I had never been to Germany before, other than a blurry few hours in a non-stop 3 day coach ride, travelling back from Athens in 1980. I vaguely remember the two drivers taking turns to drive and ‘rest’ – drinking ouzo with a group of passengers in the front of the bus. I remember not having any of the various currencies of the countries we passed through in those pre-Euro days, and starving as a result; the bus straddling a dual carriageway at a right angle, as lorries bore down on it horns blaring; the relief of chips and tea on the Sealink ferry that we boarded somewhere in the middle of the night. I’m not sure that I noticed Germany then, but we did pass through it. This year was a more civilised undertaking, with husband, truck and caravan in tow, but there is so much to see in Germany that we still passed many things by in a flash. We had just over two weeks there, but I would not be bored there in two months, or even two years.
After an overnight stop in Vessem, Holland, our first pitch in Germany was at Campingplatz Runkel, which was directly on the River Lahn cycle path, the Lahn being a tributary of the Rhine which joins it just south of Koblenz. We could cycle into nearby Lahnstein for a drink, or up to the railway station, along cycle paths which were mostly routed away from the main road.
Cycling in Germany is much more do-able than in the UK. There are cycle paths everywhere, which are separated from motor traffic either by being on the footpath, or by a solid white line along the edge of the road. Thought is given to getting cycles across junctions, often with a green cycle light on Pelican crossings, and at roundabouts and junctions, motor traffic gives way to cycles that are crossing their path. Deutsche Bahn trains, and in Berlin the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, have carriages which are bicycle friendly, signed on the train exterior.
In some parts of the country you have to buy a separate train ticket for your cycle. There are a large number of long distance cycle routes for the keen cyclist, but for the average tourist, cycle and train is highly recommended for sightseeing. The exception to this for us was the Black Forest as it was too hot to cycle when we were there (in the 30’s) and the terrain is hilly.
The Rhine and Mosel are scenic areas but for us were slightly spoilt by road noise, of necessity the roads, railway, towns, campsites, and cycle paths are all side by side in the river valleys. One tourist I met also mentioned that her campsite, on the Rhine, had a lot of noise from passing boat traffic – coal is transported by barge, and there are the tourist boat cruises. We started off by getting the train into Koblenz then cycled to Deutsches Eck, the junction of the Rhine and Mosel.
Cycling out of the city was initially along a pleasant river promenade which gave way to a residential area and then after crossing the Mosel beside a railway became a bit of a slog against headwind and in a cycle lane on a busy road. So we hopped back on the train with our bikes and watched the river scenery glide past from the comfort of a railway carriage. If time had permitted, I would have wanted to see Trier, but we opted for Cochem which was a shorter journey and proved to be a very pleasant town to wander around, with charming old buildings, and a castle perched high up on a hill.
I discovered that not all German white wine is sweet, and sampled some very tasty Riesling Spatlese Trocken. Then we went back on the train to Koblenz for a few beers, with no worries about drinking and driving!
The next day we reverted to driving in order to cover more ground and also in view of the threat of rain. We went upstream in the Lahn valley and saw the very attractive Bad Ems, then came across a plateau and down to the Rhine just south of St Goarshausen, where we had some excellent home-made goulash soup in a beer garden overlooking the Rhine.
Further down the river we crossed by car ferry, and then came back up the other side, stopping off at Bacharach, a lovely old town, where we found a traditional winery where we sampled local white wines and bought some made from grapes grown on an island in the middle of the Rhine. Coming back north we had beautiful views of the Loreley and St Goarshausen, and the vineyards clothing steep slopes on either side of the valley.
The next day the weather brightened and we headed south to the Schwarzwald. We stayed near Titisee- Neustadt at Camping Bankenhof, a beautifully situated and well maintained site.
We had only intended to stay 2 nights, but the following morning decided to extend this to 4. We obtained free KONUS cards from reception which cover all public transport in the Black Forest. Our first train ride, however, was not covered by this scheme as it was a ‘Museumsbahn’, or preserved mountain railway.
The Sauschwaenzle (Sow’s Tail) Bahn is on the German side of the Swiss border and is so named because of its tortuous course which includes a spiral tunnel and a number of viaducts.
We would think we were looking at another line on the other side of a valley and then realise that it was actually the same one.
The vintage railway carriages and the alpine meadows bordering the track reminded us of the scenes in the Great Escape where Steve McQueen tries to get across the barbed wire on a motor bike.
The following day we visited Villingen, a lovely old town, by train and then went down to Konstanz, on the Swiss border. We didn’t have much time in Konstanz but there was enough to have a little paddle in the Bodensee.
The day after that, in roasting heat, we went to Freiburg, and then to Triberg by train.
Triberg has the highest waterfalls in Germany and classic Black Forest scenery with steep slopes covered in towering conifers.
It also had a classic ‘Gasthof’ where we enjoyed some lovely cold beer.
It was a Sunday when we finally got to Berlin, and the supermarkets in the suburb of Kladow, where we camped, were shut. Then my phone rang, and my friend Ian, who I hadn’t seen for over 40 years, said ‘Welcome to Berlin!’ The wonders of Facebook! He explained that the shops are only allowed to sell to travellers on a Sunday, so all the shopping is concentrated around the stations. He directed me to a supermarket at Zoo Station and we agreed on a BBQ. It was fantastic seeing Ian, and catching up, we hadn’t met since we were 18 or so. Sadly he and Anthony were on the point of moving away from Berlin, but they were able to share with us their love of the city and a long list of sights to see – far more than could be covered in the few days, and meriting another holiday, sometime! They explained that there are a number of features which show that someone has ‘gone native’ in Berlin, one is that you wait for the green man to light before crossing the road, even if there is no traffic, and the other is that you get upset when the trains are late. They also taught us how to say ‘Prost!’ (cheers!) maintaining eye contact, in the German style.
The next day after some shopping in the Ku’damm area, we crossed the city on the tube to the Stasi museum. After the glitzy shops of Ku’damm, it was a stark contrast to arrive at the Magdalenen Strasse U-Bahn station, sombre with its plain pale green tiles and riveted steel beams, no advertisements and the walls bearing paintings in a communist style. Emerging up on the street, it was like entering another world, the surroundings of the Stasi building were starkly communistic concrete which seemed to have changed little following reunification.
The Stasi museum (we were grateful for the English labels on the displays) showed how the GDR imposed its ideology on citizens throughout. Even young children’s school books had exercises to do with tanks and police dogs. The state attempted to impose total control on what people did, how they lived and what they thought, and any activity perceived as antisocial, even Jehovah’s witnesses, was oppressed. There was not much information on treatment of suspects, but a lot on how the Stasi gathered their intelligence, including huge numbers of informers recruited among the general public, and various methods of covert surveillance including spy cameras hidden in all sorts of objects such as handbags, briefcases, a car door, a petrol jerrycan, a tree trunk and even a bird box. Bugging devices were also displayed. The offices of Ernst Mielke, who headed the Stasi from 1957 to 1989, were on display, plain 1960s style office furniture, telephones, a pabx switchboard, steel cupboards whose locks had been drilled out. He had a small living quarters next to his office, obviously spent a lot of time there and maybe regarded himself as hard working and dedicated. In those workaday surroundings it was easy to see that the staff there could see themselves as simply being at work in the processing of information and people, and indeed afterwards, after the reunification of Germany, many could not understand how they had done anything wrong. The Stasi files of individuals have been made open to the public and part of the display told the stories of people who had been persecuted by the Stasi and showed some of their police file. The stories of various individuals who attempted to escape were also told. After looking at cupboards full of bugging devices and spy cameras it was a jolt to see this sign as we re-entered the Magdalenen Strasse U-Bahn station!
After the Stasi museum we went to the Brandenburg Gate.
This was crowded with tourists and so we went off to Oranienburgstrasse and found a lovely traditional bar where we had a few beers before heading back to the campsite.
The following day we went to Potsdam by cycling down to the ferry at Kladow and crossing the lake to Wannsee, then taking S-Bahn to Potsdam. The bikes were ideal for exploring Sans Souci Park as there is a cycle path all round it which makes it easy to get from one palace to the next.
It was a very hot day though and we roasted whilst waiting for our timed ticket entrance to Sans Souci. It was worth the wait though as the interior is gorgeous and very elegant. I obtained a photo permit and took photos.
A story based on Sans Souci and ‘der Alte Fritz’, as Frederick the Great was affectionately known to his people, is, at the time of writing, in preparation for the July Daily Telegraph Creative Writing competition.
We cycled back through Potsdam to the Hauptbahnhof, getting lost a couple of times, but made it back to the Wannsee ferry just in time. After dinner we went in to town by car and visited a couple of bars, getting back to the caravan about 2am.
The next day we cycled the Berlin Wall trail from Nordbahnhof to Checkpoint Charlie, and despite getting lost a couple of times, managed to photograph various remnants of the wall and a guard tower.
Also saw the Holocaust Memorial, the site of Hitler’s bunker (now a car park), and the Topographie des Terrors, the latter being a poster exhibition telling the story of Berlin during the Nazi period. This was housed on the flattened remains of the Nazi headquarters, and we thought with pity of the people who had been driven into the former Gestapo building to be ‘interrogated’. The exhibition showed how the Nazis acquired and then misused power, and the extremes to which they went, even killing people with epilepsy and learning disabilities. What we did not see was any information about how people had been tortured by the Gestapo or any of the consequences outside of Berlin such as the death camps or the oppression of people in other parts of Europe. Like the Stasi Museum, it was chilling to think that evil can be made to appear to people working in these organisations as a normal day’s work – that they are just doing their jobs.
The history of Berlin, grandeur and horror side by side with the liberal, lively and forward looking culture of today makes it an amazing environment.
It was a scorching hot day and there was no shade, we were grateful to return to Kladow and have a seat in a shaded beer garden overlooking the ferry. Steve had Weihenstephan and I had a Berliner Weisse ‘Gruen’, which is a wheat beer with some green fruit syrup mixed in with it, a bit like an alcopop but ok for the afternoon.
After stocking up with booze from Lidl in Spandau, we had one last BBQ and then the next morning it was time to get the awning down and make for Holland. As we sat outside the caravan that night I saw a fox walking by the hedge, it walked up to us, sniffed Steve’s hand, looked at me and then strolled away again. In the morning I saw a notice on the campsite office advising campers not to leave shoes outside in case they were taken by the fox.
I was sad to leave continental Europe, strangely I feel quite connected to Germany and Holland even though I can’t understand or speak the language as well as French or Spanish. I have never felt as comfortable in France and Spain.
Some notes for caravanners:
The Caravan Club Snooper sat nav was an expensive treat but well worth the money, being programmed with a number of campsite databases. It could be relied on to take us to the campsite entrances unerringly (except on one occasion due to a road closure, which it would not have known about), and also remembered the caravan dimensions and calculated a caravan-friendly route. We found the display hard to see in bright sunlight, and the spoken instructions could be hard to understand, particularly at motorway junctions, but as we travel as a couple, one drives and one interprets the sat nav in conjunction with the road map, it worked great for us. We used the ACSI database on the Snooper the most, in conjunction with the ACSI card and guide, at the time we travelled, which was the end of the low season, we were getting a discount of about 4 Euros per night with the card, and the ACSI sites we stayed in were of a high standard.
We chose the Stena Line Harwich to Hoek van Holland route which is probably the most direct route from Berlin, and saves some driving, although for the Rhine and Black Forest it is a bit too far north. (I still don’t know how we survived the multilane motorways out of Rotterdam without Valium.) It is a long crossing, and we stayed in Harwich overnight on both outward and return journeys. The CL Kahana at Bradfield was excellent with beautifully maintained grounds surrounded with mature trees (own san facs required). Strangers Home, the nearby pub in Bradfield, also offers pitches, but it is a busy site and the shower blocks and waste point could do with improvement. It is a friendly pub with average pub grub. We also had overnight stops in Holland on the outward and return journeys, would highly recommend both Eurocamping Vessem and Het Lierderholt. Het Lierderholt has an absolutely first class restaurant, we had wonderful tender flavoursome wild boar and venison with delicious vegetables, potatoes and salad. One of the best meals I have tasted for years, and the staff were friendly and keen to learn English, and teach us Dutch.
Campingplatz Runkel, Lahnstein. We went here as we couldn’t find our way to our intended campsite due to a road closure. At first we didn’t entirely like the look of the site as there were a lot of permanently sited caravans and the facilities are a bit dingy. Our pitch fronted on to the cycle way and river and was short, so getting the caravan in place without a motor mover would have been very tight. As it turned out though, it was a lovely spot.
Camping Bankenhof near Titisee is gorgeous, very peaceful and the facilities are excellent and very clean.
DCC Camping Gatow is the nearest site to Berlin and handy for the Kladow ferry, well organised, facilities well maintained, and you can buy your Berlin tourist travel pass from reception, which gives unlimited public transport and discounts on tickets to attractions. This comes with a thick book listing all the attractions you can visit – it is well worth studying this – and two detailed maps. Once you have these, there is no need to buy any maps or guide books. The travel ticket does not cover cycles, you can buy tickets for these from machines on the station platforms. No one checked our tickets at any time on the U-Bahn or S-Bahn, only on the ferry.
German roads are quite bumpy, even the motorways in places, and the 50mph towing speed limit, which seems a bit restrictive at first, is probably best obeyed if you don’t want the fixtures and fittings in the van to come loose. The mirror dropped off our bathroom door on the way to the first campsite…
It is worth having a few words of German such as Campingplatz, Wohnwagen, Strom (electricity), Mover (caravan mover), zwei Erwachsene (two adults), vier Naechten (four nights) etc. It’s a long time since I did O-level German, and my German is dreadful. But I found that Germans were kindly tolerant of my struggles with their language and, even if non-English speaking, did their best to communicate.
Finally – take as much time off work as you can – two weeks is not enough for a holiday in this wonderful, fascinating country!