The complaint often lodged against Germany is that because everything was destroyed in WWII, everything is new, depriving it of the chief appeal of Europe for most Americans, i.e. Old World stuff. This is not incorrect; any of the major cities are all entirely reconstructed with different approaches. Berlin feels very modern: lots of brushed steel and glass paneled facades. Munich took a different approach, reconstructing its city to look more like its old self.
The good news is Germany is big so we couldn’t have bombed all of it, and pockets of original towns are still left scattered around the hinterland. I found that Bavaria is a region that very much lives up to its purported image. Dirndls and beer steins and pretzels abound. First up, though, was Munich.
Luxembourg City—Munich, 330 miles
Not a place to make a grand first impression, Munich is a more unassuming city. No building is too tall, no facade too ornate, nothing is too quaint. In photos, it’s a city that doesn’t translate at all because it’s not a visual feast of detail and beauty. But in person it’s lovely. Everything is clean and orderly, but with still enough entropy to be interesting. A mandate regulates that nothing in the city center be built higher than the Frauenkirche church towers at 324 feet, and nothing comes close.
If you spend two months in Europe and then visit Germany, you understand very quickly why this is the country that’s running the show over here. By American standards, so much of Europe can feel like form over function. Try printing something in Paris or going to a gas station in Rome, and you’ll quickly realize how many amenities we take for granted. In Germany, for the most part, this is not the case. Sunday closures are still a thing, something I don’t think any American or Brit can ever get used to, but this is a country that runs on organization and logistics, not tradition.
“Hipster,” a word that’s become totally nonsensical, comes to life in Munich. Not even Boulder can claim to have so many vegan clothing stores. Everything is a concept or pop-up store, words that effectively mean nothing after such overuse. The result, though, is hard to resist.
Manufactum Warenhaus is a perfect example of this. In the front is a sleek bakery and tapas-style food counter and in the back is what is essentially a Home Depot, where you get buy light bulbs and plumbing equipment and such, but the entire place looks like a Restoration Hardware. You can have lunch in a cool space and pick up some garden hose all under one roof. Such is Munich that artisanal sandwiches and literal nuts and bolts can all be had in one chic store.
The sightseeing list is short here. The ultra-Gothic city hall and its signature Glockenspiel dominate the central square in Munich, less touristy and more business casual than your average central city plaza. Nearby is the Viktualienmarkt, an outdoor market and an interesting enough stop but not exactly the cultural highlight of the century.
Munich has been the site of a lot of famous German protests over the years, including an infamous bloody clash between the Nazis and local policemen in 1923, and the Odeonsplatz is the epicenter of this, which is interesting to visit but there’s really nothing there now beyond tour groups and elderly locals reading the paper.
The Englischer Garten, the English garden, is pretty hilarious. As compared to the manicured, highly organized French style garden with topiaries and such, English gardens are supposed to be more freeform and unkempt, but this really pushes the definition of “garden.”
There is, however, surfing.
This is truly bizarre. I don’t know exactly how this happens, and whether it’s intentional or coincidental, but the amount of water rushing into the stream that runs through the park is so strong that it creates a “swell,” and some enterprising Münchners have seized their opportunity to surf in a city hundreds of miles from the ocean. There is something sort of tragic about surfing in a stream, but it’s also brilliant. The effect is not that different from the endless wave machines you run into in water parks.
About an hour outside Munich is Dachau, a place whose very name probably just made everyone cringe. There’s not much I can add to this beyond the obvious. It is, of course, very somber but probably less than you’re imagining. Not surprisingly, school groups make up the bulk of the visitors and we’ve all been on middle and high school trips; I’m hardly expecting silence and somberly bowed heads among this lot no matter where we are, but there’s something between that and the mildly dampened party that was taking place around the grounds. First prize goes to the French student wearing a sweatshirt that said, “Shit happens, never mind.” If by that he means, “My government and their army of pansies fled at the first glimpse of Nazi tanks in Paris and pointed out all the Jews as they ran for the hills in shame,” then he is correct. After German, Polish, and Soviet citizens and Jews, all of whom were taken as prisoners of war or under different terms of occupation, the French population in Dachau was the largest.
Dachau was destroyed after the war so what is there is all reconstruction. They’ve rebuilt one of the “dormitory buildings,” a generous world for the squalid hovel where the prisoners were forced to live, and two of the main barracks. There are several memorials around the ground commissioned by various governments and religious organizations. The crematoria are still there, the originals, which is probably the most moving part of the complex, but is always packed with the school groups into what is a relatively small space so it unfortunately robs the exhibit of some of its impact.
Dachau was the camp open the longest, beginning in 1933 to hold political prisoners, so its function was slightly different than Auschwitz, for example. While nearly 32,000 people out of 188,000 prisoners died at Dachau (reported deaths, importantly), it was a labor camp and not expressly an extermination camp, so there was something of an interest in keeping prisoners alive, particularly toward the end of the war with labor shortages. There was a gas chamber, but the extent of its use, and whether or not it was used at all, is strangely unclear. Of course, intentional and “accidental” deaths were still the norm, but as a point of reference, 1.1 million people were killed in Auschwitz.
The only “problem” with the Dachau memorial is that it doesn’t require you to be immersed in it. Anyone who’s been to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in D.C. will appreciate how masterfully done and intense that experience is; there’s no way to be half-engaged there. Dachau is such that it can be hard not to get distracted by the poorly behaved school groups because it’s a subtler experience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that or that it can’t have the same impact; just as a visitor, it takes more effort on your part to really delve into it and this is subject matter that many of us aren’t excited to engage with without being pushed a bit.
When I think Munich, I think Oktoberfest, but that image of a beer-laden, party-crazed city seems to be the exception. I’m sure it’s crazy during October, but this time of year it’s far from chaotic. Tour groups don’t really seem to come to Munich in the way they do to other cities. I certainly saw tours going around, but the mega bus, 15-cities-in-15-days crowd was nowhere to be found. Munich is a city that feels lived in, which I mean as a compliment. Bars and restaurants are full of regular after-work crowds. People greet each other on the street in a way usually reserved for small towns. Munich makes 1.4 million feel small.
The Romantic Road
All the big European countries seem to have a region like this, a picturesque area with tons of interchangeable medieval villages, vineyards, and scenic rolling hills. Italy has Tuscany, France has Provence, and Germany has Bavaria and the Romantic Road. The name’s origin is decidedly lame—a marketing ploy in the 1950s—but whoever dreamed up the idea of a road connecting Bavaria’s highlights was not wrong. Typically you would start in the north in Würzburg, a central German city that was destroyed a few weeks before the end of the war in Europe, and continue south ending in Füssen near Neuschwanstein Castle, the most iconic stop along the road. I actually started here and worked my way north instead.
Munich—Füssen, 75 Miles
Neuschwanstein Castle is ubiquitously known as the fairytale castle, as it was the inspiration for the castle at Disneyland and otherwise totally fits the bill for a fantastical royal abode. I had thought when I was there they said Walt Disney had actually made a trip to Bavaria, but this piece of information does not seem to exist anywhere on the internet, so take that as you will.
Neuschwanstein looks the way it does, so pristine and perfectly perched on a ridge in the foothills, because it’s not much older than the Magic Kingdom itself in castle years. Construction began in 1869, commissioned by Ludwig II, who only got to enjoy his creation for two years before he died in 1886 and the castle was opened to the public almost immediately.
My first impression of Neuschwanstein was that it was smaller than I expected. In pictures, it always looks so dominant in the landscape, but in fact it looks like a speck from a distance against the mountains behind it. I’d braced myself for the hordes, but it was quite manageable. There’s a fair amount of walking involved to get up to the castle teetering as it is on the side of a mountain, so that significantly culls the herd. The tour of the castle interior is marvelously efficient. I’m sure some people find it off-puttingly brief but I loved how to-the-point it was. There’s actually not much history here, given that it was barely lived in and does feel very Disney-like because it was designed with many modern amenities in mind. (To perhaps bolster the claim that Disney was himself here, what is actually the palace chapel looks very similar to the ballroom in Beauty and the Beast). So without any real history or a long list of anecdotes here, no use dwelling on it. The place is immaculately maintained, something certainly helped by its age. My beef with Neuschwanstein is the bridge.
If you’ve ever before seen a picture of Neuschwanstein, I’m willing to bet this is the view you’ve seen:
Directly opposite what is technically the back half of the castle is a steep narrow valley, across which is a bridge that gives you this awesome vantage point. It’s been closed for almost a year now.
Of course I get that renovations need to happen and sometimes you just get unlucky, but coming here a not being able to get this view would be like going to the Louvre and finding out the Mona Lisa is out on loan; there’s still plenty to enjoy there, but the most iconic thing is gone. That view is what you come here for. I would have been more c’est la vie about if it just happened to be closed for a month or two while I was there, but the thing has been under construction for almost a year now. So not exactly a study in German efficiency. I made an effort to sneak onto the bridge anyway and clearly others had had the same idea; a ticket stub from the day before I visited was on the trail well after the point at which it’s blocked off. Annoyingly, they seemed to have identified the leak and have gone crazy with the barbed wire and the surely melodramatic “Keep back at risk of death” signs so it’s hard to sneak too far past all that without your “Oh what, I just got lost” excuse falling apart. But let the record show I made the effort.
There’s another castle on the hill directly opposite Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau Castle. Apparently it’s a better tour and probably less crowded, but even though it’s maybe objectively better, it’s not why you’re making the trip. If you have time for both I’m sure it’s worth a visit, but it’s worth dealing with the crowd at Neuschwanstein, which in the grand scheme of things is very minor. This is one of those instances where the thing to do is actually the thing to do.
The nearest town, Füssen, is no one’s highlight of the Romantic Road and after spending time in the other villages along the way, this would probably be a real disappointment to come to at the end of everything. As it was, I thought Füssen was fine, having not yet been wooed by the towns further north, but the grand finale here is all about the castle. As it was, it only get better for me as I headed north.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Füssen—Rothenburg, 153 miles
Rothenburg is the kind of place where Santa might take a summer vacation. The small medieval town stops just short of being too whimsical and despite its countless teddy bear shops and Christmas emporiums, retains its medieval intrigue. By day, it’s all German bakeries and sunny alleyways and cheerful parks on the edge of town. By night, it’s dominated by ghoulishly empty Gothic cathedrals and things that go bump in the night. Rothenburg does not shy away from either image. Next to one of the largest teddy bear shops in town is a huge novelty gift shop with various Game of Thrones style weaponry and weird medieval props and sundries like you find in the back of SkyMall.
One of the coolest things about Rothenburg is the preserved medieval walls, which you can still walk around. When I read this before I got there, I was flummoxed as to why anyone would care, but it’s actually tremendously cool. Surrounding most of the old town is a wall from the 13th century, with its horribly uneven pathway and rickety railings, still open to the public. I walked around the whole thing just after sunset one night and the views of the city are awesome. You’re just high enough to be able to creep into people’s backyards, but still low enough to see every detail. I came across an impromptu wedding reception happening in a tiny back alley, which was particularly cool to see in a place like Rothenburg where you often wonder who actually lives there and what the locals do on a Saturday night.
Rothenburg is authentically old, having made it through the war due to some very good luck; U.S. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy was familiar with Rothenburg’s important history and architectural significance and ordered that it not be bombed. Instead, the American army surrounded the town and ordered its surrender, which the local German commander acquiesced to, defying Hitler’s orders. Thus we still have Rothenburg today.
There is something of an ominous history to what is otherwise a village lifted straight from the opening scene of a Disney movie. Its charms are not new and as it was in many ways the picture of German perfection, Hitler took quite a shine to it and Rothenburg became the Third Reich’s choice propaganda setting. Trips around the country were organized to Rothenburg so people could see what the ultimate German “home town” looked like. The town became the poster child for a peaceful post-war German and other villages were supposed to follow its example.
No one was more excited about this than the people of Rothenburg, who were overwhelmingly supporters of the Third Reich. Jews were kicked out in 1938 and the Hitler Youth were very active here. So, not their finest hour and not something to be proud of, but I think at this point we can appreciate the historical interest of it. Rothenburg, not keen on that idea, has completely scrubbed any mention of it from any of its literature; I only learned this after I left and a Dutchman told me about it.
Like in Tuscany or Provence, there are a dozen or so villages of this relative vintage along the Romantic Road and having driven through a few of them and not felt much inclination to stop, I can fully endorse Rothenburg. This is your travel magazine-worthy Bavarian village, with food as good as you’ll find anywhere on the Romantic Road. Whatever spin anyone tries to put on it, there is no finding decent food here. Which is perfectly fine actually. Embrace the liberation of eating mediocre Bavarian food and don’t waste any time trying to figure out restaurants.
The town is best after dark and in the morning, when just enough people are out to keep it from being creepy. The marathon was on the morning I left, which surely made it an unusually lively morning and I felt for the runners negotiating the centuries old cobblestones. No matter how much or how little time you have, this is not a place to just pass through.
Rothenburg—Würzburg, 40 miles
Starting in Würzburg is preferable, I think, as it makes for a better prelude than ending. As I mentioned previously, this city was entirely destroyed so it’s unexcitingly new by comparison to the other towns along the road. It’s also much bigger, a real city of 124,000 rather than an overgrown village (population of Rothenburg: almost 11,000). For a city its size and one that’s relatively tourist-free given its location, there’s a lot going on. The area around Würzburg is known for its wine—as much as anywhere in Germany is known for its wine—and some of the vineyards are literally in the middle of town.
There was a big food and wine festival the weekend I was there that had huge crowds, and Old Main Bridge, the scenic stretch across the Main River, has this “bar” on one side that’s basically just a hole in the wall and the sitting area is the bridge itself. I was only there one night, but there seemed like enough good places to eat to keep you occupied for a few days, though nothing about Würzburg really makes it a destination in itself.
Without the Romantic Road, Würzburg would be on no one’s radar and like many German towns, it can get pretty industrial as soon as you get very far from the pedestrian zones in the middle of the city. The only other tourists I met in town were two Dutch guys who were only there because one of their motorcycles had broken down en route to the Dolomites.
Stereotypes exist for a reason and while the archetype of the no-nonsense, joylessly efficient German certainly exists, I’ve found stereotypes about them to be rarely true. In my experience the Germans are more laidback than they’re often given credit for and there’s plenty about Germany that isn’t efficient.
One of the things I think is admirable about Germany is that they make no attempt to cover up or discreetly tuck away mentions of the Holocaust. I can’t think of any other country that is so straightforward about such a horrible part of its history. Turkey, China, Russia, and the U.S. are all particularly guilty of sweeping any sort of ugliness under the rug. Germany was of course pressured into this kind of transparency after the war, but it doesn’t feel like they’re going through the motions, and I think they strike the right tone. Rather than trying to apologize, which would seem grossly insufficient and overall meaningless at this point, their approach seems to be complete openness and a fervent commitment to preventing anything like the Holocaust from happening again. I found Rothenburg’s cover-up of its own history to be really odd in light of that, but that seems very much not in keeping with the national attitude.
I really enjoy traveling in Germany. I don’t think it gets the airtime it deserves in travel publications because it isn’t really seen as a sexy destination compared to its neighbors, which is probably accurate. It’s not an accident that the only American movies set in Germany are period dramas were everyone is wearing gray and it’s perpetually overcast; it’s just not a country that oozes romance or inspires travel fantasies. But it’s a great place to visit! It’s a cool and beautiful place that doesn’t feel the need to be in your face about it. Other perks: except for during Oktoberfest, there are really very few young travelers here, which means a significant reduction in selfie sticks and Instagram photo shoots. Which is not to say that Germany is full of old people, which it isn’t, but it was really nice to go a few days without overhearing conversations about which clubs have drink deals and what’s happening at the sorority over the summer. You might actually talk to some German people!
As great as Germany was, it is in some ways only the warm-up act. Because if you don’t think the Netherlands is at least in the top 5 greatest countries on earth by the end of my next post, then we have a problem.