Friday, August 10, 2007

To Be Frank

Having lived for a while in northern Germany before I would say I know a bit about the country, its history and its culture. In my eyes the southern state of Bavaria was one homogeneous whole populated by Bavarians. I was pretty quickly taught the error of my ways. The northern half of the state is called Franken (in English Franconia) and is populated by Franks who, up until Napoleon came barging through, had their own, independent kingdom and language of which they are extremely proud. And so Franks will politely, but firmly, point out your ignorance if you happen to refer to them as Bavarians, not least because Bavarians aren't particularly popular in Germany and so it's better for the Franks not to be associated with them (as a Scot I understand completely).

The unofficial capital of Franconia is Nuremberg. In the middle ages the city had a special status as the first imperial city of the Holy Roman Emperors, a reputation which was employed centuries later by Hitler to provide symbolic legitimacy to his Nazi party by making it the focal point of his Nazi cult. It was here that the monumental Reichsparteitag rallies (also known as the Nuremberg rallies), made famous by the films of Leni Riefenstahl where upwards of a million people would parade for the Nazi propaganda machine, were held. The gargantuan parade grounds were never really finished but have been preserved as a memorial to the dangers of hateful megalomania. And the Germans must certainly be commended on the care and effort they devote to ensuring that the horrors of Nazism are remembered so that they may never be repeated. Due to its strong Nazi ties the city, and especially the medieval old city centre, was systematically destroyed by Allied bombing. In one hour, in one day in 1945 90% of the city was reduced to rubble in a largely symbolic act (and one which I, personally, feel was somewhat excessive). During the reconstruction after the war the old centre was rebuilt along the original lines, but in a more modern, simple style, giving the centre a strange old-yet-new feel.

There are plenty of other things to see in Franconia, from sweet little towns to fairytale castles. Standard fare for central Europe I suppose. What is very particular to southern Germany, however, is the tradition of beerfests. The most famous of these is of course the Oktoberfest in Munich which, from what I have heard, has become a bit too commercial and touristified, however many towns in the region hold their own local beerfests (the area has the highest concentration of breweries in the world). And so a few days ago I hooked up with an unlikely band (two Germans, an American, a Mexican and a Latvian) to sample the joys of this most south German of festivals. And indeed many of the classic cliches, such as lederhosen, big barmaids carrying a half-dozen litre glasses of beer, sausages and bad music were all present. But it had a magical atmosphere, with seemingly the whole town packed under a huge tent lined wall to wall with benches and tables, and by the end of the evening the whole place was standing on the benches and merrily swaying (one could hardly call it dancing) to the music, which had, in the intervening hours and beers, become Grammy-winning material. The only downside was the monstrous hangover the next day when I spent a good deal of time getting better acquainted with the finer details of the toilet bowl.

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