In 1891 a man from Friedelsheim, Germany became a naturalized US citizen in Cleveland, Ohio. That man was my Great-Great-Grandfather. Through a relatively convoluted chain of events, in the 1990’s families on both sides of the Atlantic who were wondering what ever became of the one(s) who had left / stayed behind were able to connect with each other. As the only person on the US side who spoke German I became the primary contact on the US side, and when I then moved to Germany a few years later I had the opportunity to meet with my counterpart on the German side. Technically my 2’nd cousin twice removed, by virtue of age and relationship he seemed to fit in somewhere between an uncle and a grandfather to me, and I was warmly welcomed into the extended family centered around the town of Bad Duerkheim. Over the course of several years they became a second family to me, and Bad Duerkheim and it’s environs became a second home. One of the places he took me to was the village of Oberschlettenbach, which is where, in about 1750, our earliest identified common ancestor was born and at least a couple of subsequent generations lived before they left the forested valleys of the Pfaelzer Wald and moved to the more open areas of the Rhine plain.
When it came time to make the travel plans for this trip, I knew we needed to go to the Pfalz and spend several days there. There was the family history and the opportunity to introduce my nieces to our relatives there; there was my own depth of experience and stories I wanted to tell on the locations they happened; and equally important was that the Pfalz is simply a phenomenal place to visit. There are forests and vineyards; major cities and picturesque villages; regional history bridging current national borders and historic ruins from the time when it was a major theater of European conflict. In short, we had to go.
There are plenty of accommodation options in the Pfalz, but I wanted to do something a bit more memorable for my nieces and decided that a B&B stay at a winery would fit that bill. I recalled that one of our relatives who owned a winery had been thinking about doing that the last time I was there, so I got in contact and sure enough they had done so. I booked their 2 bedroom apartment at the winery in the middle of Wachenheim, and it served us very well as a base of operations.
After the drama of the transportation issues getting there were behind us, I decided that my original plan of driving into Bad Duerkheim for dinner at the iconic Duerkheimer Fass (a restaurant housed inside a giant wine barrel) was probably better saved for another night and we headed out on foot to find dinner in Wachenheim. It was a Monday night, which meant most places we fond on our evening stroll were closed, but Cafe Schellack, a cafe diagonally opposite us, was open so we headed in there and I was able to introduce my nieces to the local wines and regional cuisine – and in the process satisfy my need for Saumagen.
The weather forecast called for rain on day 3, so after a good breakfast (including Pfaelzer Leberwurst – another of the favorite foods I was after on the trip) I opted to turn day 2 into the out and about day just in case that the rain turned out to be heavy. The primary goal for the day was to take my nieces to Oberschlettenbach and then spend some time enjoying the forest and castle ruins of the southern section of the Pfaelzer Wald. 2 of my nieces had studied French in school and I decided that given the proximity to the French border we might just as well pop over and have dinner there. I had thought about going to Strassbourg, but to be worth the trip that would have taken most of the day, and as a big part of the theory of the trip was to show them places they might not otherwise find I decided to dive a bit more deeply into the other areas.
The drive to Oberschlettenbach was a fun journey down memory lane, as much of the way was the same as I used to do when traveling between Bad Duerkheim and Karlsruhe. My memory from past visits was that we had pretty much just dropped the car off near the central well, but having lost my familiarity with small town German parking customs I instead opted to go a bit further through the village and found a marked parking area near what looked to be the town hall. As I was getting out of the car a man approached and pointed out that they were doing some masonry work nearby and suggested I move the car to an area less likely to get dusty, then politely asked what we were doing stopping there in the middle of the day. It turned out he was the Burgermeister, and I explained about our ancestor having been from Oberschlettenbach, which led into a very enjoyable conversation before he returned to the work he was doing and we headed off on a stroll. The old well at the center of the village has a humorous inscription about walking around it three times for a long life, and as my “uncle” had me do on my first visit I had my nieces follow the advice and circle it the requisite number of times.
Having had a chance to see and get an appreciation for one of the places we had a genetic tie to, we said our farewells and headed on to the somewhat restored castle of Berwartstein, which was once the seat of local power for the area. The geology of the area is primarily sandstone and consists of deep valleys separated by ridges, and during the medieval period the valleys were popular transit ways for both commerce and military activities – leading to a very large number of fortified positions being built on any high ground with a view. Most of these started as basic positions on ridge tops and hollowed out of the rock, and over time the better positions began to develop as combinations of built and natural structures. The Berwartstein is a privately owned example which was reconstructed in a somewhat romanticized manner, but despite the occasional lack of historic authenticity the guided tour through it provides a good introduction to elements typical of castles in the area as well as some understanding of the political dynamics in play at the time it was created.
Next on the tour was a trip across the border into France to visit the remains of Fleckenstein, which is my absolute favorite castle ruin. As we approached the border my nieces asked me to stop so they could take some pictures, and it was fun to watch them commemorate crossing what is currently, and hopefully remains, essentially a line on a map with no significance to those who pass over it on a daily basis… particularly in contrast to the one we had observed outside of Coburg.
Fleckenstein is to me the epitome of a tragically romantic ruined castle. Having been carved out of the rock for the most part, it has a very interesting feeling of almost being natural in the setting. it’s built around a narrow ridge of sandstone commanding the valleys around it, and when it was destroyed and left in ruins it was only the later sections of the complex that had been built above and around the ridge that were damaged. All of it’s military and political significance and history aside, what always fascinates me about Fleckenstein is the one remaining section of the wall of a tower. In it is a rather decorative window complete with seats built into the wall, and it’s easy to see where the floor was below it. It is a setting incredibly adaptive to whatever story you might wish to assign to it.
It had been a few years since i had last been there, and my most recent approach had been on foot during a hike, so I was somewhat surprised to see signs for the turnoff and parking. When we had parked and walked up what was left of the hill, I understood why. Where my memory had a small clearing with a couple of picnic tables overlooked by the ruins, I now found a museum / cafe / visitor center established and a fence around what had previously been freely accessible. I don’t exactly disagree with having relatively fragile historic sites being looked after, but it was a shock to my system to see a place that had been free and open suddenly fenced in and surrounded by “developed” infrastructure. What was most annoying, however, was an attempt that had been made (I’m guessing) to keep children interested by creating a fictional character and having interpretative signs based on that character scattered around the ruins. All together though it is still my favorite ruined castle and I’m glad I was able to introduce my nieces to it.
When I had lived in Karlsruhe I had a public transportation pass that went all the way to Weissembourg, a small French city right on the German border. and since at that time German stores still closed early on Saturday and were not open at all on Sundays, there were several Saturday afternoons when I missed the German grocery stores opening times and journeyed to Weissembourg instead. Quite conveniently they had a nice grocery store a few steps away from the station, and a short walk past it led into the picturesque old city where I would usually make time for a Flammkuchen (aka Tarte Flambé) from one of the several places offering them. I have had Flammkuchen in many different places, but my benchmark for quality and authenticity is Weissembourg…. so it seemed a shame not to introduce my nieces to that also.
Accordingly, after leaving Fleckenstein we drove along twisty backroads through forests, fields, and villages enroute to Weissembourg. Once there, our first attention was to our somewhat neglected stomachs with a stop in Patisserie Rebert, a veritable temple to the arts of chocolate and refined sweets. Armed with a box of eclairs from there and a baguette we picked up at a nearby baker (the purchase of both I left to my French speaking nieces), we followed the Lauter to a suitable park bench and restored our energy before continuing our exploration of the city, including what remained of the wall as well as the monastery.
Once we had explored sufficiently long for the restaurants to re-open after their afternoon pause we followed our senses to a location serving Flammkuchen, and I think my nieces were well introduced to the nuances of Flammkuchen.
We then headed back to Wachenheim with the intent of calling it a day, but after an evening tea we decided that we might just as well end the day of castle ruins with a stop at the Wachtenburg, the ruins overlooking Wachenheim. Although night was falling it was well lit, and on the way we passed a sign indicating that the seasonal bar was open so we went ahead on the assumption that there would be other people around. After reaching it, however, we found the bar closed and no one else around. We were still able to enjoy the view across the Rhein plain, though the floodlights lighting up the walls made it difficult to see more than the brightest lights below.
On the way back down we noticed that Cafe Schellack was open, so we stopped in for a glass of wine and some snacks. As we were waiting it seemed odd given the hour on a weeknight that they started preparing a large table next to us, but a few minutes later about 20 people came in. After a few minutes one of them started singing, and the others picked up. It turned out that it was a birthday celebration for one of the members of the local singing club, and was as good a way as any to end the evening.