flooey.org

Jul 8, 2012

Two Weeks In Germany

Pat and I just got back from two weeks in Germany, and we had a fantastic time. We visited Heidelberg, Munich, Hamburg, and Berlin.

Heidelberg Altstadt from the Philosopher's Walk
We began in Heidelberg, a relatively small city with outsized stature due to the presence of the University of Heidelberg. Pat had been here for a few days at a conference when I arrived. We only had one real day here, which we spent at a festival along the river, then wandered down to the Altstadt to see the church and get dinner. Ordering dinner was our first real foray in trying to communicate in German, and it went pretty poorly, but we did eat dinner, so in that way it was a success.

The following morning, we took the train to Munich. Trains in Germany are a real pleasure to ride; they're clean, they're prompt, and they have a lot of details that make them easier to work with. For instance, when on the platform waiting for the train, there are diagrams of each train that arrive at that platform showing the type of each car (cafe, first class, second class) and its alignment on the platform. They also have platform assignments as part of the schedules, so you always know where your train is going to show up.

Munich, and Bavaria in general, is often what people think of when they think of stereotypical Germany. The city is filled with Biergartens, old buildings, and even the occasional man wearing lederhosen. (I tried to get Pat to consider a dirndl, but she refused.) We spent most of our time there just wandering around the city absorbing the atmosphere, stopping occasionally for food, beer, or a museum.

Speaking of beer, it's definitely the beverage of choice in Germany, and doubly so in Bavaria; as a result, it's cheap and universally available. Even Italian or Vietnamese restaurants had a lengthy list of high quality German beers to choose from. Happily, the beer is also excellent. The beer at Andechs, about an hour outside of the city, particularly stood out. The monks have been brewing beer for hundreds of years, and when we went the tables were filled with large groups of older Germans who were there for lunch on a weekday.

Pat and Adam at Neuschwanstein Castle
One of our favorite day trips from Munich was to Neuschwanstein Castle and its neighbor Hohenschwangau Castle. Neuschwanstein was built by Ludwig II, and is the perfect fairytale castle (among other things, it was the inspiration for the Disneyland castle). The entire area is incredibly picturesque, with the castle set against the wooded mountains above and the pastoral countryside below.

Leaving Munich, we got to take a sleeper train to Hamburg, which was a lot of fun, and when we arrived we met our host there, Sunny. Sunny was a wonderful lady who made us breakfast every day, including traditional local foods like sausage and tiny shrimp, and gave us plenty of suggestions about what to see. Unfortunately, I think we may have disappointed her, as she was very excited about the idea of us going out and partying, whereas we generally spent the evenings at home playing cards and reviewing the day's adventures.

Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg
The best thing we saw in Hamburg was the world's largest model railway, Miniatur Wunderland. We spent an entire afternoon there, visiting miniature versions of the United States, Hamburg, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and more. They have a water feature with 33,000 liters of water, including tides, an outdoor concert with tens of thousands of individually-placed fans, and an airport with dozens of aircraft taking off, landing, and taxiing to and from gates. From fire departments that respond to car accidents on the street to a drive-in movie theater playing For The Birds, everything is modeled in astounding detail.

After only a couple days in Hamburg, we took an ICE train to Berlin. Arriving in Berlin, we immediately could tell that we were going to love it. The city has an energy that's similar to New York's, but with more dramatic 20th century history. The first day, we went to the Brandenburg Gate and toured the surrounding area, including the Holocaust Memorial. I was pleased to see that the US Embassy is right next to the Gate (in former East Germany).

Former site of the Berlin Wall
Berlin had way too much to do in the time we had, so we had to pick and choose. We spent much of a day at Checkpoint Charlie and the adjacent museum, Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, seeing the former separation from the German point of view. The museum is rather chaotic, but gives a great overview of the entire history of West Berlin and the wall, including escape attempts, uprisings, political posturing, and eventually reunification.

We also took day trips to Potsdam and, at the suggestion of Sunny from Hamburg, the town of Lübben in Spreewald. Both of these were fun ways to get out of the city. The former had more palaces than we could count, including the grand Schloss Sanssouci, and a really nice botanical garden, while the latter was a cozy little town on the river Spree, with woods that form part of an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Lübben also has a great city museum, which goes from archaeological artifacts from thousands of years ago up to the destruction from World War II and the later rebuilding.

We really enjoyed ourselves, but at the end we were glad to return home. The German culture is marvelous, though it has some room for improvement (for instance, there are basically no water fountains), and by the end of the trip my German had progressed to the point that I could easily manage in a restaurant or shop, though I certainly couldn't handle a conversation. The cats, though, missed us tremendously and were very happy for us to be back.