Though it remains far less well known or understood by outsiders than some of its neighbours, since reunification Germany has at last gained a higher profile as a place to visit, thanks partly to the remarkable resurgence of Berlin, one of the most fascinating and exciting cities in Europe. But the appeal of the reunified Germany is not limited to the capital. The 2006 football World Cup was something of a turning point, both with regards to Germany’s image abroad and to its own self-image, rehabilitating the idea of German patriotism for the first time since the war. When football fans descended on cities all over the country, they discovered a friendly, multiethnic and multicultural nation that was, for the most part, at ease with itself, finally happy to fly its own flag in a harmless display of national pride.
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It’s now two decades since the events of 1989 swept away the Berlin Wall and brought to an uplifting end a turbulent and agonizing century for Germany, ill-served at crucial points in its brief history as a united nation-state by erratic and adventurous rulers who twice led it into disaster – in 1918, as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s vainglorious dream of empire ended in defeat, starvation and revolution; and at the end of World War II, as Hitler’s vile race-war rebounded in terrible fashion on the German people who had chosen him as their leader. There followed a period of forty-five years in which not one Germany but two faced each other across a tense international divide – the so-called Iron Curtain – throughout the years of the Cold War.
Political fragmentation is nothing new in Germany. From the tenth century until the early nineteenth, the Holy Roman Empire provided only a loose semblance of sovereignty over a vast collection of states, and it’s this jumbled history, as much as the country’s varied geography, that explains Germany’s sheer diversity. According to an old German expression, city air makes you free, and for centuries many of Germany’s cities governed themselves without feudal overlords.
In stark contrast was the absolutist yoke of the feudal states, which ranged from substantial kingdoms like Prussia, Saxony or Bavaria to tiny landgraviates and prince-bishoprics. Yet each made its contribution to Germany’s heritage, in the architectural and cultural splendour of many a former Residenzstadt. The Lutheran Reformation and its aftermath left their mark too: northern Germany is predominantly Protestant, the south more Catholic, yet the division is not clear cut. Staunchly Protestant towns alternate with devoutly Catholic ones, while in some places the two traditions share a single church.
Germany’s contribution to the world of classical music is undeniable, and provides a powerful pretext for a visit, whether to experience the glories of the Berlin Philharmonic or of Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth, or to follow in the footsteps of great composers: Bach in Leipzig, Beethoven in Bonn. Germany’s reputation as the cradle of modernism is also well deserved, and a pilgrimage to the Bauhaus in Dessau or the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart is sure to please design fans. German modernism was preceded by the older traditions of the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo, each of which left a rich legacy of artistic and architectural treasures. Germany’s prowess in fine art is less well known, yet from the pioneering realism of Albrecht Dürer to the ethereal Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, it’s a powerful tradition that is well worth discovering. Most German cities of any size have excellent galleries, with Berlin and Cologne hubs of the European contemporary art scene.
The pleasures of a visit to Germany are not only intellectual. The excellence of its beer derives from the sixteenth-century Reinheitsgebot, the world’s oldest food purity law. Germany’s food culture is traditionally characterized by wholesome but hearty dishes, a vast array of sausages and excellent but calorific cakes. Yet the impact of immigration, travel and increasing culinary ambition has been powerful, and most towns nowadays offer a wide selection of international options, usually including Balkan, Greek, Italian and Turkish.
Though the dangers of over-indulgence are ever present, so too is the antidote. The tradition of the Kur or spa visit has endured to a far greater extent in Germany than elsewhere, and if you want to unwind in saline or hot springs there are innumerable spa towns up and down the country. In summer, the nation’s endless forests and mountains play host to hikers and cyclists while the Alps tempt international visitors with an excellent array of downhill ski runs in winter.
One unsung pleasure of a visit to Germany is the opportunity to meet its people. The officious neighbour who complains if you don’t hang your socks out to dry in alphabetical order may not be entirely fictional, but you’re far more likely to be struck by the warmth and open-mindedness of Germany’s people – and particularly its young people. You can have fun testing how liberal a place is by observing how the locals react to the red Ampelmann when crossing the street: the bigger and more laidback the city, the more likely they are to ignore the no-jaywalking rule. In contrast, the sight of upright citizens waiting patiently for the green light despite an absence of traffic as far as the eye can see is still one of the more comic pleasures of small-town Germany.
For many visitors, one of Germany’s cities will be where to go first. Berlin is genuinely exciting – a metropolis on fast-forward, growing into its rediscovered role as the nation’s capital yet preserving evidence of its sometimes unhappy role in European history. Many other cities have proud histories as independent city-states or as capitals in their own right: thus, there’s nothing remotely “provincial” about ancient, liberal Cologne, Dresden’s restored Baroque splendour or the proud Bavarian metropolis of Munich. The financial capital, Frankfurt, impresses with its dynamism and international spirit, while Bonn, the former West German capital, charms with its scenic setting and excellent museums. Elsewhere, chic Düsseldorf and laidback Stuttgart embody aspects of the German economic miracle, while the eastern city of Leipzig fizzes with fresh energy. Mercantile Hamburg looks askance at the rest of the country, maintaining the worldliness of a great port, while Nuremberg evokes the triumphs and tragedies of Germany’s past.
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Cultural attractions of capital city-quality are not limited to the bigger cities, and many of the most rewarding places are quite small: the cathedral cities of Bamberg and Regensburg; the Hanseatic ports of Lübeck, Stralsund and Wismar; the “Prussian Versailles” of Potsdam; and micro-capitals like Weimar, Schwerin and Eichstätt. Germany has university towns as evocative as any: Heidelberg is the most famous, but Freiburg, Marburg and Tübingen are just as charming. As for the spa towns, at their best – in Baden-Baden, Bad Homburg or Wiesbaden – they combine health benefits with turn-of-the-century elegance and lovely natural settings. For a potted digest of Germany’s cultural riches the Romantic Road is deservedly popular, a road journey linking Rococo churches with medieval cities and eccentric royal castles. Other themed “roads” are devoted to fairy tales, half-timbering or wine. Often, the most magical places – a fortress on a crag, a placid village rising above vineyards, an ancient market square of improbable quaintness – await discovery on such routes. Nor should Germany’s undeniable natural beauty be overlooked. The Bavarian Alps, the Black Forest and the valleys of the Rhine and Mosel have long been celebrated, but the talcum-powder softness of Rügen’s beaches, the smart resorts of Sylt and the lonely splendour of Mecklenburg’s lakes have yet to make it onto the international agenda: the world’s loss is, for the time being, the independent traveller’s gain.