After more than two years of staying in America, I finally made a return trip to Europe! My wife and I decided to spend our vacation in southern Germany. Why Germany? It was mostly personal interest, but I have to say Germany deserves more credit as a travel destination. It has everything you’d want in a trip to Europe, from big city culture to picturesque countryside. Let me tell you the tale…
We started off in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, where I found myself struggling with an exhausting transition to the trip. We went sightseeing right away, which meant lots of walking. Beyond the jetlag, I was feeling overwhelmed by the big city crowds, the unfamiliar public transportation, and the fast moving bicycles. Was this really a vacation?
I mustered all the energy I could to stay focused as we toured the sprawling Residenz palace. We saw room after room of gilded luxury, with plenty of royal lore sprinkled in. I liked the so-called “state bedroom,” a room so fancy that it was purely for show and wasn’t used as an actual bedroom. The Residenz was very majestic and also very…tiring. I needed a beer after that. Fortunately, we found ourselves in one of the world’s great beer cities.
In fact, beer served as a turning point in our trip: we really hit our stride on a beer walking tour. We learned about Munich’s beer culture with a lively group of Americans, Canadians, and one Munich local eager to practice his English. As we savored the frothy brews and festive ambiance, we also got a great overview of the city. (Travel tip: take walking tours. They are usually worth it!).
After Munich, we set off for the Alps. We rented a car, so it was easy to add a stop at Germany’s highest peak, the Zugspitze. We had what’s colloquially called Kaiserwetter, sunny weather with perfect blue skies. We zoomed over green hills and through mountain tunnels to Eibsee, where we boarded a cogwheel train up to the peak. A train to the top of a mountain? Yes, it’s just another part of Germany’s formidable transportation infrastructure. Take note, America.
The Zugspitze was like something from a dream. We emerged from our train to a world covered in snow, slightly melting in the spring sunshine. The temperature had dropped from 75 degrees in the valley to the upper 30’s on the mountain top. We hopped in a cable car to reach the summit, a steep ride up to a rocky peak. At the summit, there’s a cafe with tasty, if somewhat pricey, German food. Totally normal thing to have at the top of a mountain. The view from the summit was remarkable, like standing on an ocean of mountain tops.
For another thrill in the alps, we visited King Ludwig II’s fairytale castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a castle in Germany, there’s a good chance it was Neuschwanstein. If you haven’t, just picture the Disney castle; they’re pretty close.
We signed up for the first tour of the day, which turned out to be an undersized group of about 15 people. Score! We waited with anticipation by the theme park-style ticket machines until it was our turn to enter the castle. Inside, you step into a world of imagination, complete with storytelling paintings and a medieval-meets-Byzantine-meets-fantasy style of decoration. My favorite room was the Singer’s Hall, a long room with a decorated stage on one end. It looks like what would happen if you gave a bunch of theater kids an unlimited budget to make a fancy medieval banquet hall. And then asked them to add more gold.
We stayed in the nearby town of Füssen, an idyllic little town with a mountain backdrop. We checked out the churches and the city museum, which has a unique sampling of historical bits. There’s a creepy funeral chapel decorated with skeleton paintings. Cool, right? There’s also a fine collection of early stringed instruments like lutes and violins. It turns out Füssen was once the capital of lute making, which–wait, sorry, that’s too much of a nerd tangent for this post.
After Füssen, we made our way back to Munich and hopped a train to Rotherburg ob der Tauber. Actually, there were several trains involved, and some of them were delayed. Transportation-related panic! We had to stop by the Deutsche Bahn travel center to figure out what to do. But a few trains later we were in Rothenburg, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe.
Rothenburg looks like another storybook place come to life, as if you’ve wandered on to the set of a fantasy movie and knights in armor are about to charge around the corner at any moment. We kicked off our stay with the night watchman’s tour, a must-do experience led by a guide who’s basically a celebrity at this point. Our cloaked and halberd-wielding guide painted a picture of what life was like in the bad old days, when plagues and war descended on an otherwise prospering medieval city.
The next day, we visited Jakobskirche, my favorite church of the trip. Gothic flair meets Protestant simplicity to create an elegant and harmonious space, with tall stained glass windows and stone pillars. The church is home to an incredible wooden altar by Tillman Riemenschneider, who Rick Steves calls the “Michaelangelo of German wood carvers.” Trust me, it’s cool.
We spent lots of time exploring the city. We wandered along the old city walls, admiring the rooftop scenes and the cobblestone streets. All the gates and towers made me feel like a kid exploring a giant medieval playground. At one point, we reached a postcard-perfect overlook to the valley with the city skyline in the background. We lingered a bit to soak up that timeless atmosphere.
I wanted to stay in Rothenburg, but we had one more destination on our Germany tour: the romantic Rhine River. We caught an early train to Bacharach, a little town in the most beautiful section of the river. Bacharach has a fairytale quality as well, with cute half-timbered houses and little vineyards clinging to the hills above. There weren’t many tourists during our shoulder season visit, which made the town feel a bit sleepy. It was the perfect setting for relaxing with a glass of riesling.
On our last day, we set an ambitious itinerary: cruise along the Rhine River and tour Marksburg Castle. I worked out how to take the boat part way and reach the castle by train. The cruise was lovely, with more castles to spot along the river and more vineyards perched on the hillsides. In places, the rocky sides of the Rhine gorge loom over little towns.
Everything was going beautifully, when suddenly we faced another train delay. We spent an hour stuck in St. Goarshausen, a town that tourism seems to have forgotten, while I figured out whether there was still time to get to the castle. It was close, but we decided to go for it.
After the train ride, we hurried up the steep climb to the castle and made it just in time to join a tour. It was a tour in German, but I was happy just to be there. Marksburg Castle is a medieval castle that has survived intact, and the interior is arranged to show what life was like in its heyday. After the tour, we rushed down the hill to catch our train. Soon, we were back at our boat dock with a few minutes to spare. Whew!
The lazy boat ride back felt like an appropriate end to our trip. There was beautiful scenery to admire, more historical stuff to see, and a refreshing glass of riesling to enjoy. Germany has such a unique blend: mountains and museums, bell towers and beer gardens. It was a perfect place to recapture my love of international travel.