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Searching for Snow White and some good German beer in Bavaria's Spessart forest.
Germans love their summer fests. Last August, during a weeklong stay in northern Bavaria, my wife and I spent half our time in festival beer gardens. The afternoon we arrived, our host drove us to our first – in the town of Lohr, part of a multi-day party called Spessartfestwoche – directly from the airport. I’d stayed up all night on the plane, and I wasn’t sure this was how I wanted to spend the evening, especially since in Vancouver it was 8 o’clock in the morning. But we went. We’re Canadians; we cling to the good-sport ideal.
Lohr hosts five festivals in the summer, and this one turned out to be a regional country fair complete with swing carousel, Ferris wheel and a midway shooting gallery. The evening’s festivities centred around a Miss und Mister Spessart beauty contest, and we passed five hours drinking one-litre glass steins of lemon-lime shandy and eating a proportional amount of steamed sausage and a kind of oily, hard-rinded pork roast called rollbraten while watching attractive young Germans stroll the two catwalks. I was surprised to see that Bavarians actually do like to camp it up in lederhosen and dirndl frocks, and not just on stage. Even children wore them. In another mood this would have seemed charming, but as the evening wore on and I withdrew into a passive state – half-asleep, half-drunk – five-year-olds in leather pants came across as slightly hallucinatory.
The town of 16,000 is located in the Spessart forest, a hilly region about the size of Garibaldi Provincial Park. “Spessart” means Woodpecker Forest, and it’s one of the oldest swaths of deciduous forest left in Europe, a fairy-tale wood of old-growth beech, fir and oak. Set aside since the eighth century as a hunting ground for princes and nobility, the Spessart was a favourite hideout of bandits and highwaymen, infamous for centuries as a place where travellers needed to sew their gold coins into their jacket lining.
But in the past century, the area has become associated more with Snow White than Robin Hood. The Brothers Grimm were born in Hanau on the forest’s western edge, and around 40 of their stories come from the Spessart region. One resident of Lohr, a pharmacist named Karlheinz Bartels, boosted the Lohr tourist trade a few years ago by claiming that Snow White was based on the life of a local princess named Maria Sophia von Erthal and that her seven dwarves were based on short-statured miners hired to work the tunnels of nearby copper and lead mines. (The talking mirror, Bartels argues, was a riff on the reputation Lohr’s glassworks had of crafting excellent mirrors that “always spoke the truth.”) “This all began as a bit of a joke in the local pub 17 years ago,” he told a local newspaper, “but a lot of energy and research has gone into it.”
At German festivals such as the Lohr Spessartfestwoche you can see the possible link between beer and fairy tales. Crowned with her tiara, the smiling, dirndl-frocked teenage winner of the Lohr beauty contest was the very image of medieval cuteness, but with better teeth. Amid the revelry of her sloshed countrymen, she had fit the glass slipper, won the dark-haired prince. Even in my fugue state, I was happy for her, though my own tale ended less happily. Light beer and pork drippings make a poor breakfast, and my night back at the hotel did not go well. Therefore, the moral of the story: if you go to Germany, find a seasonal fest and settle in with your meat and stein, but only after you’ve slept off your jet lag.
Summer and early fall are the best times to visit the Spessart area, but the weather is unpredictable: hot spells of 30-plus Celsius are common.
The town of Aschaffenburg is charming, particu- larly the old quarter of Altstadt. Try the Hotel Goldener Karpfen, a traditional half-timbered building built 600 years ago. hotel-goldenerkarpfen.de
Trek the 111-kilometre Donkey Trail that crosses the Spessart, a medieval trade route named for the pack animals that carried salt to shipping ports on the Main River.
Enjoy a pint of beer and a plate of meat in the middle of the forest at the Hohe Wart-Haus. In winter they serve roast goose; in summer an ox steak as big as the plate. hohewart-haus.de