Fredericksburg: Deep in the heart of Texas Hill Country |

Fredericksburg: Deep in the heart of Texas Hill Country

Carolyn Schwartz
Make yourself at home for a few days in a Fredericksburg "Gastehaus." (Carolyn Schwartz)

“Texas isn’t geography. It’s history. It’s a world in itself.” So says Edna Ferber in her 1976 novel, “Giant.”

Actually, Texas seems like lots of worlds, and one of the most appealing of them is the German-accented Hill Country. Roughly speaking, the region’s four corners are anchored on the east by Austin and San Antonio; on the west by Llano and Bandera. Heading northwest from San Antonio, you can be in the heart of Hill Country in slightly more than an hour; from Austin, it’ll take 90 minutes or more.Some say it’s the green hills, rising out of the flatlands that make the Hill Country special. Others say they’re lured by the noble oaks, the pastoral fields, the artesian springs that spawn cold clear rivers, the abrupt ravines and pocket canyons, the rock-strewn ranch land, and the sturdy craftsmanship of its German towns. For me, the real beauty of the Texas Hill Country lies in the contradictory styles that co-exist there. One is the plain and unvarnished Hill Country, characterized by old folks gossiping on the porch of a country store, ranchers in Wranglers and straw Stetsons, bare-bones dance halls that come alive on weekends with a flurry of fiddling and two-stepping.The other Hill Country is worldly and plugged-in: made up of gentlemen farmers and celebrities who land their planes on private airstrips on their weekend ranches; stylish stores that sell shabby-chic home furnishings, and restaurants that serve shitake mushrooms, “rondelles” of goat cheese, and soy-glazed ostrich steak.

Many small towns try to crowd under the Hill Country banner because the name is a significant tourist draw for the state, especially for elevation-starved south and east Texans. Elevations here aren’t exactly alpine: The norm is 1,400 1,700 feet. Visitors also appreciate the area for its quantity and diversity of wildflowers. Bluebonnets (declared the state flower in 1971) reach their peak in mid-April and from then until late fall, the region is hit by full-blown wildflower mania. And still another attraction: In the heat of a Texas summer, Hill Country breezes and relatively low humidity often make the region feel like a rediscovered Eden.If I had only a few days in the area, I’d high-tail it to Fredericksburg, deep in the heartland of the Hill Country and perhaps the town most devoted to its European past. It was here, in 1846, that The Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, seeking safety from political persecution in the old country, founded a safe haven. Today, the town’s Main Street boasts its German heritage in mansard roofs, fachwerk (timber frame structures with limestone infill) and lacy storefronts. It also boasts a number of bier-garten restaurants where you can stop for schnitzel, and several German bakeries where, after a day of boutique-browsing, you can savor some apfel streudel with your afternoon café.Here are a few personal suggestions for making the most of a few days or weekend in easy-to-love Fredericksburg:

Certainly you’ll want to get a feel for the Tex-Teuton history that unfolded here. For an introduction, visit the Pioneer Museum Complex. The site includes a collection of 19th-century structures with period furnishings, the 1855 Methodist Church, a barn, a smokehouse, a log cabin and an example of one the area’s remaining “Sunday Houses.” In days past, farmers built one-room “Sunday Houses” with sleeping lofts in town so that when they came in for Sunday church service and shopping, they’d have a tiny “home away from home.” If you understand German, you’ll likely enjoy hearing a sermon in the language at Vereins Kirche. Fredericksburg’s first “people’s church and community center,” circa 1847, is easy to find. An octagonal frame structure topped by a cupola, the church is located in the Marketplatz, the geographical center of town.For more recent history, World War II buffs will want to visit the Admiral Nimitz Museum and Historical Center. Fleet admiral Chester Nimitz was born of German parents in Fredericksburg in 1885. Just prior to his birth, his grandfather opened the Nimitz Hotel, a strange-looking building that looks more like a steamship than a museum. But the well-researched and realistic exhibits, interpreting the war’s events in the Pacific, may move you to tears. Not to be missed: the newly dedicated George Bush Gallery of the Pacific, which includes a two-man submarine captured in the raid at Pearl Harbor, a B-25 and 22,000 additional square feet of exhibits. Plan to spend at least a half day.

Think of it as a fitness walk as you cover the one-mile stretch of Main Street between Elk and Milam and pass 100 or more specialty shops. Many of them are in mid-19th century houses and feature work by Hill Country artisans, such as a dulcimer-maker, a glassblower, a metal sculptor and a candle crafter. You’ll also find a charming collection of antique toys and enough antique and collectible dealers to warrant a brochure that lists where to find them.Perhaps the biggest draw will be the five Homestead Stores, four on Main Street and one on Lincoln. People from all over Texas come here to shop for fashionable home furnishings, which combine European and Hill Country styles. One of the stores is devoted entirely to white things. Another features relics from old-country churches and cathedrals. You’ll want to get out your camera because every corner holds an artful “still life.” But don’t! It’s verboten!Before your feet give out, head a few blocks south to the splendid Fredericksburg Herb Farm. Four acres of gardens are enough to set any herb fancier’s heart a-flutter. There’s also an 1880s farmhouse-turned apothecary stocked with teas, salad vinegars, herbal condiments, as well as beauty potions concocted on site (of course there are products made from the essence of bluebonnets!). And before you leave the botanical realm, visit the Wildseed Farms Market Center, the largest working wildflower farm in the United States. You’ll need your camera again when you stroll along walking trails next to fields of vermillion poppies, magenta verbena or, if your timing’s right, those incredible Texas bluebonnets. At this garden, you’ll even pick and arrange your own bouquet.

Like it or not, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s legacy in the Hill Country reaches almost sacred proportions. In nearby Johnson City, the National Park Service’s “Johnson Settlements” is a cluster of buildings, including the tiny, L-shaped “Boyhood Home” where the 36th president of the United States grew up. Personally, I preferred the second section of the Park, 14 miles west and commonly known as the LBJ Ranch. There, we took a bus tour of the park that includes the small frame house where Johnson was born, the riverside cemetery where he’s buried and the rambling ranch house that, while he was president, became the Texas White House. For me, it was easy to see why the man liked to trade the madness of Washington for the tranquility of sprawling live oaks, humming cicadas and gentle meanderings of the Pedernales River.Willie Nelson may have been born elsewhere, but in the 1970s when he sang, “in Luckenbach, Texas, ain’t nobody feeling’ no pain,” he instantly put the 10-acre town on the map. Today 25 souls call the town home, but the place lures country music pilgrims from all over who just want to say they’ve been there. The ramshackle, 1880-vintage Dance Hall holds Saturday night dances. But if you’re not hip for a hoedown, there are lots of other fun things to do: Shake hands with Mizz Velanne, the lady mayor, buy a stuffed armadillo at the combination general store, post office and watering hole, or listen to a lone guitar-picker out back playing music under a shady live oak.

Fredericksburg is known for its gastehauses (guest cottages). Many historic homes have been converted into romantic havens that offer robes, fireplaces and even spas. You can book anything from an 1865 homestead with its own wishing well to a limestone “Sunday House” to a bedroom above a German bakery (think of the fragrant early morning “wake-up call”). Unlike most B & Bs, these places insist on your privacy; breakfast is provided the night before and you may never lay eyes on the absentee innkeeper.In Fredericksburg, you don’t have to be a Texan to feel at home. Carolyn Schwartz is a freelance travel journalist who writes from an 1840 farmhouse in rural North Carolina and a mountain home outside Breckenridge, Colo.