Festivals have always been one of humanity's more pleasurable experiences, a universal part of cultural life round the world. But it is one particular area in Germany, the Rheingau in the state of Hesse, where the art of the Fest seems to have reached unrivalled heights. While thousands of international visitors head annually for the Munich Oktoberfest, festival culture in other parts of the country - notably in Hesse in central Germany - remains a strictly local affair. And yet Hesse hosts an astonishing 2,500 different festivals per year, probably more than anyone would normally visit in a whole lifetime. What is it that creates a society so enthusiastic about festivals? And why so many of them? I have been wondering about the reasons for this obsession with celebrating and merrymaking in this - my native - region, and about what causes local people to arrange such a punishing and expensive annual schedule.
The Rheingau, a small area of twenty-odd villages and small towns dotted along the fiver Rhine on Hesse's southern border, hosts no less than 31 festivals. Connoisseurs of top quality wine know this picturesque stretch of land as the place where 25 per cent of German wines are produced. In fact, it was the Romans who introduced viticulture to the sunny south-facing foothills of the Taunus mountains that naturally lend themselves to wine growing. When Queen Victoria visited in 1850, her praise included the words 'Good Hock keeps off the doctor'. She remained faithful to this for the next half century.
Looking at this quiet and complacent rural area, one would not suspect that 31 times a year, between April and November, it suddenly comes to life and hardly a weekend passes without at least one festival. Crowds of people from all the nearby towns and villages are attracted by the idea of a long weekend of eating, drinking and dancing by the riverbank; I treasure my childhood memories of the music of brass bands, loud and garish funfairs, fireworks' displays, processions in colourful historic costumes, and the smell of sizzling sausages and roasted almonds. Now however, I wonder whether these spectacles are a genuine celebration of local heritage, joining the community at the heart, or no more than very clever money-making ventures.
This notion is prevalent in three of the four different types of festivals that can be distinguished, although the boundaries are not always clear cut. There are traditional - often religious - ones rooted deeply in history, commercial fun fairs providing cheap consumer entertainment, street festivals organised by local residents and businesses, and, lastly, the relatively new concept of 'medieval festivals' where jousting, armoury and ancient crafts are exhibited for their show effect. This latter type of event, increasingly popular with young people in modern, high-tech 1990s' Germany, is not found in the Rheingau. Yet there is certainly no lack of variety, or of opportunities for spending money.
Take the example of Eltville, a Rheingau town of 8,000 inhabitants within whose medieval walls six annual festivals are hosted. Every year, on the last weekend in June, normal life grinds to a halt and traffic to a standstill when no less than 200,000 join in the Festival of Sparkling Wine (Sektfest), one of the largest in the area. For four days, the focus is firmly on that most precious of local products. Sparkling wine has been made in Eltville since 1811 when wine growers started applying the French method of champagne making to local wines. The sparkling wine company founded by Mattheus Muller ('MM') now covers nearly a quarter of the town's total surface area and MM is exported world-wide. Needless to say, the firm plays an important role in the local economy; and with sales particularly low in mid summer (Germans traditionally consume sparkling wine on New Year's Eve and around Christmas and Easter), what better way of …