Travel writers are a competitive lot, and there’s a game we often play at parties. After bragging about our latest exploits (‘Of course it wasn’t as special as Bhutan’), and trying not to appear envious of a fellow scribbler’s bigger advance, we vie -- rather perversely -- to invent BORING titles for imaginary travel articles. Something that will not simply fail to grab a reader’s attention but may actually send him or her straight to sleep. The all-time favourite for American writers is Canada: Friendly Giant to the North. I’m a proud Canadian, the author of one book and dozens of articles on the Great White North, but not even I would bother to read beyond that first line. Other yawn-inducing titles that spring to mind include Swimming to Scunthorpe, Luxembourg’s Big Little Secret and Wales: Not Just Leeks. Travel writers who rehash clichés like these will soon be embarking on a new career in, say, dentistry or rabbit breeding.
As hackneyed as they may be, clichés are usually true. Canada IS a friendly giant. There IS more to Wales than leeks. And, guess what, Germany IS a land of surprises.
To myopic commentators, Germany means only beer, sausages, the fairy-tale Schloss Neuschwanstein and speed-limit-free autobahns. Some deluded souls see it as a place locked in the past, peopled for the most part by neo-Nazis, demonic bureaucrats and busty Bavarian waitresses carrying litre steins of Paulaner. The distinctive character of the country does lend itself to cliché but, as in all mature societies, unexpected variety lurks below the surface. For example, last week in Heidelberg I fell asleep in the oldest student duelling house in Germany, and woke up to find myself at the crossroads of a new Europe.
The story begins in Naples in 1945. A young Italian family, struggling to survive after the war, turned itself into a orchestra. The eight brothers and sisters learnt different instruments and performed at American officers’ clubs across southern Italy. Some of the girls married soldiers but the prettiest of them -- Anna – followed her father to bomb-devastated Mannheim. Together they opened the ravaged city’s first ice cream parlour. Anna married the boy-next-door and in time they moved to Heidelberg to manage the Hirschgasse, a noble hostelry which had been hosting student duels for centuries. In 1878 Mark Twain had stayed in the house, witnessing some of the 1,000 duels that took place every semester. ‘The two apparitions sprang forward and began to reign blows down upon each other with such lightening rapidity that I could not quite tell whether I saw swords or only the flashes they made in the air,’ he wrote in A Tramp Abroad. ‘I saw a handful of hair skip into the air as if it had lain loose on the victim’s head and a breath f wind had puffed it suddenly away.’
Italian Anna was among the few women ever to be allowed into the room, pulling pints for the battling, bloodied students.
In 1972 Anna and her husband bought the Hirschgasse. Last week, at the table where Twain once sat, into which Bismarck had carved his name, their son Ernest Kraft – dignified, relaxed, with a handsome head of silver hair -- told me the story of the Hirschgasse (founded in 1472) and how his apprenticeship in England helped to transform it into one of the most welcoming historic hotels in this corner of Germany.
‘In London I was offered jobs at Claridges and the Ritz but my father advised me to go to a hotel where there was a better chance of promotion.’ He chose the Kensington Palace, working his way up through the ranks and falling in love with his boss.
‘What did you bring back to Heidelberg?’ I asked him.
‘Apart from Allison?’ he laughed, gesturing towards his elegant wife (and former boss). ‘I brought back a kind of passport; a more international view. I felt as if I had stepped up on a ladder and could see over the fence.’
Before meeting Ernest, Allison Kraft had never imagined leaving England. But she followed her heart and him to Heidelberg in 1983. Together they raised four children near to the spot where Turner had pitched his easel. Her German became so fluent that guests imagined her to be from Holland or Scandinavia. How did she feel after more than twenty years in the country, I asked her?
‘I feel European,’ she told me. ‘Our children are part Italian, part German, part English. Heidelberg is my home. Now I want other people from Britain to discover what a wonderful city it is.’
Later Ernest’s mother – the vivacious, violin-playing, pint-pulling Anna -- joined us for dinner in their fine wood-panelled Mensurstube restaurant. Swords, fraternity caps and silhouette portraits of duellers hung around the table. In old engravings proud students displayed their hard-won ‘schmiss’ scars. As we talked about American tourists (21st century) and Russian invaders (18th century), we dined on delicious marinated deer with red cabbage, apple and potato dumplings. Mrs. Cat especially loved the smoked salmon and horseradish starter. Our son Maus couldn’t get enough of the chocolate cake baked in a glass.
Heidelberg is Germany’s most romantic city. Here in this time-honoured, luxurious hotel, I was surprised (and delighted) to find a truly European family, drinking Tetley tea for breakfast, preparing homemade pasta pesto for lunch, sharing their passions for the Tour de France and Soho’s Chinese restaurants, while preserving noble local traditions with German attentiveness, English sensitivity and Italian enthusiasm.