Friday, 25 November 2016

In Stuttgart...

Messehotel Stuttgart
While I was expecting a bumpy flight, I was pleasantly surprised to find it smooth all the way over. The BBC weather forecasters had promised 'more of the same' – they were referring to Storm Angus, heavy winds and rain – and I was gearing up for an unpleasant 70 minutes in the air. Fortunately, I was flying British Airways and, once through the fairly light cloud, and after my customary Island Bakery Lemon Melts (great biscuits) and one of those tiny bottles of red wine, I found myself safely on the ground, in a taxi and on my way to the Messehotel Europe, a really pleasant place, despite it's location on a fairly busy road opposite an Esso garage.

At the check-in, the receptionist kindly informed me that I had been upgraded. I'm sure he meant the room and not me personally, unless I'm really a robot manufactured by some sinister corporation, like in Bicentennial Man or Blade Runner.

Room 316 is on the third floor and is very nice: lots of wood, a safe, proper coat hangers, a fully-stocked minibar, flat screen television, ample desk space, and, I'm afraid, a pretty standard 'view' from the hotel window. Remember that Esso garage? My room is about 25 yards from the forecourt, and I'm here for two nights.

View from room 316, Messehotel Europe
For dinner, in a restaurant no more than five minutes' walk from the hotel, I enjoyed deer goulash with red cabbage, a lovely dumpling – I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a dumpling – and, oddly, half a peeled pear, followed by an apple-based dessert with ice cream, fresh orange and kiwi fruit. And as for dumplings, we had some with a beef stew at home only recently.

Breakfast the following morning, after hardly any sleep – I tend not to sleep well on my first night in a hotel – was fine, consisting of Sugar Puffs, a plate of scrambled egg and fried mushrooms, a small croissant, strawberry yoghurt and fresh fruit, not to mention a black coffee (the tea looked like a faff so I didn't bother).

My lack of sleep was based on hitting the sack around midnight, after answering some work emails and watching BBC World, but then I awoke at 0345hrs and couldn't get back to sleep so I went on the computer until 0600hrs and continued with my day. Big mistake. I was falling asleep for split seconds around lunch time and my eyelids felt kind of heavy. I tried desperately to resist, and succeeded, but there's a lesson to be learned here: if you awake in the dead of night, don't get up, remain in bed, stare at the ceiling, anything, but don't get out of bed.

Lentils, Frankfurters and pasta...really tasty
It was a busy day that finished around 10pm after a pleasant dinner in a typical German brew house where I enjoyed lentils with pasta and two Frankfurters, and let's not forget two beers.

Prior to dinner there was a guided tour of Stuttgart, a city with a population of 600,000, which can swell to 2.2 million, we were told. The central station is an impressive building, built at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries and now about to be re-modelled with subterranean railway lines. It's going to cost around 7 billion Euros and, needless to say, there have been public protests over the rising cost of the project, our guide explained. Originally it was only 2 billion Euros. When finished, it will be possible to take through trains to Munich. At the moment trains stop at Stuttgart and can't go any further – or at least I think that's right. Stuttgart is a railway terminal, but it won't be when the renovations are completed, so perhaps all it means is that a train arriving in Stuttgart won't have to double back on itself before heading in the direction for Munich, but what do I know?
The Germans love Christmas

Stuttgart was home to some famous people: Mr Daimler, Mr Porsche and the poet Schiller lived in the city. Stuttgart is well known for its automotive industry and there is very little unemployment. In fact, I hadn't seen any homeless people until the end of the evening when I spotted a man in a sleeping bag at the metro station. I also discovered that 'Konigstrasse' means King's Road in English – you learn something new every day.

I was staggered, however, to hear that 40% of Stuttgart's population is made up of immigrants and that, in addition to people, there were plenty of Canadian geese who, apparently, fly here from Scandinavia, without proper documentation, presumably because it's warmer. I don't know, bloody Canadian geese coming over here and stealing all the jobs from German geese.

Stuttgart, originally a protestant City, is the birthplace of the humble pretzel and home to the world's first ever television tower, but don't mention the war. Sadly, 90% of Stuttgart's buildings were destroyed by allied bombers during the Second World War, but nobody was letting it spoil their evening, least of all yours truly. I ordered a couple of Schönbuch beers to accompany my lentils and pasta, but I wished I hadn't ordered a side of potato wedges. Fortunately there were enough people willing to share them and nothing was wasted.

Stuttgart's opera house
After dinner we took a ride on the metro back to the Messehotel Europe, and then I took a shower and climbed into bed to get some much needed sleep, although I still awoke around 0300hrs, but this time I decided not to get up. Instead I lay there and eventually I must have fallen asleep because my alarm went off and it was time to get up. I'd checked out the previous evening so all I had to do was pack my case and I was ready for breakfast. I skipped the scrambled egg, the fried mushrooms and the coffee and enjoyed a cup of tea, a bowl of fresh fruit, a helping of Sugar Puffs and a yoghurt.

There was a lot of time spent in a coach. Our first stop was the Audi R8 manufacturing plant and it was quite incredible, although, unlike a lot of people, cars do nothing for me. As far as I'm concerned they exist to get me from A to B in relative comfort and that's it. Other people are different and I'm prepared to accept that fact. They seem to know a hell of a lot about cars and the ownership situation behind the car manufacturers. I haven't a clue. I couldn't tell you whether VW own BMW or vice versa or whether Audi owns Bentley or Daimler – and that's because I just don't care. I'm also not fussed about sports cars, or flash cars generally, and wouldn't buy one even if I was wealthy. Why pay £200,000 for an Audi R8? I'd rather buy a house in the Scottish Highlands. I listened to stories about Americans coming over to Germany to watch their R8 roll off the production line and then, apparently, crying when they saw it. What is wrong with people? Why cry? How about a smile? Apparently the colour of the car you buy is a status symbol in China. I can't remember the gist of the conversation, something about black being all about status, but that somebody in China had bought a green one – or was it that green in China means your status is high? I don't know and I don't care, but if there's one thing I abhor (there are lots of things I abhor) it's 'status' and, more to the point, 'status people'. There's a great song by The Groundhogs on the album Thank Christ for the Bomb entitled Status People. Here's the key lyrics:-

I'll be glad to say goodbye to status people who are just a lie,
I left them behind when I walked out of the door, I'll never see them anymore

It's a suitably depressing track (deliciously so in many ways) about somebody turning their back on society, and there is some rather desperate-sounding, but brilliant, guitar work that has a certain haunting quality to it – the whole album is good. As I walked around the Audi R8 plant, I wondered whether those who were making the R8 could afford to buy one.

The Audi R8
Back in the coach and it was pleasant to watch the German countryside pass by: fields and forests and small, quaint towns, often shrouded in a light mist. It wasn't long before we reached the town of Schwäbischhall, a rather quaint, chocolate box sort of place with a Christmas market. We had dinner in a traditional German restaurant, Goldener Adler, where I enjoyed goose breast with red cabbage and dumplings. Yes, dumplings again, they're lovely and we should all eat more of them.

The hotel, it has to be said, was rather good, albeit not conforming to the golden hotel designers' rule of 'function before form', something that boutique hotels should always remember; but they always forget. First, how the hell can I get the room key out of the lock? It took me an age to figure it out (the key has to be in a horizontal position); then it was the lights: how to turn them on. Ultimately it was all mildly annoying and the last thing I needed after a tough day. Boutique hotels are all about accentuating the 'craziness' of the owner, a bit like the cringeworthy "you don't have to be mad to work here – but it helps!" At one stage I inadvertently opened the bathroom window while trying to switch on the light. Having plunged myself into darkness by touching the wrong switch, I fiddled about and then heard a strange whining sound: it was the bathroom window slowly opening. Other than the unnecessary quirkiness of the Hotel Scholl, all was fine, although breakfast the following morning was a little odd as nothing seemed to be sweetened. The fresh fruit salad, for instance, was lacking sugar, and so was the orange juice, causing me to wince and pull faces.

Hotel Scholl, Schwäbischhall
After another busy day, a lot of it spent in a coach – although it was pleasant dozing on the autobahn in the dark – we enjoyed a tour of the town. I don't really want to go on about the Second World War, but our guide was quick to point out that Schwäbischhall only lost 3% of its buildings because of allied bombing raids, although it lost a considerable portion of the town 300 years earlier in a fire, but you really need to visit this place to believe it: very quaint and an ideal weekend break location, particularly at this time of the year. We dined at a place called Schuhbäck – be warned, they don't accept credit cards – where I enjoyed lentils with pasta and Frankfurter sausage – wonderful. The nice thing about German food is it's 'normality'. It's good, solid food that is nutritionally on the money, filling and even more perfect when washed down with a couple of pints of German beer.

And now it is Friday and it's 0642hrs. We leave the hotel at 0800hrs and will head towards Stuttgart airport around 1630hrs. But first, I need to check out of the Hotel Scholl and grab a bite to eat for breakfast. A slice of bread and some unsweetened orange juice sufficed and soon I was back in the coach gazing out on the German countryside. Pretzels and bread rolls for lunch on the move as we raced towards our last appointment of the day and then we headed for Stuttgart airport. Check-in was relatively smooth, the flight was even smoother – clear skies all the way over – and my taxi was waiting for me at arrivals.
One stair at a time at the Hotel Scholl
I reached home in time for the end of the 10 o'clock news and now I'm watching BBC Weather with John Hammond. He's saying it will be 'mostly dry' but I won't be going out early tomorrow morning. Having been up at the crack of dawn all week, I'm planning on lying in.

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