Friday, 4 April 2008

There's No Cure Like Travel 4/4/08

Regular readers of this column will be very aware of my frequent trips across the channel and my love affair with La Vie Parisienne. However, what may come as a surprise is the fact that I visit Germany just a frequently. It has to be said that my visits to the small town of Kircheim Unter Teck are really quite different to my Paris jaunts though. Staying with an elderly grandmother isn’t quite the same as living in the centre of one of the worlds great cultural centres. A visit to Germany is more about relaxing and catching up on reading than seeing the sights and Kircheim really doesn’t have much in the way of those. It does have a beautiful Radhaus, and a small castle – well technically it’s a castle but it doesn’t really look like one – overlooking the town. Other than the Kornhaus museum that’s kind of it for the town. A regular highlight is watching the German version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” where bizarrely I seem to get most of the answers right without wholly understanding the questions! Stuttgart is about forty minutes away by train although the trains end too early for me to enjoy Stuttgart’s theatre. That’s a shame as I would have been able to follow the gelb ziegel strasse and discover that it’s not easy being grun, as “Wicked” is currently performing.

Without a doubt I have seen the best and wurst (sorry I couldn’t resist that!) of this particular corner of Germany. With a car at your disposal there are some wonderful things to go and see. Hohenzollern is a huge and fascinating castle and also the home of Prince George Frederick the titular king of Prussia and the German empire. Then there is Schloss Lichtenstein. This castle – not far from the university town of Tubingen – was built in the eighteenth century and was based on a mediaeval castle in a work of fiction. It truly is the stuff of fairy tales. Truly beautiful as you can see from my illustration! Thankfully my eighty seven year old grandmother no longer drives so these attractions are a bit out of the way. I remember her driving. Truly frightening! No cyclist was safe in the vicinity of her Ford Escort.

Anyway enough of this travelogue! Let’s talk about the arts. Although it’s more than eclipsed by Paris my German connection has provided me with a few likes.

It was back in 1983 that I heard the single “99 Luftballons” that was taking Europe by storm. A literal translation of the title was 99 Balloons so when I told my grandmother I wanted to buy 99 Balloons she was particularly surprised, but I did manage to get hold of the single. The following year “99 Red Balloons”, as it was re-christened, went to number one in the UK for it’s singer Nena. Further UK hits eluded Nena, and she remains in people memories largely for appearing on “Top Of The Pops” and “The Old Grey Whistle Test” clad in a vest and sporting particularly hairy arm pits. She continued recording and remained relatively successful in Germany for the next twenty years. Then in 2003 she hit the big time again as she re-recorded all her early hits and the album became the second best selling by a German artist of all time. I Believe Die Schlumpfen (the smurfs) also figure in the top ten! German rock generally doesn’t float my boat though. I can’t ever see myself humming along to Udo Lindenberg or, that other Nena, punk goddess Nena Hagen.

Although she is a world away from the Neue Deutsche Welle of Nena, I have followed the career of Cabaret Chanteuse (or should that be sangerin?) Ute Lemper for almost twenty years. Lemper had already created a sensation in Europe by the time I heard of her in 1988. In the early eighties she was in the Vienna cast of “Cats” eventually taking over as Grizabella, and followed this later with a stint as Sally Bowles in a Paris production of “Cabaret”. A German TV special followed as did the album “Life Is A Cabaret”. I loved the album when I heard it. It features half a dozen songs from “Cabaret” along with a couple of movie songs and numbers from “Les Miserables” and “Dreamgirls” . It probably sounds a little eighties now but I still enjoy it. Although some of her later discs are quite experimental (and hard to take!) there have been some notable exceptions and her first album with Lemper as sole composer is released shortly. Ute has become quite a name on the cabaret and concert scene regularly performing at New York’s CafĂ© Carlyle amongst other prestigious venues. Of course it was in the original cast of the current revival of “Chicago” where Ute came to prominence over here as Velma Kelly, winning an Olivier in the process. We can only hope that she returns to musical theatre some time soon.

Some time ago I wrote about German musicals so I am only going to mention “Elisabeth” and “Tanz Der Vampires” in passing. Possibly two of my favourite scores. As for German cinema, well it rarely captures my imagination but I should mention Edgar Reitz’ epic series of “Heimat” films. Part soap opera and part social commentary the Heimat films provide a gripping insight into German life throughout the twentieth century. Most of the recent German films I have enjoyed have not seen a UK release, however both “Sophie Scholl” and “Balls” did entertain me and they are well worth a viewing!

Of course the charms of Ute Lemper and the hairy pittedness that is Nena are not Germanys main attraction. It’s not the delicious schnitzel served at many a Gasthaus either. So what may you ask is it? Why cake and chocolate of course. Every town is peppered with many a Kaffee Haus where the German equivalent of ladies who lunch drink espresso and have a slice of cake. Oh the cake! There is nothing quite like Schwabischen Apfel Kuchen. I am almost salivating at the thought! My favourite Kaffee Haus has to be Zimmermans in Nurtigen . They make the most amazing chocolate I have ever tasted!!!!

So what has brought on this rambling about all things teutonic you may ask? Well this time next week I will be flying back (terminal five permitting!) from a five day break in Kircheim. No doubt having sampled more than one piece of Schwabischen Apfel Kuchen and a large slab of Zimmerman’s Vollmilch! Not to mention the crisp apple streudels, Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles, Wild geese that fly with – hold on – that show really does get everywhere doesn’t it?

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