Meeting Bucky in Germany: “Das ist dax”

First in a series about travel in Germany. The majority of Wisconsin residents, a higher percentage than any other state, trace their roots to a German-speaking country.

World Cup soccer fans know Frankfurt as host to the recent women’s championship. International tycoons know Frankfurt as Germany’s center for business and finance.

Me? I think of Apfelwein Dax, a working guy’s tavern and restaurant of hearty meals, near the Sacsenhausen district. Frankfurt earns its reputation as Germany’s apfelwein capital because dozens of taverns in this part of the city make and serve wine from apples; the extent of sweet to sour flavor depends upon the recipe and length of fermentation.

“Susser” is sweet and young apfelwein. “Rauscher” contains more alcohol than novice drinkers realize, and the sharply sour “stoffiche” is apfelwein that has stewed the longest.

While walking a maze of narrow streets toward Sacsenhausen, map in pocket but no agenda in mind, I glanced above me – then looked again. Eyeballing me on an outdoor sign was an odd version of Wisconsin’s Bucky Badger, a glass in his left hand and a “D” on his chest.

This begged for an explanation, and I soon got one but didn’t immediately understand.

“Das ist dax,” the barkeep explained, more than once, as his customers stood at the counter, sipping their apfelwein and politely amused. U.S. license plates were affixed to walls, as was a “we love our dax” sign and yellowing murals of old-time Frankfurt. Blue and white pottery, used throughout Sacsenhausen for wine storage and pouring, filled bar shelves.

I got a glass of sour apfelwein, served straight up, and a cider-like susser for comparison. I studied the menu – homemade liver dumpling soup, a dozen types of schnitzel, plus rindswurst to fleischwurst. Grill Rippchen – pork loin ribs served with fried potatoes and a salad – is a specialty.

It took a while, but I eventually figured out that “dax” means “badger,” and the business owner – nicknamed “Dax” and in Florida during my visit – was smitten after meeting Bucky at a sporting event many years ago. A couple of months later, I sent him a Bucky T-shirt, and he sent me a note of profuse thanks.

Frankfurt, population 650,000, is the largest city in Hessen, which is one of five Wisconsin sister states. Apfelwein isn’t the only reason for average people to visit.

Follow the mile-long, pedestrian-only Zeil shopping and dining route, a mix of massive shopping centers and specialty boutiques. Fans of German writer/scientist/genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe converge at Goethehaus, his birthplace, and an adjacent museum.

Dine: Near the Alte Oper (opera house) is the new home of Gargantua, whose chef is Klaus Trebes, a longtime magazine food columnist and author. High-end prices; save by visiting for lunch. Mediterranean influences alter standard German fare.

Stay: My tidy quarters at the Grand Hotel Dream were at the end of Zeil, a short walk across Main River to the Sacsenhausen area (the apfelwein district) and a block from Konstablerwache bus, tram and rapid transit train stops. Rates were about $100, through Expedia.com and including breakfast.

For more about Frankfurt tourism: www.frankfurt.de.

Two easy side trips from Frankfurt:

Wiesbaden, population 272,000 and 25 miles west of Frankfurt, is Hessen’s capital city and also known for the longtime mineral springs that still bubble and soothe spa customers. www.wiesbaden.de

Visit: The Schiffchen historical district is perfect for shopping, eating and strolling. Notice the Kurhaus, a hub for cultural performances.

Dine: Settle into the classy Café Maldaner, in business since 1859, if for nothing else than dessert. Look for the café’s namesake cake: many thin layers, each separated by a mocha-vanilla mousse filling, then covered with a coating of chocolate marzipan.

Stay: The Schwarzer Bock Hotel, under Radisson Blu management, opened in 1486 as a thermal springs bathhouse. Fires and wars interrupted its operation; hotel guests today have access to parts of the original spa and contemporary additions.

Heidelberg, population 150,000 and 50 miles south of Frankfurt, is the lively home to Germany’s oldest university (University of Heidelberg). www.heidelberg.de

Visit: Heidelberg Schloss, a multi-building castle with lush gardens, looms 300 feet above the rest of the city. Just below is the Altstadt, the oldest district, vibrant with retailers and cafes along narrow streets and public squares. Look for Heidelberg’s Studentenkuesse (“Student’s Kiss”), handmade chocolates with a story; they’ve been used since 1863 to express, accept and reject affection.

Dine: Order a stein to accompany sauerbraten and dumplings at Zum Roten Ochsen (“The Red Ox”), a favorite gathering place for the academic community.

Stay: Hotel Zum Ritter St. Georg, in business since 1592, is one of the few buildings to avoid destruction from the 1690s War of Succession. The elegant restaurants seat far more than the boutique hotel can accommodate.

Trains smoothly link many cities in Germany, including Heidelberg, Wiesbaden and Frankfurt. The hauptbahnof (main train station) typically is within a walk of the center of activity.

For more about travel in Germany: www.cometogermany.com, 212-661-7200.

Milwaukee’s annual German Fest, among the largest in the nation, is July 28-31 at the lakefront Maier Festival Park. Watch dachshunds race, meet friends at the glockenspiel, find the Musikgarten Stage and – if you dare – enter the first Eat-A-Thon (four days of seriously competitive eating).

It’s about polka, beer, brats and more. The crowd is huge: Ten tons of potatoes are used to make the potato salad and pancakes. www.germanfest.com, 414-464-9444

The Hessen Wisconsin Society aims to strengthen business, cultural and personal connections between the two countries. The sister-state relationship began in 1976. www.hessenwisconsin.com

Members of Hessischer Verein, a social club established in Germantown in 1989, work to preserve Hessen culture through public and self-education. Annual membership is $10. www.hessenclub.com

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.