Travel: More remote than the Andes, but less than two hours away

Bridging old and new, Stuttgart is Germany's richest city with a unique architectural mix. But as Robert Rollason found, for the British traveller, it doesn't even register on the tourist map.

The sounds of Brahms's horn trio are passionate, breathtaking and worth risking life and limb on the autobahns to hear. The audience was exultant, but its German ranks at the Stuttgart concert were not much broken by foreign visitors. These days, for the British tourist, Germany is a more remote destination than the Andes, Alice Springs or Albania.

Few Britons could place Stuttgart on the map, but it is a good location for an unusual break. The city lies between Germany's two major university towns, Heidelberg and Tubingen, and to the south is the Black Forest stretching down to Freiburg and beyond to Lake Constance.

Yet Stuttgart itself has far more to offer than the stereotyped Schwarzwald resort towns. As you sip coffee and nibble Swabian applecake in the sunshine at the Cafe Konigsbrau in the vast Schlossplatz, the only evidence that this is a well-to-do industrial city is the prosperity and chic style of passers-by. The centre is surrounded by hills, and the vines that conceive the excellent local Trollinger and riesling trail down close to the main station. The great square has fountains, lawns, four cubes of stone that pay tribute to the victims of the Hitler regime, and two castles.

The old castle is German renaissance, with a tubby round tower and trimmings, but the new castle which fills an entire side of the square is classical 18th century, and lucky to be there. In 1950, only a one-vote council margin permitted it to be reconstructed after the bombing instead of being replaced by a department store. (In an intriguing echo of the war years, a recent mayor of Stuttgart was Manfred Rommel, son of the Desert Fox.)

Much has been made of Germany's economic advantage since then, of starting up again with new, more efficient kit, and certainly you can still feel this sense of regeneration. The U-Bahn is as bright as a new pin. It looks as though it was all opened yesterday, and given a thorough polish this morning. The ticket machines create a positively sensual pleasure, both for their rational method and engineering beauty.

Ticket machines are not, of course, at the centre of everyone's holiday attractions, and Stuttgart has much to offer the more conventional culture seeker. A comparison with Chicago is irresistible: a working city with a massive investment in the arts, in Stuttgart's case 30 theatres, 30 museums and 60 art galleries. There is a similar sense, too, in Stuttgart of the large American city's self-absorption. It takes a truly major world event to take national and regional politics off the front page of the Stuttgarter Nachrichten. Taxi driver Dieter takes the popular, lovely- lady-lost view of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, but Heide, a new acquaintance in the smart Zeppelin Stuble restaurant, is "appalled by the hysterical reaction".

She directs us towards the Staatsgalerie's new modern art building, confirming that, with the Liederhalle's music and the Stuttgart ballet company made famous by John Cranko, this is a local jewel.

We can take some credit here, because the British architect James Stirling did well. The gallery's extravagant yet disciplined swirls and lustrous finish express the confidence of the city. This is a truly successful late 20th-century building, and a contrast with the early modernism of the Bauhaus period by artists like Oskar Schlemmer, who are richly represented inside. So is Picasso, Klee, Mondrian, Chagall, Braque, Modigliani, Munch and Otto Dix. There is also a stylish cafe with a cloakroom where the loo seats automatically clean themselves.

The new gallery illustrates how the Germans have managed to graft a modern, hi-tech world on to old towns and cities better than most. The modern Daimler Benz factories here look more like concert halls than London's Festival Hall. The new Stuttgart football stadium looks futuristic as a stadium should, rather than a building left over from some forgotten exhibition.

Yet German cities and towns cherish their old buildings. Stuttgart has the Schillerplatz, where a 16th-century chancellery and wine store surround a statue of the poet who presides over the square's vivid flower market. Nearby is the Markthalle, an exuberant indoor market where fruit and vegetables are banked high in dizzying terraces, and above all of them is a vast, very Swabian forest of herbs and spices.

The Stuttgarters' wealth - this is said to be Germany's most prosperous city - has not gone to their heads. They are helpful and friendly, and the large university population ensures a welcoming nightlife. Bearing in mind that there's so much to see and do and that the Americans have a sizeable armed forces connection with this region, it's surprising so few tourists from the States are here in early autumn.

As for the British, in 200 miles on the autobahn we saw not one other UK-registered car.

Starting for Stuttgart

Getting there: British Airways (0345 222111) and Lufthansa (0345 737747) fly from Heathrow to Stuttgart twice a day. Both airlines have flights on offer starting at pounds 121 return including tax, available for departures in October.

Eurostar (0345 303030) sells rail tickets from London Waterloo via Brussels as far as Frankfurt for pounds 129 return. You must buy a separate ticket from there, for about pounds 25 return. German Rail (0181-390 8833) can advise on schedules and fares.

Information: the German National Tourist Office is based at 65 Curzon Street, London W1Y 5NE (0891 600100, a premium-rate number).

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