In Praise Of National Pride While Abroad

The book “Rick Steves’ Guide to Germany” weighs in at more than 700 pages but devotes just three sentences to Heidelberg, one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Steves’ authors opine that Heidelberg, home to one of Europe’s oldest universities and one of the better preserved old town centers in Central Europe, isn’t worth visiting on a three-week visit to Germany because it’s “overrun with Americans.”

The book doesn’t list a single hotel, restaurant or attraction in the city, apparently in the belief that lemming-like readers will avoid the place simply because the author has instructed them to. I have a lot of respect for Rick Steves and I like his guidebooks, television programs and podcasts. But when I’m advised not to visit a place, it piques my curiosity. Is Heidelberg really that bad? And does it make sense to avoid a place simply because there are too many Americans there?

Heidelberg has been a stop on the American’s Grand Tour of Europe itinerary, particularly for college students, for a very long time. I have no doubt that there are plenty of Americans in the city in the summer but I’ve just spent a few days there and found it to be anything but “overrun” with Americans. In fact, very few of the tourists I encountered were English speakers, and quite a few of those were Canadians. (More on them later.)But even if the city was crawling with American tourists, would that be a legitimate reason to avoid the place? I have mixed feelings on this issue. On the one hand, there’s no point in spending a king’s ransom and losing a night’s sleep flying around the world only to hang out with Courtney and Trent from Connecticut. And David Farley recently raised some good points in noting that a place can seem less than authentic if other Americans are in the house.

But I have to laugh at Americans who completely eschew even making eye contact, let alone conversation with Americans they encounter abroad. I’ve met Americans overseas who act as though they’re almost ashamed to be Americans when they leave the country. As Americans, we carry a lot of baggage when we travel outside the country. In many places, we’re perceived as big, loud, monolingual rubes that have only a superficial understanding of the world outside the USA.

The stereotype doesn’t fit most Americans who take the time, effort and expense to travel overseas but some of our countrymen act as though they’re vaguely embarrassed of their countrymen – even when there’s no reason to be. That said, I have been to places that are so overrun with tourists that I have a hard time enjoying them. For example, there are 227 inhabited Greek islands, but two of them – Mykonos and Santorini – attract more American tourists than all the rest combined.

I’m not enamored with either place, not because I have a problem encountering Americans overseas but because once the locals to tourists ratio tips too heavily in the tourist direction – no matter what the nationality of those tourists – the place loses something. It’s hard to feel like you are in Greece when you hear more Swedish than Greek.

I grew up in Western New York State just a few minutes drive from the Canadian border and over the years, I’ve met scores of Canadian travelers overseas. Many of the Canadians I’ve encountered wear their nationalities on their sleeves, hats or backpacks much more readily than we do as Americans. I’m sure part of this is because they’re proud of their country but they’re also trying to advertise the fact that they’re NOT AMERICANS!

Sean McLachlan pointed out the futility of this tactic a few years ago, but estimated that only half of those who use the Canadian maple leaf on articles of clothing are actually Canadian. I’ve never met a fake Canadian in my travels, but I don’t doubt that the phenomenon exists.

Yesterday, while waiting in line at a bakery in Heidelberg, I met a nice group of Canadian college students from Oshawa, Ontario. There were dozens of them in the city and each and every one was wearing a bright red jacket with the word “CANADA” emblazoned in a large font on the back. We’re one of the more patriotic countries on earth, but I can’t really imagine a large group of American college students wearing blue USA jackets (unless they’re part of a national sports team, which this was not). In fact, most of the time I see people overseas wearing clothing or hats with the US flag on it, the person is not actually American.

I’m not suggesting that we should travel the world draped in American flags. I keep a low profile when outside the country and always make an extra effort to be a respectful visitor so as not to become a walking stereotype. But there’s also nothing worse than an American who leaves the country and becomes a self-loathing American. We have our issues, perhaps more than most countries, but there’s no reason to walk around with one’s head hung in shame. And please feel free to visit Heidelberg. It’s a great place, no matter what Rick Steves and the gang says.

[Photo credits- 1) Editor B on Flickr, 2) Dave Seminara]

Note: I haven’t seen the 2012 edition of “Rick Steves’ Guide to Germany,” so it’s possible he’s corrected the Heidelberg slight.

Drink With The Ghosts Of Napoleon, Marilyn Monroe And Mark Twain: A Pub Crawl In Heidelberg

In Germany, one can go on a pub-crawl and claim to be sightseeing. There are centuries old pubs the size of postage stamps, beer halls one could land a plane in and more beer gardens than post offices. One could spend a lifetime exploring Germany’s historic drinking emporiums but if you’re looking for a medium sized city to base yourself on a beer tour, consider Heidelberg.

Heidelberg is a college town that boasts one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1386, and where there are students there are great bars. Students, and wannabe students, have been guzzling prodigious amounts of beer in Heidelberg for centuries. And if you stay in the altstadt, you’ll hear them singing and partying at all hours of the night. Mark Twain, who spent three months studying German and art in the town in 1878, documented student drinking habits in hilarious detail in his travel narrative “A Tramp Abroad.”

“At a signal they all fall loading themselves with beer out of pint mugs, as fast as possible, and each man keeps his own count,” he wrote. “When the candidate can hold no more, a count is instituted and the one who has drank the greatest number of pints is proclaimed king. I was told that the last beer king emptied his mug 75 times.”

According to Twain, students settled their drunken quarrels by dueling, and those who were particularly unruly were sent to the studentenkarzer, or students’ prison. (see photo) On my first day of beer crawling in Heidelberg I emptied my mug only four times, but managed to guzzle four tasty beers in four of the city’s most interesting drinking emporiums, all within a 400-meter radius. The total cost of the four 1/3-liter beers was just under 12 euros. (My kids drank juice and their drinks cost the same.) This beer crawl is long on beer and short on crawling.

Zum Roten Ochsen (Red Ox Inn) – 217 Hauptstrasse – This dark, inviting bar/restaurant is one of the city’s oldest student drinking clubs. It was opened in 1703 and has been owned for the last 170 years by the Stengel family, some of who live upstairs. When you walk in, take a look at the stained glass windows – each devoted to a different field of study – and take a lap around the place to check out the black and white photos of some of the famous people who have supposedly quaffed beers here. Surely this is the only bar in the world that can claim Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Otto Van Bismarck and Mark Twain as former patrons.

Nearly every inch of wall and table space is scarred with the graffiti carvings of drunks from the last few centuries. I had a Heidelberger dunkel on draft that I didn’t want to put down. Our waitress explained to us that the club used beer tokens as tender until 1965, largely because the family who runs the place didn’t trust their waitresses so they’d make them buy the beer with tokens and then resell it to patrons.

Zum Sepp’l – 213 Hauptrasse – In a perfect world, everyone would have a bar like this in their neighborhood. The stunning stained glass windows, antique signs and dark, oak tables – all carved with generations of graffiti – make this place an incredibly atmospheric location to have a drink. The place was founded in 1642 and the history of the place oozes out of the carved up walls.

Our waitress told us that Napoleon used to frequent the place but said she’d never heard of Mark Twain or John Wayne. Other than a tiny little TV inside a picture frame silenced on mute, the only sounds we heard were the clinking of glasses and the conversations of other patrons. I wanted to move into the place, but settled for just one beer – a deliciously tart Easter beer brewed by the Kulturbrauerei, our next stop, right around the corner.

Kulturbrauerei – 6 Leyergasse – The current incarnation of this microbrewery dates to 1998 but breweries have existed on these premises since 1235. The main dining room has an ornately tiled ceiling, massive wood columns and atmospheric chandeliers. The food is first rate and the beers are even better. Try the maibock or the cloudy lager.

Vetter Brauhaus – 9 Steingassee – This microbrewery, which has indoor and outdoor seating, dates only to 1987 but you’d never know it. The long, candlelit tables, high ceilings and beautiful old bar give the place a timeless quality. I had a marzen beer that sent me into a reverie so deep that I almost wanted to do the old “SNL” sprockets dance – almost. It was so good that I could almost imagine how a beer king could down 75 mugs of it.