I don’t normally eat food that is dangling off the back of a stranger’s bicycle. But this is Berlin, and I really want one of these pretzels. From the stack 100 deep, I pick a particularly salty one and rip in teeth-first.
It’s Day One of a two-week holiday to Germany, and fittingly, I’m standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate. With the world-famous Reichstag on my left and the Holocaust Memorial on my right, I stroll under the gate, doing what was unimaginable less than 25 years ago – crossing the now-invisible barrier between democratic West Berlin and the communist East.
Before my first trip to Germany a decade ago, a trusted source advised me to skip Berlin. “An old, faded industrial city with no life,” he said, “especially the East”. Though it pains me even to repeat this in print, I will – but only to deny it. It’s a warm day in late spring, and the city is replete with two things: public kissing (the sweet kind) and ice-cream cones. Picnickers dot the banks of the River Spree, sidewalk cafés are doing bustling business, and everyone – it seems – has an ice-cream cone.
It’s amazing how much you can fit into a day when jet lag is working for, rather than against, you. My husband and I are up daily at 5am, for an early cup of cappuccino, a jog through Berlin’s largest park, Tiergarten, and a quick peruse of the neighbourhood flea markets. Like good tourists, we check the box at Checkpoint Charlie, but find the Berlin Wall Memorial to be more poignant and less crowded. Here you can get a better feel for the size and scope of the Berlin Wall – layers of concrete, trenches, dog patrols and electric fencing.
Berlin is a city of historical hotspots intermixed with stunningly beautiful architecture. From Bebelplatz (the infamous location of the Nazis’ 1933 book burning) to the grandeur of Berliner Dom and the classical antiquities housed in the Pergamon Museum, you could spend a week on Unter den Linden alone.
As we head south through Brandenburg and Saxony, we pop the seats back in our train compartment and plan our short stay in Nuremberg – “the most German of all German cities”, it’s been called. Limited time in a city means one must prioritise. That meant castles or churches were out, and World War II sights were in. (None of these were mentioned in our guide book, strangely.)
In town, we dropped off our bags and grabbed the first taxi to Courtroom 600, the location where Nazi leaders were prosecuted for war crimes committed during WWII. Opened in 2010, The Memorium Nuremburg Trials exhibition is located in the same building. Part information centre, part memorial, it is competely fascinating. It is a rare Holocaust-related site where one leaves with a feeling that justice, however small, was delivered.
As a dark, ominous storm blows in, we cross town to the Nazi Party Rally Grounds. Conceived as a show of Nazi superiority and power, the grounds cover 11 square kilometres, a portion of which includes the Zeppelin Field, where hundreds of thousands of the party faithful once gathered. Memories of the area still live on in footage of old parades and propaganda, but the buildings that weren’t bombed are crumbling from neglect – a satisfying result for a place Hitler intended to last “centuries into the future”.
Quaintness is the rule in Bavaria – and despite the taint of its recent past, Nuremberg is just that. We stayed in the Old Town, a picturesque part of the city with cobblestone streets, bustling squares and medieval churches.
After a morning lolling about in Marienplatz, sampling fresh cherries from fruit stands and marvelling at the area’s gothic architecture, we duck into the world famous Hofbräuhaus for just one beer. Just one.
Inside, buxom waitresses haul huge beer steins to and fro, while a lederhosen-clad house band slap-dances the morning away. This 400-year-old establishment may be one of the merriest places on earth – if you’ve a care in the world, it’s best to leave it at the door. Bring on the bread, bratwurst and bowlfuls of zenf. “Just one” becomes “just one… more”, and five hours slip by.
But of course, Munich isn’t all about the beer. Over the next few days, we soak in the works of Da Vinci and Raphael in Alte Pinakotheken, one of the world’s oldest art galleries, and marvel at the splendour at Schloss Nymphenburg, a sprawling Baroque palace of immaculate gardens and royal ballrooms (and a jaw-dropping collection of ornamental carriages and sleighs). There is plenty to see in Munich – for example the Olympic Park for sports enthusiasts and the BMW Museum for car folks – and a lot to buy. If it were December, I’d likely spend myself into the poorhouse on wood-carved nutcracker figurines at the spectacular Christkindlmarkt.
Just north of the Austrian border, we step off the train at the picturesque ski town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen – the last major stop on our journey. Here, the trip morphs from train-trotting escapades into a true blue family holiday. In the late 1970s, my parents made a yearly pilgrimage to Garmisch while they were living in Italy. It was their favourite holiday spot in all of Europe, and for the past 30 years they’ve been vowing to return. This is that day.
In the shadow of Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, I meet up with my family, fresh off the plane from the US. The next week is dedicated to day-tripping – to Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein – and travelling within Germany to the fairytale-esque Neuschwanstein Castle, a sorrowful day near Dachau and a bunker tour at Obersalzberg.
Yet, our best days in the mountains are on our bikes, riding through towns and along mountain trails, waiting out rain spells over schnitzel and pommes frites and beating the heat with gelato and Lowenbräu.
During the winter peak season, skiers fill Garmisch-Partenkirchen to capacity. Yet, summertime in the Bavarian Alps is astonishingly beautiful. In the summer months, I’d choose sweater weather, old-world towns in pristine valleys and potted geraniums on windowsills over a beach break any day.
My father vows to retire here, though he already is retired. It is exactly as he remembers it. While some areas in Germany have changed for the better, others have stayed remarkably the same – also, for the better.
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