Tuesday, September 23, 2008

There Went the Sun!

Listening to BBC early yesterday morning, I was jerked awake quite rudely when I heard the announcer talking about the sun crossing the equator, thus officially beginning autumn. Autumn? Where did summer go? Were those three or four sunny days several weeks ago our summer? And there is still so much that I wanted to write about for the blog—about the midsummer’s eve celebrations with the fires that glow along the mountain ridges, about the beer fests, about the flowers gathered from the fields to celebrate Assumption Day in August. On the other hand, that just leaves me with some ready-made topics for next year.

At any rate, our weather turned fallish before the official astronomical event occurred—all last week clouds hovered overhead and the temperatures followed the pattern set by stock markets—they fell. The change (in temperature) was dramatic enough to warrant pulling out heavy sweaters and long-sleeved clothes. Leaves have taken on a yellowish tinge, the color of the geraniums spilling out of window boxes is a bit less brilliant, and we had a heavy frost mid week.

Two friends, Cheryl and Susan, and I decided a short trip in search of the sun was in order. We tossed our overnight bags into the car and headed south early Friday afternoon. The road from Partenkirchen leads past the new Olympic-sized ski jump at the edge of town, then through exquisite Alpine scenery and lush green meadows dotted with sheep and cows. Finally, as the road clings to the edge of a mountain, spectacular views of the valley of the Inn River spread out far below and the road begins a descent into Innsbruck. Passing another Olympic ski jump outside of Innsbruck, we follow those seductive signs to Brenner Pass, the gateway to Italy. About 90 minutes after leaving home, we were in Italy, following the Autostrada past castles and fortresses, the toll booths of the Middle Ages.

After a short stop to fill up on cappuccino, we were back in the car, passing Bolzano, home of the museum where the Ice Man sleeps in an ice-encrusted, glass-walled room. Mountainsides filled with terraced vineyards sped by the car windows. Finally we left the Autostrada and turned onto a road heading west toward Lake Garda. About four hours after leaving Partenkirchen, we emerged from the mountains into the lakeside town of Malcesine, our destination. We quickly found our hotel and walked back to town, down a rock-paved path.

The wind kicked up white caps on the lake and windsurfers, sails billowing in the breeze, whipped across the lake’s surface, providing a stark contrast to the castle with its 14th Century fortifications built at the lake’s edge. Walking through town, we noticed several buildings named after Goethe, one of Germany’s —no, the world’s—greatest writers, poets, and natural historians. He had passed through Malcesine on his “Italian Journey” (1786-1788) and had managed to raise the suspicions of the local ruling family, who thought he was a spy when he was discovered drawing pictures of the castle.

We found a small restaurant and ate dinner on the patio at the edge of the lake with the silhouette of the castle in the background. The meal was simple but satisfying—pizzas for Cheryl and Susan and a plate of pasta with a sauce based on fish from the lake for me and huge salads of fresh greens for all of us. Oh, and wine, too, of course—local wine, probably from a vineyard we had passed on our way south.

The next morning, I found my way to the hotel’s breakfast room and had already made considerable progress on my first cappuccino of the day. Thus fortified, I walked over to the buffet table and found a plate full of small, green figs. I put one on my plate, along with cheeses and fresh bread, and had just bitten into the fig when Cheryl and Susan appeared. The juicy sweetness exploded on my tongue and perked up every taste bud I had. They, too, came back to the table with figs to savor along with the more usual foods of breakfast. And no wonder the figs were so good: the hotel owner had picked them from his yard the previous evening and the delicate fruit had traveled only a few feet to the table.

We spent most of the morning walking around the small market in the center of town. Cheerfully colored table cloths, purses and belts, and tables full of pottery competed for shoppers’ attention. That, of course, built up an appetite, a problem easily addressed at one of the cafés nearby.

On our walk through town the previous evening we had noticed people sitting in cafes drinking from tulip-shaped glasses filled with a liquid the color of a sunset on a summer day. It was time to order our own and try this stunning-looking aperitif. We found a quiet corner in an outdoor café and in no time had our own glasses sitting in front of us. A toast, then a taste, and we knew we had a new favorite in this Aperol spritz.

Although Aperol was first made in 1919 in Padua, it is now produced by Campari. The recipe, which remains secret, most likely includes rhubarb, orange and cinchona, the tropical plant from which quinine is derived. Not only could we enjoy this pre-lunch drink, we could feel positively virtuous because we were building up our resistance to malaria! Plates of bruschetta rounded out this very satisfying lunch. Best of all, we had discovered a way to capture some of the golden sun and bring some sunshine back to our Alpine town.

Aperol Spritzers

2 parts Aperol
2 parts sparkling wine (Prosecco, Sekt, etc.)
1 part soda or seltzer water
ice cubes
slice of orange

Combine all ingredients in a tulip-shaped glass and serve.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Oman in Garmisch

20 June

On my way to the grocery store to buy milk for the weekend, I noticed a sign announcing a concert for this evening by a military band from Oman. A musical program in the park is not unusual—on almost every evening during the summer, some sort of concert is scheduled there: perhaps it’s the local brass band performing Bavarian music or an orchestra playing light classical melodies or Big Band music. But a band from Oman is definitely not usual and a concert, with an orchestra playing in the band shell framed with blossoms on a pleasant summer evening seemed like a perfect way to spend a few hours.

The park, in the center of Garmisch, is a local treasure, a place to relax and recoup one's spirit. Throughout the park, carefully laid-out flower beds always seem to be in full bloom and vistas of manicured green lawns are groomed to perfection. Plenty of comfortable benches and Adirondack chairs under lindens or chestnut trees provide a place to settle in for the afternoon with a book. Small fountains spout water and create gentle gurgling sounds reminiscent of mountain streams; a labyrinth offers meditative opportunities; and a barefoot path lures visitors to shed shoes and walk over pine cones, small pebbles, grass and mud. Nearby, a Kneipp foot bath leading through the ice cold mill stream helps remove the mud accumulated on the barefoot path and stimulate feet until they tingle pleasantly.

As I walked toward Richard-Strauss-Platz and the entrance to the Kurpark, the nasal whine of bagpipes (Dudelsacken--pronounced ‘doodle-zahken’ auf Deutsch) sounded through streets much more accustomed to the oom-pah-pah of brass bands. Who knew the Omanis played Scottish bagpipes? (Well, I suppose it is called O'Man, but that's would be Irish, not Scottish, wouldn't it?) As I found out later, Oman had been heavily influenced by Britain because of its strategic location on trade routes to Asia, although the country had never succumbed to colonialization.

Ten band members stood in formation around the fountain, sounding—and almost looking—like they just came in from Scotland. Like their Scottish counterparts, they wore plaid kilts, but one man was draped in a leopard skin, an animal which I am sure hadn’t seen the glens or lochs of Scotland.

I followed the bagpipers into the Kurpark and was immediately swallowed by a huge, milling crowd. Usually I trot in at the last minute, find a table at the outdoor café, and order a Milchkaffee (café au lait), and happily settle in for the durationbut not tonight. The park was jammed. All the seats in the café were occupied and the benches near the stage were packed with people. I milled around in the crowd and discovered information tables supplied with stacks of books, DVDs, and glossy pamphlets on Oman.

And food alert!! A selection of desserts was being passed out to the concert goers: small bowls of a sweet, marmalade-like dessert with walnuts and a spice, perhaps saffron, accompanied by little spoons, and two kinds of baked sweets, one very sweet and crumbly, and the other with a moister, custard-like texture. During the entire performance, local girls dressed in Dirndls walked through the crowds with trays, offering generous portions of the sweets to everyone in the park.

I eventually found a seat, which was a stroke of luck because the concert lasted an hour and a half. Three bands, all from Oman, performed. Almost all of the music was Western, and a good portion of it was American. And as always happens here, when the opening notes of “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade” were played, the audience murmured its appreciation and approval. It was quite remarkable to sit in a Kurpark in Germany listening to a band from Oman, its members dressed in kilts and playing Glenn Miller’s music, music banned as "degenerate" here during the 1940s.

What occasioned all this effort? It turns out that the sultan of Oman is vacationing at his villa in Garmisch. Well, he certainly announced his presence and made himself very welcome! It was a super PR job, and a very generous gesture. What an amazing world we live in!