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It’s 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 26, and I’m sitting with friends in the middle of the central plaza in Bad Durkheim, Germany, trying to take it all in. It looks like rain, but the plaza is full of people. They eat bratwurst and crepes. They laugh. There’s a band somewhere out of sight playing flawless, note-for-note covers of Pink Floyd classics, Eagles tunes, and songs from The Muppets. People dance. A grey-haired man with a sculpted, imperial-style mustache serves wine from an open-air bar. We sit and stare. His customers stand up, raise glasses, offer one another flowery salutations, and clank cups. It’s not even noon, but everyone here is drinking.
My friend Tom sits down across from me and says he thinks he just saw a baby take a sip, although he’s not sure. Moments later, we watch a Mr. Bean-sized car drive past, carrying a blond woman who waves at the crowd like a pageant queen. Bad Durkheim’s Wine Princess is on parade. Throughout the day, she will make her way down Germany’s Weinstraße—and so will we.
The German Weinstraße (literally “Wine Street”) is an 85-kilometer road that winds through the Pfalz (Palatinate), Southwest Germany. The decision to name a road Weinstraße dates to 1935, when it was conceived of as a way to connect the wine growers in the region and increase tourism. The last Sunday in August is the Weinstraße’s big day, known as Erlebnistag Deutsche Weinstraße, which translates to “Enjoyment Day on the German Wine Street.” On Enjoyment Day, Police close the street to motorized traffic and people ride bikes, rollerblades, and sometimes scooters down the Weinstraße to 15 different wine festivals in the Pfalz. In recent years, as many as 400,000 people have come to ride and drink on Enjoyment Day.
When we’re about half way through our first round of wine, my brother Mike, who arrived in Germany less than a week ago and seems overwhelmed, turns to me and says, “Geez. This is a lot different than a wine tasting in California.”
Like everyone here, Mike sips on a glass of Riesling, but he might be the only person in Bad Durkheim drinking from a 0.25-liter wine glass, which is the same size as the glasses you have in your kitchen cabinets. The rest of us drink from something called a Dubbeglas, which looks like a dimpled pint glass, holds a half-liter of wine, and is traditional to the Pfalz region. If a half-liter serving sounds like a lot of wine, it’s because it is. Drink two Dubeglases and you’ve already consumed more than a standard bottle of wine on your own. For those who wish to pace themselves, the Germans drink something called weinschorle, which is a 50/50 mix of wine and sparkling water.
In other words, this is a wine drinking festival; there’s not a lot of tasting going on.
The Germans have their own wine culture, and certain outsiders might scoff and think it low-brow (sparkling water?), but those folks are missing the point. It’s about inclusiveness, not pedigree—or at least that’s how it is during festival season. You won’t find any comparisons guides or places to pour out a glass of something you don’t like on Enjoyment Day. You will, however, laugh with friends, eat sausages, dance, and just generally have a great time. Relatedly, if you’re not careful, you will drink too much. So after spending an hour nursing my half-liter of Riesling, I decide to switch to schorle for the rest of the afternoon. I don’t want things to get out of hand.
At 1:00, we mount our bikes and head south to Wachenheim, population 4,699, where I sip from a glass of roséschorle (weinschorle made with rosé instead of the standard Riesling), eat a street-vender bratwurst, taste a sausage made from horse meat (good) and listen to a band of old-timers known as the Gentle Groove Agency perform N-Sync and Black Eyed Peas covers (not so good). In Deidesheim, population 3,735, my wife Irene orders a huge plate of meat: sausages, patties, meatballs—basically Germany on a plate. We sit in the gentle rain, washing it all down with Rieslingschorles. The Deidesheim festival is one of the Pfalz’s biggest, and the streets are so full of people we have trouble finding space to get back on our bikes.
The sky clears around 4:15, as we ride south out of Deidesheim. The street out of town slopes to the south for what seems like miles. No one pedals. We just kind of glide along, two or three abreast, telling jokes, remarking on the beauty of the castles set back behind the vine-covered hills. I build up enough momentum to pass some slow movers and decide to just ride it out. When I look back to check on Mike and Irene, I turn forward again and find myself on the opposite side of the road, riding through oncoming traffic. When I get back to the right side of the Weinstraße, no one yells or scolds me. People just smile and chuckle. I’m sure they’ve seen worse.
On a regular day in Germany, if you fancy a drink and a ride, you risk serious punishment. If you’re caught drunk on a bike, you can lose your driver’s license. If you have one too many, it’s best to just walk the bike or find a cab. Enjoyment Day, however, is not a regular day. As Barbara Imo, a tourism official in the Pfalz put it, the police are “more lenient” with people who break these traffic rules on Enjoyment Day. Of course, people do overdo it sometimes, but as a general rule, as long as nobody crashes wildly in front of a cop: no harm, no foul.
Enjoyment Day, then, represents a kind of respite from rules governing alcohol consumption and moving vehicles. All the little towns in the Pfalz are one or two miles from one another, which is perfect for biking. And whenever you can bring hundreds of thousands of people to otherwise sleepy, rural towns, it’s a boon for the local economy. So rather than enforce laws about drunk biking, which would cost a lot of money and probably cast an authoritarian shadow over an otherwise good time, the police just regulate where you can ride your bike on Enjoyment Day—the Weinstraße—and block the street from cars to minimize injury. So in a sense, to ride your bike on Enjoyment Day is to break a rule without really breaking a rule at all. It’s regulated mischief.
“Regulated mischief” is a pretty German way of dealing with things. If you’ve got a lead foot, you can take your Porsche out to some isolated stretch of Autobahn and really open it up. If you want to do hard drugs, there are places (link in German) where you can go do hard drugs; they’ll even give you clean needles. Prostitutes? Legal, since 2002, but only in certain places. The philosophy is more about managing than controlling.
Germany, in other words, is that old high-school friend we all use to have whose mom would say, “I’d rather you don’t drink, but if you do, I’d rather you do it here, at home, under my supervision.” If my memory serves, that woman’s kid threw great parties. Today, that party is on the Weinstraße.
I DRINK WHAT WILL be my last glass of schorle in a field off to the side of the road somewhere between Deidesheim and Neustadt an der Weinstraße. In the field, surrounded by acres upon acres of wine vines, are maybe 300 young people: late teens, early twenties. A stocky, brown haired boy in a sequenced blazer is dancing atop a stack of house-music-bumping speakers near the road. As I walk toward the wine tent, I pass a blond boy of maybe 19 fast asleep in a bale of hay. It’s nearing five now, the sun is out, and shirtless youth are dancing all around.
As I dance and laugh and high-five my friends, it occurs to me that if you were to swap the wine vines for corn stalks, the wine for Miller Lite, and the house music for country, we could be in Nebraska. The idea that we’re partying in a kind of bizarro version of Middle America somehow comforts me: it’s proof the world isn’t such a big place after all. At six, to further prove my theory, the police come and shut the party down. They’re reopening the road to traffic, they say. Before we go, I watch a young man face plant off a picnic table.
We mount our rides and make for Neuestadt, where we intend to catch the train back to Heidelberg, where I live. This is when the falls start. As I ride down a roadside bike path, I come up on several members of my group surrounding a body in a ditch beside the trail; tall grass covers the body’s arms and obscures its face. On closer examination, I realize this person is Rena, one of my fellow riders. She has fallen into a patch of thistles and can’t seem to stop laughing, despite the red welts forming on her arms. Moments later, as I gaze up at the vine-covered hillside, I’m involved in a low-speed collision with Irene’s back tire. It’s enough to topple me over. I too am unhurt, and as I get up I assure myself that such an accident could have just as easily occurred without the wine.
We gather ourselves, push on, and soon arrive at a rail crossing. The crossing forms a kind of junction, and we stop to consider our options. The road continues on, over the tracks, in a more-or-less straight shot into Neustadt. According to road signs, however, the official bike route peels off from the road without crossing the tracks and winds up into the hills before descending again into Neustadt. Six of us decide to take the trail; the rest of the group chooses to follow a friend named Leah into town along the road. But as Leah sets out across the tracks, she catches her front tire in a grove and falls to the side, hard. We dismount and run over to help her up. Her knee is bruised, but she’s otherwise fine. (I learn later that during Enjoyment Day, in Neuestadt alone, the Police intervened after seven severe bike accidents and three fistfights.) As we turn to go, the bars at the rail crossing begin to descend. They come down so quickly in fact that I’m unable to turn my bike around before they’re down completely, and I’m forced to ride around one of the barricades, as though I were trying to beat the train. Safely around, I turn back onto the bike path only to see the train cross the tracks at a speed that seems not far from the sound barrier. It didn’t even blow its horn.
You can regulate things, I realize, but you can’t make them safe. I don’t dwell on the near miss though; we’ve had a little too much schorle for that. We gather ourselves and ride up the hill into Gimmeldingenn, a small town just north of Neuestadt and one of the highest points on our ride. We pedal past stone villas, and the sounds of our spinning tires echo off the walls. We cruise through rolling hills with rows of wine so perfect they look as though someone ran a giant comb through them. As we descend from Gimmeldingenn, we ride along a cherry tree-lined path and things seem suddenly still, like we’re the only ones moving in an otherwise frozen world. We’re warm. We’re happy. I take one last look at the hills, cock my head back and whoop.