Bavaria: Plenty abrew seems familiar

This is what it is like to go home for the first time.

The patches of woods amid gentle slopes of farmland seem familiar, but the primary crop grows on vines that can extend more than 20 feet skyward. No one in the world produces more hops than Bavaria.

Every town seems to brew at least one type of beer, and that’s not far from the mark. This part of Germany contains about 640 breweries, the first of which began producing beer in 1286. The products are not served warm.

Bier gartens are like coffee shops here, places to take laptops or meet business customers and friends. Many are BYO – bring your own food. So it’s fine to pack a picnic, as long as you buy your beverage.

Even the Munich airport has its own brew-pub, Airbrau, where customers sip tall glasses of slightly sweet weiss (wheat) beer and dip weisswurst (white veal/pork/parsley sausages) and pretzels (soft inside, slightly crunchy exterior) into sweet mustard. This is one form of breakfast, and you’ll have a tough time finding this type of sausage after noon.

(Munich’s airport also is the only one that I know of with a sex shop in the international terminal, but that’s maybe a story for another time.)

Skinny brats are sold by the half-meter at festivals. Smaller sausages top plates of kraut at restaurants; a meal is six to 10 links, depending upon your appetite.

Order the grillwurst schmankerl, a sausage sampler, and the assortment likely will range from bland and gray veal to slightly spicy and semi-hard Schnapps.

What else? Riding on the Autobahn seems ordinary, since everybody seems to move in sync – and have great brakes. Our driver calmly cruised about 95 mph to keep up with traffic.

Culinary specialties include horseradish soup, comparable in taste/texture to oyster stew, with bits of beef swimming in the buttery broth. Besides mustard, pretzels sometimes are slathered with a tangy beer-cheese spread. We could devote an entire column to the multi-layered tortes and strudels, hearty entrees of rich gravies and meat, roasted pork, smoked trout.

Bavaria’s most well-known city, Munich, celebrates its 850th birthday in 2008. Residents protect tradition and history as they make room for the avant-garde.

The 130-room and 10-courtyard downtown Residenz, the former home of royalty, is the largest in a European city. The opulent palace protects rare tapestries, furniture, paintings, sacred relics and other furnishings. One-half of the rooms are open to visitors in morning, the other half in afternoon.

The city’s newest attraction is BMW Welt (World), across from the 1972 Olympic soccer stadium (where roof-climbing tours can be arranged).

The architecturally magnificent BMW complex cost $730 million and opened in late October. It is a convention center and casual-to-fine-dining spot as well as a showcase for BMW products and history.

Soon to be completed is a revamp of the automaker’s museum. Visitors can tour the plant, size up exclusive and experimental car models, “test drive” a BMW on icy roads from the seat of a simulator – and watch an average of 170 BMW purchasers per day pick up their vehicles, then drive them away. Activities for children include making miniature cars, from beginning to end.

It all is meant to be a full-day and all-ages experience. BMW purchasers in the U.S. can arrange to pick up their car in Munich and drive it while vacationing, then have it shipped home. For more: www.bmw-welt.com.

And the Bavarian people? Their dialect is much different than Germans in the northern part of the country. They likely own a dirndl or lederhosen but will keep it in the closet until Oktoberfest or another Old World celebration.

They don’t dwell on it, but the Bavarians we met acknowledged the horrors of World War II before we could bring it up. City guides point out even the smallest tribute to Jewish victims, be it gold bricks in a downtown Freising sidewalk, or a tombstone embedded in the exterior of a home in Regensburg.

We cut to the heart of the sentiment while eating pizza on the night of our arrival. “It was not our fault, or our parents’ fault,” our hostess says, referring to her own generation, “but we still feel guilty.”

German children are taught over and over about the war’s extermination of life, so they understand the devastation, and the lessons begin at a young age. The Dachau concentration camp, about 45 minutes from Munich, is a monument but not likely to become commercialized.

“Much of our country was destroyed,” our hostess explains, so there has been a mix of grief and shame for younger generations to shoulder.

Hosting the World Cup in 2006, and watching Germany do well (it placed third), “was the first time many of us could say we are proud to be German, and not feel guilty about feeling that way.”

For more about the area: www.bayern.by (Bavaria), www.muenchen.de (Munich), www.munich-airport.com.

How significant is German heritage in Wisconsin?

About 56 percent of Wisconsin residents trace their roots to a German-speaking country, more than any other state.

The annual Oktoberfest in La Crosse, which began in 1961, is among the longest-running in the nation. USA Today has called it one of the 10 best such celebrations in the world.

The annual summer German Fest, on Milwaukee’s lakefront since 1981, is the largest three-day German Ethnic festival in North America.

The German restaurant Mader’s, in downtown Milwaukee, is the city’s oldest. It opened in 1902, two years before nearby Karl Ratzsch’s.

A New York Times writer described Mader’s bar as “the holy shrine of the German-American brew heart” and the soul of the city.

Note: Mary Bergin was a guest of Munich Airport International and the tourism offices in Bavaria and Munich during this press trip, which involved three other U.S. travel journalists.