A case of the Bad Münstereifels.
An excursion into the Eifel region to investigate a walled town. A preliminary exploration of “Schlager”, a popular form of German music.
Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health.
– Carl Gustav Jung
A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.
– Albert Einstein
Well, it’s possible that once in every man’s lifetime, he’s going to wake up on Sunday morning with a case of the Bad Münstereifels.
In a roundabout way, that’s what left me sitting on a railway platform in the middle of nowhere on a freezing cold, grey and windy Sunday morning, trying to keep warm by swearing loudly and playing blues riffs badly on an out of tune guitar. Later I was to learn that when it’s very cold outside, the German expression is “Arschkalt”. If you translate that into English, you get “arse-cold”. Freezing your arse off, I suppose. Anyway, it would have been an apt description for this particular spring morning in the German countryside.
When I realised that no amount of swearing was going to restore my core temperature, I finally gave up and retired to this kitsch little cafe, complete with lace curtains, farmhouse furniture and zero visibility thanks to the cigarette smoke. The Germans love to smoke, but they’re desperately afraid of draughty rooms, so they would never dream of opening a window to let some smoke out or some fresh air in.
The whole adventure was destined to end badly, right from the start. I had chosen this place because it didn’t feature in any of the guide books, but I’d read about it on the internet. Bad Münstereifel is the last stop on a branch line, a bit more than an hour’s train ride in the direction of the Belgian border. Admittedly, it is a very slow train, giving a disproportionate sense of distance. The town is enclosed by medieval city walls, apparently the best preserved example anywhere in Germany, as all the original watch-towers are still intact. Along with a town hall dating from the 15th century and a church that’s about the same age, there are heaps of those half-timbered houses the Germans are famous for. Bad Münstereifel’s obscurity has ultimately been its saviour. The town’s historical features have survived intact because there was never any pressing economic need to demolish them, and never enough money in the public coffers to modernise the town centre. It was probably with some surprise that the engineers building the B51, which passes just behind the town, realised it was there – and then they had to adjust their plans to ensure the road curved around the walls. These two circumstances combine to deliver a nice little touristy excursion point which is easily reached along a major road. The fact that it’s only 30 minutes by car from Bonn and the curious tourist can see everything in an afternoon, including the obligatory 3 o’clock stop for Kaffee und Kuchen, means the town doesn’t have much in the way of affordable accommodation.
Heino, with his vinyl jacket, 2-euro-shop sunglasses, dyed-blond hair and tan-from-a-tube is the biggest selling German artist in Germany – and therefore the biggest selling German artist in the world.
Like every German town, it has a small “Gasthaus”, which offers food, drink and lodging. There are a couple of luxury hotels for the rich and elderly to hobnob in (the prefix Bad means it’s a spa town, much favoured as a vacation option among the elderly and unadventurous alike), but most visitors to this place just don’t stay overnight. Like any place big enough to be marked on a German map, there’s a Turkish kebab shop, and the town has it’s own quirky tourist attraction. I believe it says something about the German psyche that, in this case, the main tourist attraction wasn’t the medieval walls, but the café operated by a guy called Heino.
Never heard of him? Neither had I until after I’d already left Bad Münstereifel and mentioned my little weekend excursion to my new flatmates. That’s how well known the guy is, there’s not even any need to promote him any more. I’ve been told that Heino, with his vinyl jacket, 2-euro-shop sunglasses, dyed-blond hair and tan-from-a-tube is the biggest selling German artist in Germany – and therefore the biggest selling German artist in the world. Perhaps a classic case of “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” Back in 2006 he’d already released 17 studio albums (the first was released in 1966) and his music had been compiled on at least 10 “best of Heino” collections. Even as I was cursing Bad Münstereifel, he was working on two new studio albums and planning another relentless schedule of stadium appearances. Not bad for a guy as old as my Dad, I suppose!
For the uninitiated, Heino (aka Heinz Georg Kramm) is a former baker turned pro soccer player and later singer of German “Schlager”, or “Volksmusik”, a form of soppy ballad-style music which is particularly well-appreciated in the Teutonic lands, though almost no-one admits to liking it, or listening to it. But someone must be listening to it, because this form of music outsells all others in Germany. Much later I was to meet a girl in Cologne who actually admitted to liking Schlager and being a Heino fan; and she said she was willing to convert me. Needless to say, the relationship didn’t last.
Heino’s army is made up mainly of the red-rinse brigade (the German equivalent of the blue rinse brigade) and I’ve since been told that on weekends during daylight hours the town is full of these people, buying Bad Münstereifel teaspoons and tea-towels with Heino’s face on them, as well as talking Heino statuettes, commemorative china coffee services form his 40th and 50th jubilee performances and so forth.
But I didn’t know about that. Neither did I know that Bad Münstereifel was the town where, in 1974, Willy Brandt, Germany’s fourth post-war Chancellor, announced his resignation from Germany’s top job, after it was revealed that one of his closest aides was an East German spy. Brandt remains one of Germany’s political legends, a giant of the left, revered (or reviled) by Germans on something like the same level as Australians regard their former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Big men of that ilk just don’t exist in politics any more.
I stepped out of the train at Bad Münstereifel’s tiny station just on dusk. The youth hostel website had touted the hostel as “just outside the 12th century walls of this picturesque village”. It proved to be a one hour hike along a twisting muddy track up the slopes of a mountain. It was all part of the Jugendherberge philosophy: something along the lines of No Pain No Gain, or purity through exertion. I won’t say “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Oh, there you go, I said it.
On the way up the hill with my backpack and guitar, as I passed the last of Bad Münstereifel’s houses, I rounded a corner to find a guy with a long, unkempt beard washing a 1972 Kombi van in perfect condition. “Guten Abend”, I said as I puffed my way past, and straight away he replied in English “Good evening. Where are you from?” I told him I was from Australia.
“Aah, welcome in Germany”, he said. He eyed the guitar-case knowingly and told me that he too had spent his youth just traveling around from place to place with a rucksack and a guitar, and how much he missed those days. He seemed like a nice bloke and I remember thinking that so far the Germans I had met had seemed very open and friendly, so unlike the stereo-type.
I asked how much further it was to the hostel.
“Oh, about a kilometer”, he said. Either he was lying or I got lost in the forest, because it took at least another hour to find the place in the gathering dark. Due to my lack of experience at the time, I was almost totally unaware that the German forest is full of trolls, goblins and sadistic dwarves, so I wasn’t frightened. Maybe I should have been.