Though its roots go back to the Dark Ages, the Germany of today is barely a teenager. The country's borders have been drawn, erased and redrawn over the past two centuries by wars...
Though its roots go back to the Dark Ages, the Germany of today is barely a teenager. The country’s borders have been drawn, erased and redrawn over the past two centuries by wars (as often as not of its own making). Chunks of what was once Germany are now in France, Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic and other European countries.
But the biggest border changes came after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Communist East Germany was melded into capitalist West Germany. The ensuing years have been bumpy, but the new Germany is an always-intriguing mix of the ancient, classic and modern eras.
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I’ve visited Germany several times in recent years to discover and rediscover places beyond the big cities of Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Leipzig and Munich. Here’s a collection of a few of my personal favorites:
Heidelberg: When I fly into Frankfurt, I beat a hasty retreat out of the metropolis to this lovely university town with a ruined castle by the Neckar River. It’s less than an hour by direct train service from the airport. Heidelberg is a great place to get over your jet lag but watch out for the hangovers. A favorite pastime is visiting the student drinking clubs, some of which date to the 18th century. My favorite hotel is the Zum Ritter St. Georg, with its single rooms at the top of the old peaked-roof building. The accommodations may be tiny, but the view across the town’s rooftops is expansive.
Rothenburg: My favorite part of old Germany, this exquisitely preserved medieval walled town is sometimes called by its full name: Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber. Make sure to stay overnight so you can get up in the morning and enjoy Rothenburg before the fleets of tour buses roar into town. My favorite morning spot is the Burggarten, the castle garden on a promontory just beyond the Burgtor, the castle tower. The most atmospheric place to stay is the Hotel Markusturm, smack beside another old city gate.
Trier: Pressed against the border with Luxembourg, Trier has been the scene of political intrigue and violent warfare for 2,000 years. Few cities in northern Europe have such an ancient feel. The ancient Romans left the Porta Negra gate and other haunting ruins. Cathedrals and palaces rose under the medieval rule of the Electors. Karl Marx, the father of communism, was born here. If all this history makes you thirsty, it’s an easy day trip to the white-wine country along the Mosel River.
Bamberg: Less well-known than Heidelberg or Rothenburg, Bamberg has an old city center that competes with them for the title of most picturesque town in Germany. The gold-painted buildings glinting in the afternoon sun, pretty flower-ringed cafes by the riverside, and cozy inns with old-world spirit make Bamberg an unexpected pleasure.
The Weinhaus Messerschmitt is one of the city’s oldest and best eateries, and an intriguing spot for any history buff. It’s owned by relatives of Willy Messerschmitt, the famous German aircraft designer whose Bf-109 and Me-262 fighters were the scourge of the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.
Nuremberg: A city of darkness and light. The light comes in the beautifully restored city center, which is especially appealing in winter during the great Christmas markets. The atmospheric sausage stalls and beer halls are as postcard-perfect an example of German hospitality as you’ll find anywhere in the country.
The dark is on the edge of town. Nowhere in Germany is the Nazi past more palpable than in the ruins of the Zeppelinwiese, Adolf Hitler’s great parade field. Nearby is the Nazis’ unfinished Congress Hall. Both stand as reminders that this city was a fascist favorite for holding massive political rallies. One of Germany’s best museums on Nazism is housed within the bleak grandstand of the Zeppelinwiese.
Dresden: Beautiful and haunting, the “Venice of the North” is undergoing a rapid reconstruction of its devastated baroque churches and castles. The Soviets had been painfully slow in rebuilding the city, leaving it in a kind of time warp. As late as 1998, I saw several burned-out ruins from the 1945 Allied bombing raid that killed at least 25,000 people. There is much beauty in Dresden, from the Zwinger Gardens to Giorgione’s 16th-century painting “Sleeping Venus” at the Old Masters Gallery. A good place to eat is the Blockhaus, a beautifully restored building by the Elbe River that serves French-inspired continental cuisine.
Potsdam: No place in the former East Germany has had a more rapid face-lift since the fall of the wall than this former playground of the kaisers. Berlin-area investors have swooped in to restore the dilapidated former townhouses of the nobility. Sans Souci, the gilded palace of Frederick the Great, is a must-see. But don’t miss Schloss Cecilienhof, where the Potsdam Conference at the end of World War II was held. It’s now a pretty country inn.