Saturday, September 3, 2011

This Week: Esslingen, Germany

20€ Lunch

I walked out into the cool, but sunny morning with purpose and direction. I was on my own in Esslingen today as my husband had already left for his training seminar. This was not my first time alone in a foreign country, but it was my first time in a country whose main language was not English and that would pose some challenges. Undaunted, I made my way down the sidewalks of this German town.

The castle, or burg as it was called, was visible from just about any street in the village, including the window of our hotel room. Finding a way to the top was first on my agenda. I caught glimpses of the hilltop burg between buildings as I walked through the old town plaza, or Rathausplatz. Ducking through an alley, I ended up below the road that encircled the old village. Just as I wondered how I was going to get up there, some young French-speaking girls passed holding digital cameras. Guessing that they were also visitors, I followed them. They walked over to a bus stop that was next to a walkway going below the street. Aha! I followed the girls through the walkway and up the other side. At this point, the girls decided to take some photos and I continued my way up the street. The hillside started here and the road became unbelievably steep. The homes clung precariously to each side. These small, but sturdy structures were beautiful - tiny little garages with steep steps up to the front doors, windows with shutters that weren’t just decoration, all painted bright colors without being gaudy.

A drop of sweat ran down the side of my face as I realized I wasn’t sure where I was going. Then I noticed a path through some shrubbery. Curious, I walked through the bushes and came out into a park. In front of me was the back of the castle. How did I end up behind it? But I chose not to question how, only to be grateful to have found it as I walked through the tunnel in the castle wall.

The Esslingen Burg was not a tradition castle and it never housed nobility. It was actually a fortified wall the citizens built to protect themselves from attack from above. The smaller tower, or hochwacht, is from the 14th Century. The larger Dicker Turm (big tower) that loomed over the town was built in the 16th Century and housed large cannons. The cannons were now displayed in the upper courtyard. From the walls of the Burg, I could see the entire town, including tall smoke stacks in the hazy distance from the factories that surrounded the village.

I kept calling Esslingen a village, but it was actually a suburb of Stuttgart and held 93,000 residents. In the shade of the tiny shops and ancient churches of the old town, the fact that I was in one of Germany’s major industrial capitals (perhaps you’ve heard of Mercedes Benz, Porche or Balluff?) was lost on me. On top of the fortress walls, however, I could see all of Esslingen and into Stuttgart and it was definitely a robust city.

The perfectly coiffed Burg grounds were a vivid green from the bushes and grass on the ground to the trees around the edges and the vines climbing the fortress walls. A grounds crew prepped a series of large round planters for spring with colorful flowers. In a wooden building at the back of the fortress was a restaurant, although it was too early for it to be open. Outdoor tables and chairs sat in dewy anticipation of the day’s visitors. The Dicker Turm was the site of a pub with sweeping views of the city, but was also closed at this early hour. As I walked down from the top of the Burg, the French girls came in from below, laughing and taking photos of each other. I wondered how they came in from there.

Crossing the lawn, I walked up a flight of wooden steps to the front passageway of the fortress near where the girls had entered. I was now overlooking old town Esslingen. I could see the old plaza and many clock towers; I could even see our hotel. Directly below me were rows of grapevines, some of the oldest in the region. These vines produced the sweet red wine I had at dinner last night. A road cut through the vineyard and exited somewhere below, but I wouldn’t be leaving that way. I would take a more difficult return path…the steps. The passageway of the fortress turned into a long set of stairs leading back down to the street. They were steep and they were many and they were the perfect challenge for this mountain hiker. With each step the rooftops disappeared as I descended back into town. Openings cut into the fortress wall that once served as lookouts for approaching invaders now looked into private back yards. Approaching the bottom, I walked out of the stairway and into the street I had walked up earlier. What? I looked back at the stairway wondering how I could have missed it. There were two signs marking each side of the narrow entrance, but they weren’t much bigger than license plates. Oh well.

With my morning hike behind me, it was time for some lunch. I made my way back to the Rathausplatz. The plaza had several cafes, however, the one simply called Café am Rathaus had tables in the sunshine.

Still a little early for lunch, the café was quiet. I would now be able to test my one year of college German on the waitress, poor girl. We had spent the previous week in the metropolis of Stuttgart and one thing we learned was that in the big city, most everyone spoke English and restaurants had English menus. Not so in Esslingen. When the waitress approached I simply shrugged, “English?” She shook her head while handing me a German menu.

In the 20 years since I took that German class, one thing I can do is barely, barely read German. I often read the headlines of German newspapers in airport kiosks while traveling. I won’t be reading any German novels anytime soon, but something like a menu or a billboard, I can figure out. Speaking German is a whole other story. I could never get the articles right. Was it die, der or das? Formal or familiar? However, I was determined to make an effort to order in what little German I could muster. Now I had heard that iced tea was extremely difficult to get in Europe, but I was told the same thing about Australia and yet found iced tea most places I went. I found it in Stuttgart, so why not Esslingen? I practiced the question in my head, “Haben sie ‘ice tay’?” It was a simple question and the waitress already knew I was American so how bad could I mess it up? The waitress approached.

“Sie haben ‘iced tay’,” I said. She said yah and in German continued to tell me they had three different kinds of iced tea to choose from.

Not understanding the barrage of German thrown at me, I again shrugged, “English?” She laughed. She repeated in broken English they had three kinds of iced tea; green, peach (which sounded like ‘patch’ to me) and lemon. I chose peach. As she walked away I realized I made a critical mistake. I didn’t say my request in the form of a question. I said it as a statement. Haben sie – Have you – would have been proper, like I had practiced in my head. The waitress was probably thinking what a goofy American, if there is a German word for goofy.

I studied the menu carefully. I felt like a salad or sandwich, something light and simple. I scanned the ingredients listed by each numbered item. Item No. 8 had weissbrot – white bread - with salami, tomaten – tomatoes - and käse, which was cheese. I scanned the rest of the menu and saw hähnchen or chicken and there were about a dozen dishes of wurst, or sausage. I wasn’t interested since we would be having that for dinner.

The waitress returned with my iceless glass of peach tea. I pointed at the menu item and said, “Acht.” She nodded and walked away. Feeling more relaxed I pulled out my novel and picked up where I left off. I had barely gotten into the chapter before my meal arrived. How fantastic it looked! It was a toasted Kaiser roll with salami, tomato, avocado and melted white cheese. Before she left I asked the waitress for another glass of tea.

We had had so many great meals since arriving in southern Germany a few days earlier. We had a wonderful garlic weissewurst at Frühlingsfest; Swabian ravioli in an onion broth in downtown Stuttgart and we had steak here in Esslingen the night before. But what I had in front of me was completely different. It was colorful, lightly toasted and delicious! Knowing I didn’t have to be back at the hotel for several hours, I took my time.

As I ate, the glockenspiel above me on the Rathaus began to chime noon. The café tables quickly filled up. I went back to reading my book while taking occasional bites of lunch and sips of tea. The shadows of the table umbrellas moved across the stones.

Eventually two women sat a table in front of me chatting away. Very well dressed in high heels and skirts, their hands swayed over the table in elaborate gestures as they talked loudly in German. I wondered how they navigated the cobblestone streets in those shoes. Then my waitress brought the women two giant slices of cake. Now I had the urge to have dessert and with all the walking I did earlier, felt it was justified. I caught my waitress and asked her what the women were having. All she could manage was cake. Her limited English vocabulary couldn’t tell me the flavors. She instead tugged my arm and motioned me inside to look at the pastry display. I was immediately overwhelmed by the choices, with no idea what all they were. I tried to read the little placards, but knowing that my waitress was the only server for the outside tables, I needed to act fast. Some large strawberries caught my eye so I pointed at them and said, “That und Latte Macchiato…bitte?” She smiled and I went back outside.

In a matter of minutes, the waitress came back with a plate of strawberries blanketing a moist chocolate cake and a tall mug of steamed milk with some coffee in it. I was going all out on my day in Esslingen. By the time I finished dessert another hour of the afternoon had passed. Still reading my novel, the glockenspiel chimed three and I figured it was time to go. I asked the waitress for a check. She brought me a slip of notepaper in which she had handwritten my order:

1 tea = 1,50€
1 #8 = 7,50€
1 tea = 1,50€
1 latte = 3,50€
1 cake – 4,50€
Total = 18,50€

I gave her the 20€ bill I had in my camera bag and waved her off when she tried to hand me change.

“Danke,” she said and walked away. I may not be a math genius, but I did know this: 20€ was approximately converted to $30 US. Holy crap that was an expensive lunch! But there were a few things to keep in mind: Not my fault that Europe charges for drink refills; I took up a table for three and half hours; and most importantly, the food and service were fantastic. To me, it was money well spent.

Useful Links:

Esslingen, Germany

Previous food/travel blogs:

Sydney, Australia
Treasure Island, Florida