The notion of a "Faust Dinner," as the banquet in the above post was dubbed, calls to mind one of the most memorable interludes of our European travels.
Last year, we referenced
the exciting Faust Museum in the tiny German town of Knittlingen, which was the birthplace of the actual, historical Dr. Johann Faust. According to tradition, Faust was a necromancer who sold his soul to the devil for power and knowledge. His tale was immortalized by many of history's greatest authors, including Marlowe and Goethe.
Besides Knittlingen, other stops along our self-styled "Faust tour of Germany" included the Brocken--the highest peak of the Harz Mountains, where the Witches' Sabbath (an event that features prominently in Goethe's Faust
) was said to occur in pagan times--as well as the Auerbachs Keller in Leipzig (the setting for another exciting scene in Goethe's drama), along with a small town called Staufen im Breisgau.
Why Staufen? Legend has it that Dr. Faust met his untimely end at an inn called the Gasthaus zum Löwen
in this tiny hamlet, which lies at the edge of Germany's fabled Black Forest. Late one night, the story goes, Faust room's was the site of a ground-shaking explosion, which blew the notorious alchemist to kingdom come. Some say that Faust inadvertently caused the blast himself via an alchemical experiment gone terribly wrong, but others of a more fanciful nature say it was in this room that Faust's pact with the devil came due, and Mephistopheles burst onto the scene in fiery manner, having been dispatched from the nethermost vaults of hell to claim the sorcerer's soul.
Not only does the village of Staufen actually exist, as do all of the prime locales in the Faust legend, but so too does the Gasthaus zum Löwen. Established in 1407, it is the third-oldest guest-house in all of Germany and remains a functioning inn to this very day. Brave souls, if they dare, can even stay is the room where Faust met his untimely end: room number 5.
Naturally, this was the room that we booked for ourselves.* * *
The most distinguishing feature of Staufen is the old, ruined castle that crowns a hill overlooking the town. The slopes of the hill have been terraced to accommodate vineyards, for this is prime wine-growing country.
The hamlet itself retains a quaintly medieval quality, with picturesque houses, cobblestone streets, and a Roland Fountain in the centre of town.
A little further along the central street, facing the historic marketplace, stands the fabled inn itself: the Gasthaus zum Löwen.
The guest-house still looks exactly as it did in centuries past, as depicted in contemporary drawings such as this, which is preserved in the Faust Museum in Knittlingen.
The golden lion hanging off the side of the building gives the inn its name. Löwen means "lion" in German, thus designating "the guest-house by the lion."
The distinctive mural on the wall records the most famous event associated with the site--indeed, one of the most infamous occurrences in all of German folk history: the death of Dr. Faust at the hands of the devil.
A page at the official web site of the Zum Löwen provides a serviceable translation of the text:
In the year 1539, Doctor Faustus, a most wonderful necromancer, stayed in the Lion (inn) at Staufen where he died miserably, and the legend goes that Mephistopheles, one of the leading devils, whom he had merely called his brother-in-law as long as he lived, had broken his neck and had given over his poor soul to eternal perdition, after the pact of 24 years had expired.
When one checks in at the Zum Löwen,
the friendly and enthusiastic innkeeper provides the key to the Faustzimmer
with great solemnity. All of the other keys are of the modern, banal sort, but this room still requires a Victorian-looking lever-lock key.
As one approaches the room and passes through aged wrought-iron gateways, one experiences a marvellous sense of atmosphere and mystery.
The room itself is fronted by a massive wooden door with the name "Dr. Faust" emblazoned in Gothic script above the fateful number 5.
Sure enough, the door's locking mechanism is of the ancient kind that one only sees in historic films and photographs, complete with an open keyhole through which one can peer within. Observe the multiple layers of tumblers that the key must unlock.
We couldn't help but notice the devil-red attire worn by the young girl who works at the inn, a sweet lass who could pass for Goethe's Gretchen if she weren't so emaciated. As she opened the door to admit us into the room, we observed a velvet-lined bench within covered in a similarly hellish-hued fabric. Even the way in which the late-afternoon sunlight was streaming in through the window-shade resembled the glow of a burning pyre, as if to enter this room was to pass through the portico of hell itself and to face perdition's flames, just as Dr. Faust did, so many centuries ago.
Inside the room, the first thing that catches the visitor's eye is the colossal bed, with its magnificent hand-carved canopy. The woodcarving skills of Black Forest artisans have been renowned since time immemorial, and the craftsmanship of the furniture in the Faustzimmer beggars belief, clearly belonging to another, nobler era than our own.
Opposite the bed stands a wardrobe fashioned by the same woodcarver who crafted the rest of Faustzimmer furniture, given its battlement crown and the ancient look of the wood. One approaches it with caution, easily imagining it to be a portal to another realm. The motifs along the sides reference the region's history as a wine-growing area.
When the sun goes down, the door to the room takes on an eerie, Gothic quality. Observe the ancient locking mechanism and handle, looking like something out of a Hammer House of Horror thriller.
At night, the lamp on the night-table eerily illuminates the woodcarving on the side of the bed, which bears the likeness of Dr. Faust, patterned after a contemporary sketch by Rembrandt. The wood glows with a reddish hue, as if to betoken the fiery realm into which the necromancer's soul was cast, as a consequence of his satanic pact. In this photograph, the book that appears alongside the carving is our own well-worn copy of Goethe's Faust, which has accompanied us on all of our travels. It bears the stamps of the Brocken, of the Faust-Museum in Knittlingen, of the Goethe-Museum in Frankfurt, and, of course, of the Gasthaus zum Löwen.
Here is what the room's uncanny octagonal writing-desk looks like at night, its cushions and drapes glowing a vivid red, the light shining from an illuminated alcove set into the wall.
Said alcove is filled with a host of alchemical memorabilia reminding visitors of the room's most infamous occupant and his infernal undertakings.
Whenever we tell friends about this episode of our travels, they invariable inquire as to whether we feared renting a room where a human being came to a truly terrible end. To our great astonishment, we did experience not just one but two uncanny episodes during the night that we slept in Faust's death-chamber.* * *
Exhausted after a long day of travel, we went to bed with no trepidation whatsoever. However, partway through the night, we suddenly perceived the approach of . . . a dark, malevolent shape, not unlike the grotesque figure of Satan (charcoal-scaly skin and all), as depicted in Roman Polanski's film Rosemary's Baby.
This alarming impression startled us awake--for, of course, it had surely been a bad dream.
After a few moments, we fell asleep once more, albeit with a lingering sense of unease.
Then, but a few hours later, we awoke once more, this time to find the Faustzimmer suffused with an eerie greenish glow. It was only the sheer improbability that anything supernatural could realistically occur in this room, of all places--as if a scene from a horror film were being played out in real life--that prevented us from descending into utter panic.
We sat up, peered around the bed's large, wooden canopy, and discovered that it was but our camera-battery charger glowing with a dim green light, as the charger invariably does after several hours' of being plugged into a electrical socket, to indicate that the battery has been fully powered. In most rooms, the charger is always visible, but in this room, the bed's large, wooden canopy had hidden it from immediate view. A further consequence of the canopy obstruction was that the light had been diffused and had seemed to be emanating from no accountable source.
The next morning, as we reflected on these unlikely night terrors, we felt rather silly, but also oddly gratified. It seemed terribly appropriate to have experienced two genuine frights in the fabled Faustzimmer of the Gausthaus zum Löwen. One could never have planned such a thing, and if one had penned the episode in a novel, readers would have discounted it as too fanciful to be believed. But it actually occurred.
A visual delight awaits visitors who open the room's window-shade: a beautiful stained-glass window depicting two episodes from Goethe's drama.
The first shows the famous conjuring scene in Faust's study, as the necromancer summons the devil and binds him with a powerful spell, threatening him to "Wait not for the sight / Of the triple-glowing light!"
The second image is patterned after Delacroix's famous engraving of Mephistopheles in Flight, from an illustrated edition of Goethe's Faust. However, in this version, the cityscape of Wittenberg--over which the devil soars in Delacrox's engraving--has been replaced by a view of Staufen, complete with a rendering of the ruined hilltop castle.
Our evening photograph of Staufen shows how the picturesque silhouette of the castle ruin has changed little over the centuries, still watching over this idyllic community just as it did in the Middle Ages, when the Lords of Staufen inhabited the fortress and surveyed the community from their hilltop perch.
The ascent of the hill is a delightful endeavour, taking the visitor between rows upon rows of sweet grapes on the vine.
The craggy walls of the ruin possess a sublime grandeur. Little wonder that crumbling, medieval castles such as this were one of the primary visual expressions of German Romanticism, betokening the Romantics' longing for the organic harmony of the Middle Ages.
Within the castle walls, the scenery is even more enchanting, with trees having gown up in the midst of the former rooms and courtyards.
One can easily imagine how grand the castle must have looked in its heyday, when it was inhabited by the local aristocracy. Yet even today, in its ruined condition, with the last traces of sunlight penetrating the emerald canopy and illuminating the ancient walls, it still evokes solemnity and grandeur.
An ancient window, eroded to the point where it more closely resembles a natural rock formation than a man-made stone structure,
provides a view of the rolling hills over which the castle presides, with the little homes of Staufen kneeling just below.
A view of Staufen from the southeastern slope shows how the town ends at the point where the vineyards begin, with the grapes planted on the castle hillside leading vertiginously down toward the humble homes.* * *
Ah, but in our enthusiasm to recount one of our all-time favourite travel days, we almost neglected to identify the proximate impetus for this post: the "Faust Dinner" to which we initially referred.
Just prior to our venturing up the hill toward the castle, we sat down to enjoy a meal at the Gasthaus zum Löwen, and snapped a few photographs to show the charming view from our outdoor table, overlooking the town square.
Overhead, the ivy twinkled with a hundred tiny lights.
The menu offered a variety of local delicacies and hearty German fare, along with two specialties of the house: a so-called Mephisto-Menü, which could have fed a family of four,
and--you guessed it--a Faust-Menü, which is what we ordered.
Hence our "Faust Dinner."
We are emphatically not gourmands, and often find the necessity of caloric intake during our European pilgrimages to constitute an aggravating loss of precious travel time. But every once in a while, we do partake of the regional fare, in order to obtain a rounded impression of local culture, and this was one such occasion.
We washed down our meal with wine pressed from grapes grown right on the castle hill outside town.
As we said, we are anything but gourmands, and particularly indifferent toward most forms of dessert. But in this case, the dessert was quite possibly the finest thing we have ever consumed, a perfect blend of flavours sweet and sour. It was billed as Zweierlei Frucht-Espuma mit Mango-Joghurteis und exotischen Früchten ("Two kinds of fruit espuma with mango yogurt and exotic fruits"), and after one bite, we simply had to take a photograph of the edible masterpiece, which seemed as much a work of art as a delicacy.* * *
This, then, was our experience of an actual, bona fide "Faust Dinner." One can only hope, if the historical Dr. Johann Faust knew the day he stayed at this inn was fated to be his last, that his final meal was at least as delectable as the repast that now bears his name.
If you ever find yourself in Germany and undertake a "Faust tour" of your own, be sure to include a visit to Staufen, and spend a night at the Gasthaus zum Löwen. But be prepared for any night terrors that come your way. And read the fine print of any infernal compacts you make.
(All images in this post photographed by yours truly. Click to view larger.)