Before heading off to the town where it's held each year at the beginning of May, I couldn't even spell the name of the town. Verda? Werde? Werder? The third one is right. Werder / Havel is about a thirty-minute train ride outside Berlin. When you get out of the train, the place looks like any other small train stop. There's graffiti everywhere and police. Wait, police? Yes, and lots of them. And crowds of motly-looking people. Lots of them.
The festival--called the Baumblütenfest (festival of the tree blossoms, although the English doesn't have a ring to it)--began quietly in 1879 with respectable attendance from the citizens of Berlin. The residents and fruit farmers of the village invited people to enjoy fruit wine and cake in their gardens and orchards--and of course they made a little money doing so.
During the years that Werder was part of the GDR, the festival was essentially forbidden. The residents were not allowed to let people into their gardens, and the sale of fruit wine was drastically restricted.
The Rhubarb Wine that didn't taste like Rhubarb
In 1989, though, things changed. A lot changed. A wall in Berlin came down and gardens in Werder opened back up. Today more than 500,000 people visit the town to take in the beauty of the blooming trees--and to drink copious amounts of the "wine"--which tastes a lot like, well, fruit juice--made from their fruit. Cherry wine, apple wine, peach wine, pear wine, but also rhubarb wine, black currant wine and strawberry wine. There was also dandelion wine, which tasted like a white wine that had been open for six months. It was truly awful. The wines vary greatly in quality. I had two glasses of rhubarb wine, each from different stands, and they tasted nothing alike. The second one actually tasted a little like rhubarb. The best wine I had all day was a black currant wine that tasted a lot like pomegranate juice. Who knows if it was alcoholic at all. It tasted like it had a lot of vitamin C. That's a good thing. Really. Over a period of five hours I had six or seven glasses of this "wine" but never felt drunk.
I can imagine that the Baumblütenfest of Werder was a very different place 100 years ago: a more reserved place, a more pleasant place. Today, the festival is overrun with rowdy young people, all with their personal bottle of fruit wine, which they fill up often. Groups of police officers stand around to make the streets look safer, but they only make me feel as if I need their protection; and when I look at some of the people attending this festival, I think these police officers are necessary. Of course the majority of these packs of youths are harmless, but there are angry types dressed in black with tattoos that indicate they hate you and would really like to hurt you once they've consumed copious amounts of fruit wine--although can a guy who drinks cherry wine really hurt anyone??
As we are sitting in someone's garden and drinking strawberry wine, the discussion turns to Neo-Nazis and the recent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. A few of the people at the table who were involved in the counter-demonstrations told us about how difficult it was to demonstrate against the Neo-Nazis. In Germany you have to have a permit to demonstrate, so many of the people who showed up to demonstrate against the Neo-Nazis were turned away because no counter-demonstration had been registered. The only way the counter-demonstrators were allowed beyond the barriers was for them to say that they were part of the Neo-Nazi demonstration. I imagine that would be hard to say. It would be hard for me to lie about something like this.
A private garden at the Werder Baumblütenfest. Open to the public.
A private garden at the Werder Baumblütenfest.
The orchards open up for the people to picnic and drink the fruit wine.
The orchards open to the public during the Werder Baumblütenfest.
With the NSU trial heating up in Munich and the recent news of the Jobbik party in Hungary, the topic of Neo-Nazism is everywhere right now. The Jobbik party in Hungary received 17% of the vote, and their platform is based on anti-semitism. This is hard to believe and saddening. And it is especially ironic that beautiful festivals like the Werder Baumblütenfest are threatened by this ideology of hate.
I must be off,
Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Available from Amazon Anything. .