Recently, I returned from a highly successful first trip to Germany — flying into Frankfurt; based in Heidelberg; visiting Wurzburg, Kitzingen, and Mainstockheim; and staying overnight in Dettelbach. Here are some of the interesting and useful things I learned:
Frankfurt Airport Is Vast
Frankfurt International Airport (FRA) is the international air hub not just of Germany, but for much of Europe. It is huge and complicated, so it is important to pay attention. You may have to take a bus out to where your plane is parked on the tarmac. I know someone whose bus was in a traffic accident out on that tarmac. Leave extra time to deal with this airport. The good news? It is full of useful signs in both German and English. And it has an integrated train station for whisking you off to other places quickly.
Heidelberg Lives Up to the Hype
In the photos, it looked impossibly romantic (romantisch), with the castle (schloss) in semi-ruins high above the city, perched on the winding Neckar River. It is home to one of Germany’s most ancient and renowned universities. Mark Twain wrote about it in glowing terms. And in the summer, it is overrun with tourists. In other words, it came with a lot of hype. So I was eager to find out whether it could charm me. And guess what? It did. Even with the throngs (semi-throngs in March), its charisma shone through. Views of the red sandstone arches of the Old Bridge in the late afternoon sun are breathtaking — even better than the many photos, paintings, drawings, and posters of that quintessential German scene.
You Can Visit German Cities Without Knowing any German
What they say is true: Most Germans, especially those coming in contact with the public, know enough English to communicate the basics with English-speaking visitors. However, speaking even a little bit of German is extremely helpful and well-received. The more German you can understand and speak, the richer your experience there. In fact, learning some German before you go and then learning more while there is an excellent strategy. And don’t worry about the Germans you meet being “cold” or “unfriendly.” Although they don’t gush, they are perfectly polite and willing to answer questions.
World War II-Related Sites and Reminders Are Everywhere
Even if you do not visit the Holocaust memorials, of which there are many, you will find that almost every part of Germany was profoundly affected by World War II. For example, some highways are former Luftwaffe runways; many buildings were destroyed by allied bombing and later rebuilt exactly as they were. The synagogue in Kitzingen was destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938 but rebuilt by the non-Jewish citizens of the town after the war, even though there was no Jewish population left to use it. (It is used as a community center.) Some German military bases not destroyed in the bombing were converted to American military bases and remain in use as such today.
Visiting Germany brings home the point that the war was waged there in a way that affected each and every person materially, spiritually, and in every other way. Suffering, guilt, renewal, and soul-searching are part of the German landscape. Even young Germans born well after the war carry this baggage. I never really thought about World War II from the standpoint of an ordinary German citizen until I visited the country.
Trains and Buses Run on Time; Punctuality Is Highly Rated as a Virtue
The Germans avoid unpleasant surprises by planning, organizing, and regulating just about everything. Although this can sound oppressive to a free-spirited American, it does have some distinct advantages. I scheduled a three-minute layover in the Mannheim train station, and it worked! (The trains were on nearby tracks.) If transportation machinery breaks down, it is repaired quickly. One evening, the tram had problems, and a bus substitute arrived promptly. Just be sure you do not attempt to ride a bus, tram, or train without a ticket, because the repercussions can be severe. Signs on buses promise criminal prosecution for failing to purchase a ticket.
Germans Ride Bicycles, Have Solar Panels on Their Roofs, And Recycle Just About Everything
The commitment to responsible energy consumption, renewable energy, and minimizing environmental impact is serious. Although Germans make some of the finest cars in the world, they also use public transportation and bicycles extensively to get from point A to point B. Standing on the sidewalk in Heidelberg, one quickly learns to avoid the bike lanes. Being hit by a bike seems much more likely than being hit by a car. People of all ages, sizes, and shapes ride bikes — not fancy racing bikes or mountain bikes, but just bikes like you would rent at the beach in the U.S. Less enlightened were the ubiquitous huge machines selling zigaretten, although smoking has declined in Germany.
Picturesque German Villages Inhabited By Wi-Fi, Smartphones, Satnav (GPS), Laptops.
In Mainstockheim in Northern Bavaria, we visited a delightful modern family living in a 500-year-old house with exposed beams, low ceilings, secret passageways, and a wine and potato cellar. And yet their family business, operated from their home, had all the latest technological bells and whistles. Houses in the village are quite close together and the lanes very narrow, reflecting the times when they were built. But the compactness is also very efficient, allowing modern Germans to walk to the bakery every day for fresh bread without even using their cars. To travel the 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Mainstockheim (tiny village) to Wurzburg (nearest small city), modern Germans can hop on the Autobahn rather than spending a whole day making the trip in a horse-drawn wagen.
Temperamentally, Germans Are the Opposite of Italians
I am no expert on historical migration and settlement patterns in Europe, but based on my observation of Italians and Germans encountered in my travels, I am stunned by the contrast between these two groups. In Italy, I felt tall, stiff, reserved, non-glamourous, too colorfully dressed (they wear black, black, black), and afraid of being run down by motor scooters. Italians talk and gesture constantly and are highly expressive, emotional, and spontaneous. Germans don’t do any of these things! In Germany, I felt more stylish than average, more expressive, and safe because everything seemed so well-organized. The Italians were all about beauty, and the Germans were all about order. Oversimplified, and it may sound like stereotyping, but it is what I actually saw. By the way, the food and the scenery were great in both countries.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this: I found Germany to be more interesting and varied than I expected, accessible to an English speaker, and straightforward to navigate. In addition, prices seemed reasonable for hotels and meals. It is easy to find flights from U.S. cities to Frankfurt and easy to move around the country, even to small places, by reliable trains. Therefore, I am actively planning my second trip to Germany!