Travel Tips: Germany

While Germany has many similarities to the United States like a free highway system, a hearty appetite and our sense of personal space, there are a few pointers to keep in mind to make your holiday in Deutschland a smooth one.

1.  To toast in German, you can either say “Zum Voll” or “Prost!” But, whatever you do, make sure to look each of your table mates directly in the eye as you are clinking glasses.  It is considered bad luck to toast and not make eye contact with your neighbor at the table.

Heidelberg

2.  Never, ever walk in the bike lanes.  They are numerous and heavily trafficked in most German cities and serve one purpose: for bikers to zoom around the city.  An oblivious tourist in the bike lane could quickly turn into a flattened tourist.

3.  Greet shop owners, clerks, the checkout lady at the grocery and even the other guests in the hotel you are staying at.  It is common to say hello to them with a simple “Guten Tag” or even “Grüss Gott” in Bayern.  Not acknowledging the presence of others in certain situations, like the ones mentioned above, is seen as standoffish and rude.  Expressing this courtesy will definitely win you the respect of the store clerk and in my experience they are more likely to help should you have a question.  On the other hand, it is totally unnecessary to wave at all the other joggers on the trail or to nod at the driver stopping when crossing the street as a pedestrian.

Ladenberg

4.  If you do decide to rent a car and hit the Autobahn while in Germany, make sure to stay out of the left lane unless you intend to quickly pass the motorist in front of you.  Pristine road conditions and expensive, luxury cars lead to the ability to drive extremely fast safely, as long as those zipping down the highway don’t run into you putting along, driving in the left lane like many incompetent drivers do here.

5.  Most Germans know quite a bit about politics, so if you decide to engage this topic, make sure you are well-informed, too.  If not, you run the risk of looking pretty foolish.

Heidelberg

6.  Getting outdoors in the fresh air, whether to jog, bike, hike or just eat a picnic is a quick way to warm the hearts of older locals.  Breathing the “frische luft” is considered important, especially in the warmer summer months.

Platz Freiburg

7.  If you need a quick refreshing drink after exercising, one of the favorites in summer time is a “Radler.” Literally the drink for bike riders, a Radler is a half and half mix of sparkling lemonade and Hefeweizen or whatever beer the establishment has on tap.

Amanda, Andrew and Stephanie in Freiburg

 

Anything you’d add to the list of must-knows before travelling to Germany?

Around the Mosel

Last Spring in Germany was quite damp and we found ourselves donning our rain gear and braving the dreariness often.  After Trier, Andrew drove our rental through downpours and thick cotton candy fog over to the quietly meandering Mosel River in Rheinland Pfalz.  A hot spot for German outdoor enthusiasts, this area bustled with signs of a busy summer to come.  Most of the Germans opted for the more scenic and heart healthy way to see the area: by pedaling along the banks of the river on their trusty bikes.  I personally think they were trying to earn their schnitzel and beer, so maybe next time we’ll grab our Fahrräder and hit the trail as well.

Our lodging was in the guest house of a local winery, which turned out to be a good choice for the area.  The hills along either side of the river’s banks are laden with rows of grape vines, ripe for picking in the fall, that are labored to make some of the world’s finest Riesling.

Burg Eltz

Burg Eltz

The first stop we made in the area should definitely be on your list, if ever you visit the Mosel.  We toured the Burg Eltz, the one of only medieval castles on the Mosel to never have been destroyed.  Interestingly enough, the same families still privately own the castle.  If you play your cards right, you could still marry the son or daughter of a German earl!

view of town and grape vines from ridge trail

trail view

the sun came out!

Cochem

In between the rain showers, we hiked along the ridge of one of the hills along the banks of Mosel and checked out a few of the picturesque towns that dot the river’s banks.  We also ate delicious schnitzel and made sure to indulge in Kaffeestunde at least once or twice:  a generous slice of cake made with seasonal fruit and a steaming cup of coffee around 2 or 3 in the afternoon.

our schnitzel stop

Making Friends in Trier

After we had lunch near a stream in the incredible gorge that divides Luxembourg City, we stumbled upon a behemoth medieval castle in a neighboring town. Of course it was locked up tight, surely holding a sleeping beauty inside, but even from the exterior it seemed like it was straight out of a scene in Robin Hood. We admired the castle and then set off to cross the border into Germany, land of sausages, beer, Riesling and Angela Merkel (Is she still the Bundeskanzlerin?). Beside getting to brush up on my German, (Noch einmal, bitte?) I love the food, the beer, the sport, and even the organization that comes with lodging on German territory.

Castle in Vianden

Andrew, feeling good about finding the castle in Vianden

We spent the first night in Trier, a seat of ancient Roman civilization. While I dwelt momentarily on the feat of domination the Romans had accomplished back in, oh, 16 BC or so, I think I was more excited about the luxury B&B we chose to stay in. I’m positive it is the most we have ever personally paid for a night in a hotel and I remember the exact price, too – 92 euros a night. We only stayed one night. Besides a gourmet breakfast and brand-new modern installations, there was a fairy lit garden behind the building where I may have tried a Hefeweizen (or two).  Mostly I remember our interactions with the proprietors, though, as they probably thought we were a little bit nutty.

When we first arrived, the receptionist personally showed us our room and after she was sure we were happy with the room, left us alone with the key. And then she promptly vacated the hotel premises. Which would have been as well, but we needed to get the rest of our travel gear out of the car and back up to our room on the 4th floor. Everything was going fine until we climbed back up the stairs, tried to unlock our door and figured out we couldn’t get it open. About the same time we realized we were locked out of our plush room and shining Badezimmer, Andrew decided all the sudden he had to go to the bathroom. Emergency status. Red-faced and nervous. Can’t get in the room, no communal bathroom near the reception. I dialed the number for the owner and prayed for the cheerful “Guten Abend!” I’d been greeted with earlier in the day. Thankfully, she picked up and was ready to help. Her particular helpfulness reminded me how efficient and succinct German ways are. As I told her how we were unable to open the door to our room, she calmly began going through a detailed list of the different things that might have been wrong. “Do you have the key?” “Um, duh.” “Does it have a heart with the number 7 on it and is it brown?” “Yes. The exact one the lady gave me 15 minutes ago.” “Are you standing in front of the door with the number 7 on it?” “Hello? I made sure to check that before I called you. I will not be scorned for pure idiocy in Germany.” “Were you able to unlock the door?” “Yes.” (All the time she is patiently, methodically ticking off her list, I am thinking, this better get the door open soon, because Andrew can’t hold on much longer. He has also run down four flights of stairs to double check he didn’t miss the public bathroom and is back upstairs, pleading me to figure this mess out with fear entering his eyes.) And finally, she gets to the root of our issue, “Well, you know, its funny, I’m not sure how you say this in English, (Oh, spit it out!) but it, uh, is a fire safety feature. Have you tried pulling the door toward you just a little when you turn the knob?” “If I’d have thought of that, I’d already have done it, lady!” In the nick of time the door pops open, keeping our momentary “fire” at bay and I marvel at the logical thought process of the German woman and muse that in Spain, a crusty woman with a deep smoker’s voice would have barked at me, as though I must have a tic-tac for a brain, “Pull the dumb door toward you, hija!”

The Porta Nigra

The view from the Porta Nigra onto the Street

Cathedral in Trier

Palace of Trier

We toured the city of Trier, saw the Porta Nigra, the ancient Roman gate, and lounged in our incredible room. Also, Karl Marx’s home is in Trier, and we saw it, but I won’t be able to prove that to you with a picture. As we went to check out the next day, I was feeling quite bolstered by my interactions in German as of yet, and was ready to try out a compliment on the receptionist, a sure fire way to get someone to tell you how wonderfully you speak their language. So I opened my mouth to say how wonderful our experience at the hotel had been (Alles war sehr toll) and instead I said “Everything was really expensive.” (Alles war sehr teuer). The quizzical look that crossed her face made my own cheeks burn and we hightailed on to our next destination.

Wishing we were there!

Last year, around this same time in June, Andrew and I were finishing up a two and a half week long road trip style vacation through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and France. It seems unbelievable, now, that we had time for such a trip, but the reality is, when you are already in Europe, getting somewhere else by plane within Europe isn’t that time consuming or expensive. We packed up the rest of our belongings in Laredo at the end of May, waved goodbye to the beach and our incredible balcony, and took the bus to the Santander airport to begin the final leg of our European adventure. Once at the airport, we quickly realized our suitcase weighed 25 kilograms, 10 too many for the 15 kg bag we’d already paid to check. Unfortunately, paying 20 euros a kilo for the extra weight was entirely out of the question, so we spent the better part of two hours throwing away what I can now recognize as fairly ratty clothing. Clothes we’d lived in non-stop for 9 months. It was traumatic then and I know I felt clammy and hideous, climbing onto the Ryanair flight wearing two pairs of pants and three pairs of socks, but I’ve also shelled out the two hundred euros to schlep my stuff onto an airplane and I can say that being uncomfortable for an hour or so is much better that kissing goodbye to cold hard cash.

We landed in Brussels and spent the next few days in Belgium and Luxembourg. I don’t know if it was the excitement of starting a new trip or just the plain splendor of these two countries, but the first few days of the trip were some of the best! We drank Belgian craft beer at a pub called the Dead Rat in Namur, Belgium, visited the Strawberry museum in Wépion, a small town on the Meuse River and then stained our fingers red with strawberries sold from a stand on the roadside for a euro a pint. The tiny, delicate berries grown in Northern Europe are so different than the pumped up, grown-in-Florida-sand-berries we sometimes eat here.

Drinking a Waterloo
Drinking a Waterloo

Andrew at the Tote Ratte View of the waterfront in NamurDinantWe also stopped in a town called Dinant, while impressive in this picture, wasn’t much to get excited about.  After spending only a day in Belgium (ONE DAY! Not enough!) we spent our second night of the trip in a small town in Luxembourg, which we used as our home base to explore the miniature, but very worthy country of Luxembourg. We found it to be a nice mix of Germany and France. Similar industriousness to the Germans, but a more laid back attitude thanks to the French influence. Andrew had already seen Luxembourg City, but as it was my first time in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, we had to make a stop there. In Luxembourg CityLuxembourg Citythe happy coupleIMG_7475If only we were there again this year!

Semana Santa: Road trip to Portugal in the Smart Car

Hi! We wanted to say have a great weekend before we take a two and a half week hiatus from blogging. We’re off to enjoy our Semana Santa exploring Portugal. Andrew will be the red head driving the black smart car and I’ll be the moral support and all time navigator. This car is actually automatic, so I might take the wheel once or twice as well! Look out! This will be my first time to visit this part of the Iberian peninsula and I’m pretty excited to eat cod, drink Port wine and check out the old world towns of Porto and Lisbon.

Also, we wanted to tell the Cockrums from Knoxville thanks so much for coming to visit us! We had a great time eating seafood and exploring the Basque Country with you guys! While they were here visiting, we got to see San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century hermitage located on the Bizcayian coast. Really impressive.

We’ve been taking full advantage of having the car to see as much as we can. Last week we drove along the Cantabrian coast and enjoyed rocky, un-commercialized, pristine beaches. On Saturday, we took a day trip to the northern part of the province of Burgos, to a rural region called Las Merindades. We did a 10km walk around a man made lake, the water from which supplies the city of Bilbao. While not the most spectacular scenery, it was a beautiful day and a nice change of pace.

And, last, Happy (early) Easter. We’re thankful to have been given this opportunity to live and travel abroad for a year, but we know that it is a gift that has been given to us by the Lord. I pray that you have a restful weekend and can rejoice in our Saviour, Jesus Christ. He is risen indeed.

Bordeaux

Since we’ve last talked, Andrew and I have traveled in France, survived daylight savings time, hosted visitors from the US and experienced a general workers’ strike. This is all in addition to our regularly scheduled programming of class in the morning and private lessons in the afternoon.

I can’t say enough about how much we’ve enjoyed the time we’ve gotten to spend in France. Customer service is par none, the food is delicious, the wine exquisite and English is widely (and happily) spoken. Not to mention the cities, towns and countryside we’ve visited are all spectacular. Add to all these positives balmy spring weather and you’ve got a wanderer’s paradise.

On our last venture to France, we left Laredo around 7:30am and drove directly to Bordeaux. The drive from Laredo lasts about 4 1/2 to 5 hours and unfortunately it is quite curvy, although scenic, in Spain, but becomes flat and boring in France. The route takes you through the largest pine forest in Europe, Les Landes. Built in the 1700’s to prevent erosion, the forest still produces timber for numerous projects and purposes today. Once out of the forest, one arrives almost immediately to the outskirts of Bordeaux. Although the ring road circling Bordeaux can be a little tricky at times, we, thankfully, arrived smack dab in the center.

Bordeaux is an ancient city of the bourgeoisie, drawing Paris’ elite for a getaway and thriving on wine trade. Today it still has a distinct posh feel in the historic center, but also is home to a bustling immigrant community. It is situated on La Garonne, a wide, muddy mess of a river.

Spending a day exploring in Bordeaux is highly recommended. The main plazas and landmarks have been painstakingly restored and buildings made of the characteristic blonde stone of the region are spotless. Some sights to take in are the medieval gates that create impressive entrances into the city, the hidden plazas, which are perfect for an afternoon coffee, the Place de la Bourse and the church of the Holy Cross. For me, the better part of 5 hours was enough to get a decent feel for the city, to peacefully have a coffee and see the major sites. It does boast some Roman ruins, but we decided to forgo those in lieu of a more relaxing experience.

Marveling at the grand rues and charming side streets in Bordeaux is reason enough to visit. Boutiques and eateries line the streets, pastisseries and bakeries are innumerable, and the store fronts are impeccable. Bordeaux has a unique bohemian feel that I really liked as well. It wasn’t a grunge feel, rather a sophisticated, original vibe that defines bars and shops.

I’ll never get bored watching effortlessly beautiful French men and women glide gracefully along the promenades, to work, to lunch, alone, with friends or lovers. They seemed so refined compared to the noisy, stroller filled sidewalks in Spain. One detail that really struck me about French life this last time was how quiet the people were. They spoke to one another, of course, but they spoke in low, respectful tones. Instead of being bothered by an intrusively loud conversation coming from the table next to you in a café, only a quiet murmur was emitted from our neighbors. This is in contrast to Spain, where folks will holler to one another while walking down the street, making sure the entire vicinity is privy to their conversation. We didn’t eat much here, just ham and cheese on a baguette (my favorite!). We’ll be back with more on France soon!

Next up: St. Emilion!