Saturday, March 17, 2007

Almond Blossom Time

Some places go mad about roses, New England boasts about dying leaves, Japan goes wild about blooming cherries and with Ginmeldingen it is almond blossom. Hmm, Ginmeldingen, perhaps not a place on everyone’s lips, and to be honest a really tiny place, close to the rather small Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, which lies about 25 km southwest of Ludwigshafen, in Germany. (Tip, find Heidelberg then look slightly northwest on the left bank on the Rhine.) This is where the Rhine flows northwards through a rift valley bordered on the west by the hills of Rheinland Pfalz and on the east by the Odenwald. The Rhine lowlands have sandy soils excellent for growing asparagus and salad crops but the east and southfacing slopes of the Pfalzerwald are excellent for wine production. This is the German equivalent of big wine country with large vineyards, many still in the hands of families, sloping uphill to the steeper wooded hill crests. For days our local paper had been praising the excellence of this year’s almond blossom, about a month a head of schedule and undamaged by biting winds or heavy rain. So we abandoned our garden tools and switched off the computer, made a sandwich, filled the water bottles and set off on our Bromptons to hitch a ride by tram and suburban train over the Rhine to the vineyards.
Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, with its mix of mundane shops and imposing villas of wealthy vintners was soon left behind as we rode uphill and onto the Weinstrasse, the Wine Road that links the wine villages and towns here. It is an ancient trade route, predating the Romans and some of the villages have a long history, as we soon discovered. Almost immediately we encountered our first almond trees, certainly very fetching with their pink and white flowers against the mainly blue sky. Some high cirrus had replaced the deep cloudless blue of the previous day but did not obscure the sun. Some of the almond trees have been here for years, burly multibranched specimens but others are much more recent and both the size and the colour of the blooms varied. Other cyclists on mountain bikes headed to the higher slopes but many were like us, out for a day’s jaunt in no particular hurry.
In Ginmeldingen itself, a spring line village with a small stream running down a deep valley flanked by an assortment of old and new houses and farms we came across a reference to Mithras, the ancient Persian god of light. A replica of a stone relief, deeply weathered, showing a bull and various figures sits in a wall close to where the original (now in a museum) was found during building work. Whether the cult was brought here by the Romans or Celtic traders is unknown but does emphasise how long people have been around and travelling through this region. Around Ginmeldingen the vine growers had set up branches and tables under the almond trees, for at the weekends there are dawn to dusk wine tastings and no doubt wine can even be transported home for those cyclists who have forgotten their panniers. In the week, the garden centres were open offering almond trees for planting at home and the cafes and restaurants providing hot meals throughout the day to those walking the almond trail with sticks and rucksacs or the day cyclists like ourselves.
We continued our gentle ride, now up into the vine groves where young men pruned the vines ferociously back to one or two shoots, now down towards the other little spring-line settlements. One of these is Deidesheim, with some very large villas and wine producers and where, the story goes former German Chancellor Kohl, a rather large and chubby man, used to pop in to the Deidesheimer Hof restaurant for a Sunday blow out of Saumagen (don’t ask but think haggis and pink porkers) and Sauerkraut. Deidesheim, like the other little towns around first belonged to various local princes, then the Bishop of Speyer, then the French and for a long time it was part of Bavaria. This happened when the local Wittelsbacher became King of Bavaria. Not until after WW II did this part of the world become Rheinland-Pfalz. Interesting how many politicians today seem to think any change of allegiance will be too much for the peasantry to understand. Most of mainland Europe has been waking up for centuries to find that not only do they have to fight for or pay taxes to someone they’ve only dimly heard of, their religion has changed overnight too, from Protestant to Catholic or vice versa. In recent years most of these little communities have grown comfortably well off, from the proceeds of wine, tourism or the booming market in fresh vegetables and salads. A network of fast roads links them to the Autobahn system and buses wait by the S-bahn stations to carry shoppers or workers in Ludwigshafen or Mannheim the last kilometre home. Property prices are lower than in the urban centres, thick dialects are still used but people are pretty close to mainstream 21st century life.
In Wachenheim, home of some major Sekt or sparkling wine makers we turned gently downhill and headed towards Ludwigshafen, Mannheim’s twin city on the left bank of the Rhine. Perhaps we’d lost our skill at route finding or perhaps there were simply too many local routes, we missed a turn here or there and when we saw a welcome S-bahn station in Maxdorf we decided to throw in the towel for the day. No doubt there are people who love Ludwigshafen, just as there are those who adore Hartlepool or Felixstowe but I have to feel very strong to want to cross the place from side to side by bike It is a bit of a concrete jungle. So we rode the rails into Mannheim and onwards to home and a well deserved cup of tea. However the local paper was right. It was too schön to miss.

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