SOUTHERN Germany is seducing me with a magnificent Monday afternoon. It’s uncharacteristically sunny, 14 degrees Celsius and t.shirt weather. And I am observing this all unfurl from the luxury of my First Class train seat aboard German Rail, part of the vast Rail Europe network.
The train winds its way south from Munich, along languid lakes flanked by gregarious Germans, who have flocked outside to sun themselves in the spring sunshine. It’s been a long, cold winter but Germans know a thing or two about being in the wilderness, not only literally but politically, the legacy of two World Wars still a part of the national psyche. But I’ve been travelling to Germany for almost 30 years, even before the Berlin Wall came down, and have had the pleasure of watching Germany blossom.
For nearly three decades I’ve discussed Germany’s politics and social issues with my close German friends – whom I regard as family – as well as strangers. Back in 1987 we were talking about the Berlin Wall, never imaging a few years later we would be discussing its welcome demise. We’ve spoken about the flood of refugees from the east into the west after this globally significant event, the social and economic implications of this, and the rise of neo-Nazism.
On my return to Germany in 2007 we waxed lyrical about World Cup Soccer, which Germany hosted in 2006 and in which they placed third, and I returned in 2014, the same year Germany won the World Cup. My friends told me for the first time they felt they could legitimately be proud to be German and had finally shaken off the shackles of the past. And this sentiment resonated on every street corner.
On this trip, we spoke about Chancellor Angela Merkel, terrorism and the Syrian refugees. And it’s a topic on the tip of almost every German’s tongue. Scratch the surface and while many admire their left-wing leader, there’s mounting concern about what to do with the flood of refugees in a country which already is bursting with a population of 80 million. Right-wing views also exist, with some strangers blatantly offering their opinions that refugees only wish to migrate to western Germany, ignoring the less wealthy east.
Even Merkel herself is said to be backing away from her open-door policy. Some admire her stance of bailing out the Greeks and their financial woes, when other countries have wanted to flee the problem, others says she is too lenient. German National Tourist Board CEO Petra Hedorfer, at an international press conference I attended on this trip, admits that challenges to the nation’s tourism include refugees (and the negative impact on infrastructure); border controls in the Schengen area (which allow free movement between European countries); and reassignment of hotels, trade fair halls and leisure facilities to immigrants. Hedorfer also says terror attacks, racism and Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA), also pose challenges.
My train journey takes me from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where I am writing some nature stories for a travel magazine, to Nurnberg, and north of Munich, where I have the delight of sampling Bavarian beer, for a major Australian news organisation, for the best part of a week. I visit Magdeburg, a former East German city, for the international German Travel Mart, before I again catch the train to Bremen, to visit my close friends, and then finally on to Berlin, to fly home.
German Rail boasts a reputation of being on time, but long-term travellers say its standards have slipped and on one of my tight connections, where I had just 10 minutes to spare between trains, my train arrived 5 minutes late, making for an uncomfortable race through the crowded station with 20kg of luggage. Days later, my train is 20 minutes late on my journey to Bremen. And then 30 minutes late on my last leg from Hannover to Berlin. Deutsche Bahn Head of International Sales Dr Tobias Heussler admits standards have slipped and for the first time since 2003, the company has made losses. This now-private company intends to invest 50 billion Euro by 2020 into infrastructure. But for the most part, it deserves its efficient reputation and is still tracks ahead of many rail systems around the world. (Queensland Rail, are you reading this?)
Even small train stations such as Garmsich-Partenkirchen have rail offices where you can request a print out of your daily itinerary, including the platforms from which your next train departs, which is extremely helpful when you have only short connections between some trains. While the smaller trains don’t offer a food or drink carriage, larger inter-city trains such as the ICE do. While the beer is good, the food leaves a little bit to be desired.
My train journey ends in Berlin, which is fitting as this is where my conversations about Germany began some 30 years ago. I’m staying for one night at the Hotel NH Collection Berlin Friedrichstrasse – part of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts group – which is one easy underground stop from Berlin’s main train station. This 240-room hotel overlooks the Altmarkt and captures the essence of Berlin with its funky art depicting city scenes and landmarks. It also offers a free “lazy Sunday” 5pm checkout. I’ve fallen in love with Berlin over the years and this brief afternoon is one of the world’s truly great cities is no different. From my hotel, which is smack bang in the centre, I easily amble in one direction along Under der Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate which epitomises historical Berlin. I then wander in the other direction past the Berlin Museum towards the city’s modernised quarter of Hackeschehofe, home to countless alleyways bursting with eclectic art. Around me, there’s an invisible line where the Berlin Wall once stood.
All too often, when Australians dream of travelling to Europe they speak of the “sexy” destinations like Italy and France. And yes, Germany has weathered its seasons of major challenges and will continue to do so while it remains one of the powerhouses of European politics. But history has continually proven that this is a strong, smart country capable of overcoming great adversity. Check it out. Spring is in full bloom and Germany is in the wilderness no more.
The Global Goddess travelled on a first-class German Rail Pass (5 days within one month) as a guest Rail Europe – http://www.raileurope.com.au. She stayed in the NH Collection in Berlin – http://www.nh-collection.com/de/hotel/nh-collection-berlin-friedrichstrasse, part of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts group (www.preferredhotels.com), thanks to the assistance of Preferred Hotels & Resorts. For more information on Germany contact The German National Tourist Office – http://www.germany.travel
THE sultry Slovenian peers at me from beneath her glasses. “Where are you from?” she demands in a husky accent. “I’m Australian,” I answer matter-of-factly. “You speak good English,” she replies, before taking me aside and, in a conspiratorial tone, tells me the people on our respective Berlin tours look “old and boring”. Then, with a wink and a wave, she says she’ll see me in a few days in Bremen, where we can “catch up”. I’m not entirely certain, but I think I may now have a Slovenian girlfriend.
I’m in Europe for the German Travel Mart in which Germany is demonstrating to the world why it’s one of the global leaders in the tourism game. And this year is perhaps more important than most, coinciding with 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down and this country’s two halves became whole again. And I’m travelling around Berlin with a gaggle of international journalists and travel agents, each as interesting as the next to which I’m introduced.
Shanky, from Mumbai, is not a small lad, and over a breakfast which consists of six pieces of toast, mushrooms, eggs and strawberries, confesses he’s eating a big meal as he will only eat once and doesn’t want to “get sick” on the German food. The irony of his words lost only on the Indian himself, and throughout the trip I spot Shanky constantly grazing on vast quantities of food. Shanky also asks me how hotel staff know whether you have consumed anything from the mini bar, leading me to wonder how much of a party he’s had in his room.
Which leads me to Suzie, a Filipino Canadian, who only seems to stumble across strife when she is alone in her room, late at night, a little inebriated. On our first night, Suzie found herself taking a late-night dip in the hotel pool, on the second, she awoke at 3am fully clothed and made up, by the third she’d floundered around in a late-night bath and when last we spoke, she was caught smoking in her pajamas in the hotel stairwell, after consuming a midnight schnitzel.
Kathy, from Chicago, loves Australians far more than she loves technology and has forgotten to switch off her global roaming, thus ensuring a $50 bill on her first day. Kathy wanders the streets of Berlin constantly discovering random, unrelated walls emblazoned with graffiti and asking our tour guides whether they are part of the Berlin Wall. “Yes,” I answer dryly on their behalf, “we are in Berlin and this is a wall.”
Then there’s Peter, a softly-spoken Bostonian who once managed to miss a kangaroo but hit a bus while driving through a particularly remote stretch of Australia’s Outback. Peter, who says my accent is alluring, collects dirt when he travels. I endear myself to another American, Ellie, by telling her how much I despise George Bush before I accidentally spill a glass of fine Austrian red all over her beige trousers.
Jenz, our tour guide, runs a tight ship with clichéd German precision and is prone to saying “OK” by which he means “it’s time to go, NOW” at random moments. Add to this a Croatian who looks and sounds like Count Dracula and likes to tell long-winded stories about the minutiae of his life, a jolly gay guy from Wales, the Italians and Spaniards who constantly complain about both the food and the time of dining, a happy Hong Konger who sneaks off to shop, and you’ve pretty much got the picture. The two Lee’s from Beijing are the last to arrive, and for a week I think they are both named Lee, until I realise that’s their last name, but they remain delightful nonetheless.
These days you’ll find a Berlin that is buzzing. Visit some of the historical sights such as the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the gorgeous Gendarmenmarkt and Checkpoint Charlie before you explore some of the city’s new. Take an eTrike tour along the historical trail of the Berlin Wall on these new eclectic and electric bikes which whizz around the capital’s streets at 25km/hr. You’ll find some interesting spots in which sections of the Wall still stand, and if you use a little imagination, you can picture what life was like in the old east. There’s 155 museums in this city alone, some amazing shopping and designers, and incredible food and wine.
It’s been 26 years since I was first in Berlin, a high school student standing on both sides of the Berlin Wall, with a group of other Aussie teenagers, who were as diverse and delightful as this straggle of strangers with whom I now find myself. We didn’t know it back then, but a year later, the Berlin Wall would be torn down, East and West would be reunited and a whole chapter would be written in German history.
Before I boarded the flight to Europe this time last week, I was a little apprehensive. It’s a long way to go from Australia to spend a week with complete strangers with whom you may have little in common. But I need not have worried. In Berlin, it seems, walls are always coming down. And so I, too, write another chapter, in my history.
The Global Goddess travelled to Germany as a guest of the German National Tourist Office. To experience your own German escape, go to http://www.germany.travel