With warm and welcoming hugs Jasons’ family welcomed us into Germany and showed us all their favorite places in this fabulous country. It was nice to stay in a family home, eat home cooked meals and have the planning done for us…we relaxed right into it and enjoyed it thoroughly.
First stop was Hanover where J’s second cousin Heiko lives with his wife Jana and their two young boys, Fridtjof and Thees. Lonely Planet says that the only reason to visit Hanover is for the annual tech fair that occurs there, but I disagree whole-heartedly.
Heiko showed us around his city, visiting new and old areas, stopping in at various art shows and galleries along the way. Our own wandering showed a city with a good mix of old and new architecture (more new than old as the city was leveled during the war), with lots of pedestrian walkways, lakes and parks to relax in. It’s not be a city that has big sights to see, but instead is a city that takes time to relax into and discover.
I enjoyed it and loved spending time with the family – the boys cracked me up and as the weekend progressed I realized more and more how much alike J and Heiko are…looks, mannerisms, interests…I had not thought that second cousins could be so much alike.
Our next stop was Seesen where Frank and Heike were jumping up and down with excitement on the train platform as we arrived. We were quickly whisked back to their beautiful backyard (complete with Canadian flag in our honor) to immediately sample some of the local brew – what a welcome!
The following day they took us on a hike to the Brocken, the highest mountain in the Hartz Mountains. It was a beautiful hike (complete with a beer stop at the ‘ranger station’) into an area of the mountains that has only been accessible since reunification. The tank tracks we walked along were a constant reminder of the border patrols that used to occur in this area and from the top we could see for miles and miles – it was stunning. Beer and currywurst were the reward at the top before we hiked the 2.5 hours back down.
Frank and Heike also took us to visit the 1000 year old city of Goslar. Located not too far from Seesen, it was a nice drive through the country to get there. Goslar was extremely pretty and, being a UNESCO Heritage Site, is well preserved. They knew of all the best, and secret places and we had a wonderful time there.
Our time in Seesen came to an end all too quickly, but Berlin was waiting and we were looking forward to it, and our apartment, there.
Our last stop in Germany took us to the small town of Friedberg, where another warm welcome awaited us. Hanno and Annette welcomed us into their home and showed us around even as they prepare for their own big trip to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. It was great to hear about all their past travels and the plans for this next one.
Our first full day there saw the weather clear just enough to warrant a visit to the Andechs Monastery. The walk to the monastery was nice…through fields and meadows with great views…and the monastery itself is a stunning example of a typical Bavarian Baroque church…but it’s the beer they brew here that was the real draw! Smooth, dark and strong – it is the perfect accompaniment to the traditional pretzels, radish and pork shank that we also enjoyed.
It was back to the mountains the next day for a visit to the German Alps and a fairy tale castle. The clouds were lying low that day but we headed up the cable car anyway hoping to break through on the way up. Within 100M of the top we could see the sun start to shine and then ‘pop’ we were above the clouds and within the peaks of the Alps. To say the view was stunning would be an understatement. With mountains as far as I could see and a puffy cloud layer below, the view was mesmerizing.
We hiked down through the clouds and valleys, traversing across a bit to reach Neuschwanstein Castle – the very castle that Walt Disney is said to have modeled Disneyland on. It truly is a like a fairy tale…rising up out of the mountain with turrets and walls and a grand demeanor. In the distance lakes dotted green, green valleys and small villages with their red roofs added to the fairy tale setting. It would not have been surprising to see Cinderella or Snow White here. It sounds cheesy I know, but it was very ‘once upon a time…’. The inside was, as Annette says, ‘very kitsch’ but fabulous all the same…what else would I expect from a fairy tale castle?
We had dinner that evening high upon a mountain across the valley where we had fabulous views of both Austria and Germany. A fabulous end to a great day.
And then there was Oktoberfest. Our last day in Germany spent in Munich watching lederhosen and dirndl dressed men, women and families enjoy the largest beer drinking party in the world. It was absolutely huge! At least nine ‘tents’, each holding up to 7,000 beer-swilling partiers and that doesn’t count the thousands out in the grounds wandering around. Amazing! We had a good time and thoroughly enjoyed our huge 1L beers (although I could have done without the hangover for the flight to Istanbul the next day!!).
We loved our time in Germany and, certainly, the warmth, generosity and hospitality of J’s family made it all the better. There is nothing like the warm embrace of family to make time go by all too quickly – we will have to return to spend more time and see more of this beautiful place. Thanks to all of you who took us in, served us your amazing food and beer, and showed us your favorite places – we loved it!!
Berlin is a vibrant, youthful, energetic, evolving city. It is more than its past and, although history looms large here, it is redefining itself and moving forward quickly into the future.
We settled in here quickly, once again finding an apartment in a neighborhood outside of downtown. A place where we could get a sense of the city and it’s people. I love the densification of cities, and our neighborhood was a good example. Streets lined with small 5 story apartment blocks whose ground floors held bakeries, cafes, pubs, corner stores and various shops. The grocery store was just down the block and the cutest little pub ever was between it and home…yes, seriously dangerous!! Getting to the sights was no problem as the metro was only a 5 minute walk away and on it, and the busses, we could easily get where ever we liked.
We started our visit with a walking tour of the city. Walking tours are our favorite as they get us into the city and let us interact with the guide and other participants on a level that bus tours do not. During this tour we got a sense of the size and scope of the city and some very valuable history lessons (our guide, although American, had studied German history for 10 years…she knew a lot!!).
The next day we returned to town to get a better look at some of the sights and to visit the German History Museum. A great museum, even if overwhelmingly large – I enjoyed it, and learned a lot (which wasn’t too hard as my German history was lacking). Berlin has many other museums and galleries displaying numerous exhibits that are famous perhaps worth visiting, but I am in Germany and so decided to focus on German history and exhibits. We’ll view Roman or Greek or other artifacts if and when we visit those countries.
We also visited the Reistag with its impressive glass and mirror dome (symbolizing transparency in government). It is lined with a spiraling walkway to the top where great views of the city can be had. The audio guide was worth it (well, for one it was free) as it explained all the sights that could be seen. Moreover, the climb was a good chance to play with our reflections in the mirrored column in the center of the dome.
We took two day trips out of the city:
On Sunday we visited Potsdam with a bike tour. Potsdam is a beautiful refuge from the city with stunning buildings and gardens but really, for us, it was all about the bikes. We had a blast riding around on the cruiser bikes through the old city and, although it poured rain, we had smiles on our faces the whole day.
On Tuesday we visited the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. A more somber outing but a worthwhile one.
Memory studies is a new, and upcoming, branch of history concerned with how people, countries, and cultures remember the tragic events of their past. In the past, history has been written by the winners. Memory studies challenges this approach and places emphasis on all perspectives being remembered rather than just that of the victor. Being in Germany, a country with such a recent history, and Berlin in particular, brings this branch of history into focus.
For how long should a country pay homage to a past done wrong? Should a country be forever defined by the heinous crimes committed by those now gone? Do those that live there now need to be always reminded of what happened? Every country has some distant past memories that have since turned into history, when is it time to move on and let it fade with time?
These are questions that Germany is struggling with. On the one hand no-one should forget what happened lest it ever be repeated again. But, on the other, if the wound is forever left open it will never heal.
Nowhere is this struggle more evident than in Berlin. A city that continues to rebuild and redefine itself since reunification in 1989. I think they are striking a balance between moving forward and paying homage to the past.
- The wall no longer exists except for a few remembrance pieces and a brick trail on the ground throughout the city that subtly marks where it once was.
- Hitlers’ bunker is now a parking lot with just a small placard marking the historic events that occurred there.
- New construction is everywhere – so much so that I suspect that if I returned to the city in just 2 years it would look different again. (Our guide said ‘Paris will always be Paris, but Berlin continually changes…you must come back’).
- There is a huge memorial to murdered Jews in the center of the city – although large, it is subtle but very powerful.
One thing I wasn’t sure of before we arrived was whether or not we would visit a concentration camp. Firstly I didn’t know if I wanted to see and be faced with the horror that it would be, and secondly I was struggling with whether that is how my trip to Berlin should be defined.
In the end we decided we should go as, although I believe that a countries past should be allowed to heal with time, not enough time has yet passed for Germany with regard to the Holocaust. Let me be clear. I am not saying that past events should ever be forgotten, only that time can ease the acuity of the pain.
And so we visited the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. It was not as bad as I had thought it would be. It certainly told the story of those that were sent there, and those that didn’t return, but it could not convey the daily living conditions and terror. It was moving however, and I will always remember stepping into the barracks thinking about all the men and women that lived, and died, there and seeing the execution trench and crematorium. It was enough.
Seeing the wall was more emotional than I thought it would be. I hadn’t realized that the juxtaposition of the East and West was so dramatic. That people in apartment blocks, right next to the wall on the Eastern side, could look over and see the people in the apartment blocks just over the wall in the West. A constant reminder of what they could not have. So close…and yet so far.
Germany is an interesting place to visit because its past is so recent, so tangible, so accessible. It is certainly not the only country struggling to manage an horrific past, but it is the one that is actively in the process of trying to do it the right way. Other countries in the world should be taking note, owning up to their own misgivings, and finding a way through it with such grace.
Compared to the South American countries we have visited, Germany is small. There are no 8, 10 or 15 hour bus rides…trains whisk us where ever we want to go within just a few short hours and with the beautiful countryside whipping by, well, there is just no time to write. And so it has been 10 days since I have put any thoughts down.
I am loving Germany just like I knew I would. It’s easy here. We come from a European culture so I understand how and why everything works. Although I speak almost no German it is easy to get around as most people speak English (I confess I am terribly embarrassed that I must rely on their English skills to help me…in the future I must become fluent in another language). The food is fabulous and familiar and I see people drinking beer everywhere.
It’s not fair to compare South America to Germany as they are not trying to be like each other, but I’ll do it anyway:
- I can flush the toilet paper in Germany – no more stinky bin beside the toilet.
- There are a bazillion different beers in Germany and, from what I can tell, they are all fabulous.
- Wine is cheaper, and better, in Argentina.
- In S.America I can cross the street where ever and whenever I want (although I may take my life in my hands). In Germany everyone waits for the ‘ampelmann’ – no jaywalking here…must obey the rules.
- Germany is clean…no litter, no side-of-the-road garbage dumps, no dog sh*t everywhere.
- We have family in Germany. There is nothing like staying with family and feeling their warm, welcoming embrace especially after being on the road for three months.
- S.America is definitely cheaper.
- Germans do not eat near the amount of beef that Argentineans do. Pork and wurst are king here.
- S.American buses pick up snack vendors from the side of the road. They get on the bus with their basket of cakes, cookies, ice cream, corn-on-the-cob, empanadas, gelatin, meat-and-beans-in-a-bag…whatever they made in their kitchen this morning…and sell to the bus patrons. The driver pulls over a few miles down the road to let them off. This, I’m sure, is inconceivable to the Germans although I had some tasty snacks from the bus ladies.
South America and Germany are very different from each other in many, many ways…sometimes the German aspects are better and sometimes the S.American aspects are.
Although we haven’t firmed up plans with family connections yet our hope is that our, and their, travel plans will sync up and we’ll be able to visit with them. We are also still hopeful that J’s parents will be able to join us as they are experienced in traveling here. Barring that though, we will still plan on visiting the same areas as there is much to see and do.
Our focus will be twofold. In the central region where J’s mom’s cousin Frank and his wife Hieke enjoy the Harz mountains from their home in Seesen and in the southeast near Munich where J’s mom’s other cousin Hanno lives in Friedberg. Read More