For our holiday break this year we took a driving tour of Germany. We rented a car in Frankfurt, and spent the majority of our time in city centers – Heidelberg, Koln, Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Munich and Zurich – and on the famous Autobahn.
We visited museums, galleries, and restaurants, explored an ancient castle, and strolled through pedestrian-friendly downtown areas and along quiet rivers. In Frankfurt we saw Goethe's house, in Heidelberg the college campus and beautiful old castle. In Koln there is a famous Dom, an Archeology Museum and a Kathe Kollwitz Museum. Along the bank of River Rhein, we went to the Haxenhaus (knuckles' house), where Barbara wrestled with a giant pig knuckle (considered a man's game) while Richard enjoyed a half-meter long sausage.
In Berlin we spent most of the day New Year's Eve haunting the Arkades mall at Potsdammerplatz and the Kulturforum where live bands played all day long amid the complex of museums. We celebrated New Year with two million Berliners at Brandenberg Gate. It was a truly phenomenal event with outstanding light shows, fireworks, beer and champagne everywhere, several main stages and 3-story TV screens. We spent the wee hours of New Year's Day driving to Leipzig, arriving in time to hear service in Thomaskirch Church where Bach was Cantor.
Dresden is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe that we have seen. The Zwinger itself is a city, a spectacular baroque palace built for August the Strong. We also enjoyed one of the best art museums in Europe and two churches that were almost bombed to the ground during World War II.
Munich seems to be the most relaxed city in Germany with all kinds of large beer halls. We enjoyed their famous beer in a 2 liter mug with wonderful sausage and sauerkraut, while listening to a Polka Band in the famous Hofbrau Haus.
We left our car in Munich and took a train to Zurich. Zurich's central district is so compact that you can walk from one end to the other in less than a hour, yet it has more bankers than dentists. The river Limmat runs through the center of the city until it flows gently into Lake Zurich. There are a lot of cafes, bars along the curly cobble stone lanes. It must be a real romantic spot in summer.
There are a few things we experienced during this trip that we want to share:
Traffic: German Autobahn is one of the best in the world. Mainly because the drivers are mostly very graceful, while driving 150-180 KM per hour in their tiny Fiats and Mercedes. We did not see a single driver on the road talking on a cellular phone, putting makeup on or eating pizza. Everybody seems to concentrate on their main business behind the wheel – driving. That makes us feel safe even though they drive fast, park fast, U-turn or back up fast, all with manual shift cars.
People's daily life: Though Germans have superior automobile technology, everybody tends to walk quite a bit, at least around the city. Public transportation is very efficient. Except a few seniors, we barely saw anybody overweight, whether because they walk a lot or eat healthier. Their grocery stores are compact compared to our Safeways though they have more than 50-60 kinds of cheese. People usually just buy what they need that day for freshness. Frozen dinner does not seem to be popular there. The contrast was shocking when back in Seattle, buying milk in local market, the fat lady in front of Barbara pays her full cart of food (frozen or not) with food stamps.
We also feel quite safe all the time walking on the streets. Barbara lost her leather gloves three times but we found them back later every time. In general, Germans seem to be formal and reserved, but also very nice and helpful. When Richard drove on city street while Barbara was studying the map trying to find the Autobahn, the people in the next car rolled their window down at the stop light to ask if we are lost and showed us the way. We can still feel the difference between West Germany and the former East Germany 10 years after the wall fell. The buildings in the west seem to be new, most of them don't have much character, while the east has a lot old buildings from before World War II but depressingly run-down. People from the east seem to be less relaxed and not as fashionable, fewer speak English. We read before our trip that east Germans held resentment toward the west, that the west made them second class citizen. We can certainly feel the atmosphere but unable to confirm with anybody locally. However, there is one thing in common, that is the children, either from east or west, are still quite holiday spirited and full of energy and hope, looking at their face, you can not tell if they are from east or west. Indeed, 10-20 years from now, maybe we can not tell the difference at all when these kids grow up. Overall, Swiss people are very neat, clean and strongly law minded. Littering and jay walking seems to be quite a crime there. Our guide book says that people living in apartment are not suppose to shower or flush toilet from 9pm to 7am, gentleman has to sit on the toilet to urinate during this period. They are also very talented with language since they have four official languages (not even including English). Most Swiss speak beautiful English and have better pronunciation than Barbara.
Food: This is very important as both of us are food lovers. Food seems to be fresh everywhere in Germany and Switzerland, they also tend to eat more meat and potatoes. We had never had so many kinds of delicious sausages and pork chops. They cook the food rather thoroughly with quite a bit of salt, yet they don't provide water unless you ask for it. You also need to ask in the right term – "Tap water". Barbara has twice ended up with club soda when she just ordered water and paid 4 marks for each glass of soda, more than Richard's beer. We decide that Germany has such good beer that people prefer that over water. Barbara could not figure out how those German young ladies, eating sausages, drinking beer, not much water and vegetables, can still keep themselves so fashionably thin, yet she gained about 5 pounds by eating their food for 10 days.
It is a great trip and way too short for us. We would like to go back again sometime in the future, especially Berlin and eastern Germany. It will be very interesting to see how the unification finally blends the two divided countries into one seamlessly.