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
HERE is my confession. I have never been to an ANZAC Day dawn service. I have been to numerous war sites around the world, I’ve played two-up with Diggers in my local RSL on ANZAC Day, and watched them march on the streets of Brisbane, but I have never risen before the sun to listen to the hauntingly beautiful Last Post, which honours our soldiers who have died in global conflicts.
As a young backpacker, I followed in the footsteps of my peers and made the trek to Gallipoli to see where so many Aussie lives were lost on that impossible stretch of beach. I have stood in the trenches where they bled out and died. I remember the undeserved awe in which the Turkish regarded my pilgrimage, so astounded were they that so many young Australians would cross the oceans to honour their dead. I’ve visited the Egyptian pyramids from where the Aussies did some of their training in preparation for Turkey.
I have knelt in the gas chambers of Dachau in Germany and Auschwitz in Poland and wept at the futility of war itself. I have scanned the piles of suitcases, teeth, hair combs, reading glasses and shoes, and tried to imagine how those captured by the Nazis endured their fate. Tried to fathom the stroke of dumb luck that makes one person survive a war and another perish. I have sauntered through Switzerland and marvelled at how a country so tiny, and in the midst of all the combating countries, could remain neutral.
In London, I have stayed in the Savoy which miraculously only sustained minor damage during the bombings of World War Two, retained its stiff upper lip and kept trading, and from where Winston Churchill regularly took his Cabinet to lunch. It is believed Churchill made some of his most important decisions regarding the war from the Savoy, whose air-raid shelters were considered some of London’s toughest. And like so many Aussies, I have stood in the London Underground and tried to imagine its role as an air-raid shelter.
I have sat on the shores of Pearl Harbour and imagined the Japanese fighter planes overhead. On the other side of Oahu, I have seen the beaches from where local Hawaiian kids fled when they saw the jets overhead, before racing inside and crowding with frightened family members around a simple transistor radio to try to understand what was happening to their peaceful paradise.
In south-east Asia, I have witnessed the effects of war and the cruel regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia in the torture chambers of Phnom Penh and on the streets littered with the limbless in Siem Reap. I have visited the many war museums of Saigon in Vietnam and crawled through part of the Cu Chi Tunnels before becoming overcome with claustrophobia. In Thailand, I have visited the River Kwai many times, and walked along the railway sleepers, the construction of which claimed the lives of so many Australian soldiers. I have paused on the site of Singapore’s Changi Prison and attempted to feel what it must have been like to survive the heartless humidity and the chaos of capture.
As recently as last month, I was up in Papua New Guinea where I learned that it was actually in Rabaul that the first Australian soldier lost their life in any global conflict back in 1914. There’s war history galore there and I walked into in one of the tunnels which the Japanese forced the Aussies, along with other Allied soldiers, to build so that the enemy could store their food, weapons and themselves during air raids. I visited the Bitapaka War Cemetery, funded by AusAID, which pays homage to thousands of soldiers, many of them Australians. There’s even a remaining tree there from which the Germans are said to have climbed to shoot at the Aussies during World War One.
Thanks to the ANZACS, I’ve been granted the freedom to travel the world and to experience their stories. Because of them, I live in a free and beautiful country. On this ANZAC Day, and not just because it’s the 100th anniversary since the ANZACS tried to steal Gallipoli but because it’s high time, I intend to set my clock, rise before the kookaburras, and tip my hat in their honour and of all of those who have perished in war. Lest We Forget.
LAST week we had the exciting news that Australia has been awarded entry into the prestigious Eurovision competition, being held in Vienna in May. And I have been invited by Austria Tourism to cover this event. Equally as exciting, this year marks 50 years since The Sound of Music was filmed. I’ll also be heading down to Salzburg to ask the big questions such as, how do you know if you’ve fallen into the Von Trapp family trap?
1. Climb Every Mountain
Faced with the fresh alpine air, lush, green grass and the distant tinkle of cow bells, there wouldn’t be a traveller alive who hasn’t been atop a mountain, somewhere on the planet, who hasn’t felt a sudden rush to frolic on the mountain top while singing The Hills Are Alive. It’s annoying, it’s unnecessary and like the Nazi occupation in the movie, it is also unstoppable.
2. Seeking Refuge In Sacred Sites
OK, so a bunch of nasty Nazis are unlikely to be following you anytime soon, so hiding behind gravestones is probably not on the cards, but what traveller hasn’t sought solace in a sacred site, such as a church? Cathedrals are remarkably good places to rest your weary travelling bones, particularly if it’s a hot day. And if you’re lucky, there might be a service on at the same time, which means you could partake in Holy Communion and get a free wafer and a sip of red wine. Dinner and a show, what’s not to love?
3. How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?
If you think life on the road is all beer and schnitzels, think again. Travelling is hard work. And from time-to-time, you will be confronted with all sorts of problems, from lost luggage to delayed transport and overbooked hotels. So, your problems may not be as critical as those faced by Mother Superior, who just wasn’t sure what to do with that wayward Maria, but they feel pretty big at the time. Sit down, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, what would Mother Superior do?
4. You’re Wearing Your Traveller’s Clothes
Remember the scene towards the end of the film where the Von Trapps have turned off the car engine and are trying to sneak away without performing in the big concert but they get caught in the spotlights of the Nazi party sympathisers? At this point, Captain Von Trapp points out that the entire family is not dressed in “travelling clothes” but they are in fact costumes for the performance. Yeah, right, we’re all tried to tart up that old t.shirt on a fancy night out overseas. Doesn’t work.
5. You Sneak Out Half Way Through A Concert Performance
Who hasn’t been on an overseas trip and someone, usually your host, suggests you join them for a bit of Strauss at some symphony orchestra? And we all know how fun that is, particularly when all you really want to do is be at the buzzing pub you passed on your way to the national theatre hall. Just pull a Von Trapp and half way through, disappear. That’s right. No need for lengthy goodbyes. By the time they realise you’re missing, you’ll be halfway to another country.
6. You’re So Desperate For Clean Clothes, You’ll Wear Anything
Yes, even a curtain. Turns out Sister Maria was quite the seamstress. We’ve all been there. You’ve been on the road for weeks, your travelling clothes are tatty and tired. You lay awake at night daydreaming of the day you can burn those khaki shorts, never to be worn again. You hate that t.shirt you wear every day with a passion. And then you look around the room in which you are staying and are overcome with the urge to whip up some lederhosen from the curtains. If only you’d packed your Singer sewing machine.
7. The Sound Of Shrill Whistles Make You Run
Captain Von Trapp was really onto something with that whistle-blowing caper. I mean, who speaks to their kids anyway? And when you’ve got so many in your massive mansion, how the heck are you meant to locate them all? Whether it’s some amorous men in Italy, or your inter-country train departing the station, you hear the sound of a whistle anywhere in Europe, and you are bound to sprint.
8. You Are 16, Going On 17
Like the actress who played the lovely Liesl, you are actually 21, possibly even 41, pretending you are 16 going on 17. There’ s something about travelling overseas which allows you to reinvent yourself, after all, you are never going to see half the people you meet again (regardless of the empty promises you make to stay in touch). Whether you lie about your age, your job, or your nationality, we’ve all lied to impress the listener. Even the lovely Liesl.
9. You Take A Vow Of Celibacy
Well, we all know how well that worked out for Maria. About as well as it will work out for you. Yes, yes, we all vow we are going travelling to “find out more about ourselves” and to “learn and grow as a person”. And that might be true. But I challenge anyone who has spent any time at the Munich Oktoberfest to come back and tell me how that vow of celibacy worked out for them. Yes, didn’t think so.
10. You Act All Cute To Get What You Want
You might have thought you got away with it, Greta, all chubby cheeks, blonde hair and lispy tugging at the apron strings: “please don’t go, Sister Maria”, but I was on to your little caper. Having said that, the youngest Von Trapp had a travelling lesson for us all. Whether you are begging for an upgrade, or just the last bed in the youth hostel late at night, it doesn’t hurt to turn on a bit of the Greta to get what you want. You might want to lose the lisp.
To book your own Sound of Music escape to Austria, go to http://www.austria.info/au