Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dream Trips - Munich : Kelheim : Bamberg:

Franconia is an utterly charming corner of central Europe, tucked between Bavaria and Bohemia in the southeast quadrant of Germany, this part of the world includes great towns like Bamberg - a World Heritage site - as well as Regensburg and Passau. What makes it notable, to the beer aficionado, is the relative density of small, family-owned breweries. In a Germany which has witnessed the demise of literally thousands of breweries over the last two decades, Franconia is a throwback to an earlier time when each town and village boasted at least one local brewery.

The downward spiral of the US dollar has made foreign travel almost insanely expensive, but not yet impossible! With a stash of frequent flyer miles, a willingness to lodge in smaller, non-chain hotels and frequent use of mass transit, it is still possible to enjoy Europe without taking out a second mortgage.

What follows is a tested itinerary designed for a 'mixed' traveling party (mixed here designates the inclusion of both beer people and lesser mortals), which seeks to provide roughly equal portions of European culture, significant architecture and tasty brews to slake the thirst of your inner beer geek.

Three cities are targeted: Munich, Kelheim and Bamberg. All are great beer towns and both Munich and Bamberg provide ample museums, cathedrals and castles to satisfy even the most avid reader of the DK travel book series. Munich is the hub and its airport located to the north of the city can be accessed, for the return trip, in a few autobahn hours from Kelheim. With this basic geography in mind, then an eight day travel schedule might break down as three days in Munich, three days in Bamberg and two days in Kelheim. If you have more time to spend, I'd suggest adding a couple of days to the Munich portion of the schedule.

Figure out your ground transportation strategy beforehand. A car is not necessary for travel within these three cities. Kelheim and Bamberg are best navigated by foot. Munich has an excellent commuter rail and subway system. Travel between cities can also be accomplished by rail (and bus). The alternative is to pick-up a car when departing Munich and drop it back off when returning to the airport for departure. Googling the city of Munich and the the German Rail Service as well as car rentals like AutoEurope will provide an answer which best suits your needs and pocket book. In fact all of the place names herein have been tested with Google and details can be found with a quick search.

A lodging strategy is equally important. A successful approach we have employed is to stay at centrally located, family-run hotels that - whenever possible - are associated with a brewery. In Munich, the Blauer Bock , is an ideal combination of location, value and comfort. It is located just beyond the Marienplatz and is in walking distance of everything worth seeing in the central part of the city. Don't forget the complimentary breakfast, it is a standard offering for hotels in southern Germany and a great way to start the day.

For the beer connoisseur, must see sites in Munich include all of the major brewery beer halls, including Augistiner Bräuhaus, Lowenbrau Keller, Weisses Bräuhaus (Schneider), Paulaner Bräuhaus, Spaten Hof, Ayinger Speis und Trunk and of course the Hofbräuhaus. The first time visitor is often overwhelmed by the size, noise level and crowding in these establishments. It is best not to enter hungry, tired and and anxious for a beer. With a bit of planning, you can work these beer halls into your overall site seeing plan. Try to get inside a bit early and be open to sharing a table with other guests.

If you are looking for a great beer hall likely not to be crowded and offering a pervasive sense of calm, the Altes Hackerhaus is a strong recommendation. Located just doors from the Asamkirche (the Asam or St. Johann-Nepomuk church), this beer hall has a back room which serves as something of an indoor beer garden and is totally isolated from the hustle and bustle of Munich street life. If you choose to "hit" the Marineplatz in the morning, you can then make a short walk down to the Asam church - a true gem of Bavarian baroque architecture - and then relax over a long lunch at the Altes Hackerhaus.

North to Bamberg - my vote as the most beautiful city in Germany. Lodging in Bamberg can be found in several of the cities eight breweries. Why so many breweries in such a small town? You've left Bavaria and now are squarely in Franconia! Bamberg, besides being a World Heritage site, is also known as 'Bierstadt' or beer city. A solid lodging recommendation is Brauerei Fässla which offers a complimentary breakfast, has great beers as well as clean and tidy rooms. The brewery dates from 1649 and the current building is several hundred years old. Remember that when you are lugging your suitcases up steep winding stairs to your room and be sure to reward yourself with a brewery fresh beer when you come back down!

Rauchbier is the hallmark of the local beer craft. 'Rauch' is the German word for 'smoke' and this beer is made by smoking the malt as part of the brewing process and is applied to both lagers and wheat beers. The smoke houses used for making Rauchbiers must be the same as for sausage as the beer is imparted with a smoked ham flavor. My favorite is a Rauchweiss , or smoked wheat beer, as it combines the lightness of a good wheat with the heavier tones coming from the smoking process. A Rauchbier, or rauch beer, is great with meals, especially with a Haxen which is a roasted pork shoulder that is to die for!

The Bamberg breweries should not be missed and, for the most part, are conveniently, located as to be included in a walking tour of the city. Be prepared to take a lot of pictures of this town. The tour books can fill you in, but you have to see it to truly appreciate it. One suggestion is to utilize the early mornings or late evenings, when the tour buses are gone, to focus on 'shooting' the town. You'll compete with a lot fewer tourists and the light is often better during these times of the day.

All that walking and shutter snapping tends to build a thirst, let's get down to the essentials. Here's a quick overview of the breweries I have visited. There is more detailed information on the net, I would strongly suggest The Online Beer Guide to Franconia and Bamberg. Before diving into a review of these establishments, a quick level set is probably in order, the quality of these beers is simply at a different level, you'll understand that when you taste them, but between now and then, you'll have to excuse what may seem to be hyperbole or excessive rhetoric, there simply are not the proper words to describe how mind-boggling good these beers truly are:
> Maisel - try their tap room at Bamberger Weissbierhaus, fantastic beers;
> Greifenklau - invest in a hike up the hill to this small brewery, its well worth it and you'll be rewarded by great beers and an easy downhill return trip;
> Spezial - my favorite source of Rauch beer in Bamberg (which means any place);
> Mahrs - my vote for co-winner of the best beer in Bamberg;
> Keesmann - my other vote for co-winner of the best beer in Bamberg;
> Braerei Heller - home of Schlenkerla the most famous of Bamberg's rauch beers;
> Klosterbräu Bamberg - a veritable time machine, a beer in their ancient stone courtyard transports one several centuries backward into the time of legends.

A couple of final days in Kelheim can be a great way to wind down a tour of Franconia. Located on the Main-Danube canal junction, Kelheim is either a large village or a very small town. Either way, it has as couple of great things going for it. One is that it is the home of the Georg Schneider brewery which makes truly outstanding line of wheat beers. The second is that Kelheim offers easy access, via Danube river boat, to the Weltenberg brewery-monastery. The concept of a brewery-monastery has always fascinated me, what a great idea, why doesn't the Catholic church utilize this concept in other parts of the world (besides southern Germany and Belgium)? Talk about a recruiting tool..."son we ask you to give up all worldly possessions and to lead a life of celibacy and, oh by the way, did I mention that you get to help make and drink some of the best beer in the world as well." Padre - sign me up!

Lodging may be found in Kelheim's other brewery (unfortunately a third brewery closed in the middle 90's). The Hotel Aukofer Brau sits firmly in the center of the value, cleanliness, great breakfast triad that I seek in every hotel in this part of the world. The town is easy to navigate due to its size. Of note, the foot bridge over the Main-Donau Kanal is interesting only if to admire the thoughtful planning and engineering that went into the canal's construction. For all intents and purposes it looks like a naturally formed river. This waterway enables traffic to transverse Europe from Holland on the Atlantic coast to the Caspian sea, entirely on rivers and canals. As you are standing there you are likely to witness one or more river freighters ply the waters beneath you.

I will admit, but not recommend, that it is possible to do Kelheim in a single day. One may take the ferry boat from the Danube wharf up to the Weltenberg monastery at mid-morning and return in the early afternoon. The evening could then be reserved for a dinner at the Schneiderbräu beer garden. And I would suggest that you have your hotel manager make those reservations for you.

However, these are two landmark eating and drinking events and my suggestion is to devote a single day to each one. If memory serves the ferry trip from Kelheim to Weltenberg lasts less than an hour each way. The times are marked at the ticket booth and getting there a bit early will ensure booking passage. The monastery facility includes another gem of a Bavarian baroque church as well as hiking trails. But the reason people go there is the beer garden and the beer. Hike the trails, climb the hills and then sit down for an extended, sumptuous lunch, under the canopy of immense linden trees, with great food and better beer. And don't forget the desserts!

The Scheiderbräu beer garden is the other must-do eating and drinking event. Reserve a couple of hours for it as both the food and beer are of an excellent quality. The surroundings are especially pleasant, it is an older beer garden with mature trees and is located next to a small stream. The ambiance, especially on a bright, clear day is punctuated by the pleasant sounds of flowing water and the bird life which abounds in the canopy overhead. I'll repeat my previous advice to book a reservation through your hotel staff. This is a German custom that may seem an annoyance to Americans but is a great habit to get into - especially for dinners - if you know where you want to eat. The Haxen here is especially good, you'll have the rest of your lifetime to work off this meal - go for it!

the Beer Kaiser


Jason said...

Sign me up....I could go for Schneider-Weisse and a Haxen right now!

Mark Andersen said...

Upper Franconia is brilliant. Bamberg is my absolute favorite place to drink beer in the world. Luckily I'll be back there in two weeks after a visit to Andechs (another monestary brewery in Bavaria) and a couple of days in Munich for the first time.

And you're right, despite the bad exchange rate, these places are still affordable and in my opinion much greater value than some resort in the Carribean. But then again I'd much rather sit in the Schlenkerla tavern having a Rauchbier than under a palm tree having a pina colada. To each his own.