6,500-kilometers from our home in southern France to the top of Germany, back down to the bottom with many stops in between, then home through the French Alps.
We were happy to be back in Deutschland where we lived and worked for many, many years. We saw old friends. We made new friends. We visited old haunts and new places. And, we enjoyed culinary favorites – great beer and wurst.
The down side: weather (mainly gray) and traffic. We moved to France for sunshine, and after a month of mainly depressing, grim weather, I think we made the right decision—despite sweltering last summer. On those legendary autobahns with sections where there is no speed limit, we encountered too many “staus” (traffic jams).
First stop: two towns in northern Germany from whence my ancestors hailed long ago: Cloppenburg and Vechta. We were not overwhelmed with either. We could not even find a Gasthaus for a beer and bratwurst in Cloppenburg, only pizzerias and all manner of ethnic restaurants. Unfortunately this seems to be the trend throughout the country.
On to Bremen which is overwhelming with its fairytale perfect Markt Platz. We stopped in Bremerhaven to check out its famous Emigration Center and fascinating museum. We used their computers for some ancestor research. One could spend hours, days, on this project.
We moved on to Hamburg which has grabbed headlines worldwide with its glittering new landmark, the Elbphilharmonie, an astonishing structure which has been in the works for more than 13 years, grossly surpassed cost estimates with a final price tag of $843 million, and has sold out the 2,150 seats for each performance in its Grand Hall for more than a year.
Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city and largest port, is all about water. The open waters of the North Sea are 65 miles from the maritime city, but it’s water that imbues the city with a distinctive, enticing flair. We took a harbor cruise, and a cruise on the city’s two lakes, the Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and Aussenalster. (Outer Alster).
To experience the North Sea, we traveled on to the coastal resort, St. Peter Ording. I had hoped we could bike along the dikes. Rain. Downpours. No biking for us. However, between the deluges we managed a few invigorating beach walks. The North Sea winds make the Mistral seem like a gentle breeze.
Wismar and Stralsund, two cities on the Baltic in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (part of the former East Germany), were next on our agenda. Both are medieval treasures which were about to crumble before reunification. They are now restored
jewels. “But, it is thanks to our (western German) money,” a friend in Stuttgart reminded me. Wismar’s ancient churches are a marvel. Stralsund has a wonderful new Ozeaneum musem, in addition to its antique structures.
I will be writing articles for the magazine German Life on many of the places we visited, including an article, “Lodging in Noble Homes.” These are homes still occupied by royalty, friendly nobles whom you can meet, even dine with. We stayed at three such homes/castles, and had delightful times with the owners, all of whom encounter monumental expenses to keep their royal residences intact. Income from tourists helps with expenses.
More photos from Germany below:
Coming soon, the Maldives and more on Germany’s noble families and castles. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared.
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Gerlinde trekked for 12 days in northern Myanmar, a region with no roads, only accessible by small plane and requiring special permission to visit. “It was the best trip ever, such an adventure, no tourists. We did not see a white face for five days,” she said.
Erich traveled by camel, through the Jordanian dessert for a week. He camped in a cave used for burials. “It was very romantic. Normal tourists don’t do this,” he said. He recalled other past adventures: Driving from Germany to Iran; being robbed, a knife at his neck, in eastern Turkey.
I wrote this article for the magazine German Life (www.germanlife.com) where it was recently published. As soon as I conquer a new operating system on my computer, I hope to post more on Sri Lanka.
Sepp has climbed mountains in Pakistan, India and Nepal. He and his wife Inge have been to Morocco, Mauritius, Uzbekistan, all European countries, and recently to India for the fourth time.
Annette returned to Rwanda for the fifth time to hike uphill through dense bamboo forests to observe mountain gorillas. “I am addicted,” she explained.
Many Germans, like those mentioned above, are passionate about travel. While the above adventures may not be among the pursuits of the average tourist, Germans are known, not just for their travel lust, but for seeking out exotic destinations and unique experiences…sometimes too unique
Ivy, a staff member at a safari lodge in Botswana, told a horrifying tale of a German couple who were driving through the game park in a rented car which broke down. The husband left his wife and set out on foot to find assistance. His wife stayed in the car and was rescued. He never returned…only his boots were found.
Most tourists visit the game parks with a group and guide, Ivy said, but “the Germans prefer self-drive.”
Comments on German travelers from a travel web site included this from someone who had worked at a resort hotel in Eilat, Israel: “From all the nations that would make our guests (and workers) it seems that the Germans were the most traveled people.”
Another comment: “I was recently in South Africa and let me tell you that I think I met more Germans than South Africans. They are everywhere!!” With six weeks of paid vacation per year, Germans have more time to travel than the average American. Travel they do, especially in winter to escape the oppressive, cold and dark days.
Norbert Fiebig, president of the Deutscher Reise Verband, sums it up on the organization web site: “Germans attach great importance to travelling. Most Germans are fascinated by relaxing holidays and discovering cultures and landscapes that are foreign to them.” Blogger Andrew Couch, who writes about Germany, finds “the quality of life idea of having vacation time is deeply a part of German working culture.”
Perhaps Germans are inspired by the country’s literary giant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His Italienische Reise (Italian Journey) is a classic. “Für Naturen wie die meine ist eine Reise unschätzbar: Sie belebt, berichtigt, belehrt und bildet, ” he wrote in a letter to Schiller in 1797. “For natures like mine a journey is invaluable; it animates, corrects, instructs and develops.”
Last year I accompanied a German tour group to northern India. Most of the group, like Sepp and Inge, had been to India numerous times, as well as many other countries. They especially like the friendly people in India, the culture, and “last but not least, the good food,” said traveler Rainer.
Our Indian guide, Rajesh Mendiratta, has been leading German tour groups for 25 years. He started out in the tourist industry working in a hotel. German guests complained that the
guides did not speak good German, he recalled. He decided to learn the language, studied at the Goethe Institute in India and became a guide mainly for Germans.
“The Germans are interested in learning about everything. They are very correct people. They are appreciative,” he said.
Most in our group knew Raj from previous trips. He has visited some of them in Germany. “They invite me in their homes. I value their friendship,” he said.
For the second portion of our trip, a younger Indian guide, Alok Tripathi, took over. Like many Indians he speaks English, but he decided to learn German and focus on German tourists because “there is too much competition with English.”
He agrees with Raj and has found that “Germans want to learn everything, the culture; traditions…Americans just want to shop.” Yet, Americans get a plus for tips. They are more generous, he said.
According to Raj, Germans rank as the number one nationality visiting India. “They saved us,” he said, referring to the slump in tourism 10 years ago when other nationalities, including the British who had been at the top, cut back on travel to India. Germans kept coming.
While Germans love India, it is not their favorite foreign destination. That distinction goes to Spain, followed by Greece and Italy. “Greece is currently having the strongest growth with booking plus of 41 percent compared to last summer,” said Susanne Stünckel, a spokesperson for TUI Deutschland, the largest leisure, travel and tourism company in the world.
Long-distance destinations such as the U.S., Mexico, South America, Canada, Indonesia and the Seychelles, are also “growing rapidly,” she said. New York is the German favorite in the U.S., followed by Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco.
More Germans, like those previously mentioned, are venturing off the beaten track, Stünckel noted, “moving more and more into exotic destinations with increasing travel experience.”
One such place is Iran, which travel agent Bettina Rohleder in Karlsruhe termed “very popular.” Travelers, including Gerlinde who visited Iran with a guide, find the country friendly and fascinating.
Yet Germany is considered the most popular overall destination of Germans who are happy with short travel distances, the close proximity of attractions, and being able to speak the same language.
“Hiking in Bavaria, swimming in the Baltic Sea, culture and history in Berlin – it’s the variety that people love,’’ said Karl Born, professor of tourism management at the Harz University of Applied Sciences in Saxony-Anhalt.
Hamburg is tops for culture this year with the recent opening of the Elbphilharmonie, the city’s new concert hall acclaimed as one of the largest and most acoustically advanced concert halls in the world. The glassy construction resembling a hoisted sail was designed by Herzon & de Meuron and is attracting visitors from around the world — not just Germany.
According to the German National Tourist Board (GNTB), culture is the number one drawing card (75%) for visits to the country, followed by the outdoors and countryside. Whatever the motivation, more and more international tourists are joining the Germans to experience the wonders of Deutschland. The nation’s tourism numbers have been up consistently for the past six to seven years.
“Germany’s reputation as a stable, safe and affluent nation has boosted its status as an attractive travel destination in recent years, especially as tourists increasingly find themselves in the crosshairs of international terrorists,” notes Deutsche Welle, the country’s international broadcaster.
With 35 million international visitors in 2015, Germany placed eighth in world tourism rankings by the United Nations World Tourism Organization. France took top honors that year with 84.5 million visitors. Most foreign visitors to Germany come from the neighboring Netherlands, followed by Switzerland, with the U.S. in third place.
The top attraction in the country: Neuschwanstein Castle. Other favorites are the Berlin Wall,
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Heidelberg Castle, the Cologne Cathedral and the Romantic Road. Berlin is the most popular city, followed by Munich.
“Germany is full of attractions,” says my friend Wilma who lives in Darmstadt. “I like the Rhine. I like Bavaria and the mountains. I like the cities, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg. There are so many old and interesting things. Germany would be the best country for travel if it weren’t for the weather.”
Never mind the weather, Germany was number one in the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Countries” index.
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Germany was my home for 28 years. Good times, wonderful memories – and fabulous friends. Husband Bob and I recently returned to reconnect with many of those friends, to visit old haunts, as well as other destinations that I will be writing about for the magazine German Life. (www.germanlife.com).
Maybe we’ve lived in the boondocks of rural France too long (since 2004). Here life is tranquil, serene, quiet. This time we found Germany a bit chaotic with monstrous traffic jams on the autobahns, construction sites almost everywhere and crowds of people in the city centers. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could be unemployed in Deutschland with so much building in progress.
We spent several nights with friends Klaus and Dagmar who live in Gerlingen just outside of Stuttgart. They urged us to take the U-bahn downtown to see the massive and controversial construction site for Stuttgart 21, the city’s new railway and urban development project which involves 57 kilometers of new railways, including some 30 kilometers of tunnels and 25 kilometers of high-speed lines. Protesters still demonstrate at the site every Monday. The project, which is estimated to cost as much as six billion Euros, won’t be completed until 2020. Another attraction adjacent to the site is the new library, a modern and dazzling wonder in white by architect Eun Young Yi which has been likened to a Rubik’s cube puzzle.
Dagmar invited several of our friends for an excellent dinner, an antipasti of grilled vegetables, followed by a Swabian favorite, stuffed breast of veal, all topped by our very favorite German dessert, Rote Grϋtze, a yummy compote of red fruits. Friend Heti also entertained us with an amazing meal of Peruvian delicacies: ceviche (fish marinated in lime juice) and veggies, gallina picante parmesana (chicken with aji -hot yellow pepper), quinoa risotto with veggies, and for dessert, coconut flan and Tonka bean mousse. All over the top. More on those beans to follow.
Heti is an inspiration, and not just in the kitchen. She recently lost 14 kilos on the Dukan diet combined with an hour of aqua jogging every day in the nearby Sindelfingen indoor pool. When I lived in the area, I frequently swam there year round. There are also several outdoor pools for summer months. Sadly, France is lacking in these first-class swimming facilities.
Klaus and Marianne, other friends from the Stuttgart area who frequently housesit for us in France, treated us to a delicious pasta lunch and a homemade Swabian apple pie at their new apartment.
We took a trip north to the Darmstadt area to see more friends. For years I worked for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes which was previously headquartered just outside the city. A group of former colleagues met us at an Italian restaurant for a fun evening. Special pal Andrea, whom I consider a surrogate step-daughter, and her husband Thiemo, joined us at Darmstadt’s famous brewery, Grohe, where we sat outside in the sunshine savoring the brew. Another Darmstadt friend, Wilma, invited us for a delicious salmon dinner and stimulating conversation with her friend Erik.
Our travels also took us to the Bergstrassee south of Darmstadt, Kaiserslautern, Augsburg, Munich and the Starnberg Lake district south of Munich.
For many years while I worked at Stars and Stripes, I lived in Jugenhiem at the northern end of the Bergstrasse in an apartment I called the “Treehouse.” It was the top two floors of a former seniors’ home at the edge of a forest and surrounded by tree tops. We stopped for a visit, and it’s still the same – an idyllic hideaway in a jungle of green.
The best of the visit to the Bergstrasse, which extends 70 kilometers south from Darmstadt to Heidelberg, and where many an ancient castle and castle ruins crown hilltops, was wine The Bergstrasse wine region is divided into two parts, vines in the south in the state of Baden Württemberg, and those in the north in Hessen. The former is Germany’s smallest wine region. German wines, as well as wines everywhere, have improved thanks to up-to-date knowledge and techniques, an expert told us.
For years German wines had a bad rep because “we exported the wrong wines, “ such as the sweet Blue Nun, explained Maria Zimmermann of the regional tourist board. Today German vintners are also well-educated, studying viniculture, not just learning the trade from their parents. We tasted some fine wines, and Bob made several purchases.
In the town of Weinheim, we toured a lovely garden followed by the best restaurant meal of the trip, an amuse bouche of scallops topping a pumpkin salad sprinkled with mandarin oil, and a Hirsch (venison) medallion with an elderberry sauce and Steinpilze (boletus), plus parsley root puree. It was perfection.
Heppenheim is the quintessential Bergstrasee town with a market place of well-preserved half-timbered houses. We joined an after-dark tour up and down the ancient streets and stairways, following a costumed story teller and her lantern carrying assistant. Periodically they stopped with the story teller relating charming tales and fables of the region, most translated from old German into an English that rhymed. Very impressive and a delightful, unusual experience.
The greatest number of Americans outside of the U.S., some 50,000 who are military or civilians working for the military, makes their home in the Kaiserslautern area. There I interviewed Wolfgang Tönnesmann, director of the Atlantic Academy, who had a life-size cardboard replica of Obama in his office. Like me, he is no doubt thrilled with the recent election results.
My quest to try local food specials in Kaiserslautern led us to the town’s only half-timbered building and the restaurant Spinnrädl. We were in the Rhineland Pfalz area and the restaurant served up Pfälzer dishes written in the local dialect on the menu: Brotworscht, Saumaa, Lewwer (Bloodwurst, potatowurst so named because it is stuffed into a pig’s stomach or Saumaa) and liverwurst. Hearty fare accompanied by Grumbeerstampes (mashed potatoes).
Jakob Fugger (1458 – 1525), a wealthy merchant (according to a guide, “he had more money than Bill Gates) put Augsburg on the map. The Fugger family, in particular Jakob, was into finance and trade. Jakob, known as the Empire’s banker, and not unlike Bill Gates, had a social conscience. He founded the Fuggerei, a section of the city for the town’s poor, the world’s oldest social housing which still exists with 140 apartments. Rent is 1 euro per year. We followed a fascinating tour of the area, and also visited a dazzling Rococo banquet hall, the Schaetzler Palais (1767), as well as other local attractions.
The Munich visit focused on food with visits to the city’s legendary outdoor market, the Viktualienmarkt, its classy food emporiums, Dallmayr and Käfer, as well as the food empire of Alfons Schuhbeck who has a collection of shops, including a Michelin starred restaurant, in the Platzl near the Hofbräuhaus. Friend Heti clued me in on Schuhbeck who is huge on the German food scene. It was at his incredible spice shop where she purchased the Tonka beans which come from South America for that exotic dessert.
Our visit wound up at the Starnberg Lake, one of several lovely lakes south of Munich. All the sailboats which blanket the lakes in summer had been put to bed, but the region had plenty of charms for a fall visit.
A must was a visit to the nearby Andechs Abbey above the Ammersee, another one of the regional lakes. After admiring the Abbey’s church and its stunning Rococo stucco décor and frescoes, we moved on to the terrace beer garden. Monks have been brewing beer at Andechs since 1455. These days seven different kinds of brew can be ordered, as well as Bavarian food favorites.
Other Starnberg highlights are the Baroque St. Mary’s Minister in the town of Diessen and the lakeside Buchheim Museum noted for its collection of Expressionist works. Last but not least, a wonderful bike ride following a cycle route along the Starnberg Lake with an outdoor lakeside lunch stop, as well as many breaks for postcard photos of the lake framed by distant Alpine peaks. (For more photos, see slide show to follow. Comments are welcome. )