I’m standing in front of the Hotel Wolf in Oberammergau, trying to decide if it’s real. Foreigners who live in Bavaria find such decisions difficult
Flowers pour out from the window boxes like lava. The vibrant reds and pinks call to mind a Barbie Corvette or a Hello Kitty pencil case. The forest-green shutters appear functional—in these days of double glazing and central heat, one wonders why.
Birch trees which stand before it form a perfect cone, but not too perfect. Small breaks in their symmetry remind us nature is at work. The trees look so natural, so suited to their location, so charming, that a non- Bavarian can reach only one conclusion. They must be fake.
When the more avant-garde of my friends come from abroad to visit, they make it clear what they want from a local like me. They want to see the real Bavaria. Not the Bavaria of alpine kitsch and cutesy schmarm. Not phony tourist traps with a gingerbread facade, and schmuck hanging from every eave. Not the fake Bavaria, just put on for the tourists.
It pains me to disappoint them. Berlin may cultivate a seedy, South-Bronx persona, but the Freistaat has no such ambitions. Bavarians do live a very, very cute life.
Bavaria is just a little too German. If Germans love beer, then Bavarians love beer just that bit more; enough to drink it from impossibly large glass mugs, which English-speakers incorrectly call steins. They notice that locals use cuckoo clocks not for ornament, but actually to tell the time. A Bavarian businessman in Lederhosen meets an overseas colleague, who thinks they’re off to a fancy-dress party afterward. The backpacker sees cheesy pretzels in a shop window, and assumes it’s a little trick the baker picked up from McDonald’s.
It surprises those from abroad that the modern Bavarian—who may be a biotech researcher, a global insurance risk-assessor, a luxury automotive designer, a software engineer or a symphony cellist—wears a Jägerhutte, eats at an Ecktisch and sits on the waiting list for a Kleingarten.
English hasn’t borrowed many words from German in the last several decades, but one of them is kitsch—and Bavaria is largely responsible.
Could people actually live like that, we wonder? Could this be real? Bavaria smells phony.
Why? Because most cheesy, fairy-tale fakery in the modern world is modelled on the cheesy, fairy-tale reality of Bavaria. Southeastern Germany exports many things, and the most prominent is a mental picture of what cute should look like.
We can imagine a number of reasons.
Unbelievable Bavaria. Three reasons.
First, Bavaria is rich. (You, personally, may not feel rich. But it’s true.) For example, Bavarians are among the few people in the world who can, in large numbers, buy the cars Bavarians make.
Let’s be blunt: Rich people keep things nice. Cleanliness and order, in so much of the rest of the world, are highly un-natural states. Especially for Americans, who have, by and large, given up on effective investment in public works.
In a non-Bavarian’s mind, smooth country roads through verdant meadows, free of litter and billboards, always lead to hotel resorts or country clubs. That mere citizens can enjoy it—rather rather than guests, members, or customers—strikes us as odd.
No, more than that. It strikes us as suspicious.
Second, let’s blame some of your neighbours in Baden-Württemburg. The Faller model company of Gütenbach made many a model railway come alive for children across the planet. It did for me.
While they took care to reproduce buildings from all parts of Germany, it feels like Faller often looked over the fence to the Freistaat. If one has a keen eye, one can see Württemburgish cues in the little railway stations and warehouses. But to me, my model train village pops up everywhere around me, now that I live in Bavaria.
Onion-domed churches. Shops with flat-facades and stepped-eaves. White walls beneath dark birch cladding. Electric trollybuses—what an exotic way to get around!
Southern Germany, especially the region of Bavaria around Nuremberg, is a powerhouse for playthings. For many children around the world, the first image of Bavaria is through a toy. (By the way, it’s not for nothing that the major website serving English speakers in Germany, such as myself, is called ToyTown).
When such an adult sees Bavaria for the first time, his toy-fuelled instincts react. It must be pretend. Those people are just playing at life. Like the little figures, arranged perfectly, around my 130398 Winkelbungalow mit Balkon, all those years ago.
The third reason: well, some of the most prominent icons of Bavaria actually are fake. They were faked so long ago, though, that people forget.
Most visitors to Bavaria want to see the “real” building whose image has been seared into their brains as the archetypal mediaeval fortress. One in which fairy-tale characters frolicked, fought, or found love.
A story circulates about a Californian family visiting Neuschwanstein. Standing before the drawbridge, the mother declared “There it is! Sleeping Beauty’s palace!”
Her ten-year old son shook his head skeptically. “Does Disney know about this?” he asked.
And ask, he well might. This castle is no more mediaeval than Groucho Marx, Sigmund Freud or Charlie Chaplin.
But the Ludwig-fuelled building boom of the late 19th century meant that the Bavarian monarch could do exactly what Disney did some seventy years later. Imitate something so well, and so perfectly, that it becomes our idea of the original should have looked like, if only those knights and kings and whatnot knew better. .
Neuschwanstein feels so mediaeval, you expect a dragon to fly in and perch on a turret.
The Munich Town Hall is another example. It oozes Gothic camp from every crumb of its aging mortar. Gargoyles, serpents, witches, seraphs, demons and angels abound.
But since it was completed in 1901, it remains an affront to a city which was busy inventing art noveau, through Jugendstil. But if you didn’t come from Bavaria, you wouldn’t know it.
OK, is the Hotel Wolf for real? The question still un-nerves me.
I guess that all hotels put on some kind of theatre for tourists. But by Bavarian standards, the Wolf’s enormous botanical abundance isn’t over the top.
The windows at my local billiard hall in Munich look much the same. And while this pool parlour welcomes all visitors warmly, I suspect they cater to a Bavarian public who could see through any insincerity.
A safe bet. Very little in Bavaria actually is fake. It’s all real, but just too damned nice.
2 thoughts on “The Real Bavaria”
I’d like to visit some day, and see it for myself
I enjoyed your perspective in analyzing the various similarities of Bavarians and Texans. Now, when I try to explain the Bavarian charm to fellow Americans I can tell them to consider the Lone Star State as an example. “Yippie yo kay eh!”