Traveling Through Time: Down the Danube Narrows to Weltenburg Abbey

Weltenburg Abbey was more than four centuries old before the monks first began brewing ale—or at least ale worth noting–in 1050. Now vying for the title of the oldest monastic brewery in the world (Weihenstephan Abbey also claims the honor), they set their claim on maintaining the original brewing process. Like the beer, much is as it was remains at the Abbey, the somewhat plain exterior of the cathedral opens onto an elaborately ornate and gilded interior. Services are still held regularly, and monks still live and work on the premises. And just as abbeys were places for gatherings for a millennium and more, Weltenburg also remains a destination. Located 25 miles west of the charming Bavarian city of Regensburg, a UNESCO World Heritage City and just three miles from Kelheim, it is accessible by car. But I totally like immersing myself in history and my goal today is to replicate—as much as I can—the 1050 experience.

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Long Wall and St. Nepomuk

On the ferry from Kelheim, I watch as the boat’s wake cuts through waters reflecting the dark greens of dense woods and whites of limestone rocks of the Fränkische Alb mountains, some rising 300-feet high. Winds, water and time have carved caves and nooks in the limestone and in one of these crannies on an expansive stretch of stone called the Long Wall someone has tucked a statue of St. Nepomuk, the patron saint of water and bridges who was drowned when he refused to reveal the confessions made to him by the Queen of Bavaria. Her husband must have really wanted to know what she was up to.

The Danube Narrows

Today it will take 40 minutes to travel the Danube Narrows, an ancient waterway to and from Weltenburg Abbey or if you want to be really German about it, Weltenburger Klosterbrauerei, a sprawling complex of Baroque stone buildings surrounded by the lush rural beauty of Southern Bavaria.

There are times when the river is a lively place with small boats passing by and bicyclists and hikers making their way along the riverbank. Then suddenly, navigating a bend, it’s all calm waters and quiet.  I imagine this is how it was when pilgrims and tradesmen (and hopefully tradeswomen as well) came to the abbey to retreat from the world, rest or conduct business. It was a time when travel was mainly by water as roads barely existed and their trip would have taken much longer without our gas powered engines. But the sight they saw when making the final curve is much the same as today—Weltenburg’s blue tower roof and the washed pink walls.

Weltenburger Klosterbrauerei

The abbey sits on a bend of the river and in front is a small sandy beach and shallow waters where people play. It’s hot today—a heat wave is moving across Europe—and I envy them as the water looks cool and refreshing. But history calls and instead I move up the walk leading from the dock to the entrance already awed by the size and beauty of the place.

There are always hard choices and today I need to decide whether to tour first (there are self-guided and guided tours available) or take a seat in the sun at the biergarten, It appears that most people have chosen the latter and rather than wait for a table or sit inside the restaurant, I enter the church.

St. Georg Church

We’re talking seriously rococo inside, an overdrive of theatrical flourishes mixed with more Gothic elements. Paintings date back to the 1300s, a statue of the church’s namesake St. George or St. Georg as its spelled here, sculpted in smooth, sleek marble, rides his horse most likely on his way to slay the dragon. The main room, its ceiling 65-feet high, has alcoves off to the sides, each one just as ornate. It’s hard to take in everything at once, the artistry, pageantry and craftsmanship are so amazing.  Standing near a group tour, I hear phrases like “eight ionic columns, Weltenburg marble and gold fresco” and hurriedly write the words down as it helps sort out this wonderment of riches.

Bavarian Fare

Back outside, I spot an empty table and grab it. Addicted to German fare (yes, really), I order pigs’ knuckle known as schweinshaxe, schnitzel and even though I’m in Bavarian and not the Black Forest (hey, it’s nearby) the famous cake from that region. Of course, I need a glass of their Kloster Barock Dunkel—an almost black in color ale which is still made on site in a rock cave and then sent by pipeline to the monastery taps. Also available—to drink or take home, there is a gift store of course–are other brews and such medicinal spirits as their Weltenburg monastery bitters and liqueurs. And if you want to go full abbey, there’s their klosterkas and monastery sausage both based on ancient Weltenburg recipes.

Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that last schnitzel and definitely not the cake. To assuage my conscience, I climb the mountain path as it winds past the Stations of the Cross. It’s steep but the gaps in the woods offer commanding views of the valley, abbey and gorge below. I briefly contemplate spending the night at the St. Georg Guest House to be able to walk the abbey grounds late at night when all the visitors are gone but I don’t have a reservation. Next time for sure.

The Oldest Wheat Beer Brewery in Bavaria

          Returning to Kelheim isn’t exactly like entering the 21st century. In the old town I wander the narrow streets snapping photos of perfectly maintained Medieval-era buildings just a short walk from the docks and on the way to where I parked my car, I let my friends talk me into stopping at Weisses Bauhaus Kelheim.

It’s a beautiful place, all wood, vaulted ceilings and archways leading from room to room. Outside we sit in, yes another beer garden, this one next to a small stream, and order a round of their wheat beer. Really, I had to since they’ve been brewing beer here since 1607, making the Weisses Brauhaus the oldest wheat beer brewery in Bavaria.

 

I’m not typically a beer lover but both the Kloster Barock Dunkel at the abbey and the TAP7 here, made from the original 1872 recipe, are robust and flavorful without bitterness or an overly hoppy taste. I’m driving so instead of more beer, I listen to the live music, enjoy the myriad of colorful blooms cascading from window boxes, baskets and containers and contemplate how I’ve spent the day moving through history and only now have reached the 17th century.

Historic Swiss Journeys

 Travel back into the past by car or aboard the Treno Gottardo, a VIP train trip along an ancient trade route that crosses the fantastical Gotthard Pass, a north south journey connecting the German speaking region of Uri to the Ticino, the Italian speaking area of Switzerland.

Prehistoric Pile Dwellings in the Alps

In 2011, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee added the remains of prehistoric pile-dwelling also known as stilt house settlements in and around six Alpine countries that were built from around 5,000 to 500 B.C. on the edges of lakes, rivers or wetlands to their list.

The sites provide glimpses into what life was like in prehistoric times during the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Alpine Europe as well as the way communities interacted with their environment. In an exciting new find, archaeologists diving in Lake Lucerne discovered pile dwellings from the Bronze Age.

Exploring Roman History           

Augusta Raurica near Augst/Kaiseraugst, a 2000-year-old settlement on the southern bank of the Rhine, is located near the beautiful city of Basel. Named after the Celtic Rauriker tribe and the Roman Emperor Augustus, the city at its peak had a population of around 20,000 with workshops, commercial enterprises, taverns, temples and public baths closely strung together. Because no new towns were established during the Middle Ages or our modern area, Augusta Raurica is amazingly  well-preserved.

Visitors can view the myriad of wonders discovered here like the largest silver treasure dating from Late Antiquity, a Roman domestic animal park with ancient animal species, and the architectural remnants of the city, the museum offers great insights into the daily lives of the people who lived here around the time of Christ’s birth.

1821—Napoleon’s End

On May 5 was the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon I on the island of St. Helena, where he was placed in exile. His stepdaughter Hortense des Beauharnais also lived in exile at Arenenberg Castle and Napoleon Museum in Switzerland.

As the only German-speaking museum on Napoleonic history, a special exhibition during the “Année Napoléon 2021” will take place from October 10-24, 2021, showing the long lasting influence of Napoleon on Switzerland even today.

Inventing Milk Chocolate

Food and beverages reflect a country’s culinary traditions and customs. Many of today’s Swiss cheese brands go back to the 12th century, but Daniel Peter’s much newer creation in 1875 really took the world by storm—a passion that continues today. Peter was able to solve the problem of how to combine chocolate and milk. Most Swiss cities offer chocolate tours and several chocolate brands features visitor experiences.

Newly Restored LGBT Pioneer’s Spectacular Painting Returns to Monte Verità

After a lengthy restoration, the super large circular painting “Il Chiaro Mondo dei Beati” or “The Clear World of the Blessed”  by Estonian artist and LGBT pioneer Elisàr von Kupffer (1872-1932) is on display at the Monte Verità museum complex located in southern Switzerland near Ascona.

Ballenberg

Instead of destroying more than one hundred historic buildings, many of them farmhouses, were instead carefully taken dismantled and rebuilt at the Ballenberg Swiss Open-Air Museum.

The museum is nestled in the beautiful pastoral landscape of the Bernese Oberland and can be reached by bus from Brienz. The many hands-on activities were created to provide insight in old traditional crafts like forging, weaving, and herbal medical treatments

Gorditas el Comal de Doña Meche in San Miguel de Allende

Dona Meche in the window of her restaurant in San Miguel de Allende. Photo by Jane Simon Ammeson.


On Calle Margarita Ledezma, not far from El Jardin Principal, the town square of San Miguel de Allende where jacaranda trees bloom, vendors come to sell their wares and even the occasional burro makes its way down the cobblestone street, Dona Meche stands at the open window of her restaurant. In front of her are colorful ceramic bowls brimming with a rich array of fillings she makes every day. What’s in each bowl varies depending upon what’s in season and available at the large open-air market not far away. Today it’s chicken with cactus and potatoes, grilled poblano peppers with mushrooms and cheese, shredded beef in a rich red adobe sauce and picadillo mixed with green beans, carrots and pureed tomatoes.

For ten pesos (approximately a dollar), Meche takes a ball of masa harina and, patting it into a thick circle, drops it into a comal of bubbling hot oil. When it’s just a little golden, she removes it from the oil and cuts a hole in the middle and adds the filling. If you want another, the process starts all over again. Order a glass of agua de Jamaica (hibiscus flower water), horchata (rice water) or guava juice for another seven pesos.


There’s your meal, simple and pleasurable–the flavors of the fillings are intense, the softness of the gordita melding the taste into a one of a kind treat.

To make gorditas at home, follow this recipe from “One Plate at Time” by Rick Bayless, cookbook author, restaurateur and TV host.

Gorditas con Carne Deshebrada
1 1/4 pounds boneless beef chuck steak, cut into 4 pieces
3 small white onions, diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus oil to a depth of 1/2-inch for frying
1 (28-ounce) can good-quality whole tomatoes in juice, drained and chopped or 2 cups chopped ripe tomatoes
2 to 3 serranos or 1 to 2 jalapenos, stemmed, seeded and very finely chopped
Salt
1 pound (2 cups) fresh, premixed masa
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 scant teaspoon baking power
About 1/3 cup grated Mexican queso anejo or other dry grating cheese, such as Romano or Parmesan
About 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

San Miguel Cathedral. Photo Jane Simon Ammeson.

In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, combine the meat with 2 quarts salted water, about 1/3 of the onions, and half of the garlic and simmer until the meat is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Strain, reserving the broth for another use.

When the meat is cool enough to handle, shred it into coarse strands with your
fingers or 2 forks–don’t worry that there are bits of onion and garlic mixed with
the meat.

Wash and dry the saucepan, set it over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of
the oil. When the oil is hot, add half of the remaining onions and cook until
golden, about 6 minutes, then stir in the remaining garlic and cook for another
minute. Add the tomatoes and chiles and cook until most of the juice has
evaporated, about 3 minutes. Stir in the shredded meat and simmer for a few
more minutes, then taste and season with about 1/2 teaspoon salt. Remove
from the heat and set aside.

Heat a well-seasoned or nonstick griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat.
Divide the masa dough into 10 portions and roll into balls; cover with plastic to
keep from drying out. Line a tortilla press with 2 pieces of plastic cut to fit the
plates. Gently press out a ball of dough between the sheets of plastic to about 4
inches in diameter (it’ll be about 1/4 inch thick).

Peel off the top sheet of plastic, flip the gordita, uncovered side down, onto the
fingers of 1 hand, and gently peel off the second piece of plastic. Place onto
the heated griddle or skillet. Bake for about 1 1/2 minutes, then flip and bake for
another 1 1/2 minutes on the other side. The gordita will be lightly browned and
crusty on the top and bottom, but still a little uncooked on the sides. Remove to
a plate. Continue pressing and griddle-baking the remaining gorditas in the
same manner.

When you’re ready to serve, warm the shredded beef. Rinse the remaining
onions in a small strainer under cold water and shake to remove the excess
moisture. Have the cheese and cilantro at the ready.

In a deep heavy medium skillet or saucepan, heat 1/2-inch of oil over medium
to medium-high until the oil is hot enough to make the edge of a gordita sizzle
sharply, about 350 degrees F on a deep-fry thermometer. One by one, fry the
gorditas, turning them after they’ve been in the oil for about 15 seconds, until
they’re nicely crisp but not hard, about 45 seconds total. When they’re ready,
most will have puffed up a little, like pita bread. Drain on paper towels.

Use a small knife to cut a slit in the thin edge of each one about halfway around
its circumference, opening a pocket. As you cut them, fill each gordita with
about 1/4-cup shredded meat and a sprinkling of the onions, grated cheese,
and cilantro.

Line up the filled gorditas on a serving platter and pass them around (with plenty
of napkins) for your guest to enjoy.

Photo Jane Simon Ammeson.

SouthWest Germany Showcases its Six UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The State Tourist Board of Baden-Württemberg, also known as SouthWest Germany, is marking the 75th
anniversary of the UNESCO with a reminder about its extraordinary UNESCO world heritage sites. SouthWest Germany proudly maintains its six UNESCO world heritage sites, including the distinguished and perfectly preserved Cistercian monastery of Maulbronn which was the first in SouthWest Germany‘s UNESCO crown in 1993.

Today SouthWest Germany’s UNESCO range from the oldest cave art in the world to iconic twentieth
century architecture. SouthWest Germany, officially the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, is a beautiful part of Germany that offers green hills and valleys, caves of ancient art and forests, large and small rivers and lakes, as well as great cities,palaces, castles, medieval monasteries and delicious food and wine. What many people do not know is that SouthWest Germany is also home to no less than six of Germany’s 46 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We present these sites in the order of their own history from oldest to the most modern.

The state’s most recent UNESCO award was made in 2017 but interestingly, it went to one of the oldest
monuments: the caves and art of the ice age in the Swabian Alb, southwest of Stuttgart. When the first modern humans settled in Europe during the last Ice Age about 40,000 years ago, some of them settled in the numerous caves of the Swabian Alb that offered protection. In the caves, they left behind the oldest works of art in the world, whose significance for the understanding of human history and the development of the arts is unique worldwide. After decades of research, archaeologists presented around 50 small mammoth ivory sculptures and eight flutes from the six caves in the Ach and Lone valleys. These are the oldest musical instruments known worldwide. You can visit some of the caves and see the art in nearby museums.


In the south on Lake Constance is the collection of the Pfahlbauten or prehistoric lake dwellings from the Late Neolithic, the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. In 2011, 111 places with pile dwellings in six European countries became UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including nine on Lake Constance. There is a museum on the shores of Lake Constance as well as a village, or a network of thatched huts built on pilings (said to be for transportation or security) and the huts provide re-enactments of the lives of the pile dwellers, including a show of their tools, such as the oldest wheel and textiles in Europe, which date from around 3000 BC. The museum shows the results of the excavations from 3,000 to 900 BC. It was the preservation of archaeological finds in the mud that enabled this unique reconstruction for early life at the lake. They provide fantastic tours in English for all ages.


The legacy of the Roman Empire is one of the greatest empires that ever existed and is included in the UNESCO in Germany. Of course you have heard of Hadrian’s Wall in England, well the Limes Route is the Roman’s line of defense in Europe. (Limes means path or boundary in Latin) The Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes is part of the Roman border fortifications with castles, watchtowers, walls and palisades with which the former world power demarcated its empire from free Germania. There are also museum-like facilities such as protective structures covering roman ruins which are explained by plans, photographs and finds as well as archaeological parks located in the neighborhood of boundary wall structures with reconstructed or restored exhibitions. Most of the forts were founded at the beginning or middle of the 2nd century and existed until the end of the Roman occupation 260/270 A.D. It is actually a perfect site to visit while practicing social distancing as you can walk or bike the entire route – there is a walking trail and a cycling route – and most of it is located in two nature parks.

www.tourism-bw.com

Making Maultaschen at Maulbronn Monastery

In a room where flickering flames highlight low beamed ceilings blackened with centuries of smoke and glass windows wavy from almost a millennium of time give views onto a cobblestone courtyard bordered by half-timbered buildings. I am at Maulbronn Monastery learning to make maultaschen, a centuries old dish that originated  here.  If I succeed, I’ll earn a coveted but very little known diploma in maultaschen making.P1010274

Built in 1147 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the monastery was founded by Cistercians, a religious order of the Benedictines retreating from the world to establish a simpler life and find a balance between manual labor and prayers. Located in the village of Maulbronn in the Black Forest region of southwestern Germany, the monastery was a self-sufficient, fortified city within the boundaries of what was once the Duchy of Swabia.  It’s all very charmingly Germanic, a storybook type place that has survived tumultuous times. Now Maulbronn Monastery, the best preserved medieval monastic complex north of the Alps, functions as a Protestant primary boarding school for both boys and girls. It’s most famous pupil is probably the author Hermann Hesse whose book Beneath the Wheel tells the story of a boy sent to a seminary in the village of Maulbronn.P1010313 (1)

The gates, once locking out the world, are open to visitors, the Romanesque cathedral offers services and tours and historic buildings house a restaurant, visitor center and shops. Frequent events include concerts, fairs, a farmer’s markets during warm weather and those famous Christmas markets they have in Germany. Besides that, this being Germany after all, there’s also Maulbronner Klosterbräu, a beer brewed according to an ancient recipe. Back then water wasn’t safe, so drinking beer, ale and wine started in the a.m. and continued on to night. Which may be one reason why the monks, who were given little food and often prayed for 16 hours straight in the Cathedral were able to do so.P1010302

Back in the day, all was lit by fire and in twilight I can almost sense the friendly ghosts of years past. This feel of what life was like a millennium or more ago includes making maultaschen, sometimes described as a German ravioli but so much more than that. Also, as an aside, if you think maultaschen is hard to pronounce, consider that in Swabian the term is Herrgotts-Bescheißerle, meaning “small God-cheaters.”P1010318

“It’s a dish created when two poor brothers were sent to the monastery because their father couldn’t afford to feed them,” our monastery guide, Barbara Gittinger, tells us as we roll out thin sheets of a shiny dough (note to those who don’t want to totally follow the ancient recipe—if you’re in Southwest Germany you can buy maultaschen dough at many of the markets; in the U.S., substitute egg roll wrappers instead) into perfect squares.

Seems one of the brothers took a delivery of meat during Lent. Not wanting it to go to waste, he chopped up the meat with vegetables and wrapped the mixture in dough. The idea was that God wouldn’t see the meat because of all the veggies and dough. Since that was centuries ago  and they’ve been eating maultaschen ever since the subterfuge obviously worked.P1010261

But there are other stories about the dish’s origins as well including the one about the scandalous Countess of Tyrol who earned the nickname Maultasch, meaning vicious woman (they said worse too but we won’t go there) because of her political machinations and marriage to one man before divorcing her current husband. But you know, these things happen. Anyway, said to be amazingly beautiful, the Countess was also a culinary traveler and she supposedly brought the maultaschen recipe to Maulbronn from Tyrol in the Austrian Alps.P1010342

 

As I listen to the origins of maultaschen, I’m busy mincing Black Forest ham, one of several “forbidden” meats typically used to make the filling, mixing it with leeks, onions and dried bread soaked in water and then squeezed dry. Gittinger says that her family makes theirs with a type of beef mixture that sounds a lot like suet, blood sausage and vegetables such as spinach.  Of course, maultaschen has gone modern and Gittinger says some substitute salmon for the meat.P1010310

I drop a tablespoonful of the mixture on the square of dough, fold it and pinch the seams tightly together (“so it doesn’t open up when cooking,” Gittinger tells me).

Originally, maultaschen would have simmered in a kettle of broth hanging over the open fire. Now, we use a gas stovetop hidden from sight.

Tasting maultaschen and schwäbischer kartoffelsalat (German potato salad), its traditional accompaniment, along with a glass of a dry red German wine) I reflect that the flavors must be different—the wheat milled for the flour to make the dough would be different from the wheat varieties we grow today. The same with the vegetables. But that’s not the case with the Black Forest ham, a variety of dry-cured smoked ham produced in this region since at least Renaissance times. Making and eating maultaschen at Maulbronn Monastery is a historic connection between past and present.

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Oh, and I received my diploma. I’m officially a maultaschen maker now.

P1010329

 

Swabian Maultaschen

2 2/3 cups flour (all-purpose)

1/2 teaspoons salt

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon oil

3 tablespoons water

½ pound Black Forest Ham, American ham or bacon (or a combination of all—you can also use hamburger meat), cooked and chopped

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic (chopped)

2 ounces day-old bread or rolls, soaked in water and then torn into small pieces

1 leek including the green stalk, chopped

2 ounces spinach, cooked and squeezed dry

1 large egg

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 pinch ​pepper (fresh, ground)

1 to 2 quarts broth (beef or other)

For the dough:

Mix flour with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 eggs, oil and just enough of the 3 tablespoons water to make a smooth dough.

Knead for 5 to 10 minutes, until satiny. Form dough into a ball, oil surface, wrap in plastic and let rest for at least 1 hour.

For the Filling:

Cook bacon and remove from pan. Sauté onions, garlic and leeks in bacon drippings, butter or a little vegetable oil until translucent.

Mix remaining filling ingredients together until well mixed.

For the Dumplings:

Roll out half of the dough to 1/8-inch thickness or thinner. You should have a sheet about 12 inches by 18 inches. (You also can use a noodle roller to make flat sheets with 1/5 of dough at a time.)

Score the dough with a knife, one time through lengthwise and five perpendicular cuts to make 1 dozen rectangles.

Place 1 tablespoon dough on each rectangle.

Fold rectangle over and pinch sides to close.

Repeat with the other half of dough.

Bring broth to a simmer and place 1/3 of the maultaschen in the broth. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove and drain. Keep warm if not serving immediately. Repeat with the rest of the maultaschen.

Serve in a bowl with some broth. Serve with Schwäbischer Kartoffelsalat (recipe below).

Schwäbischer Kartoffelsalat

(Swabian Potato Salad)

3 pounds small Yukon gold potatoes of similar size, skins scrubbed and peels left on

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1½ cups beef stock or bouillon

½ cup white vinegar

¾ tablespoon salt

¾ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons mild German mustard (can use regular mustard)

⅓ cup vegetable oil

Fresh chopped chives for garnish

Boil the potatoes in their skins in lightly salted water until tender. Allow the potatoes to cool until you can handle them. Peel the potatoes and slice them into ¼ inch slices. Put the sliced potatoes in a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Add onions, beef broth, vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar, and mustard in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. As soon as it boils, remove from heat and pour the mixture over the potatoes. Cover the bowl of potatoes and let sit for at least one hour.

After at least one hour, gently stir in the vegetable oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. If too much liquid remains, use a slotted spoon to serve. Serve garnished with fresh chopped chives. Serve warm.

For more information, visit kloster-maulbronn.de