Last weekend, we made our third annual trek to the town of Leavenworth. It would be more impressive if I could tell you it’s the only town where you can be served schnitzel by someone dressed in lederhosen while being serenaded by the sweet sounds of an accordion, but there are actually a surprising number of these towns scattered across North America. Regardless, today I share my ode to Leavenworth, a town that holds a special place in my heart.
What makes it so special? Leavenworth may be the only Bavarian-themed town where you can buy a supposedly authentic stein in one shop, then walk next door to buy your toddler a trendy scarf printed with hot pink unicorns. Leavenworth may be the only Bavarian-themed town with a surprising number of pizza and Mexican restaurants which, I can only presume, is because someone falsely assumed that you can only eat so much schnitzel. Leavenworth may also be the only Bavarian-themed village in which you can do something called “Hot Laps” which sounds dirty but is apparently some form of whitewater rafting. Leavenworth, as you can see, has a lot going for it.
What I love about Leavenworth is its unabashed kitsch and how it’s just a little worn around the edges. Everything, including the big corporate machines like Starbucks, Subway and McDonald’s, has just a touch of Bavarian flair to make it fit into the townsite. There are twinkling icicles hanging from eavesdrops year-round. There are more nutcracker and stein shops than you can count on two hands, even though every shop carries basically the same things. There are two outdoor sausage haus’s directly across the street from each other, each vying for your attention with grilled meats, chilled beers and more saurkraut than you could possibly consume in an entire lifetime. Oh, and the pretzels, don’t forget the heavenly salted, oily pretzels. There are at least half a dozen places featuring schnitzel and spaetzle although, if you ask me, Andreas Keller is the only way to go (sadly they were closed this year, and I cannot express my deep dissatisfaction with our second-string choice without getting emotional). Some even play live accordion music. There is a gazebo in the centre of town through which peppy polka music is blasted at all hours, lending itself to craft-beer induced, spontaneous, moonlit dance breaks.
It sounds magical doesn’t it? But if you look a little more closely, you can see that all is not so magical. The jolly Bavarian window shutters on the hotels could use a paint refresh, a sure signal that the interior is even more tired from resting on its Bavarian-kitsch laurels for decades. The checkered tablecloths in the schnitzel haus’s are somewhat faded. The main street shops are letting the odd green mermaid into their offerings, which I assume does not fit the standard of traditional Bavarian decor (though I could be wrong as I’ve never researched Bavarian folklore). The hipsters have even landed with their sparsely-filled stores standing in stark contrast to the overstuffed traditional shops, and their brick-walled craft brewery/pizzeria that pays no homage whatsoever to Bavarian tradition within its walls, not even with a clever Bavarian pun to name one of its beers. Most telling, perhaps, is that the tourists idling slowly down its streets do so without a twinkle in their eyes, as though they too can see the veneer of Bavarian magic is wearing thin.
It occurred to me this weekend that my love for Leavenworth is due in part to this undertone of sadness, of a town that was once lively and proudly Bavarian-themed but now gives off the impression of a couple who’s grown a little too comfortable in their relationship. No one’s trying all that hard anymore to keep things new and interesting. That probably sounds depressing, but this is the makings of nostalgia, of knowing that you can go back year after year and all your favourite haunts will still be there waiting for you. You know you can have a great grilled sausage and pretzel at the Sausage Haus and that, even though you’re not really hungry for dinner, you’ll make room for schnitzel at Andreas Keller. You’ll be sure to fit in a dinner at Los Camperos for the best prawn enchilada you’ve ever had. You’ll cram into the tiny tasting room at Dog Haus brewery and the same brewmaster will be there to greet you and dole out overly salted peanuts to fuel your drinking. You’ll even run into the couple that you met last year on your trip to Leavenworth, the couple who also travels down year after year to partake in the same traditions, and you will warmly say hello like you are old friends, because you understand each other and your love for this Bavarian-themed town.