Two years later, a German roadtrip in reverse

I’d only visited Germany a few times when, two years ago, we moved to Berlin. The only time I’d been here for fun was a gap year travelling around Europe with an InterRail pass in my hand. My old passports have a couple of stamps from the former East German government, one allowed me to travel to Berlin to see what the fuss was about, the second to use Berlin as a jumping off point for a trip to formerly communist Czechoslovakia.

Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany
Historischen Hafen, Berlin
Molecule Men, River Spree, Berlin

It was the 1980s and, to a young history student, Berlin was one of the most exciting cities in Europe. Most of the rest of the country remained a mystery. Studying 18th and 19th century European political history gave me an insight into the rise of Prussia, but my knowledge of German culture and society was woeful. Germany’s image in my imagining was a collection of cliche shaped by the hit TV series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, football and the distorting lens of 20th century conflicts.

Germany just wasn’t on the radar. This is strange given my well documented love of beer and sausages. Unconsciously, I had succumbed to a mindset of “why visit Germany when France, Italy and Spain exist?” Moving here has brought a different perspective. We’ve made a conscious effort to explore and to understand our new home. The former is much easier than the latter, especially working out why German cuisine largely consists of pig and pickled cabbage.

Hamburg harbour and Elbphilharmonie, Speicherstadt, Germany
Hamburg harbour and Elbphilharmonie, Speicherstadt, Germany
Altstadt, Bremen, Germany
Altstadt, Bremen, Germany
Lüneburg, Germany
Schloss Schwerin, Germany
Schloss Schwerin, Germany
Holstentor, Lübeck, Germany
Holstentor, Lübeck, Germany
Swedish houses, Stralsund, Germany

This is a country with a long and storied history, much of which has been destroyed or tainted by the events of the 1930s and 40s. I’m only now beginning to understand the vast diversity of the country, the singular histories of its regions and city states, the extraordinary variety of landscapes, the vibrancy of its major cities, and all the ancient places that survived the Second World War. Germany has 46 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, fourth highest in the world.

We’ve visited eleven of them, and my list of places still to visit is dauntingly long even without the other World Heritage Sites. In the time we’ve been here we’ve seen the great Hanseatic cities of northern Germany, the extraordinary timber-framed towns of Bavaria and Saxony, the rugged landscapes of the Baltic Coast, the gentle woods and water of Spreewald (home to Germany’s most famous gherkins), phoenix-like Dresden, and the ‘Protestant Rome’ of Wittenberg.

River Elbe, Dresden, Germany
Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany
Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany
Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany
Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany
Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany
Meissen, Germany
Old Town Hall and St. Mary’s Church, Celle, Germany

On top of that, we live in Germany’s largest and most culturally diverse city, Berlin. It’s a place that confounds and confuses as much as it delights. Anneliese Bödecker captured the uncompromising personality of Berlin with great accuracy: “Berliners are unfriendly and reckless, gruff and bossy. Berlin is odious, noisy, dirty, and grey; roadworks and congested streets wherever you go – but I’m sorry for everyone who does not live here.”

There have been times I’ve been sorry that I do live here. The unyielding, frequently hostile bureaucracy to do even the smallest of things can drain the will to live like nowhere else on earth – and I’m a survivor of getting residency in Bolivia. Our two years in the German capital have had challenges – I may never work out the recycling rules – but this is a city that repays efforts to get to know it.

New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
New Palace, Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany
Town Hall, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany
Coastline, Cape Arkona, Rügen, Germany

Ironically, the coronavirus has pushed us to explore further afield than we might have done under normal circumstances. It has revealed a city that, as German art historian Karl Scheffler has said, is the “capital of all modern ugliness”. Post-war reconstruction has been shockingly unkind to Berlin. Yet, it has also revealed itself to still have traces of the Berlin David Bowie described as the “greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine”.

Germany and Berlin are starting to come into focus … it’s just a shame about the food.

10 thoughts on “Two years later, a German roadtrip in reverse

  1. Focus is good. You will just have to get used to the kartofeln…

    1. Honestly Brian, I may never understand the purpose of the Kartoffel Kloesse. It looks like it should be a ball of mashed potato, which I love, but flatters to deceive. Basically beloved of Germans everywhere, but largely indigestible and pointless.

      1. Mysteries of distant cultures, right? 😉

  2. What a brilliant lightning quick tour of Germany… and now I want to be there!

  3. I would love to have an InterEsil pass and, after seeing your posts, I’d love to see Germany. So much art and architecture that appeals to me. You do a great job of photographing and adding quality information. Glad you’re there!

  4. I completely agree with you, Germany is too little known to the people of southern Europe, apart from Munich or Berlin. Thanks for the best of.

    1. It’s little known to most Germans, I would say.
      Although this year, where long-distance travel is either impossible or makes no sense, I see more people exploring their own country. I was hiking in Bavaria for a week, for example, and I met many people from the north of Germany who were finally exploring the south instead of going to Spain or Italy as they usually would have done.

      1. The lack of international travel has definitely spurred us on to explore more of Germany more quickly. Bavaria has been a real eye-opener, so many beautiful places. We haven’t made to the mountains or lakes yet, but they’re on the list. It’s been a real adventure.

        1. I’ve been thinking: Being in Germany, I could live with international travel restrictions for years without getting bored.

        2. I agree, in the last few months we’ve been up to the Baltic coast a couple of times, down to Bavaria a couple of times, to Saxony and Lower Saxony, and all it’s made me realise is how much more there is to explore.

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