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Travelling to Germany: Books to Get You in the Mood

Travelling to Germany: Books to Get You in the Mood

Before I travel somewhere (or move there!), I like to get myself in the mood, atmospherically. This may seem excessive to some, but I read a lot, so transitioning my reading list to focus more on where I’m going adds a lot to my trip.

I have a few history books in my list, but not guidebooks. This is all about getting the feel for a place.

[amazon_image id=”B00358VI2I” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Treasure Chest: Unexpected Reunion and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)[/amazon_image]

The Treasure Chest, Johann Peter Hebel

Imagine Reader’s Digest-type stories from the early 19th century, but all centred on the southwest corner of Germany. The Treasure Chest is a collection of Hebel’s fables originally written to accompany a Lutheran calendar sold in the region. Some are funny, some are clearly meant to impart a moral, and some are just ridiculous, but it’s an easy read that brings to life some of these Black Forest villages you see out the train window.

[amazon_image id=”B00LGUF0F8″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Red Love: The Story of an East German Family[/amazon_image]

 
Red Love: The Story of an East German Family, Maxim Leo

This is a very personal story of East Germany, and how different family members managed their relationship to the state. The author digs back in his own family’s history to pull apart the narratives of his socialist hero grandfather, his journalist mother, and his artist father. It’s the first book I’ve read that really conveys the feeling of building a new world that infused the early days of the GDR after the war, and it’s fascinating to watch it go to pieces through the prism of these small stories.

[amazon_image id=”014044503X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Sorrows of Young Werther[/amazon_image]

The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

You’re going to Germany, you have to read some Goethe. I kind of love Young Werther for all its moping around, hand-on-forehead draping moodiness. The landscape descriptions are lovely, and give you a real sense of the pastoral scenes Germans of the 18th century were so enamoured with. Goethe loved the ruins of my local schloss in Heidelberg, so I admit I have a fondness for him no matter what.

[amazon_image id=”0006511260″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Royal Flash (The Flashman Papers, Book 2)[/amazon_image]

Royal Flash, George MacDonald Fraser

Now I recommend Flashman books with a very huge caveat, which is that while they are enjoyable to a certain extent, the average woman’s role in these books is terrible. Fraser wrote the screenplay for Octopussy, so that should give you an idea of what I’m trying to get at. However, this one covers Flashman’s mixup with Bismarck and delves into some interesting North German and Danish history.

[amazon_image id=”0312680686″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of Germans and Their History[/amazon_image]

Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and their History, Simon Winder

This rambling sort-of history is a good overview of the different regions in Germany, and some of the history that makes the country what it is today. I found the author’s occasionally smug, self-important Britishness a bit much sometimes, but he is quite funny. It’s clear, particularly by the end of the book, that he has a great fondness for the country.

[amazon_image id=”0746098545″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales[/amazon_image]

Illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales

This one is a great for kids coming along on a German adventure. The Brothers Grimm collected folklore in the early 19th century, and grew up in southwestern Germany. They were influenced by Johann Peter Hebel’s stories, and you can see the parallels in their description of little villages, naughty cobblers, recalcitrant blacksmiths, and so on.

I’ve made you a lovely image, so you can pin this post for later.

Germany Book collage

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Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

Visiting Rothenburg ob der Tauber with Kids

When you think of cute medieval German towns, this is the one you probably have in your mind. It was the inspiration for Pinnochio’s home village in the 1940 Disney film, and parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2 were filmed here. Founded in 1170, it has the charming subsidence-affected half-timbered buildings, cobbled streets, and my favourite thing: the city wall. You can walk along the upper walkway of the city walls, peering out arrow slits, and imagining you’re a city guard on watch (at least, my son loved doing this). The wall also affords a wonderful bird’s eye view of all the little gardens and courtyards among the red roofs of the town.

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Rothenburg’s historic significance as a perfect little medieval town has featured heavily in its recent history. During the run up to the Second World War, it became a symbol of ideal Germanness. The Nazis even organized trips to visit this ‘Most German of German towns’. In 1945, Allied bombing destroyed just over 300 houses, a few public buildings and some of the iconic city wall. However, the Americans tasked with taking the town were instructed to offer peace terms, rather than destroy it outright. The Germans stationed there agreed, against Hitler’s orders, saving the rest of the town from destruction. The houses, buildings, and wall that suffered bomb damage were quickly repaired with funds donated from all over the world. You can see bricks in the city wall with donors names.

There is a circular city walk, well-posted with signs explaining the various stops, that incorporates a good chunk of the upper city wall walk. I love self-guided city walks like this, because when you’re exploring with a small person, their unexpected requirements for toilets, food, and running around mean your carefully crafted itinerary can go out the window. Even if you thought you had accommodated lots of kid time. The beauty of Rothenburg is it’s amazing just to wander the streets, peer in the shop windows at endless carved toys, chocolates, and dolls. It’s terrifically easy to visit with small people for this reason.

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However, there are a few fun stops if your family is game. The Kriminalmuseum covers crime and punishment over the past thousand years. My seven year old was fine with it, and enjoyed it, but my husband said he thinks kids younger than seven would find it too scary (I passed and wandered around taking photos instead). The Christmas Museum is upstairs from the Käthe Wohlfahrt shop, and if you’re looking to add a few ornaments to your collection, this is an excellent place to invest.

I’ll give you a tip: don’t bother with Schneeballs. The signature sweet treat, it’s a weird ball of dough scraps, fried and covered with sugar or chocolate. That sounds like it would be good, but in practice it’s often dry and tasteless. Go for a good Käsebrezel (cheese-covered soft pretzel) instead.

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I would love to have had lunch in the Biergarten at the Reichsküchenmeister, there’s a cute little carousel right in the fenced Biergarten, and you can sit under the Linden trees and admire the church of St Jacob’s across the road. We visited in February, so it was all bare branches and inside dining unfortunately.

Getting there

It’s a 2.5-3 hour train journey from Frankfurt, and slightly longer from Munich. Driving shaves off half an hour to an hour. Public pay parking is plentiful outside of the city walls.

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Look, I made you a nice image to pin this to your holiday planning board…

visiting rothenburg with kids

 

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Visiting Burg Hohenzollern with kids

The gorgeous Burg Hohenzollern
A sentinel watches out over the countryside from Burg Hohenzollern.
A sentinel watches out over the countryside from Burg Hohenzollern.

The Hohenzollern family has a long and illustrious past in Prussia, so it might cause some confusion to find their ancestral seat down south in Baden-Württemberg. Prussia was one of their more famous holdings, but the family originated in Swabia (which is partially contained in the current state of Baden-Württemberg) near the site of this castle.

The current castle is the third to be built on the Berg Hohenzollern, and it’s more of a memorial to the might of the Hohenzollern family than a home or even a fortress. When it was built in the mid-19th century, there were upheavals all through Baden, Bavaria, and the Palatinate as the many smaller states made their shuddering way into Bismarck’s German Empire. Burg Hohenzollern version three came to be right in the middle of this, and I’m sure the giant idealized castle on a hill was a bit of a heavy-handed exercise in Making A Point.

They don’t get into it on the tour, however, probably because the castle is privately owned by the Hohenzollern family.

Burg Hohenzollern

Interestingly, neither of the previous versions of the castle were destroyed during the Thirty Years War, which ravaged so much of this end of Germany. The medieval castle built in the 11th century withstood a year of siege by the collected armies of the Swabian Free Imperial Cities, and a junior Hohenzollern brother, before it was completely destroyed in 1423. The second one was constructed about 100 years later, and it flipped around between the Habsburgs and the French before everyone seemed to lose interest in it, and it was abandoned from 1798 onwards. This is all detailed in a mural in one of the hallways inside the current castle.

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What to see and do

When you come to visit Burg Hohenzollern, you can see it from kilometres away, standing proud and exceptionally castle shaped on top of its little mountain. It does look like a very large child has dropped it from the sky.

You can approach the castle on foot from the parking lots, or by taking a minibus up for about 3 Euros. If you’re going as a family, definitely take the minibus as the walk up is an energetic hill climb, and there will be walking once you’re up there. You buy your tickets at the bottom, and they are checked as you enter the castle. You will want to arrange your places on an English-language tour when you check in at the top castle gate – it is the only way to see the interior rooms. This is a common feature of castles in the region, by the way. The tours are fairly quick, about 45 minutes or so, but buggies are not allowed inside. On the tour, the kids get to wear ‘royal robes’ which feature heavily in the family portraits on the walls, so my son was pretty chuffed about that. If you have a squirmy one under 5 years old, the tour may not be worth it. It’s worth noting you can’t take photos of any kind inside during the tour.

Burg Hohenzollern

There’s an outdoor cafe kiosk serving pommes frites, snacks, coffee, hot chocolate, ice cream, and that sort of thing in the courtyard. There are lots of tables, and it’s quite beautiful really, so if you need to kill time while someone else does the tour, it’s not much of a hardship. There’s a white tablecloth restaurant inside, but if you’re wrestling small people, this is probably not your deal either.

The winding walk up to the castle courtyard, and the exterior walks, are beautiful and afford pretty astounding views out over the countryside. The walls along the edge are not very high in places, however, and there are not the railings you may be used to, so it’s best to keep firm hold of little hands.

Taking photos of Burg Hohenzollern
Taking photos of Burg Hohenzollern

Burg Hohenzollern

The best photo spot

The dramatic photos of the castle from a distance are taken from a specific view point about a half an hour drive away. This sounds like an extra thing that is too much of a pain with kids in tow, but to be honest, there’s a good 20-minute walk up a trail before you get there, and it was a really good break from all the driving in the car. The viewpoint itself is amazing, even if you don’t take many photos, but it is very unofficial, and it’s literally a rocky outcropping with a steep drop-off. There is no railing, and it’s a bit intense. If you have a under-five that likes to dash away from you, this is best viewed back from the edge with firm hand-holding. My active seven year old was fine, and there are a few benches. We were there firmly in the off-season, and it was FREEZING, and there were three guys having beers sitting on the rocks, two other photographers fussing over their shots, and us. I can imagine this spot gets very very busy in the summer. To get there, park in the lot next to the Zollenstieghof, and take the white gravel path that goes around the back of the hotel. I found this place thanks to Be My Travel Muse. I think it’s really worth finding this spot, the drive there is through several picturesque little German towns and the walk is lovely. The view is truly breathtaking, coming out of the trees and seeing this spread out before you.

Where to eat: Ochsen

While driving home, we decided to find somewhere other than a fast food place, and a rapid translation of German Yelp netted us this local gem in Balingen. Ochsen is a very local place. Like ten tables, and at least three of them seem to know each other in that neighbours running into each other at the grocery store kind of way. The single waiter was very friendly, and we had a selection of Swabian dishes that were wonderful. Pork and beef in paprika sauce, käsespätzle (noodles with cheese sauce), and excellent pommes frites. There’s a small kids menu too. You’re going to need your Google Translate ready to go if you can’t read German – there are no English menus and we had all our conversations with the waiter in (simple) German. It’s also cash only, but there’s a ATM just up the road. Walk off your meal in the beautiful village of Balingen, with half-timbered houses all over the place. This is not on any tourist trail, so enjoy this little corner of the proper Swabian countryside.

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Six months in: Finding our feet

Six months in: Finding our feet

We’ve been living in Germany for six months now, and it feels like we’re finding our feet. Our son has settled into school well, and the German words are flowing a bit more often (as are his corrections to our German!). Letters from the bank are less confusing, and I’m pretty good when faced with a wall of German signage.

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Our German washing machine

It’s very isolating, walking around and not being able to exchange small talk with the person next to you in any way. I can make my way through most cashier interactions – asking for a bag, understanding how much things are (just about), and saying have a nice day and goodbye. If I have time to plan ahead, I will work out what I need to say but I get flustered very easily. It’s ridiculous, everyone is incredibly patient and friendly about my halting German. More than friendly, nearly everyone seems thrilled I want to learn. Of course, they also want to practice their English, so it can be a battle to get someone to keep speaking German with you.

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As the weather slowly warms up, I’ve noticed the tourists starting to appear. Our little city has nearly 12 million tourists come through every year, so by next month I expect to see many more. We spend most of our time outside the Altstadt where most people go, but it makes me smile seeing people standing on our bridge and taking photos. Even when they back into the bike lane. I swore in German the other day when it happened, so that’s a step forward I suppose!

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Flammkuchen, mid-devouring

The food thing has been the hardest adjustment. German food is very regional, so what you hear about as ‘German’ in other countries is often only a very small window into what’s available. Where we live, there is a lot of Flammkuchen, which you can get in France in the Alsace and Lorraine region as tarte flambé. It’s a kind of flatbread, baked in a wood-fired oven, with creme fraiche, lardons (bacon), and leeks or onions. It can be very rich, it’s not something I eat regularly. There are the sausages, of course, and there seems to be quite a bit of weißwurst around, the Bavarian white sausage. Frankfurt has a vinegary green sauce that they apparently put on everything, I quite like it really. Swabia has its own distinct cuisine, but they are a bit east of us, so I don’t think I’ve had proper Swabian food yet. Because we are so close to France, we get quite a few very good patisseries and cheese shops, one of which he asks to stop at every day on our bike ride home from school. He and I often have a dinner that mainly involves half a baguette each, smeared with good cultured French butter and sea salt, when my husband is away.

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Post-school quarkballchen break at the French patisserie

I end up making a sort of hybrid meal of things I’ve learned here, with what’s available, from recipes I know from living in Canada and the UK. Strange things are difficult to find: broccoli is often sitting yellow on the shelf, and if it is green, it turns yellow within a day when I get it home. The ubiquitous-in-Vancouver kale is not often in the shops either. Cabbage, of course, in many, many varieties, is everywhere and very fresh. I’ve adjusted to using Savoy cabbage in place of kale. We’re on the edge of a wonderful wine region, so I take every opportunity to try out the local product.

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Walking home from school

My son gets a hot lunch served at school, and occasionally I hear reports of potato dumplings or pancakes for lunch with ham and cheese in them. I’m pretty sure he’s had more of the local cuisine than we have.

I wonder sometimes, will he remember Canada if we stay here until he is older? I was keen for him to experience Canada when we moved from London back to Vancouver. We don’t know when we will go back, but I can easily imagine him turning 10 before we do so. Seven through ten are such formative years, how funny to think he will experience them here. As I watch distressing things happening in the news, I think it can only be a good thing to feel yourself a citizen of the world, and meet as many different people as you can when you’re young.

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Day out in Ulm

Day out in Ulm

I spotted photos of the library at the Wiblingen Monastery on Pinterest, often included in Libraries to See Before You Die lists. When I looked it up on a map, it was only a two-hour drive away, so we checked the off-season schedule and drove over at the weekend.


IMG_5518 IMG_5560The Wiblingen Monastery was founded in 1093, and was the home of Benedictine monks from the Black Forest and surrounding area. In 1714, they undertook a massive renovation, which is where we get all the spectacular and over the top Baroque details. The library itself was incredible. Unheated, in the winter it is a bit freezing. While we were there, a couple was having photos done and the woman in the strapless dress must have been losing feeling in her arms. There is a museum in the Abbey as well, with audio guides in English. There are plenty of beautiful illustrated maps of the area, huge wax seals, and other ephemera. We found this fascinating, but we also live nearby, so it may not be as exciting if you’re visiting from afar – though if you’re in Ulm, it’s well worth a visit. If you’re visiting in the off-season, check their site to see what’s open and when.

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The Ulm Minster is impressive, to say the least. A classic extended building project, the foundation stone for the church was laid in 1377, but the final building wasn’t finished until 1890. As with many building projects in southern Germany, the Thirty Years War derailed everything. Incredibly, the Minster was not damaged in WWII, though most of the medieval town was destroyed.

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A totally unplanned stop on our day trip was the Museum dur Brotkultur, which translates literally to the Museum of Bread. This sounds hilarious initially, but the role of bread through history is quite central. There are three floors of bread-related history displays, and they provide English-language audio guides as well as a children’s audio guide, which was a big hit. It’s a short walk from the Ulm Minster, and I really recommend it.

Unfortunately it was freezing out, and we didn’t get a chance to find anywhere to eat in town, so I have no suggestions on restaurants I’m afraid! There are the usual little backerei around where you can get soft brezel and sandwiches of course.

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