Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Panda Survival Expedition

Our tour of the "Deutsche Weinstrasse" in the Rhein Valley got off to a disspointing start as we discovered that we did not have the option of renting a Smart Car, but instead were forced to rent a Fiat Panda. Not a total dissapointment mind you as the Panda definitely offered up high chances of death on the Autobahn. After picking up the go-kart, he followed Frommer's suggestion to head to the tourist office in Worms to pick up a map of the Deutsche Weinstraße (ß = a double s for those not in the know). Unfortunately, we only had directions to Worms, but figured the tourist office would be located next to the Hauptbahnhof (central train station). Turns out, all you have to do to find anything in Worms is drive around in a circle around the giant Schloß (un-fortified castle) in the middle and your destination will magically appear. We were immediately relieved and inspired by our luck of finding it so easily. Those sentiments quickly changed as the staffers in the tourist office had no idea what the Deutsche Weinstraße was and just loaded me up with maps and directions to Mainz - been there, done that, not too much to see.

Armed with Frommer's and not ready to condemn Arthur, we headed for the first town on his description of the Weinstraße and actually found it. Fortunately, we ran into the Deutsche Weinstraße information point - Unfortunately, the staffer did not speak any english, but at least loaded us up with more brochures and maps - in English! Our first stop was at a Weingut (not sure what this means exactly, but they appeared to be little shacks where you could taste the wines of a specific vintner) owned by the Dr. Bürkliner-Wolf family. A very nice woman told us all about their vineyards and offered us generous pours of many different vintages and qualities of Rieslings and even a Gewürztraminer. We met the owner and he promised to look Hans and I up during his trip to the US this fall - a very nice man who produced some great wine.

We moved on from town to town, beginning to think it was a holiday as nothing appeared open. The towns themselves were very picturesque, consisting of narrow, winding streets bordered by black and white wood houses, all in the middle of vineyards sprawlling into the hills on one side, and into the plains on the other. We quickly realized that it wasn't a holiday, but it was still before noon on a Monday and most of the Weingut's probably did not anticipate visitors. We stopped at another Weingut owned by Dr. Deinhard which was not nearly as friendly and whose wines could not compare. The Weinstraße ends at the French Border about 60 clicks north by northwest of Strasbourg and Hans and I were determined to make it to the border so that I could set my feet in France for the first time ever.

To do so, we raced south in the Panda, trying desperately to follow the Weinstraße, but fortunately, the German's inability to post signs in useful places led us on many scenic sidetrips - none more so than our excursion into the hills near Hambach Schloß. We nearly killed the Panda as we encouraged it to keep climbing the graded and windy roads to the Schloß that never appeared. Magically, upon our descent, we re-discovered the Weinstraße and continued south to another Weingut - a roadside shack that was actually being visited by other people. We sampled more Rieslings and Gewürztraminers and also sampled some of the craptastic German reds and a fabulous (I'm talking about wine so it is perfectly acceptable for me to use that word) Eiswein (Icewine). They offered tasteless wines in special world cup packaging but neither Hans nor I was drunk enough to be suckered into such a touristy buy.

Realizing we were running short on time, we made a panda-line towards the border so that we could check out Frakenstein's Burg (a fortified castle) on the way back to Mannheim where we had to return the car. We finally figured out the roads and plowed through the border, which is marked by a giant wooden gate, marking the end of the German Weinstraße and the beginning of the giant sprawls of vines that take over so much of France. We put out feet in France and headed north to the town of Frankenstein, which would require Hans to surgically execute the guesswork route that I tried to piece together from our pile of maps. We succeded, but unfortunately, Frankenstein's Burg - which is said to have inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - was in ruins and did not offer any access by vehicle. The closest we came to exploring it was a view from the straße below.

We did make our mark though and we returned the car just 3 minutes before our deadline. Overall, the day was a success.

I attended the Germany-Italy semifinal yesterday and I am going to the France-Portugal halbfinale in about 20 minutes. I will post my thoughts on them tomorrow after I am able to fully digest them. Of course, that is conditioned on me surviving the night I have planned on the floor of the München train station. Allianz Arena, here I come! Allez les bleus! Go Portugal (I don't speak Portuguese but I do wish them luck - hoppefully this will be as exciting as last night.)

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