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Germany Up-Close and Personal

Author: Lyn Hargreave
Date of Trip: July 2014

Let me start by telling you that my husband and I are not “tour” people. None of this “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” for us. We don’t want to mix with other tourists. We want to be “independent travelers”, we want to meet the locals, go where they go.

In 2000 we found an organization that seemed to have a unique twist on travel. It was more about making friends than seeing the sights, staying with the local folks, eating and enjoying each other’s company while they showed us what made their area special to them. Since this discovery we have experienced this kind of hospitality nine times. This past summer we embarked on another of these unique trips, followed by a couple of weeks venturing off totally on our own.

My husband had never been to continental Europe, but after spending years tracing his genealogy he was finally ready to see where his ancestors came from. We signed on with a Friendship Force International club “exchange” to Germany I began researching for an airfare that was reasonable. The appeal of American airline carriers continue to decline, so I now search international airlines as well. A bit of searching found much better fares on Aer Lingus and FinnAir. I knew I wanted to fly into Hamburg where we would be meeting our Friendship Force hosts, and since we planned to travel on our own later, I wanted to leave from Munich. Aer Lingus could accommodate these plans and charged us hundreds of dollars less. Sold!

We left Chicago on a June summer day. The seats were comfortable for our average sized bodies, the service and meals served tasty. I took a melatonin and slept. We arrived early into Ireland,and felt fortunate because at the time of our morning arrival it seemed the whole world had landed in Dublin. A long walk and customs wait made us a bit nervous. It was surprising that we had to go through another security check before proceeding to our connecting flight.

Once in Hamburg we were met by members of our Friendship Force host club. We were a day early and had made arrangements for other lodging that first night and were reassured that “Jo” would be back to meet our small group of 7 fellow travelers the next morning to take us by train to Lüneburg.

With our interest more in local contacts than hotels we had made arrangements with Affordable Travel Club members to host us for the evening. What fun that turned out to be. We boarded the train again and walked to the home of a delightful couple who showed us to our room for a brief nap, served us warm tea by the ceramic “stove” on a cold June evening, before sharing a light dinner and finally helping me set up my phone with a German SIM card since I couldn’t read the German instructions. Conversation took off on a variety of subjects and one common thread was genealogy. We, interested in our ancestors in the old world, they interested in their relatives who had made their way to the new world.

We quickly felt comfortable on the trains, and the next morning we traveled back to the main station in Hamburg and as promised on to Hanseatic city of Lüneburg with Jo. What a wonderfully picturesque Hancity. That evening we went back to a Hamburg suburb and were taken to the home of our hosts, Renate and Wilfried, with whom we would spend the week.

The next day our week officially started with a welcome party which included a fun game of Bosseln. Our ball tossing down the country lane was helped along with a little blackberry schnapps that periodically filled the small cup that hung round our necks.

The week was filled with the joys of visiting and taking city tours in such places as the UNESCO World Heritage city of Lübeck, with it’s wonderful old Holsten Gate, the narrow alleyways and picturesque half timbered houses. We could not be in Lübeck and not imbibe in a bit of Niederegger marzipan, the best in the world. The brick Mariankirche (or St. Mary’s Church) which has the tallest brick tower in Europe has left the large bells on the floor in the place where they fell during a night of bombing in World War II. Very moving.

On other days we enjoyed the sights of Hamburg, rode a ferry down the Alster River and across the lake, another ferry up the Elbe River. It is easy to see why Hamburg is called the Venice of the north as it is a city of canals and rivers. We became enamored with Miniatur Wunderland. The two hours we spent there allowed us only to touch the surface of the exhibits in this museum of miniatures which delighted us as much as it would have any child.

We took the train to Schwerin and visited the schloss (castle) there, the home of the last Dukes of Mecklenburg. The best part was that we didn’t have to plan any of this. We were guests and treated to these sights by our hosts who knew their way and guided us during the day and treated us to meals in their homes at night. After a week we said good-bye and a huge danke to our new friends who saw us off on the train to Berlin.

We had a long weekend In Berlin where we stayed at the Hotel Alsterhof. It was a very nice hotel in a safe neighborhood, very close to the KaDeWe for anyone who wanted to go shopping and also near an entrance to the wonderful metro trains that make it easy to go anywhere in the city, or the bus stop for bus 100, an economical way to tour the city. On top of those advantages was the wonderful breakfast that came with the room. A buffet of about everything imaginable. In Berlin everyone did their own thing. We first took advantage of the Berlin Welcome Card for the three days which provided us with all our transportation as well as discounts for different venues including various tours. This was extremely convenient. We met up with some German friends and chose to go to Potsdam the first afternoon. Once in Potsdam we boarded a “Hop-on, Hop-off’ bus and rode it to the Potsdam Brandenburg Gate. There, across from the bus stop, was the Chi Keng Restaurant. The food was fabulous and quite reasonable. We continued touring on the “Hop-on Hop-off” choosing to get off and walk through the Sansoussi Palace grounds.

We attempted to acquire tickets to go into the Reichsteg Dome at least six weeks prior to leaving home but were told there were none available. This being high on our list of things we wanted to do, our German friends knew that by making lunch reservations at the restaurant atop the Reichsteg we would gain entrance into the dome. This was the ideal way. We had no waiting in line, went right in and up to the top for an excellent, but pricy lunch. Afterward we could take our time and wandering the spiral walk inside the dome and admiring the German “green” engineering with water collection, mirrors and solar shields.

We saw, Museum Island had too much to see for our limited time. We did take advantage of the Pergamon to visit the famous Ishtar Gate. An amazing spectacle. This whole museum is beyond words as they have massive ancient wonders that were actually moved and rebuilt inside the museum.

Again, by having friends there, friends we had made when we hosted them in the US ten years previously, we were taken to special events and joined the local culture of having a kaffee at many local sidewalk venues. We enjoyed a local festival near the East Side Gallery, and doing such activities as walking along the river in the Sudstern neighborhood where we enjoyed another al fresco dinner, this time at the Maison Blanche, casual and quite good, made even better by sharing the meal with good friends.

We did have a very unusual experience when it came time to leave. Our train left 40 minutes early! Unheard of we were told. There had been a lot of flooding and this was the rationale we were given. We arrived at the station at the time the train was pulling out of the station. A bit of rescheduling and we were on our way. Our hosts in Braunschweig, the next place where we would again share in home hospitality, waited for us and delighted us with a lovely garden welcome party.

We spent an enjoyable week in the home of Marianne and Günther while visiting the area in and around the communities of Braunschweig and Peine, extending south to the Hartz Mountains. The first day we toured Braunschweig and if the sight of the colorful and unusual Happy Rizzi Haus didn’t make one smile and feel good, then nothing would. What a spectacle it was.

We visited the lovely villages of Goslar and Celle with castles and wonderful half timbered buildings, but also Wolfenbüttle with the Bibliotheka August filled with the world’s largest collection of ancient books, thousands of them hand written, and Königslutter with it’s mechanical musical instrument museum and ancient Benedictine monastery founded by Holy Roman Emperor Lothar II in 1135. We took the train to Hannover and visited the Harrenhaussen Gardens. While we were there we made sure to see the unusual small and quirky museum of glass and mirror mosaics by artist Niki de Saint Phalle, such a contrast to the Baroque gardens that surround the museum. Before heading back with our host to Peine, we followed a guide book and enjoyed a walking tour of the central city.

A visit to the Gifhorn International Wind and Watermill Museum, with it’s many styles of windmills and the Ukranian church there brought the week to a close.

Every night, we were treated to dinner in different homes, as we were previously during our stay near Hamburg. Our hosts planned and showed us what we asked to see. So easy! No cars to rent, no train schedules to hassle with. The hospitality of new friends through Friendship Force International made this a warm and very personal experience. We now look forward to welcoming these new friends to our homes next year. Though that is not always the pattern with a Friendship Force visit, it will happen this time.

After our last stay, my husband and I ventured by train to the very southeast section of Germany to the Bavarian town of Piding. Here we stayed with another Affordable Travel Club member and found this an excellent location for visiting Salzburg, Austria, where we walked up to the Hohensalzburg Castle. Two other days we took the train to Berchtesgaden, reportedly the end of the German Alpine Road. The mountain views there from the Eagles Nest, Hitler’s summer retreat were spectacular. We cruised on Königsee and walked to Obersee, and marveled at the many murals painted on the buildings in Berchtesgaden..

Munich was our last stop. A visit with other friends, a journey to Neuschwanstein Castle, the castle which Walt Disney had in mind for Cinderella’s castle at the Magic Kingdom, a walk in the English Garden where we watched young folks surf on the river, and the lovely West Park with it’s small but serene areas of Asian landscaping, taking in the Tollwood Festival, riding bikes to Olympic Park and the BMW Welt were hightlights. Having breakfast at the Café’ Glockenspeil on the 5th floor right across the Marienplatz from the Glockenspeil was absolutely the perfect place for pictures of the 11:00 a.m. carillon.

Throughout the journey we were overwhelmed with the symbolism and memorials that have been left in place as reminders of the era of Adolf Hitler. The bells at Marienkirche in Lübeck, St. Nicholas church shell in Hamburg, the stumble stones in many city sidewalks, the hook left in place in Schwerin where a woman who cheered because she heard that Hitler was dead and where she was immediately hung, the special exhibit in Berlin of culture lost with photos of artists and scholars who were killed or forced to leave the country, the Holocaust Memorial and below ground museum also in Berlin, the memorials and statues in Königslutter, the Aegidenkirche in Hannover and the list goes on and on, and of course includes the concentration camps that remain. All so “we will never forget”.

It was a memorable holiday where we felt we got to the heart of the people. We lived, dined and shared innumerable conversations with a countless number of German citizens. We visited Germany as a traveler, not as a tourist.

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