I know Beauty and the Beast takes place in France, but I couldn’t get the soundtrack out of my head when travelling through Bavaria. Whenever in an open field I’d throw my arms about me and belt “I want adventure in the great wide, somewhere” and standing in front of quaint shop fronts I’d hum along to “There goes the baker with his tray like always”. Heck, I even packed what I refer to as my “Belle dress” because I knew Carl and I would visit Germany’s Bamberg and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, towns I swear I’ve seen in the pages of children’s books, or a very grim Grimm’s fairytale.
Bamberg is more alive than expected. I thought Bamberg would be touristy, but walk the streets of the city center and you learn quickly that it’s a college town. On a Friday night bridges are swarmed with students drinking, laughing and smoking, each clique trying to catch the eye of a nearby group. It’s the streets themselves that are the places to see and be seen among the college crowd.
We had one specific destination in the city: Schlenkerla brewery. Carl and I love beer. Beer was one of our great motivators for travelling to Germany; while the Germans may not be innovators on today’s beer scene, the country still holds the gold for the classics. They have the best lagers and hefeweizens in the world, and where else can you get a good dunkel?
There’s a crowd surrounding the doors of Schlenkerla. Some lean against the centuries old walls of the surrounding buildings, some clutch half eaten sausages in their hands; all hold a glass of beer. “Oh no, we’re too late!” we thought, figuring everyone must be waiting for a table, but ultimately we decided to brave the crowd and enquire within.
A beer walk up window is the first thing you’ll encounter upon entering. A lone individual stands inside a small wooden room resembling a coat check, taking orders for drafts and pouring on the spot. As we waited for the man in front of us to get through his twelfth hiccup in an attempt to order two beers we began to notice that the space around us was quiet. Eerily quiet given the mess of people outside. Venturing into the cavernous rooms of the brewery we learned that during the summer no one actually sits inside. The beer garden behind the brewery is packed and outside it looks like the brewery is about to be stormed by a drunken army, but the beer hall itself is vacant. Carl, speaker of German that he is, asked a server if we could grab a seat and she gestured in a way that said “Yes. Anywhere. Obviously”.
I’ll describe the style of Schlenkerla with another Beauty and the Beast reference, this one from the dashing villain Gaston: “I use antlers in all of my de-co-rat-ing”. Even in the summer, this place feels heavy.
The ceilings are lit by iron chandeliers. Paintings on the wall are of dead white men in funny hats. The color pallete is white, green and brown — hunting colors. What strikes me most though, is the amount of coat hangers in the room. Each table has half a dozen pegs built into the wall above it, and a wooden coat rack beside it. The coats these pegs were built for weren’t peacoats that could share a peg, they were pelts and furs. I imagine trudging into the brewery in the winter, shaking the snow off, then sitting down and drinking with others. Everyone fogging up the thick windows.
Schlenkerla is special because their beer is smoked. It’s like drinking leather and I mean that as a compliment. The smoked flavor of the rauchbier (smoke beer) happens because the brewery dries its malt alongside a beechwood fire that heats the drying air. This dried smoky air translates into the beer itself, and voila! A smoked star is born.
We drink and dine like kings. The local Bamberg specialty, the “Bambergerzwiebel”, is an onion stuffed with meat,wrapped in bacon and smothered in gravy and believe me, I was just as confused when I first read that description as you are. All week I practiced ordering “Zwei zwiebel bitte” (two onions please), and ordering and eating these plumped up puppies was a treat.
Next to our table is the stammtisch, a table permanently reserved for the revered rears of its regulars. These regulars ordered round after round of the same beer, which the bartender poured in the most masterful way possible — He would line up two pilsner glasses, laying them horizontally across the bartop, would uncap two bottles, then would place a bottle inside each glass and in one swift motion, push them upwards where the beer would drain perfectly. He caught our eyes once while we watched in awe and gave us a knowing lil smile. This man is proud of what he does, and I truly believe that anyone’s job can provide meaning as long as they take pride in what they do. The beer he was pouring? The Schlenkerla Rauchweizen. I ordered one by pointing to the stammtischers.
Schlenkerla was even busier when we left. The crowd had swelled to take up the entire street (lord have mercy on any cars needing to pass through those cobblestoned roads). We took a scenic walk back to our hotel made all the more scenic as we both insisted we could find our way back without maps in the nearly gridless city. Luckily our hotel stood next to the statue of a beloved city mayor holding a cat on his shoulders. Upon seeing this feline friend we knew we’d arrived.
With less than 12 waking hours to spend in Bamberg we woke early for a walkabout in old town. It’s at this time I give the city a nickname meant to be more endearing than disgusting, but here it is: “vomberg”. In under ten minutes we’d passed multiple piles of vomit and many wet cobblestones in front of store fronts, clearly hosed off in the early morning (or doused with a frankly alarming amount of urine). Passing half a dozen tiny vom mounds we made it to a bakery where I continually chased a pigeon out the door who kept entering through the open door. The baker was a young woman, clearly fed up with the pigeon folk, so I took on the responsibility of “pigeon chaser”.
Bamberg may have vomit between its cobblestones in the early AM, but it’s an unbelievably beautiful city. During our morning walk stumbled into the most picturesque rose garden, ventured into squares that have stood in place for centuries and watched as nuns passed outside the cathedral. The pastries weren’t bad either.
Despite its aged buildings, Bamberg feels like it’s still existing in the here and now. It’s able to give tourists enough to send a glossy postcard over but you’ll still find Rick and Morty graffiti along the street and young folks being angsty.
Before the clock struck noon and Cinderella’s chariot would be turned into a smashed pumpkin, we boarded a train for Rothenburg ob der Tauber, another fairytale destination.