For various reasons I found myself for three whole weeks away from the family this September in Westphalia. The weather was glorious and I managed quite a few three to four hour bike rides through the flat, fertile soils of my ancestors.
Being the proverbial “army brat” my childhood was more gypsy than person of settled abode. Before the age of 26 I had lived in something like 20 different addresses. It was a strange experience for me to spend so much time in this part of Germany – but very inspiring. Voltaire famously set the opening scenes of Candide in Westphalia:
The Baron was one of the most powerful lords in Westphalia, for his castle had not only a gate, but even windows, and his great hall was hung with tapestry.
Even in Voltaire’s day Westphalia had a reputation for sustaining fat diary cows, plentiful crops and sweet fruit (as well as slightly dippy students of philosophy!) Napoleon’s brother became King of Westphalia for a short period. The flat, empty roads are lined with all sorts of fruit trees – pear, apple, plumb, cherry. They can be hard to pick. All the low hanging fruit has either been plucked or is lying rotten on the ground! Still they look pretty against the blue early autumn sky.
I love the old farm houses and barns.
“I totally get Marie Antoinette,” I said to my mother “I love the romanticism of nature.”
“I’ll buy you a couple of goats for Christmas and see how you cope.” she replied laconically.
“Only if they come wearing pretty blue ribbons on their horns,” I answered, “otherwise forget it!”
Now, before you all think that cycling in Westphalia is for baby’s because it is so flat there are some hills. Small admittedly but hills nonetheless. After I’d spent 45 minutes slogging up one of them I was rewarded with a glorious view of the countryside below. My bucolic dream was broken for a moment. From the higher ground – far into the distance – I could see the outline of Germany’s industrial powerhouse – the Ruhrgebiet. Towering stacks of industrial chimneys spouting out steam and pollutants. Wealth is no longer based on fertile lands and agricultural diversity. It is based on coal, chemicals and science.
Then I cycled downhill again, enveloped in woods and the comfort of a flat rural landscape where the far horizon is invisible. The industrial monster to the south was out of sight. I could breath again.