Archive for the 'Germany' Category

The Romantic Road and Munich, Germany

Karie on Mar 19th 2008 03:03 pm

In order to fulfill Scott’s dream of driving on the Autobahn, we rented a car and drove from Berlin down to Würzburg, which is somewhere in the middle of Germany, not too far from Frankfurt.  Unfortunately, we were not able to rent a Porsche, but our little Opel didn’t embarrass us too badly.

Scott is convinced that German drivers are the best in the world.  I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that he is of German decent.  Ok, I also admit that there seems to be a mutual respect on the road.  Drivers reserve the fast lane strictly for passing, no one cuts anyone off, and rules of the road are obeyed (whether those rules are laws or just unspoken etiquette).  Needless to say, we spent a lot of time in the right lanes, at a comfortable 130-180 kph (roughly 80-110 mph), and kept the left lane open for the Mercedes & BMWs that regularly fed us their dust as they flew by at 200+ kph.

After a 5-or-so-hour drive from Berlin, we stopped in Würzburg for the night, which is the beginning of the Romantische Straße, or Romantic Road.  Our hostel, on the other hand, was not representative of this title.  It felt more like an old hospital clinic than the gateway to the most beautiful scenery in Germany.  At any rate, we didn’t spend much time there, as we were off again early the next morning.

The Romantic Road is a 2-lane, scenic drive that connects a series of medieval villages through Southern Germany.  You could easily spend a few days stopping at each town through this 350 km (215 mile) drive, but since we had a limited amount of time, we stopped at the Tourist Information Center in the first village and picked up a map that included descriptions of each village.  We selected 4-5 places to visit along the way, including the castle and gardens in Weikersheim and the tourist trap of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

As the day closed in on us, we veered off the Romantic Road and headed for Munich.  Of course, the first thing we did the following morning was take the New Munich Tour, which is a free walking tour, offered by the same company as the tour we book in Berlin.

*If you have not read the article about our tour of Berlin, please do.  It includes the most valuable tip on this website – period. Click here to read.

The New Munich Tour was also very good.  If I had not already been to Berlin I might have thought the Munich tour was great… but then again, my personal opinion is that Berlin is a more interesting city (at least as far as tour-going information is concerned).  That being said, we also learned a great deal about Munich’s history, as we literally traced Hitler’s steps as he first attempted to begin the revolution unsuccessfully during the Beer Hall Putsch. I wasn’t aware that Hitler first attempted a revolution by force before he was elected into office, so the tour gave me even more insight into the dynamics that led to his election.

On our last night in Munich, we stopped for dinner in a local hall, which is pretty much cafeteria-style seating with lots of people eating fried foods and drinking beer by the liter.  (side note: Munich consumes more beer than any other city in the world).  There are signs labeling tables that are reserved for regulars, called Stammtisch, where you can sit if there are no other options, but if a regular shows up and wants his seat, you move.  We spotted non-reserved table with a couple empty seats and used the universal language of pointing & grunting to ask if the seats were available.  The 2 gentlemen sitting at the table motioned back that we were welcome to sit.  After a couple minutes, they heard us conversing in English and said, “hey, where are you guys from?”  Turns out they were brothers from Washington, who just so happened to be heading to Zurich the next day, as were we.

We already had a rental car reserved (or so we thought), so after a couple hours of dinner conversation, we invited them to join us for the ride to Zurich.  Early the next morning, after walking 2 miles to get to the car rental agency, we learned that they did not have our reservation. We had a confirmation number from carrentals.com, the 3rd party booking service, but the Avis rep pointed out that beneath our confirmation number it read “Please do not book”, in German.  Why they would give us a confirmation number at a location that specified it was not available is beyond me.  Avis did have a 2-seater available, but we had already promised our new friends a ride, so we ended up running back across town and pay an extra 50 Euros to get the car that we thought we had originally reserved.

Travelers Tip: Do not use carrentals.com, even if they do have the best price.  Price is irrelevant when there is no car… and I’m still awaiting the refund on the insurance deposit I paid in advance.

It was an exhausting morning, but we eventually crammed into yet another Opel and hit the autobahn.  We could have made it to Zurich in about 3 ½ hours, but we opted to take a detour, back to the base of the Romantic Road, to see King Ludwig’s Royal Castle of Neuschwanstein.

This castle is said to be the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.  King Ludwig II died before its completion, hence only 20 of the 60 rooms are completed; yet it is every bit as magical as its fairytale imitation.  Set in a mountainside, with beautiful peaks & waterfalls on one side, and expansive valleys on the other, you can see why it’s the most photographed site in the country.

It was the perfect end to our time in Germany.  I have definitely gained a lot of respect for the German people throughout this trip.  Not that I lacked respect for them before, but it felt something I have not felt in other countries.  There was a strong sense of pride, yet humility in learning from (and in many respects still paying for) the mistakes of their forefathers.  Thick-skinned and hard working, yet warm & friendly.  I even quite liked the pork schnitzel.

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Berlin, Germany

Karie on Mar 16th 2008 07:10 pm

I learned more in Berlin in 2 days than I learned in all my years of schooling combined. What a fascinating place, AND, to top it all off, the best things in Berlin are FREE!

If you remember one tip out of everything I share from our entire year here, let it be this: take the New Berlin Free Walking Tour. If you are ever in Berlin, or anywhere near Berlin, please take this tour. If you have been to Berlin and did not take this tour, go back and take this tour. The company, New Europe Tours, now offers free tours in several major cities, including Paris, London, Amsterdam, etc., but the history of Berlin made this one of particular interest to me.

The philosophy of New Europe Tours is that every person deserves a high quality informative tour, regardless of status or income level. The reason it works is that the tour guides are extremely enthusiastic about history, and they have to be good at what they do because they work solely on tips. So while it’s nice that the tour is free, that’s not necessarily why I recommend it. In fact, make sure you take money with you because you will want to tip your guide generously.

When we arrived at the tour meeting point, Starbucks (aka, the American Embassy) across from the Brandenburg Gate, the crowds were starting to gather. By the time the tour began, there were at least 200 enthuasiastic but poor tourists. We were getting kind of nervous that we were going to get exactly what we paid for (nada). However, they first split the group based on language, which pretty much cut it in half, then the remaining 100-or-so English-speakers were split into 2 separate groups.

I never would have guessed that a group of 50+ people could really be that enjoyable or informative. However, our guide had great voice projection and was a master at organizing the group so everyone felt a part of the experience. I’m sure all their guides are great, but Dave from Manchester is amazing. When you go to Berlin and take this tour, look for Tour Guide Dave and follow him around as long as he’ll let you. I honestly believe that if every child had a history teacher like him, it would change the future.

What was supposed to be a 3 ½-hour tour turned into over 5 hours, as Tour Guide Dave got carried away in sharing great stories, and we were all too captivated to notice the time. We spent quite a bit of time at the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”, which would be expected on a tour of this sort, but we also spent some time at some less descript areas. For example, at one point the guide stopped the entire group in the middle of a parking lot, and went on to explain the events surrounding Hitler’s suicide in the Führerbunker directly beneath where we were standing.

All 5 hours were packed full of interesting facts that we otherwise would have never known. It really gave us a better understanding of the history, as well as its lingering impact on today’s society… and possibly tomorrow’s. Seriously, I can’t stress it enough – just go.

The second free & fabulous thing we did was touring the Reichstag building, which houses the German Parliament. I’ll spare you the building’s extensive history (although it’s quite interesting if you ever want to look it up), but in 1999, a glass dome was added to the top of the building. It offers wonderful views of the city, but the best view is looking down inside the building directly onto the floor of the Parliament. The architecture is a representation of democracy, with the people reigning at the top, and the government below – fully transparent to all – serving to support and uplift its citizens. It’s beautiful, but be prepared to wait in a long line. When we were there, the line extended down the stairs and toward the expansive lawn, and the wait was about 1 ½ hours. However, I’ve heard that in peak season the line can wrap all the way around the building.

Now there were a few things we did that weren’t free, one of which was the Story of Berlin, an interactive, multi-sensory type of museum. I got the impression that it’s targeted at younger audiences, perhaps around the age when children/teens are learning this history in school. However, considering I must’ve missed that day at SCS, I still found it quite interesting. It also included a guided tour of a bunker, which was probably worth the 9.20 Euro admission on its own.

Oh, and we also saw one of the 7 Wonders of the World – the Ishtar Gate to the inner city of Babylon at the Pergamon Museum. Well, actually it is no longer on the list of wonders, but when we realized we were that close to something that was once considered one of the most magnificent things on earth, we had to see it. We heard “7 wonders” and we went… at the time, we didn’t even really know what we were going to see.

We ended up going through the museum backward (because we took the most direct route, not caring about anything else in the building… the wonder, take us to the wonder), so we experienced the gates as if we were leaving Babylon. However, if you were to make this visit as it was intended, the journey would lead you down a long corridor housing the Processional Way, building up to the grandeur of the gate itself. The vibrant colors make it hard to believe that this gate was built in 575 BC, by order of King Nebuchadnezzar. Anyone remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?

I don’t mean to downplay its significance by putting it at the bottom of the list (and long after the free tour). It was quite spectacular, and it’s not every day that you see something commissioned by someone that you learned about from Bible stories in Sunday School. However, the fact that when you say “Berlin” I think “free tour” tells me that this wonder has been overshadowed by the many amazing things that we saw & learned in Berlin.

Certainly every bit of history makes an impact on today’s society, but what I experienced in Berlin is tangible. We have family members that fought in World Wars, and we remember watching the news as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. As much as I am continually blown away by really really old stuff, this trip reminded me that we are still writing history – some beautiful & heroic, and some dark & tainted. Some day, perhaps many years from now, someone might walk where I walked and be just as enamored with the stories of 2008 as I am with the stories of 575 BC, 1492, 1942, 1989…

Maybe I’m starting to say this about every city, but I really wish we had more time in Berlin. We barely scratched the surface.

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