What better welcome could you have to Germany, than arriving the day of the country’s first Football World Cup game. Everywhere fans were draped in flags, had their faces painted or were wearing their football jerseys with confidence and optimism, it was a pretty amazing atmosphere to arrive to.
I was met off my bus in Munich by the lovely Ava who, along with her partner Corey, I was staying with. Friends of Louise’s they’ve been living here for about 3 years while Ava finishes her PhD, and it was so nice to see some friendly and so welcoming kiwi faces.
Ava took me on my own personal walking tour of the city which was fabulous, starting with a work out climbing St. Peter’s church bell tower for a panoramic view of the city (luckily I was too puffed to be too worried about the height). Then of course she had me standing in the front row at 5pm for the famous Rathaus-Glockenspiel show – just adorable!
After a few hours of city strolling it was off to meet Corey for dinner and beer at one of the biggest beer halls in Munich, Augustiner. And it was huuuuuge, I was floored by how big the hall itself was, and then the huge beer garden on top of that, and of course everywhere was completely packed by frenzied football fans. The food, beer and pretzels were all just delicious! Having been in Munich for all of about four hours by that point, I knew already Bavaria was a region I was going to love.
The next day was definitely a change in pace, as I made my way out to the Dachau concentration camp memorial site. I’ve seen the pictures, I’ve watched the documentaries, I’ve read the books, but personally I think nothing can ever really prepare you for a visit to a place where so many lives were so needlessly and horrifically lost.
What really hit home for me the most was just how close the camp is to the surrounding Dachau township, where for it’s entire 12 year history those who lived there went about their daily lives so close to the camp’s perimeter.
Despite cameras flashing all around me, I personally didn’t feel it was appropriate to be taking pictures. For me the photos the American troops took of emaciated prisoners and bodies upon bodies piled up when they liberated the camp was enough. The one photo I did decide to take was of these words on the memorial:
While much of Dachau still stands as it always did, important words like ‘never again’ and ‘do not forget’ now also stand in place amongst the memorials that are steadfast additions.
I found it hard to shake off the overwhelming sense of despair in humanity after leaving, but I’m definitely glad I went. It was an education quite unlike any history book could ever give you.
The next day I took a train for 2 hours out of the city into the countryside near the Bavarian border for a slightly different experience, escaping into the breathtakingly beautiful and idyllic surroundings of Neuschwanstein castle. Ludwig 11’s masterpiece was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, and it really was like stepping into a fairy tale. Tucked away in the Bavarian mountains it was gorgeous, and the clear water of the surrounding lakes was just amazing, you could almost feel the music of Wagner, who the castle pays homage to, drifting through the breeze.
By the time I got to Germany I was feeling a little over palaces so thought I’d give the interior tour a miss, but at the last minute changed my mind. And I’m really glad I did, it was such a fascinating place to be. Very little of the castle is actually finished, because the building stopped when the king died, but being inside was a fascinating insight into Ludwig’s head. Again unfortunately photos weren’t allowed, but my goodness it was lovely.
Bavaria is such a beautiful part of Germany, it’s so charming and peaceful, and the countryside is just simply breathtaking. I was lucky enough to be able to see quite a bit it as thanks to a public holiday, Corey, Ava and I spent the next day hiking in an area called Tegernsee. It was beautiful. Sadly given the quality of my camera the photos just can’t quite do it the justice it deserves, the scenery was just gorgeous.
When Corey pointed out the tiny church poking up at the top of this cliff as our first destination, I honestly thought he was joking.
But after assuring me it was actually possible to walk up there, we made it, and it was lovely.
With Bavarians and beer going hand in hand, you’re never far from a beer garden, even when you’re hiking in the mountains!!!! Throughout the walks beer gardens pop up in the most unlikely places, so a lunch break meant weizenbier (wheat beer) and Bavarian cheese pretty much in the middle of nowhere!!!! It was seriously so great.
For me the Bavarian food has been some of my most favourite so far, as a carnivore it appeals greatly to me (I don’t know how you’d survive as a vegetarian here!!!). My last meal consisted of red cabbage (made with apple, so delicious), spätzle (egg noodles), dumpling, pork, hamburger, duck and sausage, all covered in delicious gravy – I truly felt like I had consumed a small farm. Then after swearing I couldn’t possibly fit anything else in, I helped Corey and Ava polish off a plate of Bavarian pancakes, oh so good.
It was particularly difficult to say goodbye to Corey and Ava’s incredible Kiwi kindness and company, they had truly made my time in Munich such an incredibly fun and interesting experience. But given how much I was enjoying the local cuisine, it was probably a good thing I didn’t stay any longer!!!!
7 hours on a bus and I was transported into what felt like a different planet. After the traditional culture of Bavaria, Berlin seemed worlds away with it’s graffiti art and splashes of artistic colour that gives the city it’s unique identity and edge.
I didn’t initially warm to Berlin which surprised me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it was due to the unseasonably freezing rainy weather, or the fact that a lot of my time was spent taking in pretty emotionally heavy pieces of history. I’m not sure, but I’m glad I had the luxury of staying around a little longer than most travellers as it definitely grew on me.
I was once again lucky enough to be taken in by the kindest hosts I could hope for, Katie a friend I’d met while on exchange in the states 11 years ago, and her German boyfriend Bosse. It was an absolute treat as I got to fully immerse myself in the German culture, and also spent so much time chatting to Bosse about what it was like growing up in such a different culture to my own, as well as learning about Katie’s experiences moving there from a country like the US. We spent a lot of time drinking local beer and eating SO much of the local German cuisine (which is fast becoming my favourite!!), and even spent one evening making cheese spätzle (pretty much Germany’s version Mac & Cheese) from scratch, an experience I absolutely loved!
I was also fortunate enough to arrive on a weekend when Berlin really was showing the best of its identity and culture off, with both the Christopher Street Parade (gay pride celebrations) and Music de la Fete taking place.
With the World Cup in full swing, I also got to experience more frenzied football fans when Germany took on Ghana (which proved a little more exciting than I thought it’d be!!) and as a result have now officially adopted Germany as my World Cup team. Much like Munich, all through Berlin German flags celebrating the football team hung from buildings, windows and cars – interestingly I’m told the World Cup is one of the only times Germans feel like they can wave and display their flags with pride, and not feel like everyone will freak out. Apparently most of the time you’d rarely see the German flag flying so boldly, unless of course it’s on official Government buildings.
I felt like you could really reach out and touch the history of both World War Two, and the Cold War in Berlin which really was fascinating for me. My days were filled with Third Reich walking tours, visits to monuments and memorials, the Jewish memorial museum, the Typography of Terror museum (outlining the dark days of the Gestapo and SS across Europe), as well as the East Side gallery, and Berlin Wall monuments and memorials.
I’m told after ignoring the dark days of World War Two for quite some time after the war, Germany now confronts its history head on, and there really is so much opportunity to learn, and educate, and most importantly never forget what happened during that time.
One of the most moving memorials I came across were little golden plaques I found dotted around the city. Slightly raised from the footpath they’re designed to make you almost trip over them so you look down. On each one is the name of a Jewish person who was taken from their home, where they were sent to, and in most cases where they died. You’ll find a lot of them around the city as there’s one for each person who was taken from Berlin, and they’re positioned in front of the the home or location where they were taken from.
Experiencing the German culture really has been incredibly interesting for me. I guess perhaps because it’s one of the few places I’ve been so far where I’ve felt such stark differences with the New Zealand culture. The German love for rules and order, and their absolute precision with things like public transport really appealed to me. Luckily I was informed that police will stop and fine you if they catch you jaywalking (which is a very common thing for Wellingtonians to do!), and parents will yell at you if they see you crossing before you get a green man (which are particularly cute in Berlin) as you’re teaching their children bad habits. For the most part they will literally stand and wait even if there’s not a car in sight for their green walking light!
There is also very little security for the tubes and trains as commuters are trusted to purchase and pay for their tickets. There are random ticket inspections of course, but the locals are highly unlikely to be caught out breaking the rules.
Probably worth noting here too that another set of rules are preeeeetty important to adhere to, especially when you’re a tourist, and that’s keeping out of the way of cyclists!!! With so many cyclists, there are bike lanes everywhere, and often for the untrained eye it can be hard to establish where the footpath ends and the bike lane begins. You do however learn very quickly when you get it wrong and find yourself in the middle of cycle way where angry cyclists, going at insanely fast speeds, are prepared to run right over the top of you! One of my tour guides joked that German motorists wouldn’t hit you with their car as then they’d have to clean them, but German cyclists show no mercy!
I’ve so loved the green thinking of Germany, and the planning that goes into creating green public places, especially in the city. When I travelled from Munich to Berlin I saw wind turbines and fields full of solar panels everywhere. And of course almost everywhere is built for bikes. And the parks have been such an experience. In Munich the English garden had this fantastic part of the river where crazy surfers could ride waves (right in the middle of the city!!).
In Berlin I checked out a park that had been developed around former railway lines, as well as Tempelhofer Airport, the old US sector airport that closed down in 2008 and is now a recreational space. Berliners voted overwhelmingly to stop any building development in the space so now it has native grasslands, community gardens, and huge runways that are full of cyclists, roller bladders, skateboarders, wind surfers and all sorts. I really get the feeling that no space is ever wasted or left to become overgrown and derelict.
The one thing that is taking a little getting used to in Europe is the prevalence of smokers. I’m not sure if NZ is more smokefree than I give it credit for, or if I just don’t notice it as much back home, but on this side of the world it seems pretty hard to escape the wafting clouds of smoke.
Smoke clouds aside though, Germany for me was definitely a real cultural adventure, and I loved exploring the parts I was fortunate enough to visit. If I could’ve taken a life time supply of currywursts home with me I definitely would have, but instead I left (no doubt several kilos heavier) with so many amazing cultural experiences, and a back pack full of more German chocolate than one person needs!!!