Forget the stereotypes, Germany is pretty cool.
The trains run on time, the food has strict quality standards, cars must pass stringent tests every two years, forests are more valued than buildings, and the people stop walking when the traffic lights are red. It might all add up to a rather boring travel experience, where passing out in an Oktoberfest tent is a highlight, but dig a little deeper and Germany will reveal a myriad of hidden treasures.
Germany and the German people have been dealt a savage blow by stereotypes. Play word association with anybody around the globe and when given the word Germany, people will respond with such imaginative stereotypes as war, Nazi, boring, humourless, beer, sauerkraut, bratwurst.
Indeed, history plays a key role in modern Germany, with the Prussian, Nazi and Communist eras providing tourists with numerous sights. There are still bunkers tucked away in suburban locations, Stasi museums in every East German town, walls, fairytale castles, shocking camps and a beautiful countryside that was for centuries Europe’s number one battlefield.
But history also provides the contrast which makes Germany even more interesting, especially if you are a traveller who prefers to turn left when the guidebook says turn right. The people are very little like the pigeonhole the world has stuck them in; they are friendly, humorous and loyal and will always meet you halfway as long as you are prepared to do the same.
However, if you pack your backpack full of stereotypes, don’t expect to be welcomed or met halfway. Keep an open mind and do not judge these people for past deeds, much in the same way you don’t want to be blamed for your respective histories.
At its tourist centre, Germany has an envious array of vastly different cities to explore. Berlin is by far the most popular, and some would say, the least German. The former divided city, once the location of the Cold war face off that threatened to destroy the world, is a concrete jungle with broad avenues, bullet-scarred buildings and many fine museums. Its northern neighbour, the harbour city of Hamburg, provides a rich contrast between media and trade affluence and the neon-lit debauchery of the Reeperbahn.
Munich dominates the south, especially for a few weeks in late September when the Oktoberfest makes pissing three-deep at a urinal acceptable (and fun), and has an agreeable climate with warm summers and cold, snowy winters. Further north is Nuremberg which has a beautifully restored old town, and to the west is Heidelberg, a city that is on the itinerary of every tour bus.
Frankfurt is financial but worth visiting, particularly for the jugs of sweet apple wine they drink from old-fashioned piss-pots, while Cologne ‘s fresh and exuberant nightlife goes well with its delightful old town and the flowing majesty of the Rhine. But venture off the tourist road and you’ll find other cities worth visiting such as Freiberg, Leipzig, Dresden, DÃ¼sseldorf, LÃ¼beck, Rostock, Stuttgart, Fulda, and Trier. There is remarkable diversity between these places, with any number of dialects spoken and with local culture surprisingly varied given the small space which Germany occupies in Europe.
The country has everything, with the Alps in the south, lakes and forests all over and beaches to the north with island getaways like RÃ¼gen, Usedom, Husum and Sylt remaining high on the list of German vacationers. And with Germany at the forefront of environmentalism and recycling, these natural areas are remarkably well maintained; you will seldom find a lake or river that you can’t swim in because of water pollution.
Language is no problem, with most of the German population able to speak English and quite often a third language as well. If anything, this will prevent you from ever learning German. Most public places have signs in English and if you’re stuck, just ask the next person who comes along; he or she will probably have spent a year or two abroad in an English speaking country or will have travelled to your home country.
For eating and drinking Germany is of course famous for beer, but excellent white wine is produced in the Mosel region, not to mention Frankfurt’s apple wine. German cuisine will surprise you. It’s not exactly for vegetarians, and is very much working on variations of meat and potatoes but they do it well. The humble potato is served in numerous, tasty ways, including KlÃ¶se and Kroketten, and if you follow a big Schnitzel or a slab of Roulade (rolled meat) with a healthy dose of Schnapps then you won’t feel heavy the next day. Don’t be surprised to see people, especially on holidays and celebration days, having beer with their breakfast.
Like other countries in Europe, Germany doesn’t come cheap, and the introduction of the Euro in 2002 hasn’t helped matters. But there are ways to get around and have a good time in Germany without breaking the budget. The key to enjoying this country is not to follow the worn tourist path. Eat in a tourist restaurant and you’ll pay double and sit next to Americans in Lederhosen; be brave and venture away from the main sights and you’ll discover a country defying its stereotype.