Revised March 16, 2007
Sprawling across the plain between the North Sea and the Bavarian Alps, Germany is filled with scenic beauty that sparkles when blessed with a sunny day. Its rolling hills and green pastures recreate the world of Hansel and Gretel in the 21st Century. As you travel between towns, you will realize that there is more to this special country than you would ever comprehend from shows on the History Channel
Not long ago, Berlin was an island of freedom and commerce in the middle of the country of East Germany. Now it is the capital of a reunited Germany filled with great modern architecture and the history of a century of conflict between the Axis and the Allies and between the Soviet Union and the United States. For many tourists, its location in eastern Germany takes it off the list of places to see on a brief trip to Europe. We had it in our plans until we started adding days in France and Italy. We decided to drop Berlin when we finallly had to choose between Mont Saint Michel and eastern Germany, hoping that we would get back to Germany and spend much more time visiting Berlin at a less frantic pace.
Those who do visit Berlin will be impressed by the sophistication and culture that is often expressed through its architecture. Like most capital cities of Europe, Berlin makes an elegant statement about the culture and history of the country it represents. Some of the best restaurants, museums and department stores are found in Berlin. On a sunny day, it is a pleasant town to travel by foot and it has convenient public transportation to get you to the many interesting spots around the city.
Our son enjoyed the city, finding the blend of history and modern democracy to be quite fascinating. Other students we know have enjoyed the general atmosphere in the capital, specifically the strong youth community that welcomed students from around the world and mixed interesting conversation with stout beer.
Like Berlin, Munich was a city we had hoped to visit on our first trip to Europe but missed as we revised travel plans. It is most famous for its celebration of the harvest and fresh beer at the Oktoberfest, but is also popular with tourists who come to the Oberammergau Passion Play that has been performed since 1633. At the start of each new decade the citizens of the little village present the passions of Christ on an open air stage surrounded by the beauty of the German Alps. Christians from around the world make a pilgrimage to Oberammergau to watch the day-long drama.
Our last visit took us to Bavaria and Franconia, the southeastern section of Germany. Munich makes an ideal home base from which to visit the German Alps, Salzburg, Austria, the upper Danube and Altmuhl Valley. On our most recent visit, Munich was filled with tourists attending the World Cup, so we chose lodging in the Altmuhl Valley, about an hour north of Munich, and found a charming hotel, the Fuchs Hotel, in Eichstadt at about half the price of a similar room in Munich.
Just north of the Austrian border and not very far from Munich, is the beautiful castle of Neuschwanstein. This massive monument to King Ludwig's dreams sits atop a hill overlooking the small town of Hohenschwangau. From the lofty vantage point of Neuschwanstein, you can see his father Maximillian's castle and the beauty of lake beneath Hohenschwangau Castle. Tour books of Germany often use this castle to lure travelers to the country, Walt Disney used the castle as his inspiration for the famous Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.
Most tourists follow the signs to the tourist entrance to the castle....but for those who have the energy (it is a climb that is pleasant and easy to do if you aren't in a hurry), the best way to arrive at Neuschwanstein is through the Pollat Gorge which Ludwig II and his mother enjoyed so much. The hike starts at a waterpowered lumbermilll and continues up a stream. About halfway up the hillside, Neuschwanstein and the Marienbridge come into view. Take a few deep breaths and you are at the top enjoying the castle that wasn't completed until after Ludwig II's death.
We almost skipped Neuschwanstein because we had heard it was overrun with tourists and, in fact, we ended up on the back way to the castle because we were trying to avoid the crowds. To get out of the flow of traffic, we turned down a small street and in our efforts to get a brief look at the castle, we ended in the parking lot for the Pollat Gorge trail. When we finally reached the top of the gorge, there were many tourists, but the view and the hike had been so spectacular it didn't matter that there were so many other tourists. As for the trail through the gorge, it wasn't used very much. We passed fewer than ten people on our way up and down on a path that was very well maintained.
Not far from Neuschwanstein we found a clean and very reasonably priced campground (approximately $10/US). Our experience throughout Germany was that campgrounds were very clean and comfortable but didn't have the facilities we found at the campgrounds in Italy and France.
We arrived at Rothenburg shortly after 8:30, hours before the tour busses and crowds arrived. The smell of freshed baked breads and desserts filled the air as merchants prepared for the onslaught of visitors. As we strolled down the empty streets, we felt as thought that we had stepped into a fairy tale. Beautiful medieval building painted in delicate pastel colors, decorated with flower boxes overflowing with blooms.
Even in July, there was a sense of Christmas in the air. Many of the stores were filled with Christmas decorations and ornaments to take home. Stop into one of the bakeries for "snowballs"--fried dough smothered in sweet flavorings that typifiy German desserts.
The tower was under repair but still open to tourists when we were there. If you are in decent shape (this is easier than the Duomo in Florence or the towers at Notre Dame), it's worth the effort. First, you will get an impressive view of the walled city and the rooftops of the many homes and business within the wall. Next, you will be amazed by the beauty of the German countryside beyond the walls.
We stayed for lunch because we wanted to enjoy traditional German food. We can't vouch for the authenticity of the food but we can say that what we had was very tasty and went down well with a good German beer.
If you can preplan, there are many reasonably priced bed and breakfasts in Rothenburg.
The ominous name of the "Black Forest" conjures up images of deep dark woods too thick and dangerous to travel by foot. You anticipate that with one wrong turn you will be on a collision course with the big bad wolf. What you find is one of the last large forests of Europe but to Westerners who have seen the huge Seqouia forests of the California Sierras or the dense undergrowth of the California Redwoods, the Black Forest seems more like a woodland preserve. That is not to disparage its beauty but to put the size of the forest in context. There is a charming drive that takes you to some of the most pleasant resorts and spas in Germany and along the ridgetops for views of the forest, but as you twist and turn, you realize how years of war and pollution have ravaged the trees that once covered what seemed an impenetrable distance. There was great consolation knowing that the Germans were making great efforts to restore the damage areas and that it was likely that future generations would enjoy the beauty that gave the area its fame.
Southeastern Germany is the home to Oktoberfest and the dramatic passion play at Oberamnagau which has been performed wvery ten years since the end of the plague almost 500 years ago. These towns sit against the backdrop of the German Alps with their scenic beauty and access to summer and winter sports.
Munich is the larges city in southern Germany, and one of the venues of the 2006 World Cup gamres. Remnants of the infamous 1976 Olympics still dot the region. But the event that draws most guests to the city is Oktoberfest when the beer flows through the Hofbrauhauses. Like many other ciites in Germany, it has also built a reputation for its Christmas Market, where so many holiday items are on sale.
The area is also known for its great scenic beauty. The nearby Chimensee is one of the most spectacular lakes in Germany. And the city of Passau is the point of embarkation for many of the great cruises down the Danube.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is famed for its medieval beauty and if you visit the beautiful walled city after during the daylight hours, you'll appreciate its popularity. Almost as charming and much less touristed is the town of Nordlingen. About 1 1/2 hours east of Stuttgart, this walled city boasts a medieval church tower named Daniel that soars 300 feet above the city.
Start you tour of the city with a climb up Daniel and view the city as well as the lush farmland surrounding Nordlingen. First, take the time to observe the remnants of the crater that was created when a meteor crashed into this area 16 million years ago. Then look at the modern topography including the gates in the wall of the village. Once you've identified the landmarks of the city, you can walk to them and then wander sections of the wall. Though the wall is still intact, many area are off limits to tourists. Stop by the tourist information center in the center of town, grab a map and find the various points where you can access the wall.
Though current rules require visitors to park in one of the many lots outside the walls, the town is compact and a stroll through Nordlingen is easy. If you arrive in the morning, pop into one of the bakeries and grab some delicacy. There are very reasonable places to sleep in Nordlingen and many delightful restaurants serving classic German fare. If you stay into the evening, head back to the tower to hear the sentry signal to the townsfolk that all is well.
Not far from town is the place where astronauts practiced for the moon landing on the rocky ground of the Ries Crater. As a thank you gift to the town, NASA gave Nordlingen a moon rock now housed in the Ries Crater Museum.
Most people have never heard of these quaint towns in the Bayern region of Germany. But a paleontologist or other dinosaur expert will automatically think of the fossil of Archaeopteryx, perhaps the earliest winged dinosaur. The drive between Nordlingen and Solnhofen is picturesque, taking you past German castles and quaint farm villages.
Solnhofen is the actual location of the quarries where the Archaeopteryx fossils were found. The quarries around the town produce high quality stones used for tiles and lithographic art. A small museum in Solnhofen , the Burgermeister Muller Museum, houses an amazing collection of local fossils that were laid down when the area was part of a massive seabed. It also has representative lithographic stones that show how the fine grained stones of the Solnhofen region were used to print pictures before modern techniques were developed.
Eichstatt is a larger town, with a beautiful square and church. It is a good place to find lodging in the region. We highly recommend Hotel Fuchs, a charming small hotel near the center of town that serves a delicious breakfast and operates a bakery filled with luscious goodies. Its comfortable rooms are impeccably clean and one of the best bargains we found on our travels through Germany and Austria.
Above the city is a charming castle, Willibaldburg, which houses another great fossil museum. The museum has an archaeopteryx fossil and displays many outstanding pieces from local quarries. The entire collection helps the visitor understand the development of the Jura fossil beds and put the local finds in context of other evolutionary finds.
Any quasi-paleontologist will have a rewarding afternoon if they can make time to dig at one of the local quarries. We had the opportunity to visit a Solnhofen factory and then "dig" in a quarry for fossils. Generally tourists are taken to areas where the layers are thin and don't have significant commercial value. As you look through layers of limestone that hold many small fossils, it is amazing to hold the remnants of animals that died 150 million years ago. On another level, it seemed tragic that as I was sifting through these layers, I was destroying a small part of the ancient fossil record. We arranged ours through the museum in Solnhofen but there are other quarries that also let budding fossil hunters dig.
A sunny day will show you why so many Germans vacation in the Altmuhl River valley. The Altmuhl is a lazy river that is great for kayaking and canoeing. Others follow the banks of the river by bike, stopping a the stunning medieval villages along the way. The lower section of the Altmuhl is connected to the Main and Rhein via the Main-Danube Canal and joins the Danube just beyond the dramatic castle town of Reidenberg.
We truly enjoyed the pace of life and the generosity of the people in this region. Red tiled towns dotted rich farmland, and in each town, a characteristic steep German steeple soared toward heaven. It would be easy to spend two wonderful weeks in this area known as Franconia and still yearn to come back again. While you are in Franconia, try their great pastries and cheeses, wash them down with local brews and wander through the hills and forests that give this region its charm.
One of the unexpected thrills of visiting Germany was the chance to drive the Autobahn at 100 miles per hour. Remember that a kilometer is about .6 miles so that if your driving at 100 kilometers per hour you are doing about 60 miles per hour. At about 160 kpm you are approaching 100 mph. On the smooth straight road from Neuschwanstein to Rothenburg, it was fun to put the pedal to the floor and fly and despite being a very cautious driver in the U.S., I enjoyed the rush....until we hit traffic and construction. Germans seem to be very careful drivers with new, well-built cars, but there is something about driving at 80 mph through roads narrowed by construction barriers that is a bit intimidating. Use your best judgment and don't drive faster than you feel comfortable driving. If it seems that you are slowing traffic to much, take a break and get of the autobahn.
The shadow of World War II can still be found in many places in Germany and the chilling reminders of the Holocaust are intense emotional experiences that will change your life. It is hard to explain why you would go to a concentration camp...whether it is a morbid curiousity about the way people suffered or a desire to understand how the murders of millions could have occurred so you can become a voice against future genocides. But one of the realities of travel is that you learn about yourself and the people you are with as you go from place to place. I was surprised that my husband, who knew so much about the war and who frequently watched the History Channel, didn't want to go to any place tied to WWII. Perhaps because he was an elementary school student as news of the atrocities surfaced in the US, he feared the feelings that might surface in those places. So though I truly believed that every tourist to Germany should stop at important WWII sites, I recognized my husband's uneasiness and didn't push. Unfortunately, that meant we didn't go to the notable concentration camps in Germany, or to Anne Frank's house or to the beaches at Normandy.
Fortunately, while I was teaching Travel and Tourism, a student who had been in the military in Germany brought her video footage from Buchenwald, a concentration camp in the state of Thuringen (located almost in the middle of modern Germany). The graphic images of housing at the camp, the showers where so many were prepared for death and the crematorium where evidence of the great genocide was destroyed, left my students and me stunned.
For those of us who know World War II only as part of our history, a tour of any of the concentration camps will remind us that the same humans who can build great cathedrals and architecture, who can conquer diseases and explore the stars, have another side that can be incredibly cruel. If standing in the center of a place where so much humanity was destroyed can make the words "Never Again" echo throughout your soul, then the memorials have served their purpose and your trip was not just a voyeuristic look at instruments of torture.
To get specific details about visas for travel to Germany, go to Germany Info, a website maintained by the German Consulate with information about travel to Germany.