Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 22, 2017
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German Immersion

Enjoy the long reds, dry whites and hot
soaks of a bike trip in Baden

I f you think "German gastronomy" is an oxymoron, prepare your palate for a delicious surprise. Sure, there's a time and a place for sauerkraut, schnitzel, sausage and a litre of lager, but in Baden-Württemberg I discovered exquisite cuisine and wondrous wines. This state in southwest Germany boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other part of the country. Its proximity to the Alsace region of France no doubt accounts for the fetish for fine food, too.

Our gastronomic romp began in Endingen, a 16th-century fairy tale town of cobbled streets, half-timbered houses, gushing fountains and geranium-filled window boxes. It was a fine Indian summer morning and my pal Judy and I decided to "go native," rent some bikes and explore this region known as the Kaiserstuhl.

Bicycling is a breeze in Germany. Almost everywhere you'll find a network of narrow paved or gravel roads far from the frantic autobahns, perfect for peaceful pedalling. At 180 rail stations across the country you can rent a bike and bring it on most trains.

The Kaiserstuhl (the Emperor's chair), actually an extinct volcano, is one of Germany's most important wine-growing areas, thanks to a serendipitous blessing by Mother Nature. The Vosges Mountains ward off rain and help to dissipate clouds, making this one of the country's warmest and sunniest areas. The fine climate, together with heat-retaining, mineral-rich volcanic soil provides ideal growing conditions for grapes. Off we pedalled through orchards, corn fields, past hamlets where tables set up outside chalets held fresh walnuts and apple juice for sale on the honour system. I plucked a bright red apple from a tree, took a chew of my soft salty pretzel and soaked up the earthy autumn aromas.

Finding the wine co-op in Koenigschaffhausen (now there's a mouthful) was easy as we followed the convoy of small tractors hauling bins of grapes. We sampled a mild Müller Thurgau, a gutsy Gewürztraminer, and best of all, a full-bodied Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) for which the region is famous. In fact, it's served in German embassies around the world. Compared to French Burgundies, these German reds are a bargain: $7 buys a fine bottle and there's no tax on German wine. Alas, most of the wines we'd be drinking on this trip are not available in Canada, so in the interest of oenology, we sought out every opportunity to sample them. As luck would have it the tourist office in town was offering an afternoon tractor ride through the steep terraced vineyards surrounding Koenigschaffhausen, culminating in yet another wine tasting and picnic at the top, with vineyards spread below as far as the eye could see.

Lunch is the main meal of the day for German country folk and supper is usually cold and light. After a quick look at the menu that night at Dutters Stube in Kiechlinsbergen, a small village neighbouring Endingen, we quickly cast aside any intentions of grazing. Chef and owner Arthur Dutter's parade of masterpieces began with a salad of lightly smoked pork cheeks in a crisp potato basket. His pike rolled in Savoy cabbage was accompanied by the region's famous egg noodles. Succulent baby chicken came bathed in a divine pool of Pinor Noir sauce. Chef Dutter selected a different glass of wine to complement each dish. With his grand finale, a crème brûlée and mango sorbet, a spicy Gewürztraminer ice wine was the perfect partner. Not a sausage in sight.

In a squeeze
Next morning we headed off to Freiburg, gateway to the Black Forest, in search of a lange rote (long red). There are over 1500 different types of sausage in Germany and most regions lay claim to a particular stuffed tube. In Munich it's the white sausage, in Berlin it's the curry sausage, in Freiburg it's the long red. Sausage alley is in the shadow of the Münster Cathedral, a miracle of medieval craftsmanship with a spire of perforated red sandstone that dominates the old town. Every day but Sunday, farmers and vendors set up their stalls around the church. Freiburg is a vibrant university town and a feast for the senses. Wandering through the market and inhaling the aroma of briny olives, sizzling sausages and musky mushrooms had revved up our appetites. We slathered our long reds with mustard, ordered a beer and enjoyed a serenade by a group of buskers playing Bach. You have to watch your step in Freiburg as a network of streams and rivulets runs through the old town. Legend has it that if you get your feet wet you'll marry a Freiburger.

 

King of the hill
From May to November, Germany has over 1000 wine festivals. Chances are pretty good that you'll find yourself in the middle of one. We did that evening in nearby Durbach, another fairy-tale setting with romantic Stauffenberg Castle perched high on a hill overlooking the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Black Forest to the east. Out on the castle terrace a wedding party was posing for pictures and couples and families were washing down onion tarts with glasses of new wine, a tradition at harvest time.

Down the hill at Durbach's wine co-op, we sat at long tables and joined the locals in celebrating the Wine and Gourmet Festival. Between conga line dances and German drinking songs requiring you to link arms with your neighbour and sway, we sampled pike in Riesling sauce, a salmon and zucchini combo and a turkey schnitzel with lemongrass. Great wines from Sekt (sparkling) to Chardonnay were on sale for as little as $1.50 a glass.

Taking the Waters
Next morning, off we went to take the waters in Baden-Baden, the spa town that's been catering to the rich and famous since Roman times.

The first thing you notice is how French it looks. No half-timbered chalets, no window boxes. No wonder. In the mid-1800s, wealthy Parisian Jacques Benazet moved here and spent millions developing the city as a playground for Europe's elite. Benazet modelled the theatre after the Paris Opera. The Kurhaus (casino) is pure Belle Epoque. Smartly dressed folks sip café au lait at outdoor cafes.

Our guide informed us that there are more millionaires here than in any other German city. We decided to try and sight a few that night at the casino, where there's a jacket-and-tie dress code, a minimal admission fee and you need to present your passport. The building, described by Marlene Dietrich as "the most beautiful of all casinos" is indeed grand. But the patrons playing roulette and blackjack the night of our visit were hardly beautiful, and we had even heard rumours that the Russian Mafia had invaded Baden-Baden.

Fortunately you don't have to be a millionaire to enjoy Baden-Baden's spas. Over 1200 years ago hot mineral springs formed deep under the town. Over 800,000 litres of soothing thermal waters flow from 23 springs each day. At the Caracalla Spa, a modern edifice of marble and glass, it's water, water everywhere: an indoor pool with currents and jets that change every 10 minutes, a cold outdoor pool, a hot water grotto, a textile-free (nude) sauna, waterfalls and an aroma steam room. Bring your own towel and bathing suit and let the therapeutic springs work their magic. A three-hour pass costs about $17.

Just up the street from the Caracalla stands another bath-house temple, the palatial Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish Spa. Inside the magnificent 19th-century building one submits to a 16-step regimen that combines Irish hot air baths with Roman thermal waters and steam.

"You will come to me naked," ordered the large matron of the change room. The Friedrichsbad is "textile free" with the exception of a towel proffered at step one, the shower. Off we drifted to a warm air bath, then an even hotter air bath. Time for another shower. Number five, my favourite was a soap-and-brush massage with Laura, a deft masseuse from Siberia. Then we immersed ourselves in a series of thermal steam and bubble baths and inhaled eucalyptus. After a frigid cold water dip, the matron swathed us in warm towels. We slathered up in cream and were escorted into a dim room filled with cots. The matron tucked us in and we drifted into oblivion. All this for $38. The peripatetic Mark Twain, who had a knack for finding some of the world's best spots, was right on when he said of Friedrichsbad, "After 10 minutes you forget time, after 20 minutes the world."

 

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