A charming patch of Deutschland

ZOFIA SMARDZ
Last updated 05:10 14/12/2013

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It's the little touches that make the tree-shaded, brick-lined streets of German Village in Columbus, Ohio, feel like Hansel-and-Gretel land.

Neat brick bungalows - a grander Federal or Victorian occasionally elbowing in among them - present their tidy facades and immaculate front yards to our admiring gaze.

Here and there, a lintel sports some carved curlicues, a chimney flaunts a little fancy brickwork, a porch leads to gleamingly ornate wooden doors. But for the most part, there's not all that much gingerbread around.

Maybe it's those droopy evergreens that hug up against so many of the cottages, the kind that cast weird shadows and look as if they're about to wrap their branchy arms about you.

Or maybe this: the wooden post that rises out of one yard and looks googly-eyed right at me. Carved into the post is the fanciful face of an old man with a long, flowing beard that ends in a sort of spout over a rustic trough.

It's one of those kooky, kitschy woodsy things you'd find in some Teutonic theme park.

I was a German major in colleges, so my ears perked up when I overheard the father of the bride describing the German Village to my husband at the Dayton wedding we were attending.

It was a natural place to stop overnight on the drive back to Washington.

This 233-acre historic enclave in Columbus' south end was, in the 19th century, the bustling home of mostly working-class German immigrants, with thriving breweries and beer gardens and businesses, and German churches and schools and cultural organizations.

But then came World Wars I and II - and German heritage no longer was something to trumpet. Meanwhile, Prohibition shut down the breweries. The neighbourhood went downhill, and from there it's the typical urban tale.

The area went to seed, the city demolished a big swath of it, and then some hardy pioneer - in this case, a city employee named Frank Fetch - moved in and vowed to restore and preserve the past.

And voila - it's now one of the most desirable neighbourhoods in town.

Today, the German Village enchants us, right from the top. Our B&B, the German Village Guest House, is like our own private cottage.

There's no one around to let us in, just a lockbox that opens into a cosy, beautifully refurbished space fitted out with snazzy contemporary decor.

We're all alone until 10:30 that night, when another couple walks in and disappears straight into their bedroom. We enjoy our wine in the living room undisturbed. Our fellow guests are gone at the crack of dawn, so breakfast, too, is just for two.

Heading out to the main strip of South Third Street, I spy a sign for The Book Loft that the bride had urged us to see. "It's amazing," she'd said. "It has all these rooms and goes on forever."

And it's open daily till 11 pm! So after a lovely martini, and then a lovely dinner, we head back up Third Street and into the terraced courtyard beside the store, complete with wrought iron benches and little seating areas.

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Just inside the entrance, I hit the gold mine at a sale table. A stack of Advent calendars (of course - it's German Village; I can just imagine it here at Christmas) calls out to me.

I can't resist and snatch up a half-dozen. Love this place already.

Indoors, it's a crazy quilt of cramped and overstuffed rooms, 32 of 'em, packed with bargain books and posters and CDs and DVDs. We wander around, up and down narrow staircases, and an hour later we're not sure whether we've gone through all the rooms or just doubled back through the same ones over and over.

Perhaps some of Hansel's bread crumbs would have helped.

Late the next morning, we head over to Schmidt's Sausage Haus on Kossuth Street. This is the village's signature restaurant and popular tourist draw.

We, however, have come only to pick up some cream puffs for the road. This is what the place is best known for, we have it on good authority from the mother of the bride.

Although, those fresh sausages in the deli case look pretty amazing. The cream puffs, nonetheless - the filling is at least 3 inches high - are to die for.

At the German Village Society headquarters in the old Moose Lodge meeting house, we pick up a walking tour map and set off on a cellphone-narrated look at a few highlights of the 'hood.

There's the old schoolhouse that now houses a senior citizens' craft shop, and graceful St. Mary's Church, dedicated in 1868. A pair of modest brewers' houses contrasts with a grander merchant's home just up the street. My favourite stop is Schwartz Castle, with its weird back story of local businessman Frederick Schwartz.

Jilted by the German fiancee he'd built the grand manor for, he went, um, a little crazy, constructing secret passageways in the house and supposedly five levels of basements. Also, he developed some odd personal habits, like jogging barefoot year-round and sunbathing nude on the turret roof. In the 1800s.

At restful, verdant Schiller Park, I take a look at the statue, cast in Germany and erected here in 1891, of the eponymous poet. Making my way back to the car through a throng of Canada geese feeding around the pond (one brazen fellow comes right up to me, searching for a handout, no doubt), I find my husband staring at some imposing homes across the street.

One sports a For Sale sign, so we look it up on his smartphone. The price makes our eyes bulge - $850,000! But this is Columbus, Ohio, we exclaim. And then I think, no, it's German Village, a little marvel of German engineering.

WHERE TO STAY

German Village Guest House, 748 Jaeger St. Traditional yet sleek, this cross between a B&B and a boutique hotel offers three rooms and two suites with all the bells and whistles and a great continental breakfast.

WHERE TO EAT

Lindey's, 169 E. Beck St. Popular restaurant serving American bistro fare in an elegant yet relaxed atmosphere.

G. Michael's Bistro and Bar, 595 S. Third St. Contemporary American emphasizing local and seasonal foods. The bartender makes a great martini.

Schmidt's Sausage Haus, 240 E. Kossuth St. Family-owned and -operated, selling and serving authentic German food around the corner from the original Schmidt's 1886 meatpacking house. The cream puffs are a must-try.

WHAT TO DO

The Book Loft, 631 S. Third St. Thirty-two rooms of books and more. Daily 10 am to 11 pm.

German Village Society, 588 S. Third St. Watch a short video about village history and pick up a walking-tour map. Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday 10 am to 2 pm, Sunday noon to 3 p.m.

Schiller Park, 1069 Jaeger St. This 23.5-acre park, Columbus's second-oldest, includes a recreation centre, a picnic area, a fishing pond and landscaped gardens.

INFORMATION germanvillage.com

experiencecolumbus.com

- The Washington Post

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