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Wanted: the real Germany

Ask American tourists in West Germany what they notice about the country and you'll receive the most blithe observations with astonishing regularity:

* The people are friendlier than in France, Switzerland, and Italy; the trains are smooth, fast, and on time; the corn flakes are stale and the milk is warm.

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* Almost every town has (1) a quaint, onion-dome clock tower, (2) a clean-but-aging Hauptbahnhof (main train station), and (3) ''a darned Woolworth's and McDonald's.''

* On nearly every hill there's a castle that you never see from the Autobahns (where BMW and Mercedes-Benz cars roar past you at blinding speeds because there are no speed limits).

* German history is a lot longer, so there's much more to remember - but then the country's much smaller. And, oh, the tourist sites are closer together.

Most comments wind up with something about how serious the Germans take themselves and the efficiency with which the country is run.

These are perhaps the most obvious and superficial of observations, but perhaps the most profound in their own way. If they are not so revealing about the country itself, perhaps they say something about the Americans who tour there - and thus about the travelers you're likely to stand beside in a tour group.

As anywhere, the tourist hordes help define the trappings of tourism here. The United States, the U.K., and Japan are the top three originators of tourists to West Germany. Americans, it seems, want to see the Alps and hear Wagner but must have something they recognize for breakfast as well.

And so it is with travel in West Germany - as anywhere. The surface details (how fast, how big, how clean), the intruding culture from back home, and the minutiae of getting from place to place all encroach on the tourist's good intentions to immerse himself in the Old World - its geography, art, history, architecture.

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Such is the stuff that dreams are unmade of, things you never considered when you saw that Disneyland-like castle on the poster in your travel agent's window.

* Scene 1: Your favorite volume of Goethe in hand, you wend your way out of a labyrinthine underground parking garage beneath the Old City of Heidelberg. (You should have followed signs reading ausgang (walk out) instead of ausfahrt (drive out)). Just missing a speeding moped roaring down the same cobblestones where Germany's ''Shakespeare'' surely must have trod, you search for the quiet banks of the Neckar River and the views that inspired the country's Romantic Movement.

But there are no quiet banks on the Neckar River because the highway next to it looks, smells, and sounds like Manhattan's West Side highway at rush hour. Ah , but there's the view of the castle! Home of the Winter King, Friedrich V. Yes, but spoiling your view is a BMW in a car wash that just sprayed wax on your clothbound ''Legend of Faust.''

You stop in the ancient university bookstore for a replacement - surely the same creaky floors where Robert and Clara Schumann parlez-voused after music lessons. And there's ''Faust'' - right behind the corrugated cardboard display for ''Garfield the Cat'' in translation.

* Scene 2. Ready for your first German train ride, you place all your smaller bags into a single, unwieldy duffelbag. Bumped endlessly from the line at the ticket window (many Germans never queue), you miss your scheduled train to Berlin by one minute (they really are precise).

On the next train, you carom down corridors built for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus thin man to walk sideways. You find the conductor who tells you, ''Yes, the sleeper cars are seven cars back and 75 marks more expensive.'' Fine, but what you had asked was where's the bathroom and can I leave my bag alone for a few minutes? (The answer, by the way, is yes according to most travelers - West Germany has one of the lowest tourism crime rates in Europe.)

More details hit you later: A visa is needed at the East German border (for about $5) and the Eurail pass ceases to be valid. Later, returning by car along one of the corridors through East Germany, long delays are common at checkpoints , and speed limits are kept at a snail's pace.

And so it goes. Moral of the story: Study up on your favorite topic from history to politics, but also come armed for travel details (Michelin, Baedeker's, and Fodor's guidebooks are very useful). West Germany is one of the easier countries in Europe in which to travel, but many visitors are daunted by the language and precise rUles. Never stop asking questions - of fellow travelers, travel agents, guides, hoteliers.

If you are on a package tour, most of this is taken care of. But freedom - ''gee, let's stay at that quaint Hansel-and- Gretel-type place around the corner'' - is impaired. Many take guided tours the first time around and revisit their favorite stops later on their own.

The grimy details of travel aside, why go to West Germany?

It is, as Madame de Stael wrote in the 18th century, ''le coeur de l'Europe, '' the heart of Europe. ''Destroyed, defeated, humiliated, arbitrarily reshaped according to angry and frightened foreigners' punitive ideas . . .,'' writes the late Italian journalist Luigi Barzini, ''. . . it has become once again the richest, strongest, most efficient, orderly, productive, scientifically and technologically advanced as well as most populous nation of Western Europe.''

From a tourist's standpoint, sites worth visiting are indeed numerous and close together. You could pack a three-week vacation in the north, south, or mid-Germany alone, and miss three things for every one you saw. In general, hotels, pensions, and bed and breakfast lodgings are easy to find (check what's available at the tourist offices at every town's main train station). And they are running about two-thirds the price of similar accommodations in America.

Pick up a map and you can find major attractions every 45 minutes from the Black Forest to Wagner's home in Bayreuth. Wind along the Alpine drive on the Austrian-German border to the famous castles of Neuschwanstein and Linderhof, built by Ludwig II, ''the Mad King of Bavaria.'' Around the corner is Oberammergau, Alpine site of the world-renowned Passion Play. One hour away are the Glockenspiels of Munich's Marienplatz or Olympic Village. Thirty minutes more to Augsburg.

From there make a decision: (1) turn right, to the timbered gables of medieval Nuremberg and then Franconian Bayreuth - one of the European capitals of baroque and rococo architecture; or, (2) turn left through Stuttgart, Rothenburg, Heidelberg, and Mannheim.

In general, the north is more congested, industrialized, and fast-moving than the Bavarian south. Bonn, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Monchengladbach, Essen, and Dortmund are all so close you never feel you are leaving a metropolitan area behind.

The capital, Bonn, on the other hand, is a tiny, quiet college town of under 300,000 in population, with government buildings that could pass for elderly housing in the US. The reason is that when the Federal Republic of Germany was born in 1945, Bonn was considered a provisional capital until the two Germanys reunited. The longer it remains temporary, the more permanent it becomes - but the buildings stay the same.

One last point on travel in West Germany: The headlines and issues within the country keep you anchored in the modern day.

On one recent three-week trip, I passed through the town where Hitler's former SS troops made world headlines by having a reunion. The very next day, I passed through Karlsruhe where a conference was being held to discuss citizenship for foreign workers.

In the restaurants, you're likely to find menus in German, English, and . . . Turkish.

''West Germany is very rich, the stores have everything from Europe you could want,'' says one lifelong German running a hotel in Heidelberg. ''And transportation is fast and cheap. But the best thing about (West) Germany . . . is that it's right next to France.''

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