Outside of the freneticism of Berlin, far to the west of Germany, sits a region occupied with wine-growing, farming, and the occasional bout of tourism. Locals refer to it simply as the Pfalz, but its more formal designation would probably be the South Rhineland-Palatinate, an area tucked up against France, swathed in green, and punctuated by castles and villages — some that bear the wounds and weather of centuries.
Amid the vineyards of the region sits one of our favorite destinations: A meandering municipality of only four square-miles with fewer than 3,000 residents. A few kilometers away sits a castle atop a hill — a fairytale-esque fortress, really, complete with battlements, canons, and a checkered history that involves numerous internecine skirmishes.
In the village’s main hub (hardly to be called a downtown) lie all the trappings of a larger town: a Weinstube, or wine bar, stocked mostly with bottles of Pfälzisch origin; a smattering of awninged Gästhause (guests houses) with sprawling patios and deep green lawns that meet the road; and the occasional restaurant with menus pinned to the doors offering Wurst, Pizza, Bier, Schnitzel, Kartoffeln—
This is Klingenmünster.
In the winter, Klingenmünster remains largely dormant, with tourism ebbing and winemaking quieting to an almost nonexistent affair. In the spring and summer, however, as vineyards regain their color and early harvests appear, makeshift wine stands sprout to catch the tourists descending from the castle. They often include nothing more than a wine barrel and a few plastic cups; for a pittance, passers-by can buy cups of Neuer Wein dripped from the barrel — lightly alcoholic, sweet wine made from faulty grapes plucked before the full harvest in the fall. More seasoned winemakers pair this with roasted sausage or sweet treats for kids. Given the allure of sweet and savory, it’s not uncommon to find a small coterie of locals and tourists gathered around a single spigot, laughing as they soak in the region’s first press.
But perhaps the best flavor of this oft-forgotten German village is to be experienced in the early fall months. Before the frost sets in, farmers set to work harvesting the mature grapes from the seas of rolling vines that blanket the region. As threshing proceeds, they collect the woody stems separated from the fruit. In a clearing between the vines, they then pile scores of these vines, leaving them to dry out in the chilly fall wind. When the harvest is complete and the pyre towers above the heights of houses, the village gathers to set it ablaze. In one powerful ritual at the dark of night, the base is lit, the brittly dry vines ignite, and full-throated celebration initiates the beginning of winter. While the bonfire burns, children play hide-and-go-seek amid what’s left of the planted vines; adults roast juicy sausages on makeshift grills; and mugs slosh warm Glühwein and malty Bier.
This is a picture of Germany that few know, but many should experience. If you want a flavor of Deutschland without big city stress, noise, or anxious energy, make your way to the cozy little enclave of Klingenmünster. It’s one European experience the United States simply cannot replicate.