rich life  beyond the world of studying. There is culture everywhere, and so are churches, most of them catholic. It is hard to imagine that much of this city was rebuilt after the war, for though there are many newer houses, almost none seem displaced or modern in an overbearing way. Looking down on Würzburg is the Festung, a large fortress that can be climbed on foot or reached by car, and which then offers a magnificent view onto the town.

The Festung itself is best seen from the Alte Main Brücke, an old stone bridge over the Main river, with baroque figures on either sides. A drink or meal can be enjoyed in the adjoining Brückenbäck, a light-drenched café overlooking the river. Slightly outside and with a view on Würzburg lies the Schützenhof, a pleasant beer garden that offers beer, wine and regional cuisine.

There is a tangy taste at times, and that stems from its people. The Franconians are on occasion not completely cordial and may emit a slightly grumpy and resentful note, but it is one that you could also find in other parts of Germany, albeit in different variations. It is strange that such a nice place would not leave its people more content.

But the Franconian way of softly moaning is quickly diluted by the large amount of young students from all around the country. Being a university town definitely has its advantages. And as with any work of art and any good meal, it is the combination that does it.

Water, sky, some green and a few historic buildings. That's the taste.

Water, sky, some green and a few historic buildings. That’s the taste.


On Thatcher, Blair, Schröder and Merkel

I had promised myself not to get too political on this blog, but the recent demise of Lady Thatcher has me wanting to just get a few thoughts off my mind, to whom it may concern.

While many Germans know the name of Margaret Thatcher and her being described as ‘the Iron Lady’, this is about as far as the general grasp of English politics of the last 30 years goes for most. Today, Mrs Merkel, several generations of politicians behind Mrs Thatcher, enjoys a similar standing in the rest of Europe or even the world. Not totally undeserved, I think. But the picture goes deeper, and it has a twist.

When Mrs Thatcher of the Conservative Party came to be Prime Minister, the power of the British labour unions was incredibly strong, you could say overpowering. At the same time, the economy was not doing especially well. So Thatcher killed the unions, privatised everything and introduced neoliberalism into the UK. Everyone was forthwith responsible for their own well-being. Which sounded great, and worked fine for those enterprising enough or already having something to call their own, and perhaps for those who bought and sold their council houses at the right time, but that is another story. Then came John Major, again Conservative, whom I guess no one will remember, and then Tony Blair, Labour, and both basically continued what Thatcher had started. Though Blair made it sound nicer and somehow more enlightening, not least by calling his party New Labour.

In Germany, before chancellor Gerhard Schröder came to power to succeed an ageing Helmut Kohl of the German Conservative Party CDU, things looked a bit different. Germany was basically doing fine. The Germans weren’t liked in the world, but they were respected. Back then, Germany was more of a welfare state than most countries. Thing was, there were some big clouds on the horizon. Most of all, the debts of German reunification were mounting up.

In addition, the great and uncontrolled flow of immigrants in the 50s, 60s and 70s, mostly from Turkey, and at the time basically demanded by a thriving German industry of the post-war era, did for some reason not plan on going home. Around the same time, and this perhaps accelerated by the arrival of private television, an increasing number of people had got used to comfortably using the welfare system to their own good. More than anyone, the people at the top of the food chain in Germany did not like this, as it was the taxes they weren’t paying that were being spent on a growing precariat. And their prayers were answered with the advent of Gerhard Schröder of the German Labour Party SPD, which wasn’t called New Labour, but could have been.

Following Schröder’s Agenda 2010, low wage employment was created. The industry thanked him, and with lots of advertising it helped convince many of the middle class and most of the petit bourgeois that all this was good and right. At the same time, the long beforehand planned expansion of the European Union towards the East brought in millions of cheap workers and made using cheap labour directly in other European countries a trifle. Meanwhile, the introduction of the Euro forced true wages down and made exports more profitable. The industry thanked again. Back then, it wasn’t clear to the broader public that with losing the Deutschmark, you had also lost the right to print your own money.  Next, the rules on banking were relaxed with the help of such people as Jörg Asmussen. Now it was the banks that thanked. Then, some pension schemes were privatised, and the insurance companies thanked, making such people as Carsten Maschmeyer to semi-billionaires. Around that time, Maschmeyer’s friend chancellor Schröder lost the next election to Merkel of the German Conservative Party CDU. On election night he appeared on TV, almost behaving like a coke-head, so agitated was he at the loss of power. And so the era Merkel started.

Angela Merkel was raised and socialised in the former German Democratic Republic, the DDR, mostly characterised by not being especially democratic. She apparently was in some junior role responsible for a job titled ‘agitation and propaganda’, whatever that means. Not that people can’t change. In fact, changing, adapting and always turning with the wind is probably one of Merkel’s most defining characteristics. After ending the end of atomic power that the red-green government under Schröder had initiated, she once again ended the ending of the end after the reactor accident of Fukishima in Japan. Talk about being populist. Having studied physics and coming from a clerical background, these characteristics however were and are instead emphasised in the same media that helped her become chancellor.

And then, with the reactions to the so-called financial crisis changing the face of society all around the world, Merkel proclaimed the need for a market-conform democracy. I don’t know what that is, but it makes me shiver. Today, for some reason probably having to do with Germany agreeing to pay all future debts of Europe, all eyes are on Merkel, either as mother, godmother or stepmother. I wonder which turns out to be true.

Spreading your wings to catch the sun only works till it gets dark

Spreading your wings to catch the sun only works till it gets dark

Some lakes to see near the sea

Up in the North of Germany, close to the Baltic Sea and spreading over the two federal states of Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, is a green, loosely populated area covered with small and medium-sized lakes. The Germans call them ‘Seen’, which could be slightly confusing for the English-speaking, as a sea is called ‘Meer’.

From West to East, the most well-known lakes are the Plöner See, the Ratzeburger See, the Schaalsee, the Schweriner See and the Müritz. Bordering on these are often large nature reserves and some sweet little cities, though these are maybe not quite as quaint as more southwards in Germany.

As the area along the lakes is mostly flat, going for extensive bike tours is definitely an option. Because even though the people there call it their own ‘Schweiz’, or Switzerland, due to the softly flowing hills, that is a bit on an exaggeration.

Peace and tranquility, unless you are set on doing some heavy paddling

Peace and tranquility, unless you are set on doing some heavy paddling

On German media

My opinion of German media is not high. We have many privately owned newspapers, magazines, television channels and radio stations, but when you do a bit of fact checking, it basically boils down to a few huge conglomerates dominating public opinion and thus politics. First and foremost there is Bertelsmann, now owned by former secretary and mistress gone widow Liz Mohn, and there is Springer, now owned by former child-minding mistress gone widow Friede Springer. They are both befriended with German chancellor Angela Merkel, quelle surprise. Otherwise, and with perhaps a little less influence on the shaping of politics, we have Burda, Holtzbrinck, Madsack and Bauer, and that is about it on the private front.

Public media in the form of television, radio and internet coverage meanwhile has become a huge and expensive bureaucratic mess, too often trying to copy private media by mostly looking at how many people are watching and not at the quality of the content watched. Talk-shows full of lobbyists are everywhere, and the well-paid hosts are treated like omniscient priests. There are, however, some small special-interest channels like ZDFinfo or the German-French Arte that really offer superb, homegrown documentaries of all kinds. Then again, the public networks let themselves be forced by private industry to erase huge media archives once paid for by the tax payer, for reasons of unfair competition. In good German tradition, no resistance was heard. Go figure.

Often quoted on the magazine front is ‘der Spiegel’, once a superficial investigative left-wing magazine and since gone more or less neoliberal with more than a quarter of it owned by Bertelsmann, something few people realise. And then there is the public Deutschlandfunk radio, a pale soundscape next to the journalism the BBC produces. While the latter, at least when it isn’t pitching fluffy human interest stories, has features like ‘from our own correspondent’, the former has unresearched opinions put into pseudo-intellectual words, mixed with music nobody wants to hear, like it still were the Sixties.

So, all in all, my opinion of German media is not high. Coming to that, when I think of Berlusconi and Murdoch, neither is it of media in other countries.

Media at all times played a great part in the forming of opinions. This picturesque architecture stems from a time in Germany when public opinion in some parts was different, but not more informed.

Media at all times played a great part in the forming of opinions. This picturesque architecture stems from a time in Germany when public opinion in some parts was different, but not more informed.

Roaming the German countryside

One of the nice things in Germany is the almost total accessibility of nature. You can basically go anywhere you like. Take your car along a small road, park it on the curb and start walking along a field or into a hilly wood, for as long as you want.

This is somewhat different from other countries like England, where private property, high walls and fences often stop you from roaming freely and limit you to a few public footpaths and of course to the wonderful coastal path. The coast-line in Germany is nowhere near as long and as pleasant as this, but there still are some nice walks along the Baltic Sea.

And then there are the many lakes, some in the North and some in the far South, most markedly the large Bodensee and the Chiemsee, with the wonderful Alps nearby. Very inviting are the big rivers like Rhein, Main, Mosel and Donau, always with a path close to the bank for a day-long walk or a bicycle tour, often leading you from one historic village to the next.

The only thing to remember is where you parked your car.

This green footpath is near a city. But it looks like in the countryside.

This green footpath is near a city. But it looks like in the countryside.

Building the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg

There is a certain unplanned affinity in Germany for public projects not getting finished on time. And when they are finally finished, they usually cost several times the estimated price.

Stuttgart 21 is one such case. It actually only entails putting the complete train rails and central station of a city into the ground. What on earth could go wrong. Then there is the new airport in Berlin. Everything has already gone wrong there. A satirical German blog even suggested introducing a new grammatical form of future to cater for the day the airport will actually be opened.

And then there is the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Initial costs were estimated at around 100 million Euro, quite a nice sum for a new concert hall with an adjoining hotel and a few flats. Thing is, the price has now gone up to 800 million Euro.

I am sure the taxpayer will be getting some really fine concerts for this. That is, if he is still able to pay the admission fee.

Quite an expensive building. The acoustics are much applauded, though.

Quite an expensive building. The acoustics are much applauded, though.

On the beauty of German cities

When foreigners talk of German cities, they often think of Heidelberg, Berlin and Munich. While I generally agree on the beauty of Heidelberg and the vibrance of Berlin, I often think the hype around Munich is overdone and down to apt self-marketing. But it is possible I feel that way because I once lived in Munich and am happy not to live there anymore.

Anyway, of those foreigners visiting Germany, few usually plan on going to the smaller, but nonetheless lively cities like Würzburg, Bamberg, Tübingen, Koblenz, Regensburg, Freiburg and Passau, or the bigger ones like Hamburg and Dresden.

Which is a shame, as all these cities have a great deal to offer to anyone. All are bustling with student life and culture, all have one or several rivers flowing through them, all have, even through the bombings of WWII, retained or rebuilt many of their charming residential houses and impressive churches. Trees, green and parks are everywhere.

Dozens of cafés along the winding roads and pedestrian-zones in Germany invite you to take a rest, slurp a hot or cold drink and watch the people go by.

Really, Germany is quite beautiful in many places.

An evening view onto beautiful Würzburg. The dots on the U are intentional.

An evening view onto beautiful Würzburg. The dots on the U are intentional.