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
Boys of Bavaria
I’M in Southern Germany researching a nature story on Germany’s highest mountain and also looking for love. I am seeking an Alpine attraction with a Bavarian boy, having long given up on the bad-spellin’ fellas of Brisbane and their Southern Cross tattoos, motorbikes and drunken manners . And it seems I have come to the right place, as the region in which I find myself is where every decade they stage something known as a Passion Play. While I am actually four years too early for the next play, which was first performed in 1634 as a vow to God to spare inhabitants from the bubonic plague, and now held in years ending in zero, I take the name itself as a good sign.
I am in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, about 1.5 hours south of Munich, and it’s my first stop after a typical epic journey from Brisbane to Europe. What stuns me most is that I appear to be turning heads among the male populous, which suggests either there is a serious man shortage in Germany or I look incredible after 32 hours of travel from door-to-door. Even in the bar, where I sit shovelling schnitzel and beer into my mouth (hey, jetlag makes me ravenous), the waiter begs me to stay to talk to him. He even offers me free drinks, which I politely refuse. And when six gorgeous German women closer to his age walk in and order a round of drinks, I gesture to them and say “Ok, there you go, I’m free to leave now.”
“No, please don’t leave”, he says, adding, with a wink, that his shift finishes at 2am.
Safely back in my room, I re-activate Tinder to my current location where I discover I have 12 new German boyfriends running consecutively. I feel a little like Jesus and his disciples, and based on my knowledge of men around the world, there’s at least one Judas among them. Yes, there’s one or two weirdos, including one wearing the straps to lederhosen and nothing else, but for the most part they are respectful and ruggedly handsome, standing atop mountains, skiing, hiking and riding mountain bikes. And their names are oh-so-German. There’s Helmut and Hans, Holger and Heiko, Wolfgang, Markus, and even a Gander, Gerhard and Geronimo. One is even called Tinder, and I’m not sure if he’s being ironic or if he’s actually called Tinder. I draw the line at Adolf.
My most likely prospect is Markus, from Garmisch-Partenkirchen where I have just spent two days researching a story on Germany’s highest mountain. We don’t have the chance to meet, and just as I’m leaving Garmisch, Markus is headed to Majorca on holidays. He asks what I’m doing the following week, adding that he would like to show me around his hometown. Unfortunately, I’m headed north to Bremen and then on to Berlin before flying home. Markus seems to think there is too far a distance to travel to meet me, pointing out that “distances in Australia are different to distances in Germany”. From my perspective, in Australian parlance, it’s just up the road. We’ve hit our first relationship roadblock.
I am on an international press trip, which means I am in the company of 19 other media from around the world for the next week. I rapidly form an alliance with two Americans and one Canadian. There’s an over-enthusiastic Chinese girl who not only shoots every word uttered by our tour guides on her iPhone, but simultaneously, and loudly, translates it into Chinese. At a Schnapps factory I turn around to find her stroking my hair and filming this encounter while speaking into her microphone. “So soft,” she says lovingly pointing at my locks. Just my luck to come all the way to Bavarian to pick up a Beijing girl.
I head on to Bremen where is appears there is an over-abundance of women, if Tinder in northern Germany is any indication. There’s only about three prospects that pop into my news feed, and one of them is wearing a pink tutu and appears to be slumped over, drunk. If I wanted that, I could just go home to Brisbane. In Berlin I am even less popular with members of the opposite sex. Could it be the longer I stay in Germany, the less appealing I become, or does my entire sex appeal lay in the southern states?
As for Markus, I never hear from him again, and picture a guy back in Garmisch bent over a world map scratching his head over how I could expect him to travel “so far” to meet me. My plane departs Berlin’s Tegel Airport on a cold, grey day, bound for sunny Brisbane, and it’s with a bittersweet feeling that I gently delete our match. Markus, mate, you’ll never know what you missed.
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; NH Collection in Berlin – http://www.nh-collection.com/de/hotel/nh-collection-berlin-friedrichstrasse;
and The German National Tourist Office – http://www.germany.travel