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Family Fun in Southwest Germany

by Debra Bokur

Jul 25, 2018

© Minnystock | Dreamstime.com

Destinations / Europe

A smiling young woman twirls by our table on her way to another, plunking down a traditional blue and gray Bembel jug filled with apfelwein and leaving it within easy reach. I’m already happily acquainted with these iconic stoneware pitchers — and with their contents.

Brimming with history, fascinating towns and plenty of castles, the food part of this region’s culture is just one more great reason to visit with your family: Kids can pick their own asparagus in the Spargelacker, or asparagus fields, while learning why this green, stalky veg has royal roots; take a cooking class to learn how to make Maultaschen raviolis; sample a range of traditional green sauces made from herbal blends; and compete to find the best-tasting chocolate-and-cherry Black Forest cake. Adult kids can enjoy the apple wine and local red Trollinger wines, or visit one of the historic breweries.

The next day embraces the ancient side of this area of Germany, with a visit to the Messel Fossil Pit in Darmstadt. Paleontologist-geologist Pascal Schmitz shows us around, and explains this location is regarded as the most important site from the Eocene period of Earth’s history, and ranks as one of the four most important sites so far uncovered on the planet.

Younger family members may care less about this than the wide range of fossils on view in the on-site museum. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, it’s been the location for thousands of finds that include fossils of fish, flora, reptiles, birds, insects and mammals dating to between 57 million and 36 million years ago. These include a significant number of early pygmy horses and ground-dwelling creatures such as fierce-looking early hedgehogs known as Pholidocercus; Macrocranion, scaled pangolins; and Messelastur, an early parrot that happened to be carnivorous.

Because no tour of Southwest Germany is complete without a castle or two, we’re heading for the massive, elegant, 5-star Schlosshotel Kronberg in Kronberg im Taunus. The hotel is undeniably stunning, but the dining room nearly eclipses the beauty of the rooms, each re-imagined by designer Nina Campbell. At dinner, chef Florian Hartmann and his team present regional specialties that include guinea fowl, local cheeses and desserts whipped up with chestnut cream — along with lovely wine selections from the Prinz von Hessen vineyard.

We cross over briefly into Bavaria to visit the Faust Brewery in Miltenberg. Producing beer for more than 300 years, it’s the oldest brewery in the Rhine-Main region, and is still family owned. While I choose a pilsner to sample, there are plenty of non-alcohol choices that include a lemonade shanty. We take a tour of the working brewery, learning Germany purity laws limit ingredients to four: water, malt, hops and yeast. Our guide explains that, in winter, ice blocks are cut from the frozen River Main and stored in the subterranean beer cave, constructed more than 360 years ago, to chill the beer through the summer months.

Miltenberg Panorama

Miltenberg Panorama, Southwest Germany © Darknightsky | Dreamstime.com

We’ve booked rooms at the Miltenberg Castle for the night, and arrive in time to take a guided tour of the castle and grounds. On our way back along the path to our rooms in a separate building, we’re accosted by a group of bandits. Happily, they’re actors who are part of the experience, and the ambush quickly takes a happy turn with singing and music.

Back in Frankfurt, it’s time to circle back to apples. The city’s impressive green spaces include the traditional apple wine growing area called Lohrberg, and we begin the day by wandering through the orchards and enjoying a light lunch at the MainÄppelHaus, served with freshly pressed apple juice.

In the city, guide Mika Horstmann takes up through the Sachsenhausen district. His insider tour includes plenty of foodie stops, from the fresh hot and cold fare at the Markt im Hof farmers market to the heady selection of sweets and candies behind the curtains at the fantasy-like Bitter & Zart Chocolaterie. This neighborhood is also the city’s apple wine center, with a host of cafés and bars.

We make a stop at Apfelweinhandlung Jans Becker, a lovely store with its own line of apple wines, owned by Jens Becker. Every shelf is weighed down with beautifully labeled bottles. Tart and refreshing, apple wine is a staple here in Southwest Germany, and shouldn’t be confused with hard cider: The process used to create it is the same used to produce any other wine, with the notable exception that sugar is added during the fermentation stage. Becker notes his wine, like most Frankfurt apple wines, is made without the addition of sugar common in other areas.

As a treat, he sets out samples of Frankfurt’s other apple product: vinegar. Used since ancient times as a health elixir and supposedly “discovered” when a cask of wine went off, vinegar was favored by Roman legionnaires as a refreshing beverage.

I sample cautiously, and am delighted to find the mild, slightly sweet vinegars are highly palatable and less acidic than most I’ve tried. Before we leave, I’ll choose one to take home with me. But not just yet. Becker is setting out a few of his favorite apple wines, arranging them on a central table for an informal tasting. Vinegar is all well and good, but, in a tasting contest in a city that knows its apples, wine will always win.

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