From the pen of Turlough Ó Maoláin ...

The Chronicles of Bulgaria

Following Magda

28/10/2021

It seemed like night although it was only about three o’clock in the afternoon as I approached the little old twin towns of Bernkastel-Kues which straddle the meandering Mosel river. Huge storm clouds were gathering. Some had already passed, wreaking havoc on their way. Driving through Piesport and Brauneberg I had seen roads littered with hailstones the size of wine bottle corks, smashed roof tiles, cars with their bodywork pockmarked by the ferocity of the downpour and people standing around scratching their heads as they mouthed swear words in German. In Mülheim my windscreen wipers had been working overtime in one of those meteorological panic moments where I think that if I continue on my journey I will crash into something because I can’t see where I’m going; if I stop, another vehicle will crash into me because its driver won’t be able to see where he or she is going; and in any event I could really do with going to the toilet on the grounds of heightened stress levels. 

A few weak rays penetrated the darkness that blanketed the town as I parked my car in the only remaining spot that wasn’t ankle deep in rainwater, but minutes later my body warmed and my head seemed to be filled with sunlight as the beauty of the town manifested itself in the Hotel Burg Landshut, the nearest lodging house to where I had squelched to a halt. Walking into the entrance hall I became immediately aware that I had inadvertently uncovered a gem of early twentieth century architecture, design and panache. If a famous German person from the 1930’s (Marlene Dietrich being the only one who springs to mind) had walked in there with me, I’m sure they would have said something like “Gott im Himmel! It hasn’t changed a bit.”

With my mouth wide open in amazement I approached the reception desk. The buxom young woman sitting there looked up at me and I instantly recognised her as the timid virgin from at least a dozen old vampire films. She didn’t speak English, which I always consider to be a nice thing when I’m visiting a foreign country as it adds excitement to my adventure. Sometimes, however, not being understood presents a bit of a problem, particularly when engaging in a business transaction or requesting one of life’s essentials. The only German word that I knew that seemed appropriate in this situation was Schlafzimmer (bedroom) which, given the circumstances, seemed quite inappropriate but I said it anyway and she smiled.  

At the risk of sounding lecherous (which I am not … well, not usually), it was hard not to notice her cantilevered form swaying from the waist up as she reached into her desk drawer to produce a hotel guest registration form which she then indicated that I should complete. Although the print was entirely in German I was able to work out for myself what most of the information was that I was being asked for. No problem, I thought, until I got to the bit where I had to state my occupation. Back in those days of having to earn a crust, plus a bit extra to finance my overseas jaunts, I was what was commonly known as a chiropodist. But try explaining chiropody to a girl with Teutonic toenails! After two or three minutes had passed, but what had seemed like six or seven minutes, and putting to the test my limited drawing skills together with a few hand gestures, we established that the word I was looking for was Fußpfleger. Even if I had known this word I doubt if I would have been able to spell it, but as there didn’t seem to be anybody about other than me and my Fräulein friend, I could have said I was a ballet dancer or a snake charmer and no one would have known any different or even cared.   

Many modern hotels have a fitness centre in which guests can tone their muscles during their stay. Hotel Burg Landshut was from an era when people kept fit just by living their lives, especially if life involved carrying around very heavy keys similar to those which might be used to open a pirate’s treasure chest. I looked around for a bellhop to carry my keys up to my room for me but there were none on duty on that particular day so I resigned myself to hoisting the jangling bunch into my pocket and struggling upstairs with them myself.

Long wooden staircases flanked by walls adorned with pictures and artefacts from the Bernkastel-Kues of yesteryear led me to room 221 on the second floor which, although small, had a very high ceiling. In terms of cubic metres of living space, I was getting real value for money but the restricted floor area meant that I had to open the door to enable me to bend down to take my shoes off.  There was room to swing a cat as long as I did it vertically and not horizontally. An ornate glass panelled door opened out onto a small balcony with one of the best views I have ever known from a hotel room. Features included the meandering Mosel, the passenger boats and river barges laden with cargo, the town of Kues and the bridge that has joined it to Bernkastel since 1874, the hills beyond carpeted with lush green vineyards, and the thunderstorm that had been rattling on for a couple of hours. A breath-taking backdrop! I couldn’t have had better if I had designed it myself and even if I had designed it myself I wouldn’t have known how to ask for it in German. It would have required a tremendous amount of sketches and hand gestures.

 

The hills beyond carpeted with lush green vineyards.

The hills beyond carpeted with lush green vineyards.

 

All of the furniture in the room was antique. Catching a glimpse of my exquisitely aged self in the exquisitely aged mirror with an oak frame and a sandblasted floral design, in which legends like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Maria Ivogün may well have caught glimpses of themselves decades earlier, it appeared to me that I was the most modern item to be seen in the room and the only one without any obvious signs of having a history of beetle infestation. Dominating the room there was a carved wooden wardrobe spacious enough to be deemed a hotel room in its own right and, beside it, an enormous wooden bed in the style of Frederick the Great’s coffin with an art deco coffinside lamp. Even the television was antique and showing programmes almost as old as the repeats you get on the BBC on a Sunday evening in August.

The room lacked a toilet and a shower. The receptionist had explained that there was a bathroom for me to use but it was located on the floor below. To gain access to this I would need to ask her for the key but once I was inside it and I had locked the door, it could be deemed to be my own private bathroom until I handed the key back. How remiss of me it had been not to have asked the languages teacher at school forty years earlier what were the German words for ‘But what if I need to go to the toilet in the middle of the night?’ The en-suite facilities in the room did include a wash basin with a geyser-style water heater beneath it but which I didn’t dare touch because significant quantities of water seemed to be seeping from the U-bend below into a bucket of a design so old-fashioned that I had never even dreamt of adding it to my bucket list.

At this point, fair lady readers should look away for fear of embarrassment as I confess that in the past, when there hadn’t been a loo in my hotel room, I would have rather cheekily relieved my bladder in the wash basin if ever the need had arisen during night time’s darkest hours, but that wasn’t going to be possible here. I was afraid that if I introduced the frailties of an aged water supply system and the frailties of an aged electricity supply system to the frailties of my own personal plumbing there might be disastrous consequences. I decided that it would be safer to just wee off the balcony. It was pouring down with rain and the fifty-first longest river in Europe flowed close by, so surely nobody would notice a little more moisture.

In the fifteen minutes that I would normally have spent drinking a cup of coffee together with the thirty seconds that I would normally have spent eating the complimentary packet of biscuits to relax a little after completing the journey from wherever I had spent the previous night, I sat and wondered to what use I would put the complimentary sachet of shower gel. Maybe it would turn out that there was more than one use for the bucket!

 

The complimentary mini bar in my room at Hotel Burg Landshut.

The complimentary mini bar in my room at Hotel Burg Landshut.

 

The wealth of delightful antiquities wasn’t restricted to my sleeping quarters as beyond my door I found that the halls, landings and stairwells were festooned with fascinating objects such as a stuffed and mounted cuckoo, a wartime enigma encryption machine, an old visitors’ book containing entries by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Maria Ivogün (but not Marlene Dietrich),  an impressive array of firearms which I hoped were for hunting (even though I strongly disagree with hunting), a very sad painting of what poor people who were unable to afford to stay for a night at Hotel Burg Landshut a century ago would have looked like and numerous photographs of what Hotel Burg Landshut had looked like before the invention of plumbing or photography.

The bunch of cast iron keys I had been given probably weighed more than my fully laden backpack and Hotel Burg Landshut wasn’t one of those hotels where you hand in your keys at the reception desk each time you leave the building. So I was tempted to unpack my backpack and use it to carry the keys around as I ventured outside to explore, but any hope of noteworthy exploration was crushed by the weather conditions which had worsened since my arrival. On the valley side, high above the town, was the site of a ruined fortress dating back to the fifth century, which I had hoped to explore. The fortress and subsequent structures on this site had been called Burg Landshut; named after my hotel, I supposed. The feeble glimmers of sunshine poking through the black clouds gave me only a little hope as it seemed that we were in for rain, rain and more rain and the mysteries of the other building called Burg Landshut would have to wait until next time.

However, I refused to be beaten and with a dogged determination akin to that shown by the German national football team down the decades, I went out for a wee wander. Within a few minutes of the outset I found that I needed to take shelter so I sat under a canopy outside a café where a score of local people were boisterously drinking wine, smoking calabash pipes and pointing at foreigners (I being the only one on display that day). I asked if I could join them and I ordered a glass of locally produced Riesling. The waitress obliged but asked me to pay for my drink there and then rather than running up a bill and settling up as I departed. This wasn’t what I had become accustomed to on my travels in mainland Europe. I told her that it was unlikely that in this weather I was going try to sneak away unnoticed but she said that, because the town was a stopping off point on a tourist route and word had got round that a man who was half Irish and half Yorkshire was on the loose, she was compelled to ask for the money up front, which wasn’t very much money anyway.

Bernkastel-Kues was an absolutely delightful place. Every building looked like a cuckoo clock though none of them seemed to have active cuckoos present, probably because they had all been stuffed and mounted on walls on hotel staircases. It had been a bit spoilt by tourists in recent years, one of the symptoms of this being that there were many outlets for buying cuckoo clocks that looked like the buildings, and fridge magnets that looked like the cuckoo clocks and the buildings. The buildings themselves, I noticed, were far too expensive for the tourists to be able to afford to buy which highlighted the fact that fridge magnets are the common good and the antidote to exploitative capitalism. However, on a thunderous day late in the summer, there weren’t many tourists about to impair my enjoyment. Looking around at my leisure, I decided that timber fronted buildings were definitely the way forward and suddenly understood why, in my former home town of Leeds, so many former council houses had been adapted in such a way. Their owners were obviously trying to attract cuckoos. Pigeons were so passé!

Despite the dampness, my spirits weren’t dampened and I began to enjoy the bad weather route of my tour of Bernkastel-Kues. My normally cultural mind, having put up a slight struggle, found itself on a pub-crawl when it should have been exploring and soaking up the sights. Instead my shoes soaked up the rainwater and my internal organs soaked up the Bitburger Bier. The first hostelry up the hill (going towards the hopelessly out of reach Landshut Burg) was a little uninspiring but warm and dry so for a while I stayed and spoke to some more of the locals, most of whom had never been to the ruin despite living in its shadow. I was pleased to hear that on some days the sun did actually manage to cast shadows in those parts. We talked mostly about the weather. They tried very hard to make themselves understood but all I could make out was that the next day it was going to be sunny or foggy or snowy or something … but definitely not rainy.

I tried a couple more drinking establishments which were lovely but totally void of human life except for barmaids sitting in corners and texting their boyfriends or doing the crossword in the evening newspaper to relieve their boredom. ‘Is there an ‘e’ in Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften?’, one of them asked me.

 

Burg Landshut on the valley side, high above the town.

Burg Landshut on the valley side, high above the town.

 

The final beer house on my hastily arranged circuit was in the medieval Markt (market place) and it was bustling with life. Traditional German folk music versions of Phil Collins’ hits being hammered out on accordions and peculiar shaped brass instruments together with the shrill cuckooing of the occupants of a dozen cuckoo clocks on the walls competed to drown out the jocularity in the chatter of people trying to forget about the late summer storm. The bar seemed to be packed but that may have been because so much space was taken up by the fat jovial bellies and big bushy moustaches of the male beer drinkers and the more feminine but equally space-taking appendages of their female companions. Fortunately, my athletic physique and high level of competence with a Bic razor meant that I didn’t occupy too much territory in this way, which meant that I stood out a bit from the crowd, but otherwise no one would have spotted that I was a tourist. The enormous keys bulging in my pocket did raise suspicion and prompted a couple of people to remark that I must have been staying at the Hotel Burg Landshut; or was I just pleased to see them? I stayed with these people for a couple of hours during which making conversation was a bit complicated but laughing together required no effort at all. When I decided that I should retire to my sleeping quarters they tried to persuade me to stay and have one more beer (which probably meant several more) but I politely and reluctantly declined as the following day I was planning to drive along the downstream bit of the Mosel to Koblenz where it flowed into the Rhine, taking in a few sights on my way.

When I arrived back at the Hotel Burg Landshut sometime just after 11:00 pm the rain was absolutely lashing down and the front door was locked. Despite there being somewhere in the region of ten kilograms of cast iron on my Hotel Burg Landshut key fob there wasn’t a key to fit the lock. A mere thirty grams of a nickel-brass mixture would have sufficed, had it been moulded into the right shape. The doorbell didn’t work. The phone number of the Hotel Burg Landshut was printed on a business card that I had picked up that afternoon from the desk of the semi-swaying receptionist but that was tucked away in my room along with my car keys. Oh, what a to do! And oh, what to do? Sleeping al fresco on a bench by a great torrent of a river as thunder and lightning rattled the whole town seemed to be my only option but I can’t say I was enthusiastic about it.

I told myself not to panic and to simply return to the welcoming beer house where I had been urged not to leave fifteen minutes earlier. Perhaps I could sit there and drink beer and talk about the weather with my new friends until breakfast time. Perhaps the man with the biggest belly and the bushiest moustache would also have the greatest knowledge of what to do when there’s nowhere to shelter on a stormy night in Bernkastel-Kues. So I went back and was greeted by we-knew-you-would-come-back type laughter. I told them my tale of woe and the barman immediately came to my rescue. Or at least he told me that a friend of his wife could come to my rescue. So after listening to one end of the several phone calls he made in German and lots of laughter, also in German, and some third degree questioning from the customers who were now all regarding me with great interest, the barman told me that he had the phone number of a lady who could probably help me.

The sister of a friend of the barman’s wife was the owner of a shop selling art materials located in the basement of Hotel Burg Landshut, the front door of which was at the back of the hotel on a street near to the Markt. This lady knew of a secret door that linked the two establishments. He would call her and she would immediately come out to save me from a night of sleeping rough in a medieval market place. I told him that, considering the time of night and the awful weather, he shouldn’t bother her. He reminded me of the alternatives and picked up the phone. I sat down with a beer in an attempt to feel as relaxed as those around me who seemed to be settled in for a few more hours / beers.

‘I am Magda. Follow me!’ said the tall, blonde lady dressed in her nightie, a black leather jacket and Dr Marten boots as she approached me at the bar. Without questioning her I did as I was told and my companions cheered, laughed and whistled as they watched me disappear out of the door (again) into the wild night. As we dashed across the square I told Magda how grateful I was for her help and with just a hint of a smile she replied ‘It is good’. At the entrance to the art boutique she took her keys from her pocket, unlocked the door and again said ‘Follow me!’ She then led me to the back of the shop and gestured that I should help her to move a dozen or more large cardboard boxes behind which there was a door. Again the keys came out of her pocket, the door was opened, I stepped through it and she said ‘There is your room!’ before swiftly closing it behind me and locking it.

I shouted ‘Thank you Magda’ and ‘Goodnight’ (in German) but there was no reply. All I could hear was the outer door of the shop being locked. At least I was out of the rain but what lay ahead of me wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for. I was at the foot of a flight of stone stairs, the only interruption to the darkness around me was a dim light somewhere at the top which was just enough to show me which way to go and enable me to see the extent of the cobwebs which would have done any Hammer Horror film proud.

Nervously I embarked upon an upward journey, carefully feeling for each step with my foot and expecting to meet rats or bats or Vincent Price on the way, but the only obstacle was a dusty pile of old books which I fell over causing a lot of noise and a little heart failure. As I replaced the books I worried that I had woken everybody up with my commotion but, on reflection, I think I was probably the only person in the entire hotel at that time. And then I worried even more that I might have been in the wrong hotel or a building that wasn’t a hotel at all. Magda, being in a hurry and her nightie, hadn’t asked me to complete a hotel guest registration form.

At the top of the stairs I saw another dim light seven or eight metres in front of me. As I walked towards it I began to recognise the reception desk where the adventure had begun only nine hours earlier. The receptionist had obviously clocked off for the night and there was no one else to be seen but at least I was ‘home’. I breathed the mother of all huge sighs of relief, climbed the two flights of stairs in almost darkness and manoeuvred the weighty keys from my pocket, the third of which, to my delight, opened the door to room 221.

Once inside I just wanted to throw myself on the bed and stay there until the morning. I had no desire to use the free shower gel, the hot water geyser or the television on which the ‘breaking news’ was the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. I just wanted to sleep as it had been a long day and an even longer night. But I couldn’t get into the bed because its Frederick the Great’s coffin design meant that it had wooden panels on all four sides, rendering it more of a cot than a bed. My energy was low and my blood alcohol level was quite high so I couldn’t work out how to lower a panel to get into it. I considered going back to the bar to ask the barman if he would phone Magda again to ask her to come and help me get into bed.      

My final bit of effort for the day was to drag a heavy antique chair over to the side of the bed and use it as a stepping stone to climb in, confident that the nice semi-swaying receptionist lady would assist me in getting out of it again at breakfast time.

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