Winter postcards from Black Forest.

Life in Stuttgart can be a little, there is no other way to put it, boring. The city is uptight and businesslike and living here can feel a little like living with a British cousin only without the wry sense of humor or the adorable nasal accent (whom you never saw eye to eye in the first place!) It’s Europe’s economic zone (think Bangalore’s E-city but way modern and less traffic) and is filled with automobile industries of all kinds and banks. So, industrial.

Morning dawns in Baiersbronn.
Morning dawns in Baiersbronn.
The train tracks are snowed in!
The train tracks are snowed in!

But and this is a big BUT. Hop in the Deutsche Bahn and travel an hour south west and you arrive at the most breathtaking forest ranges in all of Europe – Black Forest. Yes, that’s where the namesake multilayered dark dessert comes from (although the Black Forest cake you find in the region or anywhere in Germany, has cherry brandy and real sour cherries and hence tasted nothing like it tasted anywhere I had before). It is also the Black Forest of the cuckoo clock.

A restaurant inside the forest area.
A restaurant inside the forest area.
Far in the background, you can see the skiing track.
Far in the background, you can see the skiing track.

Just as Christmas touches down, a carpet of snow descends on the entire Black Forest area and envelopes the tiny villages and towns in its embrace. Just this weekend, gleeful of this secret we decided to set on a little weekend trip to the beloved Schwarzwald – Black Forest. We picked a tiny town called Baiersbronn on the Murg river, in the middle of the region and during research stumbled upon another very interesting, wallet unfriendly piece of info – that the town has 8 Michelin stars to its credit.

In which I thought I was the focus but I wasn't!
In which I thought I was the focus but I wasn’t!
Murg - the river - is all frozen in parts!
Murg – the river – is all frozen in parts!

If I had read fairy tales while growing up, the image I would have conjured up when I saw Baisbronn enveloped in a heavy carpet of snow would have been that of Snow white’s queen mother sewing and injuring herself with a pinprick and asking for a wish for a girl who had “skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony.”

From a view point, Baiersbron through the trees.
From a view point, Baiersbron through the trees.
The tall pine trees, pregnant with snow.
The tall pine trees, pregnant with snow.

But no such luck, I grew up on a steady diet of reality and unadulterated pessimism about the dangers lurking in the world and hence all I could think was the wood chipper scene from Fargo. Or strangely, the eerie visuals from The Human Stain, of Nicole Kidman driving on a winter day and her even eerier conversation with the crow. Suffice to say, there are many crows fluttering about in Baiersbronn. And Eurasian Jays and other birds.

The wood chipper, I told you about? I never saw but hey it exists here! Proof.
The wood chipper, I told you about? I never saw but hey it exists here! Proof.
The gorgeous hiking paths carpeted with snow.
The gorgeous hiking paths carpeted with snow.

But none of these thoughts were overbearing enough to deter us from walking along these gorgeous pine laden forests, pregnant with snow as you can see from these images. Except snow dust inside our shoes, may be. But when your walk gets tiring and shoes get filled with snow, you can always settle in for a hot mug of cocoa (Zartbitter, as they say in German for mild-dark chocolate) at the nearest cafe you stumble upon.

Trees are twigs in winter.
Trees are twigs in winter.

Though I only saw a bit of it, Baiersbronn served as a breathtaking primer for the Black Forest region and I’ve no doubt that the other towns of Black Forest is enticing enough. I can’t wait to go back! Soon.

Baiersbronn from above.
Baiersbronn from above.

May be in the next trip, we will she some guilt about the cost and try a meal at one these Michelin star restaurants! Ah well, who am I kidding? May be we won’t (after all, the middle class South Indian guilt on splurging – on a meal, no less – is so incredibly hard to get rid of, you see).

img_6255
See, eerie, I told you?

Have you been to Schwarzwald / Black Forest? Leave a comment and let me know. Also, here’s wishing you all a super fabulous new year 2017!

Notes from Berlin.

I am in Germany for three months on a fellowship. I didn’t expect it to happen but it did. I applied, was shortlisted, interviewed and was waitlisted. Then I was given the go-ahead. That meant, I got to spend three months in Germany and write about the country. A month had already flown by and I am now interning at the German Press Agency in Berlin (dpa).

Berlin's iconic brandenburg gate and a tour guide offering walking tours.
Berlin’s iconic brandenburg gate and a tour guide offering walking tours.

This also explains my two-month absence from blogging. My last month has been filled with lectures and meetings and visits to newspaper offices in Germany, I barely had time to Instagram. But that might be a lie; as and when possible I instagrammed like crazy. It feels like I arrived early this morning but my first week in Berlin went quicker than the time it takes me to chomp down a slice of German volkorn bread.

The Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin's square has its concert hall and churches.
The Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin’s square has its concert hall and churches.

No matter the city, a homebody loves home wherever he is. Berlin is no exception. While the historic yet hipster city breathes heavily under clear skies and strolls with its gentle human commotion, sometimes I seek solace in the confines of my empty flat. It overlooks Checkpoint Charlie – the erstwhile checkpoint between East and West Germany. I could see the outpost if I pressed my cheeks really close on the glass windows of my airbnb room.

Tier garten, Berlin the erstwhile hunting ground of Prussian kings.
Tier garten, Berlin the erstwhile hunting ground of Prussian kings.

I could see the men in fake green military uniform, dressed up so to attract tourists who take pictures with them for a Euro. The wall museum outside it is brimming. But I stay in. I do a quick shopping trip and make myself a comforting meal of rice and vegetables an settle down with House of Cards. The light refuses to die down at least until 9.00 pm and the sky takes the colour of a brooding blue, watching over the huge buildings outside my window.

Berlin's turmeric yellow U-bahn.
Berlin’s turmeric yellow U-bahn.

Berlin is different. Berlin is cool. Berlin coexists. There are organic supermarkets next to Turkish donors. Women in headscarves are as common as tattooed men in fluorescent blue hair and multiple piercings. There are wall murals depicting virgin Mary and Jesus, except that Mary is a bear. Or a dog. Its U-bahn trains are turmeric yellow with white signage of the Brandenburger Tor littered all over their body.

The famous 'My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love' mural on the Berlin wall.
The famous ‘My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love’ mural on the Berlin wall.
Part of the Berlin wall in East Side Gallery and the Soviet Era Trabi cars.
Part of the Berlin wall in East Side Gallery and the Soviet Era Trabi cars.
A provocative mural on the TAZ newspaper building in Berlin.
A provocative mural on the TAZ newspaper building in Berlin.

Everyone has a story to tell and each story deserves to be heard over a sparkling glass of Hefeweizen. Its street musicians wear donkey masks and stand naked, their pants rolled down their calves in terrible cold and strum their guitars, belting out pitch perfect songs of their own production.

Berlin parliament, Bundestag, at sundown.
Berlin parliament, Bundestag, at sundown.
Brandenburg gate on an evening.
Brandenburg gate on an evening.

May be tomorrow I will go out and hunt for stories. Perhaps, I will also see the same stranger I saw in the train the other day, piss drunk and joyous and had a toothless smile and tried a conversation. We had no common language but we couldn’t stop smiling at each other and I surmised that his smile meant ‘welcome to Berlin.’

The river Spree runs through Berlin.
The river Spree runs through Berlin.

Walking the Christmas markets in Stuttgart, Germany

Europe is experiencing an unseasonably warm winter this year. The El Nino effect is heating up US and Europe and in Stuttgart, where I have arrived after a week in Poland, temperature is hovering around the 14C mark. A quick look at the weather for the week suggests only rains so no snow, typical of Christmas season, is in sight this year.

Which brings me to the next point. Christmas is in season and Europe is wearing its best to usher in the festival.  From the cobble stoned walkways of Krakow to the town center of Stuttgart, streets are decorated in glistening stars and fairy lights like shiny weeping willows falling from the branches of trees. Christmas is here, so to say.

The stars are bright.
The stars are bright.

The season has brought with it hordes of Christmas markets in each city square. These are congregation of stalls selling everything from mulled wine to homemade pizzas, coupled with performances for children and adults alike.

Some of them are themed, like the medieval Christmas market I visited in the suburbs of Stuttgart at the picturesque Esslingen by the river Neckar. On a sunny day, armed with Nishil ,his friends and my camera while braving the chill winds I went people watching, Flammkuchen binging and eating wafflen topped with pickled cherries.

The smell of cheese being grilled and onions being fried in butter wafted through the market while Falafel stalls jostled for space with Bratwurst shops. I saw hippy couples selling incense and matted haired home brewers hawking Limoncello (of which I bought a bottle and hoping to bring back to India without breakage).

Not everybody likes their pictures taken.
Not everybody likes their pictures taken.
Children at the medieval christmas market
Children at the medieval Christmas market.
Hot apple juice, anyone
Hot apple juice, anyone?

People layered up in less than winter clothing (it was only 14C, remember?) ambled along. The Christmas festive spirit was palpable.

The Rathausplatz, where the Christmas market was being held, is adjacent to the Protestant Parish Church Esslingen am Neckar built in 1213. Its beautiful stained glass windows show scenes from the Old and New Testament ranging from Birth and Work of Jesus, The Wise and Foolish Maidens Martyers, Passion of Jesus and Life of Mary.

I did not waste a moment to plunge into an eating frenzy whilst there. Flammkuchen became a favorite. Flammkuchen is German for pizza, sort of. It has a super thin crust, giving a complex for the regular pizza’s thin crust, and its toppings are simple. They are usually onions and olives. Sometimes, there is also bacon bits adding flavor to the dish.

I also found interesting signage like this one. It means; ‘What is cooked with love reaches your heart and not your midriff.’ (PS: I take no credit for the (average) translation as it is only a loose interpretation of what’s written here!)

A quirky quote

Are you merry this holiday season wherever in the world you are? Leave a comment and let me know. A merry Christmas to all of you lovely people.