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Trip Report: Mostly Germany, Late Summer 2019

I’m ready to start planning an autumn getaway and will be asking for your sage advice, but before I do a long overdue trip report is due. I visited Germany (and a little of Austria and others) in Aug/Sep 2019 for three weeks. A few general points to establish first.

To get around, I used the 21 day global Interrail pass, which I bought using the youth discount. Before buying, I added up the cost of my intercity journeys using to see if it was worth it; they came to about the same. I saved more money using the pass by also accounting for the cost of local trains, and from not having to pay for last minute itinerary changes. I reserved seats on any journeys which took longer than 2.5 hours, at €5 a trip. The pass was easy to use, just write in the destination when you get on the train and the conductor (if there is one) will stamp it. Only once was I asked for ID.
I am a coeliac (gluten free by necessity) and also not a foodie. I was also looking to cut costs by not eating out too often. The result is that I mostly ate supermarket food, as well as fries and sundaes from McDs. So I might not be the best person to ask about restaurant reccs, but I’ll provide where I can remember if asked.

I booked accommodation using HRS, a German website. For the most part I stayed in Motel One’s, a growing German chain of budget hotels. I booked a little late and so I won’t quote prices, but nowadays the base price is about €80 pppn. Very standardised rooms which are usually in central locations. Clean and quiet, no complaints.

The pace I went at is a little faster than people here generally recommend. I agree with them in general, but this was about the right tempo for me.

Another way I tried to cut costs was by not paying into that many things. If I don’t describe the inside of something, it’s because I didn’t go in. That doesn’t mean I think you also shouldn’t. In general, my views are that of someone strolling around the city rather than someone trying to see the best a place has to offer, a mostly surface level and not at all thorough survey. In retrospect, I don’t regret travelling as I did but will probably pay in more in future.

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Day 0: Vienna
I arrived in Vienna and used my pass to get into the city in the evening. Motel One Praterstern is a little out of the way but is right beside a metro stop if you plan on using that.

Day 1: Salzburg
The 2hr train ride leaves you about a 15 minute walk from the Altstadt. The northeast bank has less going for it than its opposite, except for relatively less crowding. Friedhof St Sebastian is passingly interesting, as is the Mirabell complex. Climbing the Kapuzinerberg is not worth it, except for a view of the castle opposite which you can get from halfway up. A better viewpoint (of mountains) is on the south bank, at where google maps labels the “Richterhöhe, Mönchsberg”, which I found while searching for the Stefan Zweig museum (which was closed). After eating well (pork, sauerkraut, potatoes) at Sterbrau for a midrange price, I wandered around some more and went back to Vienna.

Days 2&3 Vienna
Passing through the generic amusement park of the Prater, I crossed the brightly coloured Innere stadt a little in love. Even though the place was swarming, I really enjoyed Vienna. To start with, St Peters is an ostentatious gem. Also ostentatious (and not generally on the tourist path) is the Soviet memorial between the Karlskirche and the Belvedere. What really struck me as the Vienna trademark was the gilding, from the inside of churches to outside structures such as the Anker Clock, Secession, the Strauss monument, and some random tunnel entrance I stumbled across. I can understand though why some find the city sterile and themepark-like.

Also worth checking out is the Kaisergruft. If filing past centuries of tombs isn’t too macabre for you, it’s a fascinating tour of how art developed from the simple medieval boxes up to the excess of the Maria Theresa tomb (about the same size as a Ford Transit), before becoming more modest as 19th century attitudes crept in and the importance of the monarchy declined. You can read a tangible, visual history of monarchical Europe here in about 30 mins, check it out. The tomb of Franz Joseph 2 and his family also make nice bookends for a visit to the Schonbrunn (get a train), where their preserved rooms are the highlight of a kind of tiring stroll through a series of half empty 18th century chambers. Getting a tour of the opera house rounded out that day for me; it’s good value, as is the ground and upper palace of the Belvedere (lower, not so much).

An exception to this rhapsody is St Stephens. It’s an old and important church that’s a symbol of the city, but compared to other churches of the same gothic style it’s not a standout. The coffeehouses as well are also culturally important but visually unremarkable. Otherwise, I enjoyed my two days here and plan on getting two more sometime in the future.

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Days 4&5 Nuremburg
One wedged train-ride later I dumped my bags in Motel One Nurnberg-City and beelined for the castle. Nuremberg, as far as tourists are concerned, is a rebuilt town contained within original medieval walls. Stylistically, it’s more medieval than other German cities, a mix of wood-and-plast (e.g. Henkersteg) and masonry. Unlike preserved towns, there is a lot of mixing of the old and new in Nuremberg; it’s not “fairytale”, but it added more than it took. Nuremberg had more of a youthful, relaxed vibe than other German cities, a mix of residential and historic. Nuremberg castle is an impressive building from which you can get a good view of the rows of orange roofs, and a memorable demonstration of how deep the well is. The castle is also pretty empty, which is authentic since emperors took their furnishings with them. The Durer house on the other hand is full of printing works and furniture, as if Durer is just in another room. While the structure is and much of the furniture is original, the layout of items within the rooms is a guess. I preferred the house. The Germanisches Nationalmuseum similarly blends the ruins of a monastery with modern aesthetics. A very good, almost exhausting museum of pretty much everything.
It’s worth seeing and I would like to spend another day or two here (maybe in winter), but next time with more exploration of surrounding Franconia.

Day 6: Day trip to Bamberg
This was a day trip from Nuremberg. It’s not far, 45 minutes at most. I know it’s a forum favourite but I’ll be up front and say I didn’t really enjoy my time here, though I think the reasons for it are mostly circumstantial. It was a heavy, humid and grey day that later broke into a thunderstorm. The massive cathedral was under scaffolding, and the rose garden was looked wilted in the heat. I couldn’t find a restaurant with gluten free food, and the staff were none too helpful.
Whinge out of the way, it’s a cute if small historic town within a student city. Really, it’s the bishops complex (also being renovated with parts under scaffolding during my visit) which dominates, and apart from the famous river Rathaus, I don’t remember much else standing out.

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Days 13, 14, 15: Saxon-Anhalt
This train ride was dispiriting; a lot of abandoned village stations. Magdeburg is not on any tourists map either, but I liked it. Maybe it was because the quiet was a nice change from Berlin, but the people here were also friendly, in a big town kind of way. The only place where cashiers chatted with customers.

The main reason I stayed here though was to visit the Harz. After a lot of flip flopping, I opted to go for Wernigerode and the Brocken, but a mix up at the train station left me in Quedlinburg instead. Same story as Bamberg and Meissen; cathedral/castle complex on a rock outcrop looms over a historic village. Of the three, this was probably my favourite. The houses have interesting details such as the dates of the timbers carved into them. The treasures in the church are terrific, a very small but worthwhile collection. The whole town is like a garden, keep an eye out though for the really old and rickety Ständerbau, and the memorial list of soldiers who died in WW2 in one of the churches; highlights just how much of bloodbath the Eastern Front was compared to the others.

After that I relocated to Leipzig, staying in a prison-like budget Ibis (good value though). Kind of underwhelming though; it’s not an ugly city, it’s just nothing stylistically I hadn’t seen elsewhere (apart from Bach’s tomb).

Day 16: Day trip to Luebeck, 60 mins in Hamburg
I had planned to go to Weimar on this day but the sameness of Leipzig to other cities made me want to see somewhere with a different architecture. Utilising the flexibility of the pass, I travelled to and from Luebeck, changing trains in Hamburg. 4 hours each way, but I was hyped to be spontaneous so I didn’t mind.
Luebeck reminded me a lot of Galway, crossed with industrial Yorkshire. Narrower streets than other German cities with buskers and a cool sea breeze. I was glad of my visit. The brick architecture of the Rathaus and city gate was strange and interesting. The broken bell in St Mary’s is a memorable feature, as is the preserved interior of the medieval hospital. If you visit Hamburg, make this a day trip.

On the topic of Hamburg, I had to pass an hour here to wait for a train. Not enough to make a judgement on the city, but my first impression was that it was loud and bustling; more like an English city.

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Day 17: To Frankfurt
Travel day, not much to say expect keep an eye out for Monte Kali, an enormous mountain of salt plopped down on the German countryside. What I saw of Frankfurt on a roasting Saturday was dirt and skyscrapers. Didn’t really explore it too thoroughly.

Day 18: Day Trip to Heidelberg
My only social day as I was meeting a friend here. What a difference it makes, even though I wasn’t wowed by Heidelberg it made a good impression as a more lived in, discount Salzburg. The castle is dramatic in a gothic way, made more so by the fire damage. Otherwise not remarkable, but a good atmosphere.

Day 19: Day Trip to Moselle Valley
I took the slow train (not the IC!) along the Rhine valley, which was good, before changing trains for the Mosel, which was better if less varied. Working backwards from Cochem, another nice if super toursited garden village, I took a brief hike through the woods to Burg Eltz. Excellent castle, and not just for the external architecture. The furnishings give the same lived in quality as the Durer house, and the (mandatory) tour was also good.

Day 20: Luzern
Coming to the end, I was thinking about what I had enjoyed most and at the time landed on the first mountain view in Salzburg, and the spontaneous trip to Lubeck. So for the last day I changed my plans again to make the most of the flexibility of the pass and took a long train ride (about 5 hours each way) down to Switzerland. Passing through, Bern seemed cute enough (Basel didn’t), but once I passed into the Alps I was very happy with my choice. Switching to the Interlaken-Luzern express, I had probably the most scenic train ride of my life as it climbed into the mountains and produced a spectacular view of the Meiringen valley below. Luzern is a spa-like town with a cute wooden bridge, was only there for 30 mins but left with a good impression.

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I think some of the report may have been caught in a spam filter or something, could the mods please release it, or should I repost it?

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Thanks for an interesting report and your observations.

Good that you visited these three uniquely interesting places , Leipzig, Meissen, Magdeburg but next time take in Weimar, regardless if it's on any tourist map....irrelevant. I've been to Weimar a few times, overnight and as day trips, one of my favourite small towns in Germany. still not enough time. I recall seeing tourists in Magdeburg, Weimar, and Meissen, exclusively German, some Russians too, especially in Weimar.

In 2009 I spent a week-end in Magdeburg, which originally I had planned only as day trip from Berlin, changed my mind basically at the last minute. The Zentrum is interesting, you do see examples of that ugly Soviet style architecture, these Mietskaserne,

Meissen is certainly worthy of your time as it's known as the "cradle of Saxony." I only went there from Dresden as a day trip, once, hardly enough time, must go back to revisit. Leipzig is well worth it if you're into the famous sites connected to the composers and other music sites.

Historically, Leipzig represents a decisive event. Until 1866 the largest battle ever fought in modern European history took place at Leipzig in 1813 where Napoleon faced the Allied armies of 4 nations and was defeated. That huge monument and its museum can be reached by the S-Bahn across from the Leipzig Hbf.

I recommend these uniquely interesting cities if one wants to see several examples of Germany cultural history.

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Thanks for reading Fred

Yes Weimar is still on my list, as is the rest of Thuringia.

I thought the crowds in Meissen (not sure if that part of the report is visible, it isn't for me) and Magdeburg were small. It was coming to the end of the peak season though.

I don't quite know what you mean by "Zentrum". I didn't really mind that big Soviet building, which ironically know has a McDonalds in it.

I didn't know about the monument when I was there, it's certainly interesting. Though for that kind of thing I'm thinking I would go see the Hercules monument in Kassel first.

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@ john2010....By "Zentrum" I'm using the German word to mean the center of the town/city, what in French is the "centre ville." Zentrum could include the old part of town (Altstadt) and/or the Stadtmitte.

Aside from seeing Weimar next time, the other place I heartily recommend in Thuringia is Naumburg an der Saale, a unique place in German cultural history, check out the famous church with the two distinctly different towers. That the city is not listed as a tourist site, so what? Depends on which guide book one is consulting. Basically an irrelevant matter. You can be sure that tourists/visitors you see on walking tours or on their own will be German. I've only been at the station to change trains, 1997 at Naumburg Hbf. Certainly, it's a city requiring 3 full days, ie 4 nights.

A suggestion on Weimar: If you don't want to rush it, I suggest spending a minimum 3 nights, basically giving yourself at least 2.5 days to see the numerous museums pertaining to the important figures in German literature, those of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Wieland, plus the town just wreaks culture, along with exploring at a leisurely pace. The city prides itself as Germany's Kulturstadt (cultural city) and Dichterstadt (the poets' city) . Historically, the monument and memorial to the German Communist leader, E. Thälmann is there. He ran against Hitler for president, got ca. 10 million votes, Hitler got more. The memorial site is a little square you run into walking from the train station to the center of town.

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@Fred, just above: I’m not sure this is quite relevant, for I’m not the “original poster,” nor is it likely that I’ll be able to visit Germany any time soon; but if either had been the case, yours is preisely the kind of advice I would have wanted. Cities that are cultural or historic centers, regardless of whether they are “authenticated” tourist sites; places where the people you see will be national locals — these are the places I’m interested in when I travel, and I’ve added your suggestions to my travels notes. (I might add that if I were seeking current travel advice, those who can toss off references to Friedrich von Schiller or Christoph Wieland would be the ones I would want advice from.)
If there’s any pragmatic point to all this, it would be: keep posting. We may be a minority, but I’ll assume that travellers like me will appreciate it.

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Thanks, John. Did you ever find out about the missing reports? I enjoyed reading how open you were to a variety of experiences, especially that last mega-train ride. So often I find myself with a to-do list and itinerary and only wake up kinda late in the game (trip) to realize I am missing spontaneity.

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@ Faedus....Thanks for the plug and the kind thoughts.

This is just my personal view: Nothing wrong or amiss at visiting. checking out "authenticated" tourist places or the typical tourist place. I do that myself too but there is a lot more, tons of it. I go for places that US and international visitors don't go or avoid. Choosing them all depends on your interests, the depth of the interests, and information obtained from locals and my level of research in digging up the information on the culture, history, architecture, and war history from 1700 on.

On Schiller: not only is his house / museum can be seen in Weimar but also in Marbach, which you access with the S-Bahn from Stuttgart Hbf., the National Schiller Museum is there.

To do Weimar justice, as pointed out above, you need three full days there, including "down time" to be spent in the outdoor cafes in the Zentrum. When one is in Weimar, one can easily see why the city is called Germany's "city of poets" with its abundance of evidence..

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Wish I would have known you were coming through Frankfurt, could have made some suggestions that would have helped you enjoy your visit. The city has such beautiful neighborhoods, markets, historical sites, and lots of greenery.

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@Fred: Once again, a travel comment I can agree with. I too may visit a Famous Tourist Spectacle, provided it's trouble-free (on my route, no advance ticket required, no queue). And I've added the Schiller museum to my notes; I wasn't aware there was one, though in Germany I might have guessed there was.

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@ Faedus.....Numerous, numerous towns/cities to see esoteric historical and cultural evidence: museums, memorials, cemeteries, plaques, houses, monuments, chateaux (Schloesser).....Bad Ems, Rastatt, Minden an der Weser, Rheinsberg. Wustrau/Brandenburg, Neustrelitz, Husum, Meissen, Naumburg, Jena, Soest/Westf., Warendorf/Westf. Stralsund, Magdeburg, Münster/Westf., Pinneberg bei Hamburg, Frankfurt an der Oder, Neuhardenberg, Schleswig.

You won't find yourself amidst the crowds here, if any visitors at all (a few), they'll be locals.