There’s a lighter side of Germany, told here in five parts (for one really good weekend).
We’ll begin with Winnetou, the Apache chief who looms so large in the German psyche that the French actor playing him got the equivalent to the Victoria Cross before he died. There are many films of his every German child watches with fascination when they are around seven years old. (And you know what the Jesuits say, “Give me a child at seven!”) The moral of Winnetou, one of the main characters in the books preceding the films which all play in the American Old West, is that a righteous and just brown man and his good white friend can easily win against a the nasty whites trying to take his land.
Written by the German Karl May, born in Saxony in 1842, who pretended he had seen all this, in truth wrote his many novels mostly while in prison. He’s been big in Germany since 1952, but what is even odder is that year after year there are many shows of these stories, on huge stages in the open air, with dozens of German actors blackened up, wearing long flowing back wigs and Indian outfits riding a middling assortment of ponies, and the public loves it. If you ever are around Elspe or Bad Segeberg, where the biggest Freilichtbuehnen are, have a go: plenty of German cowboys and Indians will convince you that the good win in the end.
For the more adventurous and romantic, when travelling the usual Rhine valley route, take a break and head for the Hunsrueck region, where a huge national park has just opened and watch Winnetou there, in the truly wild west of Germany. It's not as slick as in Bad Segeberg, but it's surrounded by endless wheat fields and deep, dark forest, and the story feels right somehow.
Pop into Herrstein, a perfectly preserved tiny, medieval town so picturesque it’s hard to believe it’s real. It’s buried deep in the Hunsrueck National Park. This area will bring home to you what Germans feel when they think of these woods. Pure romantic emotions and sheer pleasure, maybe a bit like the Scottish Highlands or the Cornwall coast.
Ten minutes from Bonn is Beikircher's, the farmhouse/art gallery of singer, raconteur, cabaret artist, and philosopher Konrad Beikircher. He opens his large garden, complete with huge chestnut tree, for summer events. When I visited, he did a Paolo Conte evening. The Tyrolean artist, accompanied by super musicians, sings in perfect Italian, but speaks German with a distinct Rhineland accent, as this has been his home for many years now. His growling voice comes very close to the famous Italian’s, and the poignant comments he makes about what a homeland is to him, are thoughtful, charming, and witty. Wandering around his property admiring the outside sculptures garden, glass of Aperol in hand, eating Tapas felt very light indeed.
What visit to Germany would be complete without participating in the very typical traditional pastime of Wellness? This very often means going to a Thermal Spa, of which there are many in the area around Cologne. The chicest is Bad Neuenahr, an hour’s drive away. This old Spa town has also a Casino for the non-bathers, but pluck up your courage though and meet the Germans in the nude – that’s what happens in those ‘Bad’ places. There are many saunas, graded by temperature and directed by a towel-swinging Bademeister. One is only allowed to go outside and promenade in the tuts, then swim in the Thermal waters, do organised exercises, drink beer, and rest. This can take hours, after which, of course, one has to have a good meal.
At the most beautiful southern part of the Moselle valley is the Hotel Bellevue in Traben-Trarbach. Of course, you could room in at the Parkschloesschen there, famed for its high society and celebrity guests. But rather than breaking the bank, stay at the best suite of the Bellevue, directly overlooking the Mosel, equipped with you own Wellness suite. The decor is amazingly authentic, the food is delicious, the views over the Mosel splendid. All this is at a very reasonable price, and comes with a Michelin Star.