A taste of Bavaria

Think Adelaide and open parklands, indigenous art, understated beauty, good weather, and live music come to mind. You certainly don’t picture an old German village where beer jostles for shelf space with wine, where brick houses with sloping roofs reveal antique stores and craft breweries, and where you can find sausages and pretzels at every corner.  

This is Hahndorf, a state listed heritage town, about 25 minutes away from Adelaide. It is Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement.

It was in 1839 that Captain Dirk Meinertz Hahn brought 200 German-Lutheran migrants, fleeing religious persecution in Prussia (north-eastern Germany), to Adelaide Hills where they made their home. Today, 189 years later, though Hahndorf (Hahn’s village) has seen much change, it remains at heart a German town.

“It’s old world charm very popular with tourists. History apart, they are very serious about their food and wine here,” says David Sly, a food and wine journalist from Adelaide.

I spend a day in Hahndorf and David’s words ring true at every place I visit.

I begin my day strolling through the Beerenberg Strawberry Farm picking dew-dusted strawberries. It is 9am and the farm, a few minutes outside the town, has just opened for business. It’s a calming experience, walking through neatly segregated rows of strawberry plants, digging through the leaves to find the fruit nestled within. I take my slim pickings to the Beerenberg Family Farm shop to be weighed and packed, and meet Monique Lomax, a staffer who doubles up as a guide. “The founders, the Paech family, are among Hahndorf’s first settlers. They started with dairy but soon decided to try branch out. Now we grow chillies gherkins, cherries, plums, Satsuma, and Lincoln roses,” she says. Everything finds its way into marinades, jams, chutney and dipping sauces. I sample a few of these, and am instantly impressed with the smooth and fragrant rose petal jelly, and the tart mango and Mandarin curd named after Monique (staffers above five years get products named after them).

Beerenberg, which means berry hill, is in its 50th year of strawberry picking and needless to say, strawberry jam is a best-seller. People generally queue up here for the freshly churned strawberry ice cream, delicate swirls of creamy goodness piled high in a cone. Over 80 percent of their products are gluten free and they do collaborations with locals like Cooper Ale and Gaucho sauces.

Ice cream in hand, I stroll down the picturesque main street. This historic street is lined with 100 year old elm trees, and shows off timber and German-style stone or brick houses with their steep, sloping roofs and cosy verandahs. Here I find boutiques, German pubs, restaurants and cellar doors, cafés, gourmet bakeries and delicatessens, and sweet shops. On sale is Aboriginal art and puppets, German clocks, and candles – the 3 Wishes Candle Barn that allows you to create your own.  

A life-size yellow cow with a milk pail underneath welcomes me to my next destination, Udder Delights. The word cheese is written in bold letters for those confused about the offerings at the place. Run by the husband and wife team of Saul and Sheree Sullivan, Udder Delights’ Cheese Cellar sells goat’s and cow’s milk cheese, hosts fondue and cheesemaking classes and is best known for their cheese wedding cakes. I opt for a cheese tasting. The goats curd is tangy with a smooth finish and the cow’s milk brie is velvety and has a sharp earthy flavour. My favourite is the Heysen Blue, a firm and moist cheddar-like rich cheese.   

Udder Delights

Fresh cheese is difficult to carry back homes so I regretfully leave the store and set out in search of something more travel-friendly. David takes me to an ‘iconic place’. The MenzFruChoc Shop is known for their FruChocs – milk chocolate covered apricot or peach. A happy accident, the Menz family developed these in 1948 to use up excess fruit. Today, the product is a South Australian icon. I happily snack on honeycomb and coconut variants thinking that this sweet treat really deserves a FruChocs Appreciation Day (celebrated on the last Friday of August).

Another place chock-a-block with history is the Hahndorf Inn. Built in 1853, it is owned by the Holmes family, whose German descendants arrived at Port Adelaide in 1847 to settle in the Barossa Valley. The food here is traditional Bavarian – big portions of schnitzels, sausages, beef and pork ribs, pork knuckle, and hot dogs. These come accompanied by steamed greens, mash or fries. I try the Hänchen Schnitzel, crumbed chicken breast cooked to perfection and paired with a cream mushroom sauce. Dessert is the German apple strudel (Apfelstrudel), which we learned to make (assemble) at a strudel class earlier.

I end the day at Prancing Pony Brewery, a boutique brewery located a short drive out of Hahndorf. Here, they use the traditional method of fire brewing, resulting in beer that has caramel and toffee like malt flavours. I sip on their India Red Pale Ale, which was the 2016 supreme champion in the International Beer Challenge, London. The strong caramel notes and intense hop bitterness is mellowed down by hints of tropical fruit, making for a refreshing drink.  

A day in Hahndorf and I realise, they do take food, wine and beer very seriously.

 

 

[A version of this story was published in BL Ink: Bits of Bavaria, on April 13, 2018]

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Chopin’s Warsaw

Last year, for three cold, wintry days, I found myself stalking a man. I couldn’t help it; his presence was everywhere – on benches, in the park, museums and in the churches.  

It is expected when you are a genius. A beautiful city, Poland’s capital is not as compelling or historically relevant as Krakow. But, it has Fryderyk Chopin.

The city’s most famous son wasn’t born here but his genius was discovered and nurtured in the Warsaw’s salons, churches and concert halls. It was here that he learned to play the piano, and gave his first concert when just eight. He spent the first half of his life in the city and his heart lies here, quite literally.

Today, it is possible to walk in the footsteps of the composer. Armed with a guide book and an app, I set out to discover the genius in the city that was once his home.

The churches

I stumbled onto one of Chopin’s resting places by accident. Walking along the beautiful Krakowskie Przedmieście, I take a pit stop at the Holy Cross Church. In the early 19th century, this baroque church was the largest Catholic place of worship in Warsaw.

 It was packed with tourists, who weren’t there to pray but to pay homage. They were busy admiring the church’s plain white pillars, one of which had Chopin’s heart interred within it. The pillar is simple, with a carved bust of the composer and two cherubs. The church was significant to the Chopin family – Fryderyk’s sisters, Izabella and Emilia, were baptised in it. Although the composer’s remains are in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, his heart lies in Warsaw.

Chopin played in the choir for masses held at Visitationist Church.

A little down the road is another church of importance. The 17th century Visitationist Church was built for French nuns and has survived World War II with majority of its original furnishings, including a rococo boat-shaped pulpit. It was here that Chopin played the organ – which is still intact – as a pupil of the Warsaw Lyceum. A plaque outside confirms this fact. My guidebook tells me that it was while playing in this church that he met his first love, Konstancja, who sang at mass. Needless to say, he made sure Sunday mass was quite the experience. 

Musical signposts

As I leave the church, Chopin’s Largo in E Flat Major fills the evening air, mellowing out the sounds of traffic and chatter. The source for this is a smooth cast iron black stone bench. These benches – 15 in all – are spread through the city and act as musical signposts to signify important sites in his life. There are 15 of them are spread across the city. Designed by Professor Jerzy Porębski, these benches come with a button, which plays music for 30 seconds; a route map and an explanation (in English and Polish) about the site’s relevance.

The coolest part though is that the benches have photo codes, which gave me access to an instant audio and visual Chopin guide, and other melodies. 

Saxon palace/garden

If Chopin grew up performing at the Holy Cross Church, he probably played games and took walks in the Saxon Garden; the family lived near the park. The city’s oldest public garden, it gets its name from the Saxon figures that lead up to Warsaw’s first city fountain, and a marble sundial.  

In those days, the Saxon Palace complex housed the school Warsaw Lyceum. Fryderyk’s father was a French language teacher, and the family lived in the staff quarters. It was here that Chopin composed his first pieces, with the aid of his father and teacher. The Saxon Palace was completely destroyed during WW II, only the triple arch remained. Today, the remains of the palace hold the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to the unknown soldiers who have given their lives for Poland.

Fryderyk Chopin Museum

The Chopin museum is a four-floor structure in the Ostrogski Palace. The museum opened in 2010 and houses the largest collection of Chopin memorabilia in the world. 

Here, I get a comprehensive and interactive look into the musical genius’ life, from birth to death. The museum is multimedia – there are e-books, audio-visuals, and touchscreen options. There are games too – on one floor is a musical version of Twister, which has me jumping from one spot to another creating my own compositions. Microphones hanging from the ceiling recorded exclamations, sounds of laughter or music depending on the exhibit. Another section allows me to open drawers, which display a sheet of music while speakers play its musical notes. I spent the most time learning about the women in his life – there were many – through photos, letters, sketches and notes.  

The museum is based on the family’s collection of mementos – letters, autograph music manuscripts, books. Some of the weirder exhibits include his school exercise books, a lock of dark brown hair, a gold watch he received from an admiring singer, a gold barrel-shaped pendant with his monogram, and dried flowers from his deathbed. There is also a detailed recreation of his Paris drawing room, with the Pleyel grand paino, which he played in the final two years of his life.

Łazienki Royal Park

The Łazienki Royal Park is a stunning palace and garden complex, built in the 17th century as the summer residence of the last king of Poland. A vast expanse of trees and shaded paths reveal places of interest: a baroque bathing pavilion (which gives the park its name), the Palace on the Isle, a little White House, a water tower and an old guardhouse, among others.  

Chopin monument
Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin.

The park is home to Warsaw’s most iconic and visited structures, sculptor Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin. It shows him sitting beneath a stylised willow tree, with a Polish eagle’s head at the corner. The sculpture was erected in 1926 before being one of the first structures demolished by the Nazis. After the war, it was rebuilt thanks to an original mould, and placed on a red sandstone pedestal and basin.

Every year, concerts are held at the foot of the monument. When I visit, it is filled with tourists sunning themselves on the manicured lawns. It is easy to imagine pianists filling the park with sweet melodies in front of a captive audience, while Chopin watches benevolently from above.  

Log on to www.chopin.warsawtour.pl

 

[A version of this story appeared in the Indian Express: My heart beats for Warsaw, on January 7, 2018.]

Going underground in Brno

The Moravian capital of Brno, Czech Republic’s second largest city, has much to offer those looking for a break from Prague. Their biggest attractions are down under. There is a has a thriving underground network of crypts, museums, and even a hotel, showcasing bones, Cold War mementos, and torture devices.

This is a three-part story. Read part 2: The Labyrinth underneath the Vegetable Market.

Church of St. James Ossuary

It is the second-largest ossuary in Europe, after Paris. Yet, as I tour the crypt beneath the Church of St James, I’m underwhelmed. The entire place is about 100 metres in length, with just a main chamber and two side passages.  

Then, I take a closer look at the walls and the pillars. They’re made up of the remains of 50,000 people – skulls bones, tinted yellow because of lack of exposure to sunlight. They stare at me, hollow-eyed and un-moving.

In the central chamber, I come across the creepiest chapel – it has a life-size cross and pulpit and ‘walls’ made of bones; in the far corner is a small stained glass mural. Nearby are two glass coffins – one has the skeleton of a grown man, and the other, the bones of a 13-year-old child.

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The central chamber has a small chapel and brackets holding candles, which in the evening, throw light and shadows across the skulls.

There are glass cases and thin railings shielding the bones but, they’re well within reach. Around me, many are surreptitiously touching them. The thought of disturbing the tightly packed bones and have them fall on my head is enough to turn me away. At the end of one passage, is a pyramid of just skulls, some of which still have decayed teeth in them, making it seem like they’re grinning at me.

A few modern sculptures, in black, provide visual relief, including a statue of a guardian angel. The other relief is tonal – somber music composed especially for the especially for the ossuary, streams over the speakers.

The tour is self-guided. I refer to a pamphlet and elsewhere, displays in Czech and English. The sheer volume of the bones does most of the talking. The original crypt was built in the 17th century to accommodate the remains from the cemetery of the church of St James. The initial three rooms filled up quickly and had to be expanded to accommodate more bones. These were victims of the biggest serial killers of the time: plague, cholera, the Thirty Years’ War and the Swedish siege of Brno. Once the ossuary was full, it was covered up and lay in oblivion for 200 years. It was discovered in 2001 as part of a land survey. Researchers spent a decade gathering the remains, cleaning them and rearranging them back. The ossuary opened to the public in 2012. 

It’s not just all bones. Along the passages are tombstones, from the original graves. At the entrance is a mini exhibition, showing old photos of the church and cemetery.

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My tour has taken me just 20 minutes but, I’m glad to leave. As I walk out, I silently say the Latin prayer inscribed on the marble wall outside: Eternal rest grant unto them….

The ossuary is located at Jakubské náměstí; it is closed on Monday; 9.30 am to 6 pm (Tuesday to Sunday). Cost 70 Kč to 140 Kč. 

These wonderful photos are courtesy Michal Růžička, TIC Brno