Hear the fascinating stories behind some of the Germany’s most intriguing sights – from the Berlin Wall and the Cologne Cathedral to Oktoberfest and Roman Germany. Below are some of the stories you will discover for yourself while on a Germany Vacation.
Berlin Wall: The top question of any visitor to Berlin is - Where’s the Wall? In short, it’s gone. After Die Wende (the term used to describe the reunification Germany), the 155-kilometer ring around West Berlin went the way of most useless masonry – it was torn down to make space for new construction. (Berlin has been a construction site for years, its skyline pierced by building cranes). The longest existing piece of the Wall (one kilometer) is on Mühlenstraße, but perhaps not for long. In the 90s, artists painted murals on the concrete and created what became the open air East Side Gallery. Some of these murals were recently torn down, and the fate of the rest is uncertain. The city of Berlin is reluctant to protect them.
After all, the Berlin Wall was nothing to be proud of. At least 125 people died trying to cross it, some of them dying in the eastern zone before the eyes of Allied personnel powerless to help. The observation towers, the bunkers, the dog runs, the metal fencing -- all of it is gone, but not the rift between East and West Germany. Few Germans today would say the Die Wende has been a complete success. Many parts of East Germany still lag behind the west in employment and wages and thus prosperity. Even without the wall, the united Germany is still under construction.
Cologne Cathedral: When a resident of Cologne returns after even a short stay outside the city, it just isn’t home until they’ve seen the black towers of the “Dom” against the sky.
Germany’s largest gothic cathedral can’t be described with the usual words – monumental, awe-inspiring, beautiful, majestic. It’s more than that. It’s been known to perplex visitors about what makes this cathedral so visually overwhelming.
Its height has something to do with it – 515 feet of sandstone blackened by time and exhaust fumes. Or maybe it’s the Dom’s location, the feeling that a massive 13th Century gothic church was dropped out of the sky into the center of modern Cologne, a stone’s throw from the central train station and the shops on Hohestrasse.
Inside, the mind-boggling beauty of the place hits visitors again. The arches, slender columns and buttressed ceiling force you to look up. Unearthly light glows from the stained glass windows. The chapels in the ambulatory, the oldest part of the cathedral, hold one treasure after another: the Gero Crucifix from 970, a massive carving of the lifeless Christ, and the golden Shrine of the Three Magi behind the choir, which made the Dom one of Europe’s most important pilgrimage sites in the Middle Ages.
The Kölner Dom’s magnificence isn’t easy to describe. Photos don’t do it justice. It just has to be experienced – like Notre Dame or St. Peter’s Basilica – to be believed.
Oktoberfest and German Clichés
Oktoberfest: Munich is the mother of all drinking festivals. It might just also be the origin of a slew of clichés about Germans and their culture.
Take lederhosen. It just wouldn’t be Oktoberfest if there were no men in short leather overalls celebrating under the massive blue and white Oktoberfest tents. Lederhosen are a traditional costume tied to the German-speaking Alpine regions since the middle ages. Outside of Bavaria, the occasional lederhosen-wearing gentleman may appear in public, but it’s rare and the men are probably over 60.
Oompah music played by a band of tubas and trumpets while beer drinkers link arms and sway to the oom-pah beat is another must-have at Oktoberfest. Does that mean Germans from Berlin to the Black Forest break out the tuba at the first opportunity? Hardly. Schlager is the music of choice when Germans gather to celebrate. These syrupy pop hits from the 1950s to today are branded into the minds of most Germans, who sing along once the beer is flowing.
Speaking of beer, the beer stein is a favorite souvenir from Germany – the stein with its hinged lid was a 15th century Bavarian attempt to keep the flies away during plague times. But today, if Germans aren’t drinking their beer out of the bottle, they drink it out of a glass – so finding a classic stein outside of a souvenir shop or selected areas of Bavaria is hard.
At Oktoberfest, beer is served in a Maß, a liter of lager in one fat glass mug. (Beware: Some bartenders at the festival short change you on beer, filling half the glass with foam.)
Munich, Germany’s Secret Capitol
Munich: The only German metropolis that seems to have everything – wealth, beauty, prominence, fame. Some even call it Germany’s “secret capitol.”
Unlike Berlin, which some dub “architecturally challenged,” Munich bursts with historical buildings reconstructed after the devastation of World War II. Its grand Residenz, the former home of Bavarian kings, dominates the city center, which also boasts the flamboyant, gilded Cuvillié Theater. Nearby, the neo-gothic Neues Rathaus gives a medieval touch to the Marienplatz, the heart of Munich.
Not only does the city look good, it also entertains the masses – 70 million people visit Munich every year, making the “secret capital” second only to Berlin for tourism in Germany. The Christmas market on the Marienplatz draws more than three million people each year, and the Oktoberfest on the Theresienwiese averages seven million. Also, the Olympiapark, which was built for the 1972 Olympics, was until recently home of FC Bayern Munich, Germany’s most successful (and richest) soccer team.
Of course, Munich is not without its simple pleasures. On a sunny day, visitors and residents alike find the perfect activity to be a stroll through Munich’s magnificent English Garden, Europe’s biggest city park. After a day of sightseeing, there’s nothing like a cold “Weizenbier” and a bit of oompah music under the Chinese Tower at the park’s famous beer garden.
Roman Germany: Two thousand years ago, the Rhine River served as an official border. To the west: Roman civilization with settled towns and blossoming culture. To the east: the dark forests of the German tribes, which refused to be conquered. To protect its empire, the Romans built a string of towns along the Rhine – cities that today owe their existence to Imperial Rome.
One example is the city of Cologne (called Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium by the Romans). It was a provincial capital beginning in 50 A.D., when the Emperor Claudius’ wife, Agrippina, insisted that her birthplace receive the respect it deserved. Today, it boasts the best museum of Roman artifacts in Germany.
The ancient city of Trier (Augusta Treverorum) chose a Roman monument as its landmark. The Porta Nigra, a massive city gate, got its name from the blackened sandstone blocks that comprise its structure.
Mainz, though known in modern times because of Gutenberg and his moveable type, was for centuries known as a Roman garrison town, home of legionaries and war ships. Its military origins mean that Mainz doesn’t have the monuments of Cologne or Trier – but visitors can still see the ruins of the First Century Temple of Isis and Mater Magna under the Römmerpassage shopping center.
From the spa culture of Baden Baden (ancient Aquae) to the vineyards of the Middle Rhine, Romans left their mark on western Germany. If not for a military disaster, they might have settled further east. However, in 9 A.D. Germanic tribes decimated an army of the Emperor Augustus, forcing the Romans back to the Rhine for good.
A Short Wine Guide
Wine Guide: Historically, Germany’s wine has suffered with an “inferiority complex” fueled by the reputation of wine powerhouses France and Italy. And in modern times, they’ve tacked of “how to compete with a Bordeaux or a Chianti” by improving quality, while keep prices reasonable. Finally, German vintners are starting to reap the rewards. The world famous Riesling region, centered on the Rhine and its tributaries and in eastern Germany near Dresden, is the biggest success story to come out of Germany’s 13 wine growing regions. White grapes form 80 percent of the harvest, but reds are on the rise, as well as the general reputation of German wines.
Here’s an overview of the major grapes:
Riesling: Known and loved across the globe, the Riesling is an elegant white wine that sometimes has an aroma of peaches or apricots. The mid-priced varieties are good with almost any meal. The best come from the Moselle and Rheingau tributaries.
Müller-Thurgau: This white grape produces plain wines with less character than the Riesling. Grown everywhere, Müller-Thurgau generally has a nuttier, riper taste than the Riesling.
Spätburgunder: Germany’s Pinot Noir, this grape yields the best German red wines and may be the next German export to hit the world’s palette. Excellent examples grow on the steep slopes of the Ahr River and in Wurttemberg.
Silvaner: This dry white wine is a specialty in the vineyards of Franconia around Würzburg. It has a sour apple taste that is good with meals or mixed with mineral water as a Weinschorle.