Last week, my father, my brother and I decided to go on an excursion. We considered several destinations within a fifty kilometer radius before deciding on the water-castle Dyck. With its venerable history and its expansive two-hundred year old landscape park, it would make for a perfect Ausflug.
An Ausflug is an excursion or an outing. It’s a get-away but not a trip. More than a Spaziergang – a walk - it fills an entire day and that’s why it usually happens on Sundays or holidays. If you stay away overnight, it’s no longer an Ausflug. If you set out without a specific destination in mind, you are doing a Fahrt ins Blaue – a trip into the blue, into the unknown.
Going on an Ausflug is a well-established German tradition. It dates back to the late nineteenth century when a large part of the population migrated from the countryside to urban areas. Workers who lived in crammed tenements as well as prosperous city dwellers liked to leave the stench and the noise of urban life for a day among rolling green hills, lakes or forests.
Even then, a proper Ausflug always included food and drink. Those of limited means carried a Rucksack full of bread and sausage and cheese; the well-to-do had coffee and cake at a café or dinner at a restaurant or both. That’s why you’ll find Ausflugslokale – establishments that serve drinks and simple meals have been around for more than a century, catering to day-trippers who come in carriages, by tram and train, on bicycles or, today, in cars. That’s one aspect of an Ausflug: it takes you farther from home than a walk or a hike.
Once we had decided on our destination and departure time, we stopped planning. Instead of trying to anticipate every eventuality, we wanted to be open to surprises. After all, this kind of outing is a small-scale exploration, undertaken for the fun of discovering and learning, being with friends and meeting new people. Knowing that in Germany, you are never far away from a café or restaurant, we didn’t pack a picnic. Clothing? No special gear is required for an Ausflug, just comfortable shoes, maybe a rain jacket or a sunhat. I like to carry only what fits in my pocket: an apple, a piece of chocolate, a map or a smartphone- not for making calls, but for taking pictures.
My father, my brother Timo and I left Cologne mid-morning. When we reached the outskirts of the city, I noticed a familiar feeling of anticipation. How great: I was about to discover a new place and someone else was driving. We started reminiscing about other excursions we’d taken in past years when I visited them in Köln: investigating the ruins of a medieval fortress, losing our way in a vast bog, playing hide and seek in the woods, and rambling among Mosel vineyards. In retrospect, it seemed that all those Ausflüge had included getting lost. And impromptu singing.
When we arrived at the castle Dyck after an hour’s drive, we made a beeline for the glassed in café. Fortified by coffee and a shared piece of cherry Kuchen, we explored the grounds. We crossed two small stone bridges and marveled at the perfect whiteness of swans gliding on the murky water of the moats. The castle, an impressive four-winged baroque building, was more than three hundred years old. We didn’t go inside but made our way towards the English Garden that was designed and planted between 1820 and 1835. Following a groomed path, we passed a tall hedge of pink rhododendron blossoms, clusters of old-growth beeches and oaks, lawns that looked like green carpets. In the distance, solitary trees reached towards the sky like magnificent sculptures. When we came to a large meadow of wild grasses, we sat down on the bench that gave a direct view of the ochre-colored castle in the distance. Here, among honeybees and songbirds, our conversation flowed easily. When Timo and my father started singing Brecht songs, I hummed along. After some time, we resumed our stroll along the gently rolling hills, beneath exotic trees that bore tiny identification tags. We imagined the counts and princesses who had wandered here before us and wondered how many duchesses had enjoyed illicit trysts – perhaps with the gardener? - in the most secluded green nooks.
Instead of going straight home, we drove along the Rhine and had dinner at the restaurant Rheinfähre near the landing of a small old-fashioned ferry. Looking out at the wide river from our table in the garden, I thought of all the ferries that had shuttled passengers across the river in this very spot since the Middle Ages. When we learned that the town of Zons was nearby, we decided to look at the remnants of its medieval town wall and meander through its narrow streets. This, too is typical for a German outing: you begin with an endpoint in mind but once you’re moving, the world opens up and reveals its treasures. I always find myself making a mental list of possible destinations for a future Ausflug.