Atoothpick with fur, for winter use.
A container of cold steam.
A sample of Berlin air in a bottle, a glass nail, a burning wax candle (with electric plug) -- these bits of nonsense and more await the unsuspecting tourist who wanders into what may be the goofiest museum on the face of the earth.
Housed in the south tower of Munich's 14th-century Isar Gate, the Karl Valentin Museum is perhaps the world's only public array of tomfoolery. Though little-known outside Germany, the "Nonsense Museum" has been tickling the funny bones of Germans since it first opened 14 years ago.
The Valentin Museum is one of four oddball attractions in Germany that go undiscovered by many tourists, who tend to concentrate on the country's scenic beauty and historical villages -- not to mention the best and foamiest beer on this planet, and a cuisine that would arouse a whale's appetite in a goldfish. But Germany's more idiosyncratic attractions are also worth seeking out -- both for an insight into German humor and as a delightful means of exploring offbeat Deutschland.
Munich's Valentin Museum is just the beginning. At Heidelberg's old university, you can peek into the student prison, where youthful pranksters once served time. In the ancient village of Hamelin, you can walk into a fairy tale -- down the street where the children of Hamelin followed the Pied Piper. And if these oddities whet your appetite, come to Bavaria in the fall for the championship competition of what may just be the strangest sport in the world -- finger-wrestling.
Karl Valentin was a traveling music hall comedian, a laughing philosopher revered and adored by Germans during his heyday, the '20s and '30s. Affectionately known as "K.V.," Valentin spent a lifetime demonstrating through his unique brand of humor "how ridiculous and unimportant man becomes when fate starts throwing tiny pebbles into the works." Many Germans who visit the Karl Valentin Museum and guffaw their way through do not consider the Nonsense Museum nonsense at all.
A visitor entering the museum wends his way upward along an enclosed spiral staircase to the first of three landings. On the way up he is confronted on both sides of the stair walls with funny bone exhibits, some of which are not readily understandable to a foreigner unless he's armed with a dictionary:
A partially melted piece of sculpture made of wax, "which had the misfortune of being near the radiator."
The Karl Valentin solution to the parking problem -- a baby carriage.
A plain brick, described as the tuffet that Little Miss Muffet sat on (petrified).
A chamber pot with chain and handle for flushing.
A beautifully framed, solid black portrait, depicting a chimney sweep at night.
A pan full of water. According to the caption, this "liquid snow sculpture" is "a rare thing of beauty, when still solid."
A drum, poised for a midnight closing signal, hangs overhead. But the drum is never used, since the museum shuts its doors at precisely 5:29 p.m. Perfectly logical.
The tourist on the hunt for other oddball sights must go north now to the proud old town of Heidelberg, famous for its university, founded in 1386. Here, at the university's student prison, rowdy campus offenders were sentenced to terms ranging from one to five weeks on a diet of bread and water.
A student had to undergo a prescribed ritual before the cell door was clanked shut. He was taken to the coop in a procession, riding backward on a donkey and carrying his own mattress. A typical "crime" in those days -- the prison was used from 1778 to 1914 -- was to throw stones through police windows with a note saying, "We found this in the street." The penalty for this folly was the maximum -- 35 days on bread and water, no chance for parole.
In actuality the bread-and-water punishment rarely proved difficult, for the students learned quickly that there was more than one way to unlatch the hatch. Fellow students would sneak around with picnic boxes of food and beer and quietly haul them up by rope (the beer first) to the top-floor chamber.
The Heidelberg University calaboose had four cells, each of which had a nickname -- Palais Royal, Sans Souci, Solitude and Grand Hotel. About 100 years ago, one undergrad left a message on his cell wall in the form of a silhouette, painted with wax from a melting candle. After that nearly every student prisoner left behind a written or sketched reminder for posterity that he had served time there.
Although many students were not fond of the jug, others found it a great place to get away from it all. Some of the inmates of the Studentenkarzer later were to become famous. According to the university's records, even Bismarck's son, Herbert, knew the inside of the prison. In fact, he served five sentences there -- one of them for putting a chamber pot on the head of a statue near the administration building.
Today, visitors can peruse the schoolboy decorations and such slogans as "One for all and all for one" scrawled on the walls. Facial silhouettes in profile seem to have been the preferred art of the inmates. One American sophomore whose name was Tuckerman (foreign students were not exempt from serving time) left a terse declaration of his views on Heidelberg University and its prison. In big black letters, which he outlined with a fancy red border, he wrote a one-word editorial:
Speaking of rats, that brings up the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Whether this musical mystery man actually blew a magic flute, led the pestilent rats of Hamelin into the river and later enticed all the children into a mountain on that fateful June 26 in the year 1284 is something we won't dispute here.
If you go to the gingerbread-and-cobblestone town of Hamelin, about 25 miles southwest of Hanover on the banks of the Weser River, you can visit a curious narrow street called Bungelosen Strasse -- The Street of No Noise. For seven centuries, an unwritten rule has prohibited parades, wedding processions, street dancing and other public demonstrations in this ancient alley, for this is the street on which, on that memorable day in 1284, many children of Hamelin walked before they disappeared forever. Follow the street to the town's East Gate -- the one through which the Piper supposedly led the children. It's easy to explore Hamelin, since much of the Altstadt (Old Town) has been turned into a pedestrian mall, with no automobile traffic allowed. The rats are gone, but you can munch on "rat tails," "rat catcher torte" and other local delicacies in the town's many restaurants.
Come back in May, and you will be treated to a tasty reenactment of the en masse kidnapping of Hamelin's small fry. Every Sunday at noon, a troupe of well-rehearsed kiddie actors (and the local postman) stage an impressive two-act play of the Pied Piper's unforgettable visit.
Although youngsters of nearly every country in the world have heard the story, not until recently was it known whether the 700-year-old legend had any substance of truth. German scholars, having spent several decades of research on this ancient whodunit, have accumulated a tremendous pile of documents; one, dated 1370, is said to be the earliest recorded version of the famous tale. "In Hamelin in the year 1284," it states, "there occurred a wondrous event on the feast day of St. John and St. Paul. A young man of about 30 years, handsome and well-clothed so that all who saw him admired him, entered Hamelin by the Weser Gate. He began piping through town on a silver flute. And all the children, to the number of 130, followed him out the East Gate. There by Calvary Cross they suddenly vanished ..."
The account makes no mention of the rodents; apparently, the rat-drowning theme was tacked on centuries later.
Another researcher unearthed some historical evidence that -- with a bit of imagination -- could be seen as a clue to the Pied Piper legend. In the year 1285, a German military bishop who lived 10 miles from Hamelin began a recruiting drive in an effort to populate new towns he had founded. His agents were successful, convincing many young men and women to emigrate from overcrowded Hamelin. In the story, the bishop's recruiters became the Pied Piper -- and the wanderlust volunteers were transformed into children.
If your appetite for the offbeat has not been sated, come to Bavaria in the fall, when the little village of Gaisach -- about a 1 1/2-hour drive south of Munich -- is the scene of what may well be the strangest sport anywhere in the universe. The practitioners of this sport, hale and hearty beings that they are, brag that they have more strength in one finger of their right hands than the world's heavyweight boxing champ has in his whole arm.
At first this sounds like just another idle boast -- until you find out that the man is an expert at finger-wrestling, a Bavarian pastime that goes back to the 14th century.
The rules of Fingerhackln are simple. Two men (occasionally a woman engages in the game) sit across from each other at a table with white lines chalked lengthwise down the center. Each man puts his middle finger into the same leather loop, and at the cry "Auf!" begins with ferocity and accompanying grunts to tug against his opponent. A hefty finger-wrestler, if he gets the jump on his adversary, can often pull him across the table in ignominious belly-whop style with one deft jerk of his talented talon. It doesn't matter what kind of work a fellow does for a living -- it's all in the finger muscle. That's why a big, strapping mountain man may go down in defeat against a watchmaker.
During the annual competition in September -- the exact date has not yet been set -- the contestants dress in leather knickers and green felt hats. Sitting across from each other at oak tables, their legs wrapped around steel stools, they engage in their tug-of-war -- often suffering nosebleeds from the strain.
In the finals it's not unusual for both Goliaths to approach the last match with bandaged fingers, casualties of previous wars. A brass band, oompahing "The Fingerhackln Hymn," helps create the proper fighting spirit.
Though the fad is more than 600 years old, nobody really knows how Fingerhackln got started. It's believed to have sprung up in German saloons, where a man in search of free beer could win many a stein if he perfected his finger-grappling techniques. The neighborhood breweries sponsored local matches, which eventually led to the national event.
To get into the Fingerhackln World Series calls for considerable know-how. It also requires a lot of pull.
The Karl Valentin Museum, located in the south tower of the Isar Gate in Munich, is open Saturday through Tuesday, 10:01 a.m. to 5:29 p.m. (11:01 a.m. to 5:29 p.m. on Sundays), closed Wednesday through Friday. The Heidelberg University student prison is located in the Augustinergasse, on the east side of the Old University, and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information on the Bavarian finger-wrestling competition, contact the Tourist Information Office of the Federal Republic of Germany, 747 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 308-3300.
Nino Lo Bello is a free-lance writer based in Vienna, Austria.