Do you remember learning about the 'Electors Palatine' in history? Do you even remember what they were? No? Well, nor did this Researcher, until she moved there! Anyway, all will be explained...
In the south-west of Germany, bordering on France, there is a little-known area, mainly rural, unspoilt and yet with a reliable and serviceable infrastructure. It is the ideal place for enjoying pleasant countryside and walks, for good food and wine and large stretches of woodlands.
It is the Palatinate - in German Die Pfalz (pronounced 'Pffalts'; in the local dialect it is pronounced 'Palts', but more about that later). The word comes from the type of government that ruled that area back in - and after - the Middle Ages. It means, basically, an area governed by the feudal lord, as opposed to a prince or monarch (the Electors Palatine mentioned above). It is in the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz (Rheno-Palatinate), which also includes similar rural regions such as the Eiffel and Westerwald and along the Rhine (with the picturesque towns of Bacharach, Rüdesheim and Bingen). However, this entry deals with the region to the south of this, spreading westwards from the Rhine...
The political state or province of Rheinland-Pfalz is not synonymous with the geographical region of the Pfalz. This is a non-political division, approximately the southern half of the Rheinland-Pfalz you will find on the map. It is distinguished partly by its countryside, but mainly by the mentality and dialect of its inhabitants.
To the west, the border is the German/French border; to the east, the Rhine. (This often confuses the French, who think that France stretches to the Rhine in the east). The tiny neighbouring state of Saarland is embedded halfway up into the west of Rheinland-Pfalz, making that even closer to France. To the south, the countryside merges into the Black Forest. In France, to the west, the forests and mountains continue, and are known as the Vosges (German: Die Vogesen). Two of the most famous and important towns in the Palatinate are Kaiserslautern - home of Pfaff sewing machines (who have now gone bankrupt) and the football club - and Ludwigshafen, home of the BASF. Mainz, Speyer, Worms and Landau are all in the Pfalz and have an historical and cultural significance far outside the borders of the Pfalz and even Germany.
For further orientation, you might care to look for Heidelberg on a map and follow the Neckar back down to the Rhine. These two rivers meet in Mannheim1. Spreading left from the Rhine just north and south of Mannheim is the Palatinate, and a further search will show you the towns mentioned above.
The climate is very mild, but varies from 'muggy' in the Rhine valley (especially in the summer, where smog warnings are not unknown after several hot dry days and where use of cars is limited), up to 'fresh' in the mountainous parts, which reach up to 900m, graduating away from the valley. The Rhine valley in particular usually averages 3-5°C above the temperatures of the surrounding areas.
Being a border area, its history is full of conflicts and battles and this is reflected in the large number of ruined castles scattered all through the forests of the Palatinate. Part of the time the area was under French rule, part of the time it was German, a fate it shares with its neighbour, Alsace, which is now in France. During the Occupation of the Allies from 1945 to 1990 the area was mainly in the French zone, with parts of it in American hands (Kaiserslautern was a major base; Ramstein, the airbase used these days by American Presidents on their way to the Near and Middle East, is also in the Pfalz).
Worms is the place where Siegfried and the Nibelungen are reputed to have hung out. The local buildings, monuments and streets reflect these legends, with names like Nibelungen - or Rheingold - being used for streets, schools, chemists or stadiums. Of course, the town is more famous for the Diet of Worms, which took place in 1521 when King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, called Martin Luther to talk on his theses, a confrontation which turned out unfavourably for Luther.
The area was favoured by the kings, princes and bishops who ruled at the time of the Crusades. Building work on the famous cathedrals of Speyer and Worms started in the 11th Century. They took several hundred years to build, but are still basically in the uncluttered Romanesque style, typically red in colour due to the prevailing local sandstone.
In the days where Church and monarchy were almost one, Speyer was what could be called the capital of Germany. To this day you can see the Salian Emperors' (1024-1125) last resting places in the architecturally impressive crypt of the cathedral in Speyer. Both Speyer and Mainz have Catholic bishops, even though they are geographically close together.
Despite - or maybe because of - this strong Catholic influence in the region, both Speyer and, of course, Worms, played an extremely significant role during the Reformation when Martin Luther and his teachings started to become known in the early 16th Century.
The Palatinate also boasts of being the 'cradle of German democracy' when in 1832 an uprising led to a huge gathering in Hambach, near Neustadt an der Weinstraße. At this meeting the red, gold and black flag of Germany was flown for the first time, and from that day on many reforms took effect, changing the political landscape over the whole of Germany.
Famous People from the Palatinate
The most famous native of the Pfalz (which makes him a Pfälzer) of recent times is Helmut Kohl, who comes from Oggersheim, a suburb of Ludwigshafen, and was Chancellor from 1983 to 1998 - during Perestroika, the reunification of Germany, the Gulf War and the latest very disputed Rechtschreibreform - when the German language was given new rules which no one understands, particularly with regard to spelling and the use of capital letters.
Many Americans turn out to have been born in the Palatinate on one of the American bases, and have found it is a good selling point for the large and wealthy German public. Bruce Willis springs to mind and the mother of Eva Cassidy (of recent fame, the female singer who posthumously shot up the charts) also comes from the area Bad Kreuznach2.
The language has absorbed copious French words and a German coming from the north will have difficulty understanding a local Pfälzer (this is of course mutual). Some French words still in use are trottoir ('pavement'), porte-monnaie ('purse') and chaise ('a baby's pram').
The pronunciation is very wide and at the same time the consonants are soft. The 'f' in words such as Pfalz is not pronounced and the 'n' at the end of words is always left off (infinitives and many adjectives end in 'n'). An 'e' at the end of a word is pronounced 'ee' and almost all vowels are very different from the standard German pronunciation. These vary so much even from village to village, that it is difficult to give any examples. People who speak with a strong accent may be able to manage normal German, however, and the standard of English spoken is high. It is quite rare to find someone who speaks French, contrary to what you might expect.
However, should you cross the border into Alsace, you will find that anyone over 50 will speak German (the local patois, Alemannisch, is more German than French) as a matter of course, and anyone over 20 will speak German as a second language. Most children also understand it thanks to their grandparents.
The Pfälzer are very proud of their dialect and humour and you will find many books explaining the language - even some Pfälzisch-English dictionaries. They have local heroes of literature who write poetry and prose in the language, comedians and dialect competitions for all the amateur poets, stand-up comedians and writers. Each tiny village has an amateur dramatics society which puts on their own plays in dialect, once a year, and often written by a member of the society.
The area is first and foremost a wine-growing region. However, the beer is quite passable and the area also prides itself on vegetables of all sorts, particularly potatoes, onions and other root vegetables. In May and June the asparagus (one of the most prominent crops in the area) is in season. In Germany, this is grown and eaten white. In the summer, the tobacco ripens and the leaves are picked individually and hung up in large barns to dry.
The sandy soil of the area is not so good for fruit trees, but these are also cultivated in a similar way to the vines - low-growing trees in rows in spalier formation, so that the area is at least self-sufficient in apples, plums, etc.
Typical grapes, in German, include:
Morio Muskat - very sweet
Müller-Thurgau - a very distinctive taste, a little sweet
Riesling - an all purpose white wine, now also used for making a serviceable sparkling wine
Scheurebe (literally 'Shy Grape') - a dry and tasty white wine, somewhat drier than the Riesling
Kerner - a fruity white wine, not too sweet
Sylvaner - also an all-purpose, dryish white wine
Portugieser Weißherbst - a delicious rosé
Dornfelder - a fabulous red wine, can compete with the French or Italian wines, has recently become deservedly very fashionable
Dunkelfelder - a thick fruity red wine - the ultimate in decadance
At higher altitudes, the soil is better and the newspapers always show pictures of the first almond blossoms of the year, or spectacular displays of cherry or apple orchards in flower.
In the autumn, when most of these products are harvested, it is usual to serve the following strange mixtures: potato soup with plum cake (a flat cake more like a pizza with a yeast dough base and covered with slices of plum), a drink of the first wine pressed accompanied by an onion cake - a kind of quiche or flan, again with a yeast base and a thick covering of onions, cream, bacon, etc). As the wine is usually quite potent in the first throes of fermenting, this can be quite an 'explosive' meal.
The Palatinate boasts many gourmet restaurants, notably the Schwarzer Hahn in Deidesheim where Helmut Kohl, when he was Chancellor, would entertain heads of State. The most famous speciality a Pfälzer butcher can sell is the Saumagen. This is none other than stuffed pig's stomach, so it is a cousin to the haggis in a way. The pig's stomach is stuffed with various bits of offal and meat and seasoned with lots of marjoram and various other locally grown herbs. It is cut into slices the thickness of a man's thumb and fried and served with potatoes, either fried or boiled.
How to Spend Time when you Visit the Palatinate
The large areas of unadulterated woodland call for hikes - long, short, steep, whichever suits you. Of course, the Germans wouldn't be the Germans if they hadn't long since organised this activity. The Pfälzerwaldverein is a large association of hikers who go on organised trips on foot through the woods. The really serious ones can attain medals for walking certain distances. While the idea of doing it in groups may not be to many people's taste, this association serves the further purpose of providing maps, servicing huts, providing cheap food and drink along the way and marking out routes (usually little coloured lines or circles on trees, rocks and posts). See the section on the Palatinate in the entry on Great Walks.
In each tiny village there are usually at least half a dozen vintners ready to serve you wine and extremely happy to sell you a few crates. Don't worry, it is really cheap, and, as you've tasted it, you know what you're getting! On the increase are Biowinzer - vintners who have chosen to use less chemicals and are producing plenty of wine; they can sell at just as reasonable prices as their conventional counterparts. Cheap is around DM5 per bottle, very good is DM15, very expensive is DM25, but you'd have a job to find many over DM10.
At any time of year, some village will be having a feast to celebrate its local wine or other produce. There is the Rettichfest ('horseradish festival') in Schifferstadt, the Strohhutfest ('straw hats') in Frankenthal, the Brezelfest ('pretzels' - see the entry on German Bread) in Speyer, or the Backfischfest ('fried fish') in Worms. One of the sights to visit in Bad Dürkheim is the giant barrel which now houses a restaurant.
Enjoy a Civilised Football Match
The only team the Palatinate has in the German First Division is FC Kaiserslautern. They are, however, renowned for the fairness of their fans and the cheerful atmosphere in their Stadium (Fritz-Walter-Stadion). Many families have season tickets and even the children are infected by the Red Devils. The club has had its ups and downs, but in recent years has featured in European Championships, and one or two famous German national football players have come from its ranks. Football is played from approximately September to May, with the team playing at home every other Saturday.
There are a couple of resorts which offer skiing and some great tobogganing, but only for a very limited time - snow is not guaranteed.
The Rhine meanders along the eastern side of the Palatinate. At the end of the 19th Century it was straightened out, to facilitate the transport of goods along the waterways. The oxbow lakes and large stretches of water that remained are areas of great interest to naturalists, and offer all kinds of water for canoes and rowing boats. You can also row, sail or paddle up the Rhine itself, but the water is not terribly nice if you fall in.
The Carnival season (know as Fasching in the Palatinate), is celebrated with great gusto. Most famous is the broadcast from Mainz of the variety show with many very high quality acts and the usual politically satirical speeches in rhyme.
Why Go There?
This is the perfect place for a quiet, and very cheap holiday. If you don't have to come on business (maybe to Mannheim, Ludwigshafen, Karlsruhe, Kaiserslautern) or if you aren't an American airman, you have the choice of coming simply for a holiday. Bring walking shoes and check out the lovely old towns or the Roman ruins, drink wine and eat as much as you can, admire the scenery and get to know the people. Make sure you've got a ticket back, or you might be tempted to stay!