IF IT'S FRIDAY AT NINE IT'S TIME FOR WINE!
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A NEW WAY TO VIEW THE WORLD OF WINE
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The Day That Adolf Hitler Gave Up Riesling
(done when he is writing Mein Kampf)
My great grandfather was an adventurous sort when he was a youngster and as a very young child on the brink of my teenage years I remember his tales of tramp streamers, pirates off the African Coast, and run-ins with potentates from countries with names that have long disappeared from maps.
I particularly remember the times he would come to visit on holiday and on long walks we would take together he would pick out a variety of strange and exciting episodes from his life that he thought might impress a wide-eyed boy with nothing on the horizon but conkers, cricket and mock battles to be fought with friends.
On one of these walks along some shady canal tow path (yes, these were the days when canals were just turning from slow industrial highways to rubbish receptacles) and my eyes saw a mighty stick and I reached eagerly down to pick it up. It would make an ideal gun for a latter game of war.
‘That’s a mighty fine piece of wood you’ve got there,’ Great grandfather said sagely.
I told him of my intended use and he smiled.
‘It might make a solid walking stick if you took the time to work the wood correctly. I could swear it was a spitting image of one I used on a walking trip in Bavaria during the late nineteen twenties. I can’t quite remember the day except for it being the day that Adolf Hitler gave up Riesling!’
As a youth I had a passion for Second World War history and I knew he was pulling my leg. ‘I thought that Hitler was a teetotaller?’
‘Nazi propaganda!’ he dismissively replied. ‘Probably would have undermined all that master race nonsense if their leader had been seen to be enjoying a tipple.’
My great grandfather walked on for a few minutes, until we found a suitable place to sit. Then he gestured me to perch next to him, and after a couple of minutes he began.
‘I’d been on a walking holiday of southern Germany and was staying in small, friendly hotel. It was rather early in the season and apart from myself there were a couple of prim ladies who were also enjoying tramping around the environs of Berchtesgarden. In those days it was a happy little place, before the Nazi Party placed their shadow of evil on it. People were friendly to a stranger and eager to make sure that I, and the staid ladies, got the most out of our time in their charmingly lovely village. The welcome was such that I decided to stay for a week and time was spent walking during the days and then sharing experiences with the ladies over dinner.
For the first day or so I kept to the valley, enjoying a visit to a nearby lake and it wasn’t until my second evening that the ladies told me about their walk through the forest and then towards the pastures surrounding Obersalzburg. They told me that it was such a lovely place to visit because it was possible to find a bench where one could look down on the valley.
‘It is one of the most beautiful places in all of Germany,’ one of the ladies informed me. ‘We try to come walking here at least once a year, so we can sit and ponder the beauty that God laid before us. There’s also a possibility of catching site of a man we very much admire.’
‘I was going to ask them to explain but I’ve always found it intrusive to ask a lady about affairs of the heart so I let it slip and I smiled at them in such a way that they might feel it was my way of agreeing with their views.
‘After dinner it was my habit to walk from my small pension towards one of the various pubs around the town. You might have seen pictures of the sort I’m talking about because they are all heavy wood with antlers lining the walls. I would have invited the two walking ladies but they’d made it quite clear early on that they disproved on alcohol, so I ventured out alone. It was in one of these that I first acquired a taste for a wonderfully enticing Riesling.
‘It was a Johannisberg and the taste was like nothing I’d ever had before or since. It wasn’t that sweet rubbish that is peddled about in shops nowadays. It was quite dry, had a distinctive nose that made it extremely quaffable if one didn’t wish to savour the taste. I was so impressed by the taste that when I got back to my hotel I asked the owner where I might be able to buy a bottle or three. He eagerly told me and I promised myself that some of it would be accompanying me on the next leg of my Bavarian odyssey.
‘The next morning I decided that, because the ladies had made the pastures of Obsersalzburg sound so enticing that is where I would head next. Now, I have mentioned the generosity of the people from Berchtesgarden and before each of my walks I was fortunate enough that the wife of the hotel owner would always pack me a simple, but satisfying, picnic that would keep me going. I’m talking about satisfying meats, cheese and sundry items that she felt would fortify me until I return for a hearty evening meal of roasted meats and vegetables.
‘On the day in question I’d risen early because the prim ladies had informed me that it was a nice but slightly demanding walk. I was about to leave the hotel when the owner’s wife handed me good stock of provisions stored inside a dark brown leather backpack. Taking it off her I signalled my thanks in my clipped tourist German and took a sneaky peek at the wonders she had packed for me. Nestled between the meats on one side and the cheese and salad on the other were a couple of bottles of the Riesling I’d mentioned enjoying.’
‘My husband asked me to pop two of those in there,’ she informed me. ‘He said that you were singing its praises last night.’
‘But this is too much,’ I replied.
‘Do not worry sir because it will all be added to your bill,’ she warmly smiled.
‘I smiled back and told her that I thought it was a price worth paying before adding that I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to polish off two bottles, no matter how absolutely gorgeous and fresh the wine was but she assured me that what I didn’t drink on my walk up I could always finish off later when I returned.’
‘I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the prim ladies would inhibited my need for a drink, even if it was such a pleasurable bottle. Instead, I picked up the slightly heavy backpack and placed it over one of my shoulders as I asked her to confirm the directions I’d been given.
‘If you head up through the dense forest, and find a path continuing upwards, you’ll soon be walking through beautiful pastures and breathing wonderfully clean German air. It can be quite popular at this time of year and there’s always the chance that you might meet a character or two.
‘It didn’t take me long before the incline went from gentle to slightly raised and green canopies gave me shelter from the growing heat of the day as I found, slight paths that seemed to have been placed helpfully about.
‘I cleared the trees somewhere between forty-five minutes and an hour, and the path I was taking seemed to skirt undulating fields where herds of cows were being tended to by traditional Bavarian farmers in lederhosen that made this rural picture of pastoral life a pleasure to stroll through.
‘At one point, about a hundred yards to my left I noticed a road mirroring my route upwards and a boarding house where people sat in a terrace, presumably eating breakfast.
‘I was enjoying the solitude too much and had no wish to be drawn into the orbit of this place and I changed direction and headed across the meadow until I figured I’d given the place a wide berth. Then I continued upwards until another path crossed my path. I assumed from it’s direction that heading left would take me towards the boarding house, and with this in mind I felt an adventure might be had if I headed towards the right.
‘I came across an old wooden bench after another ten minutes and decided that this might be a nice place to pause, enjoy the view and sample something edible from the leather backpack.
‘I tore a chunk off the end of some bread and pasted some of the cheese and meat on and as I looked down towards Berchtesgarden, a feeling a sense of calm contentment came over me. At that moment I knew that there was only one thing that could make this experience even better and that would be a glass of the Johannisberg.
‘At first I wasn’t sure that a drink was the ideal companion during mid-morning, but I quickly countered this by telling myself I was on my holidays and if one cannot be a devil on holiday then when could one. Besides, I’d only make it a small quarter of a glass to build up anticipation for a larger glass to have with lunch.
‘I was just raising the half a glass towards my mouth when I heard the panting of a nosey dog followed by the sound of determined feet on the path, and looking up I saw an Alsatian dog heading inquisitively towards me followed by a couple of walkers who were walking towards where I was sitting. I inwardly cursed this breach of my peace and calmly to ignore them as I continued to eat and sip while regarding the views.
‘In next to no time the dog was sniffing near to where I sat and I was still working out if it carried a threat or a friendship. I decided that perhaps I would pack away my snack and find another place, but before I’d made my decision the taller of the two gentlemen, a tall thin fellow who reminded me of a weasel I’d kept as a pet started shouting angrily at me in such an agitated and guttural manner that even my schoolboy knowledge of German found it a strain to understand.
‘I raised an enquiring eyebrow and gently asked him to repeat himself. The man took a step forward, grew in such an angry manner that it seemed to affect the Alsatian who now decided to bark its displeasure at me.’
‘You’re sitting on the Leader’s Bench!’ he barked worse than the hound.
‘I remember that somebody once told me that if one is ever in trouble in a foreign land it is pointless to try and speak to the locals in their native tongue because they are so much better at it that we are. Besides and the police will always side with them.
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ I replied underpinning my German with my finest cut-glass English accent. ‘I’m a stranger here and I thought this bench was for the use of anyone.’
‘I don’t know if it was my calm answer or the fact that I was still seated on the ‘Leader’s Bench’ that got to him, but became incensed to new heights of apoplexy as his clenched fists resembled sledgehammers.
‘It was then that the shorter of the two spoke up. His calm accent sounded a little different from the Bavarian argot I’d heard spoken, but at least I could understand it.
‘Dietrich,’ he ordered with a gentle determination, ‘Can’t you tell that this is an English tourist out for a stroll?’
‘I wasn’t sure that Dietrich was pacified as much as he should have been but he stayed put while continuing to give me the evil eye.
‘I thanked the shorter man for his timely intervention and told him that I would be on my way.’
‘There is no need,’ he informed me, and asking if I minded him sitting next to me on ‘his bench’ he sat before I could reply. Then turning towards his friend Dietrich he continued, ‘I think it might be better if you take Blonda back to the house. You appear to be scaring a guest in our country.’
‘I don’t know if it was me but the way he said this appeared to contain an element of mocking as though he knew something that I most definitely did not!
‘His minion, for that was I assumed the taller man’s role to be worriedly spoke, ‘Leader, this is most irregular. This man could be anybody’
‘I couldn’t help myself, and wearing an air of dismissive snobbery I replied, ‘A British person is not just anybody sir. A British person knows how to behave when they are in any company, particularly if that company is rather rude!’
‘The man next to me laughed awkwardly at this and told him to go because there was nothing to fear from a simple British gentlemen, and with a lazy gesture he ordered the man to leave with the dog.
‘Dietrich was obviously used to being ordered by this man because without further word he turned, shouted a suppressed command to the dog and then started to walk back the way he had come.
‘My name is Adolf,’ said my companion. ‘I must apologise for that but he’s very protective of me. Thinks that there are plots around every corner or sitting on every bench.’
‘He chortled again, more to himself than to be shared with me and as I looked at him I wondered who this man could be. I wanted to enquire but my sense of British reserve held me back. He continued, ‘Are you staying locally?’
‘In Berchtesgarden! I’m on a walking holiday of Bavaria but I seem to have tarried longer than I planned to in this area.’
‘If one has to be stuck anywhere, this is not a bad place,’ he replied. ‘I’ve loved it since I first discovered and now I don’t think I could be happier anywhere else, not even in Berlin.’
‘To me, the way he mentioned the capital made me feel he had political connections. I’ve always found that if one lets a person talk, all their secrets will eventually come tumbling out.
‘Never been there, ‘ I told him. ‘At the moment it sounds as though it’s not the place for somebody like me.’
‘And so you sit on this bench looking at the view until it is time to go back down my friend’
‘The hotel where I’m staying has been kind enough to supply me with enough provisions for me to make a day of it up here.’
‘And with this remark I opened my pack and showed him the edible treasures that had been placed at my disposal before offering him a slice of meat.’
‘No thank you,’ he said. ‘I do not eat meat.’
‘Now I knew he was strange! I kept a poker face as I offered him the cheese and fruit that was also inside, even showing him that they had been wrapped separately by the wife of the hotel owner.
‘He picked an apple and for the next few moments we sat looking at the landscape that rolled before us. I’d already got the feeling that my new companion was man who found silence incompatible with his voice.
‘Are you a political man?’ he rudely asked.
‘My politics are like my dirty laundry. I don’t share them around and like most British gentlemen I leave it for others to do.’
‘Surely even British gentlemen believe in something?’
‘Of course! Cricket was invented by God and a good bottle of Claret is worth its weight in gold.’
‘Adolf turned towards me.
‘You British are never serious, and that will one day be your downfall, along with your liking for French claret! French wines are like the French army, old and long past their best! Your weakness for Bordeaux wines hasn’t weakened you to the beauty of Riesling I see. Good German Riesling!’
‘This man had eyes like a jackrabbit. He’d only looked in the pack for a moment when reaching for an apple and yet he’s identified the wine. I brought out the bottle I’d opened and handed it to him.
‘A Johannisberg,’ he smiled. ‘Then you are indeed a civilised man.’
‘I still wasn’t sure if he was insulting, mocking or joking with me but I asked him if he wished to sample a glass, knowing that if he did I could always take a swig from the bottle.
‘Suddenly he laughed out loud. ‘You do not know me do you?’ he asked.
‘I shook my head and told him that I’d assumed him to be a politician because of the speed with which he asked me about political convictions, but beyond that I hadn’t a clue, assuring him that politics were like amorous suitors, best kept at arms length, especially German politicians.
‘He didn’t seem to take offence at my slight jibe. Just let out a rather sad sigh, looked me in the face and quietly spoke. ‘I am indeed a politician, but I am a unique politician because it is destiny that one day I will rule this rather chaotic country, returning it to order and sanity. One day I will lead this country back from the abyss and my followers will join me on the journey. To do that I must appear to lead a life that is whiter than a maidens virtue.’
‘He certainly had a politicians way of using twenty words when two will do.’
‘So, you do not drink?’ I quizzed.
‘As you are an Englishman with no interest in the politics of my country I can tell you that I do not drink, in public. However, if some kind tourist sitting on my bench were to offer me a glass of that fine Johannisberg Riesling, and I could not be seen, I would not turn him down.’
‘I handed him my glass, which was still a quarter full, and after taking out a handkerchief to wipe around the rim, he took a slight sip of the wine. The slight smile on his face informed me that he was savouring the drink like a man who hadn’t tried wine in an age.
‘In no time at all he was back on his political path, telling me all manner of policies he was formulating, all manner of moves he would make against all manner of people who he felt had let the German people down.
‘I must admit that most of it washed over me because I found his angry delivery and eyes that stared madly with conviction to be a little unnerving. Like any good Englishman I knew how to deal with somebody who took themselves far to seriously. I topped up his glass. At first he pretended to dither about taking another drink, but by the end of the first bottle his hand no longer attempted to cover his glass and from the way his speech grew slightly slurred, meandered along and grew of long pauses I guessed that this man was a lot drunker than I was. I might be a little slow on the uptake but I’d also realised that this was the man who the Prim ladies had told me they admired.
‘I look at my pocket watch and observed that we had been there for just over half an hour, and as I started to open the other bottle of Riesling he stood up and started acting as though he was addressing some imaginary gathering, and though I asked him to sit down in case his ranting drew attention from the distant Pension he ignored me and continued to point and smack one fist into the other as a visual full stop to his diatribe.
‘Though I wanted to pack up and leave my upbringing forbade me and I knew that if I wasn’t cunning in my thoughts then I might be forced to listen to him until either dark or his friends came along first.’
‘Do you know any jokes?’ I ventured. It was the best way I thought I could take his mind of his damned political philosophy.’
‘He suddenly stopped and looked away from the imaginary crowd and right in my direction.
‘We Germans know more jokes than any other nation. They go on about you British with your sense of humour but nothing compares to a German who tells a joke!’ Before I gave him any further encouragement he proceeded to tell a long-winded story about a Russian. At the end he was laughing in a way that tells you it has been brought on by an increase in alcohol.’
‘I see that you do not understand it,’ he said as he looked at me. I’ve been told that you British only understand jokes that are a little risqué and slightly vulgar, and without the slightest encouragement from me he now told a joke that I thought was naughtier than anything I’d heard. It involved a milkmaid called Bettina, a farmer called Jurgen and various workers.
‘In between telling these jokes, my politically zealous companion continued to take bigger sips from the glass as I took glugs from the bottle and soon we were over three quarters of the way through the other bottle.
‘I need a rest!’ he told me as he plonked down besides me. From his plastered countenance it was obvious that while he might sometimes have had a drink it wasn’t often enough to say that he and alcohol were on regular speaking terms.
‘I tried to make him eat something to soak up the wine that flowed through his body but he wafted me offer away and before I knew it he was back on his feet singing the German National Anthem, only his befuddled state didn’t allow him to remember the words.
‘Without stopping he now followed his attempts at dirty jokes by singing dirty songs at the top of his voice and the language he was using increased my knowledge of German slang by quite a great deal.
‘I particularly remember him telling me one about the adventures of three military types on a holiday in Bavaria. I found it memorable for two reasons; the first was that there were lots of actions included, and the second was the loud scream that came from behind us as he mimed what they did when they met a priest in Munich.
‘I turned my head and Adolf turned unsteadily on his feet to see who had made the noise, and we were confronted by those two prim ladies wearing looks of absolute horror and crying uncontrollably. They had obviously decided that today’s walk would involve trying to see the point of their adulation up here among the rolling hills above Berchtesgarden. What they hadn’t counted upon was seeing their idol stood swaying drunkenly about singing a filthy song as an Englishman looked on before falling back on to the bench.
‘Perhaps it was might slightly drunken state but I actually hadn’t realised how loud he was being or how far those screams from the ladies carried up here because suddenly, along the path, came a host of people who I later found out had come from the pension. Behind these, but trying to pass them, were various men in military uniforms being lead by Adolf’s friend Dietrich.
‘They all arrived at the same time and a frenzied dialogue ensued between the ladies recounting how disgusted they were with the language they’d heard, the hotel guests asking how a political leader they admired could behave so irresponsibly and Dietrich telling everybody that he had been lead astray by this English subversive. If only Hitler had not been drunkenly snoozing loudly on the bench because I thought I might need his assistance.
‘The upshot was that Adolf’s helpers wanted to get their leader away from this embarrassing situation as quick as possible, so instead of giving me the sort of good hiding I knew Dietrich would have loved to dish out, they told everybody present that he has been suffering from overwork and that they would take him to a doctor who could cure him.
‘Though the hotel guests and the ladies wanted to say more, it was obvious that Dietrich and his helpers would be sticking to their story no matter how much other argued. With hindsight I’m grateful that this incident had not taken place about five years later because I’m not sure we would have got off that pasture alive.’
I looked at my great grandfather, and wasn’t sure that I believed him. I might be young but this tale was taller than a lot he’d previously told me.
‘So what happened next?’ I enquired.
‘I headed back to my hotel and was informed that it was probably best for me if I crossed over into Austria as soon as possible. It seems that the story of Adolf’s performance had reached Berchtesgarden before I had and the hotel owner and his wife had no wish to see Hitler’s thugs coming looking for me.’
For one so you I could raise a cynical eyebrow when needed and my great grandfather received one of my best.
‘Oh,’ he continued, ‘I managed to pick up something he’d dropped as he was being carried off.’
And with that he reached inside his pocket, retrieved something and then placed it in the palm of my hand. I looked at the silvery shield badge with an eagle sitting on top of a Nazi helmet and the words ‘Nurnburg’ and ‘1929’ clearly visible.
‘I was about to ask my great grandfather further questions but he took back the badge, placed it inside his jacket pocket and started to walk up the tow path.
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