This past November 9th marked 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That historic day in 1989 saw the reunification of a divided country following three decades of Cold War hostilities. The transition wasn’t perfect, but it was a non-violent and triumphant event for a small corner of Europe that, throughout much of the 20th century, had seen (and often instigated) more than its fair share of violent, non-triumphant happenings.
I was a freshman in high school when the Wall came down. My German I class was the last of the day, if I remember correctly, and although it was my favorite class, I nevertheless was an ADHD-addled teenager without much interest in actually learning. My German teacher, Frau Francik, entered the classroom, beaming, and said that something very important had happened. She spent the entire hour explaining the history leading up to the day’s monumental event. She shared her memories of leading a class trip to Germany and crossing Checkpoint Charlie, the designated border crossing for Americans between East and West Berlin. We were impressed and not a little bit scared.
It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that our class had the opportunity to visit Germany over Spring Break. Frau Francik decided to focus on just Bavaria this time around, saving a still-in-transition Berlin for another time perhaps. Alas, I didn’t have the money to go, but I promised myself that one day, I would make it to Germany.
It was a promise I kept…many times over.
Ich liebe Deutschland
My love affair with Germany began well before high school, in fact. My father was stationed in Germany at a U.S. Army base for three years during the height of the Cold War (the Cuban Missile Crisis, no doubt an intense time with the Czechoslovakian border just 100 miles to his east). He regaled my sister and me with nostalgic tales of his time there. (He still keeps in touch with German friends in the region even today.) I was taught how to sing the German ABC’s at a young age to anyone in Chicagoland of even remotely German descent.
It was inevitable, really, that I would love Germany. Once, while I was a sophomore in high school and studying up on German cuisine, I brought in German holiday pfeffernüsse spice cookies for the class to sample. The cookies were long-time favorites of mine by that point, even though none of my classmates had ever sampled such tasty wares.
It wasn’t until I was 25 that I finally made it to Germany. Deutschland was just one stop in a two-month, multi-country backpacking adventure, but I spent more time (three weeks) in Germany than in any other country that I “passed through” on that whirlwind trip. I have returned countless times since, sometimes with Germany being a stand-alone trip (such as my 2008 “New Year’s Eve in Munich” trip), and other times with Germany being part of a bigger trip (I turned a stopover at Frankfurt International Airport en route to India into a two-week Rhine River Valley exploration!).
With each successive trip, I’ve become increasingly humbled by the hospitality of Germany’s people. I’ve become increasingly sated by the body of the country’s white wine, and by the hearty strength of its no-preservatives bier. I’ve become increasingly impressed by Germany’s dominance in world economics – a by-product of the country’s successes in manufacturing, tourism, shipping, and international finance. I’ve become increasingly stunned by its natural beauty of its rivers, forests, mountains, and valleys. Most of all, I’ve become increasingly flabbergasted – perhaps the strongest superlative I can think of – by the amazing resilience of a country that has done the biggest moral reversal of any country on earth over the last 75 years. Germany bravely accepted full responsibility for its terrible deeds in World War II, and a myriad of museums and historical sites throughout the country testify to this fact. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with coining the phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and Germany has admirably taken this idea to heart.
I’ve met one or two Jewish people who don’t understand my love of Germany, and who have vowed never to travel there. This is their right, and given the horrible stain that the Holocaust forever left on Germany’s name, I can understand where they’re coming from, in much the same way that a Vietnam veteran might question why so many young travelers would choose to add that Southeast Asian nation to their round-the-world backpacking trip. But trust me on this: today’s Germany is truly something to behold. A peaceful, safe, robust country with a vibrant cultural scene and some of the friendliest people I have ever met, Germany may just be the greatest country in the world.
Like the U.S., China, Italy, and other nations with eons of history, you can spend a lifetime exploring Germany. I’ve been fortunate enough to make it to many of Germany’s corners, though I still have a sizeable Deutschland sightseeing “bucket list.” I never made it to Ulm, a small-ish city that is the birthplace of Albert Einstein and home of the world’s tallest church steeple. Not far from there is Lake Constance, aka the Bodensee, a three-country-bordering sub-alpine lake dotted with hamlets and outdoor activities. But I digress….
Here are a few highlights. These are five of my favorite places – cities or regions that I find myself coming back to (or dreaming about) again and again:
The political and nightlife capital of Germany – not to mention its largest city – there is no German city more exciting or eye-opening than Berlin. Once divided, East and West are so seamlessly integrated today that many visitors would never even notice the differences, if not for signs and placards everywhere, following the path of the Berlin Wall or denoting a Stasi monitoring center. Berlin is an awesome place, with more museums and better nightlife than almost any other city on earth. It’s Reichstag (Parliament Building), once the symbol of Cold War Europe, is now a popular meeting point as well as the city’s number one tourist attraction (thanks to the building’s ingenious glass rooftop dome). Although Berlin has many tree-lined streets and quiet neighborhoods, it is also the real city that never sleeps. Oh, and there’s currywurst. Sehr gut!
Like so many visitors, however, my heart belongs to Munich. Spelled München locally, it’s the biggest city in Bavaria and what I term the “postcard heart” of Germany. Seemingly every postcard from Germany is adorned in images of “German” things that actually come specifically from Munich. Lederhosen. Liter stein beer. Oktoberfest. BMW. Dancing Rathaus-Glockenspiel figures denoting the time. The twin-onion-domed Frauenkirche cathedral. I spent two Oktoberfests, one New Year’s Eve, and countless other days and nights caught in Munich’s embrace…and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Central Munich is a combination of medieval and Baroque styles, a seamless blend of centuries-old city gates and Catholic Kirchen (church) spires.
The northernmost big city in Bavaria, Nürnberg (spelled “Nuremburg” for we English-speaking Menschen), is something of a well-kept secret. All that most people know about Nürnberg is that it was bombed to smithereens in WWII. The city’s post-war construction was something of a miracle. The Old City – almost entirely encircled by a medieval wall and moat – and crowned by a hilltop castle – was rebuilt in the original style, complete with age marks and cobblestone streets. Where 950-year-old buildings end and 60-year-old reconstructions begin is anyone’s guess. The city does have a prominent Christkindlsmarkt (Christmas Market) that draws tourists from around the world, but outside of this season you’ll find yourself one of few foreigners as you wander its enchanting city streets, breathing in the succulent aroma of grilled pork sausages. Nürnberg holds a special place in my heart as I have friends here, but even without a personal connection, this is still a gem of a city, well worth seeking out.
Köln and the Rhein
As I discovered firsthand in 2011, the entirety of the Rhein (Rhine) River, from its source in the Swiss Alps to its mouth at the North Sea, is rife with interesting sites and with stunning riverside beauty. Rhine River Cruises vary in length from a few hours to several days, and sail past tiny hillside castles. Grapes thrive on the temperate slopes of the hillsides rising from the river itself. Numerous cities of varying size compete for “quality of life” rankings in annual surveys. Bonn, the former capital of Bundesrepublik Deutschland (West Germany) still hosts numerous government offices, and is a charming university city as well as the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven. Düsseldorf, to the north, is – architecturally-speaking – one of the most exciting cities in Europe. Its Media Harbor is simply stunning. Midway between the two cities, Köln (“Cologne” in English and French) is the Rhineland’s biggest and most instantly-charming city. The pedestrian quarter near the train station bustles with people seven days a week, and one of Europe’s largest, most Gothic cathedrals towers over pretty much everything.
The Bavarian Alps
As you know, I love the mountains. Europe’s Alps are like a veritable playground for me. They’re sprinkled with half-timbered villages such as Füssen, dotted with castles like Neuschwanstein, and crisscrossed with thousands of miles of hiking trails. I haven’t hiked nearly as many trail miles in the Alps as I’d like, but one area that I did explore to my heart’s content was the Bavarian Alps near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. These twin towns hosted the Winter Olympics (in 1936). Over the course of one unforgettable day, I awoke in my Garmisch hostel before sunrise, hiked through a stupendous gorge, passed waterfalls and pastures filled with bleating sheep, ate soup at an alpine shelter, crossed briefly into Austria, summited Germany’s highest mountain (the Zugspitze, at 9,718 feet/2,962 meters), and rode the gondola down to arrive back in Garmisch in time for dinner!
Have you ever been to Germany, Loyal Reader? What is your favorite place?