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Diary of Elstree and Borehamwood Rotary Club's visit to Offenburg: Day One
The town of Offenburg in south-west Germany is not a well known tourist destination.
Yet Borehamwood’s twin town, nestled amongst vineyards on the edge of the Black Forest, has plenty to offer the weary traveller, as Borehamwood Times reporter Ruth Halkon discovered as she accompanied Elstree and Borehamwood Rotary Club on its first visit to the town.
Friday began far earlier than days are meant to as, bleary eyed and half awake after my 4.30am start, I stumbled into the other travellers at Stansted airport for the 8.30am flight to Baden Baden.
Six members of the Rotary Club of Elstree and Borehamwood boarded the flight: president Cynthia Barker, Elstree and Borehamwood town councillor Charles Kelly, Nick Male, Gill Fowler, Barbara Kennedy of Crossroads Care and Sandra Capocci.
Andrew Grady of Borehamwood and Elstree Twin Town Association, whose wife comes from near Offenburg, joined the group to act as guide, facilitator and shepherd.
We were also accompanied by Barbara’s husband Jack and Sasha’s husband Dino and blind son Michael.
We arrived in Offenburg without incident, passing through the industrial outlands of the town, overlooked by the grey tower of Hubert Burda Media, one of Germany’s most influential publishing firms.
As we drew closer to the centre, asphalt gave way to cobbled streets and picturesque houses painted pink, green and yellow, until we reached Hotel Union, in the shadow of the red brick Protestant church.
We were met outside our hotel by interpreter and schoolteacher Ralph Brunner and Klaus Teufel of Offenburg’s twin town association Brücke, and hustled into the ornate, baroque marvel that is the Rathaus.
As Cllr Kelly said: “Hertsmere Borough Council deals with a million people and its civic offices are far less impressive than this.”
After some difficulty finding the right floor in the many-officed building, we met the Mayor Edith Schreiner in the town hall’s grandest room.
Brisk, efficient and welcoming, she gave a speech in English and German thanking us for our visit and describing the virtues of her town of 58,000 people, to which a further 20,000 commute every day to work in some of its 2,000 companies.
She described its rich culture, including its wine festival, which attracts people from all over Germany, and its history dating back to the Roman conquest.
She also talked about its strong links to Strasbourg just over the French border, and the benefits of the EU.
Cynthia returned with a speech in German, lovingly translated from Cynthia’s notes by Nick, expressing her “heartfelt gratitude,” for the hospitality and her determination to strenghten the links between the two towns.
Michael also delighted everyone with a German song he had learned for the occasion.
Forget the glasses of water at Hertsmere Council meetings, or the tea in town council meetings – here each table was equipped with several bottles of the local red and white wine and sweet bread, which we drank and ate together.
Feeling light headed after the wine (I hadn’t eaten since a sandwich at 5am) I was whisked away by Klaus to the baroque offices of the Offenburger Tageblatt, right opposite the town hall.
There I compared notes on reporting from a small town with reporter Kirsten Peiper.
The news in Borehamwood and Offenburg seems quite similar – quite a lot about local politics and only one murder a year. However, the Offenburger Tageblatt has no problem with shrinking newspapers – it employs 50 people and produces a sizeable paper a day.
Offenburg is also experiencing a building boom similar to Borehamwood’s, with 10,000 flats expected to be built. “We’ve had no objection at all though from residents. They seem to be happy with the way the town is expanding.”
That evening, we made the short walk over to the Krone brewery, which had been in the Braun family since 1847.
“I knew there would be lots and lots of stairs,” said Gill, who has problems with her knees, as we hoisted ourselves up what seemed like an endless number.
But we were rewarded at the top by foaming glasses of the pale beer at the top.
We were greeted by several members of the Offenburg Rotary Club, led by the lofty and genial president Karl-Heinz Gormanns, and by CEO of Krone and Rotarian Oliver Braun, who gave us a brief history of brewing.
We sat companionably drinking and eating kartoffel salat and other delights, while the Rotary Club members from both countries talked about the importance of friendship and fellowship.
Karl Heinz said: “Some Rotary Clubs concentrate too much on raising money. We have 69 members, and 69 friends. Through friendship and fellowship, we are very much involved in the community and know where the money we raise can be best used.”
I was again whisked away, this time by Klaus’s wife Beata, to attend choir practice with her at a local community centre, listening to the early rehearsals of a 17th century Mass.
But I heard from other members of the group that the evening continued to be very pleasant indeed.
Andrew told me that as each glass was drained another appeared in its place, and, after a cue from our German hosts, the group started singing, led by "party animal" Nick which continued fairly late into the night.
See inside this week's Borehamwood Times for the next installment of the Offenburg diary.
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