D.Hiked the entire Way of St. James, but never been to the Lüneburg Heath. You can give technical lectures about Pastéis de Nata, but never have eaten a steamed noodle. Been to the Maldives, but never on Lake Constance. The travel biographies of many Germans look like this or something similar: They know their way around abroad almost better than they do in their own country. One could argue that it is simply nicer elsewhere than at home, but the foreign tourists who come here are evidence of the opposite.
The geographer and journalist Pia Volk was one of those who hardly knew Germany, even though she is constantly on the move. Then Corona came, and everyone was suddenly thrown back on smaller trips or day trips. But where should you go if you don’t just want it to be beautiful, but surprising? This is where Pia Volks Buch comes in. In it she introduces “Germany’s weirdest places”, fifty-three in number, and “place” is broadly defined: it could be a former border, a path, a city, a tree or a building.
Stonehenge at the military training area
Some of this book is great and some of it is a shame – although the author herself is mainly responsible for the first category. The range of places that she has found is enormous. Readers may have heard of some of them, but everyone is sure to find something new here. And if only it is that the area around Teutschenthal train station in Saxony-Anhalt looks like the Australian outback. One is surprised and yet it is not.
Pia Volk has visited a kind of Stonehenge on a military training area, was in the most foul-smelling concert hall in Germany and explains why the rock moldavite, which comes from southern Germany, was found in southern Bohemia. On the one hand, she succeeds in conveying real fascination for every place, no matter how remote, and at the same time in pleasantly laconic writing: “The special thing about Bielefeld is that it has nothing special.” Or an anecdote from Oppenheim, which has a cellar: “In November 1986 someone called Ms. the police for hearing noises in her home that she attributed to burglars. But when the police arrived there was no stranger there. Instead, the ground collapsed under the street and the police car disappeared into it. The noises came from a burst water pipe that caused the cellar to collapse. “
The publisher describes the book as a “tourist guide for locals”, which of course is supposed to be a paradoxical gag, but should have resulted in certain elements that are missing here. You want to see many of the places, but only a few illustrations are included – so you are constantly hanging on your cell phone while reading it and googling it. Photos would not have been so absurd. There is also no place directory and no map with which one could find out which destinations are in the vicinity.
Instead, the longitude and latitude are under the chapter headings, which has a more decorative effect. The expectation of the reader is therefore clear: read through everything and find out for yourself what is close to where you live. How the reader should proceed when he is on vacation in Germany and is looking for suggestions for a weird place in the area, however, is not clear. Maybe read everything again.
A lake landscape in the Ruhr area?
However, that would also mean that the reader will encounter the unfortunately not so few errors, ambiguities and breaks that should have been noticed in the editing. The second page says that Frankfurt am Main is “an hour south” of Mannheim. Later it is about an underground hospital: On the one hand, according to the author, refugees were housed here, on the other hand it was allegedly forgotten – and “that’s exactly why the exhibits from the old days are still here”. Later there is talk of “hairstyles” and of religious affiliation “Evangelical-Protestant”. Anything can happen while writing, but it shouldn’t end up in the finished book.
If you ignore it, you will learn the impressive story of a church move in Saxony and can look amazed at the absurd number of pumps in the Ruhr area that pump out a billion cubic meters of water every year so that there is no huge lake landscape. Even if many just want to go far away on their first vacation after the pandemic: After reading this, most readers should have a few weekend trips within Germany on their list.
Pia Volk: “Germany’s weirdest places”. A guide for locals. CH Beck Verlag, Munich 2021. 249 pp., Hardcover, € 20.