The following cryptic conversation between my wife, Liz, and me took place around 9:30pm on a chilly Friday night a couple of Decembers ago in front of a seedy but vaguely familiar bar and restaurant whose sign read simply, “Heuriger.” We had just arrived in town and were trolling for restaurants in the streets near our hotel.
"Isn't this the neighborhood...?"
"I think so." She doesn't have to mention names or places, we both know what she's referring to.
"Isn't this the...???"
Fifteen years before, a search for Gypsy music had taken us to a Hungarian restaurant in this same sketchy Vienna neighborhood. As it turned out there was no music, we had been misinformed. But the night being warm, we headed back to the old town on foot. Music floated through the open door of a decrepit little bar on Rennweg. Venturing within, we found a clientèle one might charitably describe as "working class" (later in the evening a fight broke out). But at the Stammtisch, strapped to an accordion, a pudgy little man's sweet tenor voice filled this small cave of a restaurant. Grabbing a couple of seats, we ordered a beer and settled in for the duration as Walter Meda sang Wienermusik —Strauss, Lehar, Lanner, et al—the songs of old Vienna that, even if you don't know the words, may have you blinking away a tear or two; especially along about the second or third beer. (I became hooked on this music via a pair of weekend San Francisco radio shows hosted by the longtime Bay Area broadcast personality, Doug Pledger: Pledger Plays the Classics and Pledger at the Opera.)
After a while, we were invited to join Walter and the rest of the Stammtisch regulars. Nobody spoke English except one grizzled denizen of the streets who had been a prisoner of war in Georgia. Fried to a crisp on tumblers of white wine, the old guy's total repertoire consisted of eight or 10 American slang phrases from the '40s, which he used on us as conversation starters. Language, though, was unnecessary; everyone at the table understood we were all there for the music. Who knows what direction the evening might have taken had we been able to communicate beyond gestures and sing-alongs. But this way was pure, just Walter's songs, no chance to discuss politics or religion. Liz and I stood the table to a couple of rounds—my recollection is that the price of drinks was measured in pennies, not dollars—and stayed until closing. An extraordinary evening. We left with hugs and handshakes from the table and with the best intentions to return. But Walter only sang one day a week, and we never seemed to be in Vienna on that day. Over the year we wondered about the little beisl and especially about Walter Meda.
We now fast forward to that recent December evening when, by pure chance, we found ourselves in front of the place of our amazing night with Walter Meda. A chalkboard at the entry said, "Musik Donnerstag" (Music Thursday). Inside, the little Heuriger on Rennweg was shabbier, darker, and smaller than we remembered, and this time the old Wienermusik came from speakers. It was clear nothing had changed in the 15 years; not even a new chair or table, no paint, nothing. Behind the bar a tall, distinguished 60-ish man wearing a sleeveless sweater over a clean, white dress shirt offered a friendly "Grüss Gott." There was only one patron, a tiny, toothless, old woman at the Stammtisch who noisily cackled at us. She was very, very loud, and apparently very, very drunk. We politely ignored her. Sweater-behind-the-bar glanced at the old lady then back to us and rolled his eyes.
We were looking for something to eat but this wasn't going to work. We did, however, order a beer. Maybe if we hung around for a while, some of the old magic might happen. Except for the woman, Sweater was obviously alone. From where we chose to sit we could see him and the bar but only part of the Stammtisch and nothing of its loud occupant. Did I say loud? She was just getting started. As Sweater brought our beer, the woman let loose, at thunderous volume, a combination of shouting and singing, "Jawohl, die besten lokale, die besten lokale, jawohl." The strength of the voice coming from such a tiny woman, five-feet tall or perhaps a bit less, was amazing. Despite numerous entreaties from Sweater, whom we soon realized from looking at pictures on the walls, was the owner, she launched one of her arias about every two minutes—at ear-splitting volume. "Jawohl, die besten local" and a couple of other words we didn't get. Sometimes she gave the "Jawhol" a melodic, multi-syllabic treatment, trilling up and down the scale to demonstrate that indeed she once had a singing voice to be reckoned with. All this at excruciating decibels. She was also a bit ornery. Once, when Sweater ducked into the back room for a couple of minutes, she pitched the entire contents of her beer (or wine) mug onto the floor. Finally, three or four new customers straggled in. They stood drinking by the low bar, exchanging pleasantries with Sweater. Every few minutes, Little Voice would cut loose. Each time Sweater motioned her to tone it down and then apologized to his customers. After about 30 minutes, in preparation for departure as it turns out, the old lady rose from the table and gave Sweater a few euros. We saw that the seat of her dress was wet, she had either been sitting in spilled drink or...? Sweater kissed her on both cheeks and she swept out the door after one final "besten locale" rendition. He had shown remarkable restraint.
When it came our turn to go I told Sweater I liked his music selection (referring to the canned stuff we're hearing). He gave a ghost of a smile and shrugged, "Wienermusik.” In my limited, crude German, accompanied by gestures miming an accordion, I inquired about Walter Meda. At first he said, "Donnerstag, musik ist Donnerstag." But suddenly he realized what I asked and put both hands to one cheek, closed his eyes, and tilted his head to one side. "Todt?," (dead) I asked. "Yeah, todt," he said. But I could see Sweater didn't care that we cared. He was playing out the string, “Heuriger” was on its last legs. Maybe, though, he wished as we did that Walter could come back just one more time and bring some light and cheer — and Wienernusik— to his crummy little joint.
Until you've done it a few times, legally driving as fast as you want on Germany's Autobahn is an exciting prospect. Many years ago, on a quiet Sunday morning on an almost deserted stretch of newly-paved Autobahn near Saarbrucken, I briefly hit 210kmh (131mph) in a 5-series BMW. But the road wasn't entirely deserted and in doing so I overtook a couple of much slower vehicles. As I did, I realized that at a certain point in the passing process there was a moment when my safety was totally dependent on the car being passed. Had the other driver(s) decided to change lanes at the wrong time, drastic evasive action would have been required to avoid a collision—and quite frankly I wasn't at all sure I could have maintained control while braking and/or swerving at that speed. There is always danger, of course, in passing at such high speed, but the greater danger is the difference in speed between the two vehicles. If, at 70mph, you are two car lengths to the rear of a car going 55mph, and that car suddenly changes to your lane, you can avoid a collision by simply backing off the gas, or by braking. Even if the slower car is only a few feet ahead and decides abruptly to change lanes, at a last resort the faster car can move onto the left shoulder. But at 115 to 130mph, there is no time for braking and only the most skillful driver would be able to move onto the left shoulder without going into a skid that could end in disaster.
These days, when conditions are right, I'm comfortable cooking along at 150 to 160 kmh (94-100 mph). That speed requires a lot of lane changing, because the faster Audis, Beamers, and MBZs rocket past me in the left lane, while trucks and slower passenger cars dawdle along in right lane.
For years there have been predictions of Autobahn speed limits. To a large extent, that has already taken place. As traffic increases, new signs limiting speeds to 80 kmh to 130 kmh seem to pop up every day. The Munich-Salzburg section of Autobahn was once a veritable race track for almost its entire 140 km (88 miles) length. Now there are only a few brief 'any speed goes' stretches. It is said that half of Germany's 12,000 km of Autobahn has no speed limit, but that undoubtedly includes many kilometers of highway where the speed can temporarily be reduced by electronic signage when traffic and weather conditions warrant.
Applying more brakes to fast motoring in Germany is the city-state of Bremen which has imposed a speed limit of 120 kmh (75 mph) on its 60 km of Autobahn. It thus became the first German state to introduce a general Autobahn speed limit. It did so for both safety and environmental reasons, and hopes other states will follow suit.
So if you need to get some really fast driving out of your system in Germany, you'd better do it soon because those little circular 120 kmh and 130 kmh signs are going up all over the country. (Recommended reading: Driving the Autobahn)
At the "Sightseeing Tours” link, book any of nearly 1,700 daytrips, tours, castle dinners, and local public transportation deals prior to your departure for Europe. You can, for example, book the "Sound of Music Tour" for $47, a Royal Castles day tour from Munich for $62, and a Dachau tour for $27.
The new Havenwelten Bremerhaven (Harbor Worlds) tourism complex has won the 2009 German Urban Planning Prize. The structure is described as appearing from a distance to be a ship or a cloud.
Climate House Bremerhaven 8° East, winner of Germany's Clean Tech Media Award for 2009, takes visitors around the world in a single day along the 8th longitude east (Bremerhaven's longitude), to experience a variety of climate zones.
Bremerhaven's top tourist attraction, however, remains the German Emigration Center (European Museum of the Year Award in 2007), which tells the story of the seven million Europeans who emigrated through the port to the New World. The interactive experience helps visitors search for ancestors who were among the seven million. Visit the Bremerhaven Tourist Center's Website.