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Let's Go Bavarian!

This taste of Germany in the Cascade Mountains was made by recipe.


What if you were told there was a Bavarian village at the foot of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state? That flower boxes sat in row after row of windows? That accordion players roamed the streets? That a brewery served up fresh-made beer and spicy sausages? That quaintness abounded just a couple of hours from Seattle and 30 minutes from a ski resort? That its calendar was full of festivals?

If you're like me, you'd wonder at the thought of it and immediately want to visit such a place. You might wonder how it came to be. Perhaps German pioneers settled it last century, as they did central Texas. Or maybe they started it after World War II, as they did some of the ski towns in Colorado.

Well, as Paul Harvey would say, here's the rest of the story. The real Leavenworth, Washington, has existed since pioneer days. However, it's been Bavarian for just over 30 years. It seems that when the Great Northern Railroad pulled out in the early 1960s, the town pretty much dried up. So they decided to remake themselves. And since the town of Winthrop, facing the same situation, had already gone for an Old West theme, Leavenworth's leaders put their heads together and proclaimed, "Let's go Bavarian!"

And boy, did they go Bavarian. The whole of downtown was transformed by building codes which forced even the Burger King to go with the quaint roof, the flower boxes, and the Olde World lettering. The Welcome sign became a Willkommen sign. The accordion and the yodeler became the sounds of the street. Even the sporting goods store had to become Der Sportsmann.

Two things are apparent when you arrive in Leavenworth: One, it's a strange little place; and two, Project Alpine worked like a charm. Leavenworth, a town of 2,100 people, gets more than a million visitors per year now. At least half of them were there when I pulled into town with a friend and former Memphian now living in Seattle.

We were there for the whitewater rafting -- there are seven rafting companies in town -- so we did that before wading into the fog of Bavarian charm. My theory has always been to sample a place's nature first, and the nature in that part of the world is astounding. Leavenworth sits on the edge of the desert and at the foot of the mountains, with the Wenatchee River rolling right through the middle of town. Stevens Pass ski area is just up the road, and the Wenatchee National Forest stretches for 135 miles along the mountains.

The Wenatchee is pretty mellow as far as whitewater goes, but when it's close to 90 degrees it's perfectly nice to just get a few splashes here and there and otherwise enjoy the scenery. All the local fauna were out: We saw ospreys sitting in nests with their young, vultures soaring, salmon leaping, trout darting, and rednecks throwing things off bridges.

But, as always, the most interesting thing about the whitewater trip was not the river. Here's a suggestion: Next time you go on a guided trip down a river, sit near the guide and start a conversation. Our guide, Megan, had been in the Peace Corps for three years, working as a beekeeper in Paraguay. This was one of her last trips of the year on the Wenatchee; after this she'd be off to some other rivers for the rest of the summer, then "do some traveling this fall and wait for the snow to fall again." Ho hum, another day in the life.

Off the river, we headed into town for lunch. We had kielbasa and bratwurst at the brewery, where, in keeping with modern-day Pacific Northwest attitudes, they offer such beers as Blind Pig Ale. No one could explain this, but the kielbasa was good.

We wandered the main drag where an accordionist was playing hits from The Sound of Music to a crowd of families licking ice cream cones. We saw shops filled with sculpted candles, beer steins, "authentic European gifts," cuckoo clocks, music boxes (at Die Musik Box), gingerbread, chocolates, old-time photos, and "everything needed to build that miniature dream house." It was all the detritus of Tourist Country, in short, but with a Bavarian twist.

Heading back up Route 2 toward Seattle -- a road with an espresso stand roughly every quarter-mile -- I was trying to process this little Alpine experience we had just been on. My first reaction was to blow off the whole place as a cheesy tourist trap, but then I thought, You know, more power to Leavenworth. They have a right to earn a living up there, and since the cowboy theme was already taken, why not Bavaria? Next time I'll just spend a little more time on the river.

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