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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Germany.

Road to Neverland

Think “road trip” and the USA springs to mind, but the first ever long-distance car journey happened in Germany. Inspired, we hit the tarmac to discover castles, eccentric kings and a little touch of magic …

“Does Cinderella live here?” asked the little girl while she pulled at the guide’s skirt and gesticulated wildly at the building ahead. It might sound like a naive question but gazing up at the white stone walls of Neuschwanstein Castle, rising impossibly from the clifftop above Pollāt Gorge. I confess that I found myself wondering that too. Its towers, topped with ornamental blue turrets, resembled upturned ice-cream cones, while the facing wall was adorned with an elaborately large balcony, the likes of which could easily stage the dosing scene of a children’s cartoon. It’s little surprise that Walt Disney famously used it as the model for the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.

Standing above the city of Füssen, this Romanesque beauty was just one of several fairytale castles I’d spied since arriving in Bavaria. It was built for King Ludwig II, a man famous for his eccentric behaviour, love of lavish artistic flourishes and disinterest in any state affairs. It was he who was responsible for making Bavaria look like it had been lifted straight oft the pages of a storybook. But it wasn’t just the architecture, or indeed Bavaria, that had got me thinking that I was in a land of make-believe.

Another tale of an equally fascinating character had brought me to the country. And like most good stories, mine had started some time ago in a city far, far away (well, over 300km away at least) in a place called Mannhiem…

“There was a massive explosion – 12 horses ran away and six chickens, two geese and a dog all perished,” my guide Melanie Kastner explained as we stood at the city centre beneath the Wasserturm, a cylindrical water tower that looked like a turret plucked straight from one of King Ludwig’s castles. She was recounting what sounded like an embellished tale of a madcap inventor called Carl Benz, who, having just patented the very first ‘Motorwagen’ (aka horseless carriage), took it on a test run along the main street of Friedrichstrasse, causing pandemonium and several animal deaths. But this wasn’t a story, this actually happened 130 years ago on the street where I was now walking.

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Carl Benz And His ‘Motorwagen’

Back in the late 19th century, the very idea that people would drive around in cars for fun was as far-fetched as the idea that a Disney princess lived in Germany. So how did he recover from this disaster? It’s all down to one woman: his wife.

Mention the name Bertha Benz, to most people and they will stare blankly at you. Visit the town where she lived and opposite the water tower where a replica of Carl Benz’s first automobile stands you’ll find a huge mural dedicated only to him. But had it not been for Bertha, his invention may have been lost to the ages, and few would deny the legacy of the woman who undertook the world’s first road trip and sold the idea of driving for ‘leisure’ to a sceptical public.

Bertha wanted to help her husband sell his new invention by showing people what it could do. So, one August morning in 1888 she crept out of their house in Mannheim with her two sons – leaving a note to Carl that read: ‘gone to see my mother’ – and took the car. She was headed to Pforzheim, a town 90km away.

“It not only broke social standards but would have been against the law too,” said Melanie as we reached a sign on the wall that discreetly marked this as the workshop belonging to Carl and Bertha – now, somewhat aptly, a garage.

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Clever, Forceful and Determined: Bertha Benz Knew How to Get What She Wanted

Weimar – Thuringia, Germany

A Provincial City as Center Stage of German Classicism

Home and inspiration to Cranach the Elder, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, and Friedrich von Schiller, Weimar is also closely associated with the much revered German poet Goethe, who lived here for close to sixty years (he penned most of his major works here, including his epic drama Faust) and is buried here.

Nietzsche spent his last years here, and Walter Gropius founded the revolutionary Bauhaus movement of archi­tecture here. Long marooned behind the Iron Curtain, its recent honoring as a European Capital of Culture has inspired a cultural and intellectual revival.

All the traditions of the fine arts, music, literature, architecture, and philosophy are kept alive in Weimar in its small museums, institutes, theaters, and festi­vals. Long protected as a cultural jewel, it went untouched by WW II bombing and was kept intact during the decades of Communist rule. New life is now being breathed into the small cobblestoned city.

Local officials are divided about the other legacy Weimar left: the Buchenwald concen­tration camp, located 6 miles north of town. Ignore it and accentuate the positive? Embrace it, acknowledge it, and then move on? Certainly the city has seen the very best and the very worst of German history.

Stay in the historic Deco-and Bauhaus-decorated Elephant Hotel, on the stage-set Marktplatz; dating from 1696, no one can remember the origin of its name, but everyone from Richard Wagner to Hitler has found lodging here. From Weimar, wrote Goethe (who celebrated his 80th birthday at the Elephant), “the gates and streets lead to every faraway place on earth.”

Lubeck – Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

Perfectly Intact, the Soul of Northern Germany

This Baltic river port has a glorious past. In the Middle Ages it was the cap­ital of the Hanseatic League, a loose-knit association of independent merchant towns in northern Europe. Its canal-girdled, redbrick Altstadt (Old Town) is steeped in the city’s rich medieval history, when it dominated the highly lucrative trading routes along the Baltic, and precious goods trickled down throughout Europe from here.

Enclosed within walls of for­tifications, gates, and a moat, Lubeck’s Altstadt is so architecturally and historically significant that it was the first city in northern Europe to have the entire town center placed on the World Heritage list by UNESCO.

One would never guess that a quarter of the center was demolished by WWII bombings, because it has so skillfully and lovingly been rebuilt. What has been left untouched serves as a memorial; for example, the bells of the Gothic St. Mary Church (Marienkirche), which crashed during an air raid, lie in shatters where they fell.

Italy probably takes umbrage at Lubeck’s centuries-old claim to originating marzipan (the town acknowledges that the sweet was first made with almonds imported from Italy). Check out the local delicacy in the celebrated old-world Cafe Niederegger, said to make the best marzipan in the world.

In spite of all the town’s beauty and history, one’s most vivid recollection might be of an afternoon spent at the cafe, immersed in their famous Nusstorte, a cream-filled cake that hints of Italian almonds.

Sylt – Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

A Former Whaling Island Becomes Germany’s Playground

This breezy little barrier island off the northern tip of Germany where Denmark begins is the status destination for the fashionable and chic of Hamburg, which is obvious from the presence of enticing boutiques, excellent restaurants, and a tiny casino. This skinny, sandy island otherwise cherishes its traditions and fragile beauty.

The largest island in the Friesian archipelago stretching from Denmark to the Netherlands, Sylt is just 1,800 feet wide at its narrowest point, its ever-shifting landscape of soft dunes and ’10 miles of sandy coastline in danger of eroding right off the face of the map someday.

It has a sizable gay and lesbian population, a famous nude beach (said to have begun the craze in the 1800s), and a relaxed lifestyle of just-caught seafood dinners in small fishing villages, summer days when yellow oilskin windbreakers are commonplace, invigorating air (often in the form of a bracing iodine-rich wind coming in off the North Sea) and restorative kick-back pastimes.

Much is made of the quality of light and the sky, which turns all shades of pastels and grays at the end of the day. Sloping straw roofs and dollhouse­like brick cottages prove that the islanders intend to keep the modem world on the main­land; biking, horseback riding, and walking are the preferred means of transportation. With just twelve villages on the 38-square-mile island, quaint Keitum is at its “green heart,” while the largest establishment is Westerland.

The latter is where you’ll find the elegant 19th-century Hotel Stadt Hamburg, evocative of a stately country estate. In addition to the Stadt Hamburg’s excellent restaurant, this small island is home to Restaurant Jorg Muller, one of the country’s finest, and a more formal alternative to the homey oyster and shrimp joints across the island where everyone knows your name.

Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten – Hamburg, Germany

Last of a Grand but Vanishing Breed

This is the stuff of which grand hotels are made. Regularly hailed not only as Germany’s best, but as one of the world’s greats, the Vier Jahreszeiten has been the only place to stay the Haerlin family. There are fresh flower arrangements the size of small forests and valuable Gobelin tapestries in the welcoming marble and rosewood lobby aptly called a “lounging hall.”

Despite the baronial size of the hotel that sits impressively on the Birmenalster, the smaller of Hamburg’s lakes (ask for the higher lake-view rooms that come with a balcony), the hotel is run with the unflaggingly obliging service of a hotel half its size: the staff is known for greeting most guests by name within minutes of arrival.

It has won every conceivable award, even after having unobtrusively passed, in 1989, from the pri­vate hands of the Haerlin family into a new corporate ownership. Hamburg, almost wiped off the map by the 1940-44 bombing raids (the hotel miraculously escaped untouched), is once again a lively hub, with the highest per capita income in Europe.

It is Germany’s second-largest city: livable, lovely, and famous for its lofty standards and luxury hotels. The Vier Jahreszeiten stands proudly at the helm of top-flight accommodations with its stellar restaurant Haerlin, on the formal side and of excellent repute (as is its prodigious wine list), while the Condi cafe or conditorei (from which the name derives), decorated in perfect Biedermeier fashion, has long been one of the city’s most popular institutions for lunch.

Quedlinburg and Hotel Theophano – Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany

A Half-Timbered Fairy Tale

On the edge of the Harz, Germany’s northernmost mountain range, lies the finest timber-framed townscape in the country, and perhaps in all Europe. Besides holding this distinction, Quedlinburg also boasts a treasure trove of medieval religious art, which is displayed in the town’s hilltop Saxon- Romanesque cathedral.

UNESCO has declared the entire town, which recently celebrated its 1,000th anniversary, a World Heritage Site. Quedlinburg was the cradle of the Ottoman dynasty, the first line of Saxon kings in what later became the Holy Roman Empire. (Heinrich I, the first German king, is buried in the cathedral.)

As a preferred residence of the emperors, this small but flourishing town also grew as a cultural, spiritual, and religious center, and much atten­tion and funds were lavished on the cathedral. The town’s historic wealth is still visible every­where, in the priceless gold and bejeweled sacred objects it exhibits and in the 1,300 hand- carved, half-timbered houses—the earliest, dat­ing back to 1310, is the oldest in Germany.

Architectural styles range from Gothic to Baroque to Quedlinburg’s own idiom: facades accented with bright blues, reds, yellows, and greens. The town miraculously escaped both Allied bombing in WWII and the redevelopment plans of the former East German government.

On the town’s main market square sits the lovely Hotel Theophano, a half-timbered land­mark created from five historical buildings from the 17th century and dedicated to the memory of Theophano, a Byzantine princess who mar­ried Otto II, the Saxon pretender to the throne, in 972.

The small hotel has been beautifully restored and decorated and it is run with warmth and ease by a young staff that aims to please. The hotel’s Weinkeller (Wine Cellar) offers memorable meals in a handsome space of vaulted ceilings warmed by soft candlelight.

Heidelberg’s Schloss – Heidelberg, Rhineland, Germany

In Germany’s Oldest University City, a Romantic Icon

In a magnificent hilltop setting of woodland and terraced gardens sits Heidelberg’s magnificent, crumbling Schloss, probably the country’s most famous castle. Sacked by French troops under Louis XIV in 1689, it has remained a dignified ruin ever since, only enhancing its romantic allure.

Painters and poets from around the world have immortalized it in picture and verse. Mark Twain described it as “the Lear of inanimate nature—deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful.” The Prince Electors had the red sandstone castle built over the course of three centuries (1400 to 1620), but it was already in ruins when “discovered” by the 18th-century Romantics who fell under its spell.

For a vision of the castle to cherish, stroll along the Philosopher’s Walk (Philosophenweg), a hill­side wooded path above the Neckar River on the opposite (north) bank, where Goethe and Hegel wandered, or hop a sunset cruise on the Neckar and take in the famous scenery.

Nestled on a historic side street off the Philosopher’s Walk is the only place you want to stay—Die Hirschgasse. The hotel dates back to 1472, and started as a tavern for the students of the local university (a tipsy Otto von Bismarck carved his name into one of the tables).

The University of Heidelberg is Germany’s oldest, founded in 1386. Mark Twain was smitten with picturesque Heidel­berg, his first stop in Europe and the first he wrote about in his famous travelogue A Tramp Abroad. Guests will know how he felt after their first night at Die Hirschgasse, in the shadow of Germany’s most romantic schloss.

Cologne’s Cathedral Quarter – Cologne, Rhineland, Germany

Two Thousand Years of European Art

The 14th-century poet Petrarch thought Cologne’s twin-towered Dom one of the finest cathedrals in the world. Take a 509-step hike to the windswept gallery high in the 515-foot south tower and you have climbed the highest church tower in the world, in its day the tallest manmade construction of any kind.

It took more than 600 years to complete the Dom. Construction was begun over some Roman ruins after Frederick Barbarossa donated the relics of the Three Magi to Cologne, establishing the city as a major pilgrimage destination. They are still on display in their original 12th-century reli­quary behind the high altar, which itself dates back to the early 14th century.

Head into the far more distant past at the nearby Germano-Roman Museum, just south of the Dom. While building an underground air-raid shelter in 1941, workers unearthed ancient Roman foundations, including a per­fectly preserved mosaic floor from a Roman trader’s villa.

Once you surface, you can head back to the future at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and the Museum Ludwig, on the other side of the Dom. Housed in a huge art complex, the Wallraf-Richartz contains paint­ ings from the 14th to the 20th centuries. The Ludwig is devoted exclusively to 20th-century art, its collection rivaled only by that of New York’s Guggenheim. In effect, you can view 2,000 years of Western art and architecture without leaving the shadow of the cathedral.

At the end of the day, put your feet up at the Dom Hotel, nestled up against the great Gothic cathedral. The Dom Hotel proudly offers suave, old-fashioned, but friendly serv­ice that few hotels even aspire to anymore, with an almost one-to-one ratio of staff to indulged hotel guests.

Deluxe rooms face the Dom Platz and have an angled view of the cathedral, which may also be admired from the glass-enclosed Atelier am Dom, the hotel’s see-and-be-seen outdoor cafe. A view like that calls for a glass of the popular Kolsch beer, a light, clear local brew. Then you have an appointment with Petersglocke, the world’s largest church bell, which tips the scales at 24 tons. When it rings out the hour, you’ll know.

The Rhine Valley – Germany

Legend, History, and World-Class Vineyards

Cutting through 820 miles of European heartland from Switzerland to the North Sea, the Rhine River does not belong to Germany alone—but don’t tell the Germans that. The span that runs through Germany—particularly the 50-mile Middle Rhine or Rhine Gorge, run­ning from Mainz to Koblenz—is where the river gained its historic importance and exhibits its greatest beauty, full of vineyard-clad banks, wooded forests, castle-topped crags, and tiny wine villages that put their best half-timbered faces forward.

The perennial question of how best to expe­rience the Rhine—by river cruise or car—is best resolved by doing both. Scenic roads hug the river banks (the Rheingoldstrasse on the left bank, Lorelei-Burgenstrasse on the right) and river-cruise lines specialize in tours ranging from a few hours to a few days.

For a side trip, the winding Mosel River (which flows into the Rhine at Koblenz) offers a magic all its own, with graceful, sleepy scenery that’s the polar opposite of the Rhine’s powerful beauty, especially along the 85-mile stretch between Koblenz and the charming, ancient city of Trier, dating from 2000 B.C. Wines from both the Rhine and Mosel regions (mostly Rieslings) are well worth your time.

Summer Music Festivals – Bayreuth (Franconia) and Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

A Bounty of Beautiful Music

For opera buffs, witnessing the performance of Der Ring des Niebelungen conducted by James Levine in the 18th-century Markgrafliches Opernhaus in Richard Wagner’s hometown of Bayreuth is something akin to nirvana.

For five weeks every summer, Wagner lovers converge from all over the world, clutching hard-won tickets for Bayreuth’s Wagner Festival. The rococo opera house shares the spotlight with the unadorned, intimidating Festspielhaus (festival house). Built and financed by Wagner, it is a high temple of music.

The enormous stage is needed for the giant casts required to pull off his grand pro­ductions. The orchestra pit is sunken, so that the music seems to float toward you from nowhere and everywhere. Nearbv. Wagner and his second wife, the daughter of composer Franz Liszt, are buried in the house where they lived.

For lovers of classical music in general, Germany’s largest summer cultural event takes place in the province of Schleswig-Holstein, in the heart of the beautiful lake district between Hamburg and the Danish border. Ever since Leonard Bernstein launched the Schleswig- Holstein Music Festival, world-class artists have marked it on their summer schedules.

Some 125 performances are given in more than forty venues, including theaters, churches, barns, a riding academy, private manor houses, and candlelit castles. Most of the program relates to two themes: the music of a single nation (recent attention has been given to Israel and the Czech Republic), and an in-depth look at the work of an individual composer.

Bernstein hoped to create a European equiva­lent of the Tanglewood Music Center, where the best of the up-and-coming generation of musi­cians profit from close contact with eminent performers; Bernstein conducted some of his last master classes here.