Stuttgart starts with a tunnel. And then another and another and after you’ve driven through at least half a dozen mountains you emerge, blinking into the sunlight, right in the centre of town.
Our aim was to explore the old town, the Schlossplatz and the Oberer Schlossgarten; there’s a lot more to Stuttgart, including some stunning gardens, but little legs can only go so far, especially when the weather has turned against you. This was the wettest day of our entire trip, and the rain gently trickled down all day. No cloudbursts to clear the air and give us puddles to run through, nor a thunderstorm to curl up and watch from the windows of a coffee shop, this was damp, humid, incessant pitter-pat. It felt just like home.
But we are undaunted by a little water, it was warm enough, and after a while you just stop noticing that you’re wet. It does explain why I didn’t take too many pictures though; I definitely notice my camera getting wet.
The Schlossplatz was beautiful, with everything you could ask for in a town square if you were aged five, three or one; a tall avenue of trees to scamper up and down chasing pigeons, rose bushes to sniff and to hide behind, sculptures and ornaments to run around, and a fountain to dip your fingers in (and try to spray your sister with water without your Mummy noticing). With all these distractions its a miracle they ate any of their lunch at all.
On a sunny day I can imagine that the square is rammed, with a premium on every last blade of grass, and perhaps that’s the advantage of going somewhere on a rainy day; you get to really see what it looks like without all the people in the way.
Wandering along the front of the New Palace, splended in all its reconstructed baroque glory, and around the corner led us to the garden. It is absolutely beautiful; a curving lake dotted with yet more fountains (fountains seem to be a Stuttgart speciality) edged by a wide lawn and presided over by a flock of geese.
Huge and beautiful in their subtle colouring, Elma fell in love with them in an instant and sprinted off in their direction. Only when we went to intervene in the geese herding did we discover exactly what she was trying to achieve. I’m rather glad she never quite managed it as I doubt the geese would return her affectionate embrace.
The formal gardens laid out to one side have even more fountains and it would be hard to say whether certain members of our party were wetter from the rain or from the fountains.
Wondering back through town, we came across the Stiftskirche, a beautiful church that marrys together old and new architecture and tops it off with some absolutly stunning stained glass. We stopped a little while to take it all in, and to have a couple of moments of quiet in what had been a very hectic few days. It was the glass that got me; I love beautiful stained glass, especially modern glass patterns that have been made out of recycled shards from an earlier work. This was a beautiful example, fully of gorgeous colours, casting multicoloured ripples all over the floor.
And it was standing in the church that the penny dropped as to why Stuttgart had an air of familiarity. I’d never been there before but I grew up near Plymouth, and now I live near Coventry, and they have the same feel; a very new town centre, all concrete and glass, with the occasional older building left like a refugee from a previous era. It was the glass that did it, that modern patchwork so very familiar from John Piper’s windows in the new Coventry Cathedral.
Coventry was all but flattened in the Second World War, it was a major manufacturing centre before the war and its metal work and munitions factories went into overdrive when hostilities started. Things all came to a head on the night of 14 November 1940 when the worst raid yet left the city irrepairable. We live some way south of the city and yet there are older members of our church congregation who remember standing at the bottom of their garden as children and seeing the loom in the dark sky and the smoke as the city burned. The old cathedral was left a shell and a new one (with the beautiful windows) was built next door.
Stuttgart, though partially protected by its surrounding hills, was still the target of 53 bombing raids and the recipient of an estimated 142,000 bombs, for much the same reason as Coventry, as a major site of manufacturing its destruction was considered of strategic importance.
I’d never been to Germany before last summer, and this was the first time I’d ever been somewhere where you could see the scars inflicted by the Allied forces against a native population. It’s an uncomfortable conflicted sort of feeling; we enjoyed Stuttgart and standing there, admittedly in the pouring rain, watching the children enjoy the gardens there was part of me that felt almost apologetic. We represent a country that caused a terrible hurt and took people’s lives; is it some sort of gloating to stand in a church and admire their beautiful patchwork of stained glass, when John and my grandfathers were part of the forces that turned the glass into patchwork in the first place? And yet at the same time I’m not sorry that a sociopathic megalomaniac was forced to release his control over such a beautiful country, along with the rest of Europe.
Perhaps it’s that we are still close to that generation that fought. When I was at school I helped as a researcher on a book that a teacher wrote about the wartime histories of the local area and interviewed a number of former servicemen. I’ve heard first hand the stories of those who fought, and it doesn’t feel like history to me, not just yet. In time and generations it will not be forgotten, but become less personal, just as I can quite happily go on holiday to Spain without feeling the need to apologise for Sir Francis Drake.
When we had had enough time to look at all the windows, and for the girls to pick their favourites, we tumbled out for a last wander around, and found ourselves pulled inexplicably towards the bookshop. I don’t speak anything like enough German to be able to translate even a nice craft book with pictures, so we all headed for the children’s section to see what we could find. We might be in a different country, and using a different language, but where my three are concerned, a book is a book, and as the littlest two can’t read they don’t mind what language it’s in, as long as the pictures are good.
John can read a little German so he set off in search of a story, while Pip and I checked out our mutual level: picture books. There’s a theory behind the immersion style of learning a language that if you can just get hold of enough nouns, and the occasional adjuective, you can probably make yourself understood, and I can see why it would work; it’s the way babies start to speak their native tongue, from “Mama”, “Dadda”, “ball” to “yellow train station” which is what Pip yelled at me this morning as I left the house to go to work.
So as John started to read Das Mucklemunster (the tale of a mischievious cat) to Kitty and Elma, Pip and I found a favourite of our own; “Welche Farbe?” (what colour?) and now we know that cherries are rot and frogs are grun.
We headed back to our forest, our tent, and, blissfully, some sunshine, knowing that we’d seen only a tiny fraction of what Stuttgart had to offer, but that we’d liked what we’d seen. If we were to go back, then I’d head down away from town to the river; the gardens that started where we were, continue all the way down, ending on the banks of the Necker, right by a couple of car factory museums that I think I might just be able to persuade John he wants to see!
So from the old town, and the start of the greenery, let me share with you our little postcard from a very very wet Stuttgart: