Altbier All The Way

By Larry Getlen

Larry Getlen finds himself in Düsseldorf, Germany, where the natives are restless, and the beer is delicious.

Photos by Larry Getlen

Photos by Larry Getlen

The first thing I notice is the man in the pink skirt and the “Anal-Admiral” T-shirt. Surrounded by friends dressed in identical blue T-shirts adorned with individual numbers and nicknames, the young man with the close-cropped hair also wears pink sunglasses, and a pink cloth beanie that looks like a pink egg dribbled down his scalp.

I’m in Düsseldorf, Germany, sitting at an outdoor table in the Altstadt — or “Old Town” — which is known as “the largest bar in the world” for housing some 260 bars in a one-kilometer radius. The man in pink is there as part of a common area ritual, as the Altstadt is the region’s destination of choice for Stag and Hen parties.

The tradition goes as follows. In the days before a wedding, friends of the groom make matching T-shirts — some are relatively plain; others feature catchy slogans and pix of the married-to-be behind bars, or some such inspired silliness. Everyone in the wedding party dresses alike except for the guest of honor, who is clothed for maximum embarrassment. In several Stag parties I see, there is also a man dressed as a German mountain girl, complete with blond ponytailed wig and peasant skirt — most likely the best man.

Once properly attired, the parties hit the Altstadt for drunken revelry and to bump into their female counterpart, the Hen party, which shares the clothing customs and the penchant for public humiliation — one bride-to-be is wearing water wings. I see around 20 Stag or Hen parties over the course of one evening, and when a Stag party meets a Hen party, it’s a combustible stew of flirtation, with much noise and carrying on and picture-taking before they all suddenly disperse, moving onto the next beer and the next group of oddly attired revelers.

While it’s better known as a trade or commerce city, I recently learned on a three-day trip to Düsseldorf that there is much unexpected fun to be had there.

I stayed at the Steigenberger, a five-star hotel that had its top floor destroyed in World War II, then housed British soldiers for a portion of the war. The clientele is a mix of businessmen and families, including many Muslims, which I learn is a result of the burqa ban in France. The Germans being as celebrity-obsessed as we are, one hotel employee proudly shares with me — in almost competent English — that for a 2006 awards show, half the hotel was taken over by “Katie Holmes and his husband.”

DUS1HRDown the street from the hotel is a moat from the 14th century that now serves as a tranquil centerpiece for Düsseldorf’s version of Fifth Avenue, The Königsallee. The moat is guarded at the end by a statue of the Greek god Triton, the son of Poseidon, who bears a spear and a warrior’s scowl to protect the city.

Just across from the moat is the Königs-allee, known locally as the Kö, which is filled with designer shops such as Armani, Burburry, Hermès, and the ubiquitous H&M. The crowd along the Kö is the exact blend of rich and trendy Europeans one might expect, but there’s one key difference between their ritzy shopping vista and those here in the states. The sidewalk along the Kö is wide, and sidewalk cafes, three or four rows of tables deep, dot the thoroughfare. But unlike in New York, the chairs do not face each other — they face the stores and the people walking up and down the street. Here, people-watching is a leisure activity all its own. For a New Yorker, it was an odd sight to see outdoor cafes filled to capacity on a gorgeous summer day, with most of the people not conversing, but sitting with friends and just taking in the scenery and the people, contemplative and silent, with nary a cell phone in sight.

(Also odd for a New Yorker — the plentiful cyclists riding on the sidewalk alongside the moat. They ride at a reasonable speed, stop for pedestrians, and ring an old-fashioned bell when approaching, all to remarkably civil effect. While cyclists were everywhere, at no time did I feel like I might be run down by one. New York cyclists, take note.)

DUS10HRLater, I found myself in the MedienHafen (Media Harbor), a section of town that has evolved over the past two decades from an industrial wasteland to a home for restaurants, pubs, and forward-thinking architecture. A highlight was the three adjacent, wavy buildings — one each of white, brick, and gleaming silver — designed by Frank Gehry, which were only some of the area’s architectural attractions. One radio station office building was designed like an old-fashioned radio; another building resembled a ship. My favorite was a building that featured multicolored climbing creatures that strongly resemble the old Barrel of Monkeys toys. I later heard that a group of artists across the harbor couldn’t stand the sight of the puppets, and moved to Berlin.

My visit to Düsseldorf coincided with the “Biggest Fun Fair on the Rhine,” a nine-day annual feast of gooey edibles, plentiful roller coasters and flume rides, and haunted houses that takes place just across the Rhine from the Altstadt. For scale, imagine the largest county fair you’ve ever been to, then times it by ten. The rides include a swing where people’s legs dangled freely at what seemed to be a height of ten stories (or maybe fifteen? When you’re sitting in a swing higher than most buildings with your legs hanging off the side, exact height is irrelevant. I merely equate it to swinging your legs off the side of a plane.)

DUS8HRThough not a coaster (or, for that matter, fair) enthusiast myself, I did sample the hall of mirrors and the haunted house. While the effects of the latter were not all that scary, one 300-pound woman was so terrified by some carny’s gesticulation that she ran full-bore out of the house, knocking me into a flimsy curtain and almost off my feet in the process — and, ironically, providing the true element of fear the house so desperately needed.

While the fun fair seemed a genuine good time for the thousands of people there, the highlight of Düsseldorf for me was clearly the Altstadt. And the key to that was Altbier, Düsseldorf’s signature brown ale.

Altbier is dark, slightly malty, and insanely smooth. My first night there, I checked out Zum Schlüssel, one of the defining bars of the area in that it’s also a brewery that produces 1.8 million liters of Altbier every year. At one point, I absent-mindedly asked a waiter a question I regularly ask in New York bars, which was, “What’s the darkest beer you have here?” He indignantly replied, “Altbier,” as if I had somehow forgotten the word for “pants,” and asked what those denim-y things were that we use to cover our legs and buttocks.

After enjoying some Altbier with a salty appetizer of minced raw pork and onions on a rye bread role, the waiter replaced my beer just as I hit the final drop. Instead of taking orders, many of the waiters carry trays of Altbier, then plop down glasses as soon as the need arises. At first, I thought this was merely good service. I later learned that waiters receive commissions for every beer they sell.

DUS5HRThroughout my stay, I took several strolls along the cobblestone streets of the Altstadt. While some form of sausage is an obligatory first night choice — I enjoyed a juicy suckling pig sausage with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, bacon, and onions — culinary options are far more plentiful. One section of the Altstadt is dedicated entirely to Spanish food, even flying a banner congratulating Spain on their recent World Cup victory, and at a restaurant called Las Tapas, I enjoyed a selection that included mussels with cheese, lamb stew, and rabbit.

DUS6HRWhile bars are abundant, the Altstadt brims with history and humor as well. At one point, curiosity pulled me into what turned out to be St. Andreas Church. I was initially entranced by its silver saint figurines, and then by a remarkable painting by Gerd Winner and Ingema Reuter, who overlaid portraits of two men — one in a deep red, the another in an equally stark blue — to wondrous effect. As I marveled, a young monk-in-training approached and guided me to the church’s more intriguing spectacle: a mausoleum containing the corpses of nine historical figures from the late 1600s. One cast-iron coffin was carved with a depiction of regal draping, and plaques of royalty. Another was simply a wooden coffin with a cross adorning the top. A marking on the floor identified its occupant as one Leopoldina Eleonora Josepha, although it did not betray who was held in the adjacent, infant-sized box.

If historic figures were to be honored and mourned, they provided life lessons and perspective as well. Directly overhead as I dined at Las Tapas was a plaque of a mischievous man-child who was literally shitting gold. Around him was a declaration that roughly translated to, “This fairytale will never come true. Life teaches you to be smart, and save.”

DUS11HRBut while history hovers in the Altstadt, it is not the attraction — that would be the beer, the people, and the consistently festive atmosphere. It occurred to me at one point that all the music I’d heard pumping from the bars was of the dance/techno variety. Seeking an alternative, I found a bar called Engel, where a crowd averaging in its 40s was listening, singing, and air-jamming to a set of Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen. The song “Right Now” prompted not only enthusiasm, but the ringing of a massive bell over the bartender’s head, followed by the billowing of smoke from the bell housing.

After a few Altbiers and a few more songs, I made my exit, and “Living on a Prayer” followed me out, the patrons all singing along. Whatever particulars I’d noticed about the Altstadt and Düsseldorf, it was nice to see that no matter where you go, some things are truly universal.

IF YOU GO…

Flight: Lufthansa operates nonstop flights to Düsseldorf out of Newark Airport. Visit lufthansa.com for details.

Hotel: City Scoops stayed at the five-star Steigenberger Hotel. Visit www.steigenberger.com for more information.

For general information on visiting Düsseldorf, check out www.visitduesseldorf.de.

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