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The Best of Germany

Germany is a treasure trove of things to do and see. Here's our selection of what lies in store for the traveler.

Father Rhine

The "Romantic Rhine," is the quintessential German tourist area. While other German rivers may be longer or wider, none has the fascination of the Rhine, the great waterway that has inspired Germany's greatest poets, artists and composers to extol its virtues and warn of its dangers.

Starting in the 1820s, Lord Byron's writings inspired the English to come in droves to admire the heady views from the Lorelei and the Drachenfels. Heinrich Heine, probably Germany's greatest Romantic poet, praised his beloved waterway and its mountaintops bathed in sunshine while bemoaning post-Napoleonic political oppression. The four operas of Richard Wagner's enormous Ring of the Nibelungen cycle center on the conflicts over the "Rhinegold," a hoard of treasure at the bottom of the river guarded by the innocent "Rhine maidens." Robert Schumann's Rhenish Symphony portrays the grandeur of the Rhine orchestrally.

The Rhine's castles inspire flights of fancy, as do its steep hillside vineyards, which produce five of Germany's 13 wine-growing appellations: Rheingau, Mittelrhein, Rheinhessen, Baden and Pfalz. Despite industrialization and cities like Basel, Strasbourg, Mannheim, Mainz, Wiesbaden, Bonn, Cologne and Düsseldorf, the Rhine remains romantic and there are still plenty of bucolic stretches with beautiful countryside.

Castles and vineyards

The center of activities is the mid-Rhine region, between Mainz (www.mainz.de) and Koblenz. This is where we find the storied castles and vineyards, and the part of the Rhine that visitors enjoy exploring by the riverboats that ply it frequently during the summer. These floating cafes stop at least every hour, permitting visitors to disembark for some sightseeing or a meal. After that they can continue their trips on the next boat, return to their starting point on the next boat or speedily return to their starting point by train. There are also long distance boats on the Rhine, which offer, among other things, a five-day trip from Amsterdam to Basel.

Favorite stops along the way include St. Goarshausen and Rüdesheim. It is near St. Goarshausen that we find the fabled Lorelei rock, from which lovely maidens are said, with their songs, to have lured transfixed sailors to their deaths on the rocks. You'll know you're there because the ship's PA system plays the haunting, ethereal Loreleilied, softly at first then louder and louder as the treacherous rock grows nearer.

Rüdesheim is a picturesque wine town. Its main "fun street," the Drosselgasse, is incredibly narrow. The town also has a wine museum and a cable car up to a monument dating from the 19th century. A huge statue of Germania looks across the river toward the eternal enemy, France, and a sign at the base assures the people that "fast stands and true the watch, the watch on the Rhine!"

It is also on the mid-Rhine that you can see the "Rhine in Flames" spectacles, with fireworks, fanfares and floodlighting of picturesque sights. A fleet of brilliantly illuminated Rhine boats sits out in the water, affording passengers a unique vantage point to view it all while dining and dancing. "Rhine in Flames" is staged each year around Bingen in July, around Koblenz in August and around St. Goar and Oberwesel in September.

Just to the south of the mid-Rhine is Wiesbaden, a noted spa and health center which reached its zenith near the end of the 1800s. Its many villas and magnificent Kurpark give witness to its elegant past.

A principal tributary, the Main, joins the Rhine near Wiesbaden. A short distance up the Main is Frankfurt, Germany's commercial center and site of the airport that affords many visitors their first glimpse of Germany.

Carnival and politics

The Rhine also has a political aspect, and it is reflected in the river's famous Carnival, or "fifth season" of the year, with its pranks, noise, madness, satire and parody. It has always been much more than pre-Lenten high jinx. In the 19th century it was a thinly disguised means of expressing opposition and anger towards political repression.

The riverside cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf have some of the biggest and most famous Carnival celebrations. Many people, however, think the Carnival celebration in Mainz is the best of them all.

Also a Rhine-side city, Mainz, is the capital of the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, which has contributed as much to German wine lore as any other state. Some of the lesser Rhine wine towns are in the state, but most of the better Pfalz wine is grown elsewhere. It is in this state that we find the Deutsche Weinstrasse, a string of pleasant wine towns running from Bockenheim, near Worms, to Schweigen, on the French border. The main city of this Wine Road is Bad Dürkheim, where a giant wine barrel has been made into a restaurant, and where Germany's biggest wine festival, the Wurstmarkt, is held each year.

Mosel and Weinstrasse

The most celebrated of the Rheinland-Pfalz wine areas, however, is the Mosel. The German part of this river zigzags about 160 miles from Koblenz to the Luxembourg border. It is at Koblenz, in Rheinland Pfalz, that the Mosel meets the Rhine. The confluence, called the Deutsche Eck, is dominated by a giant equestrian statue, and the celebrated Wine Village is nearby. Riesling wines from the Mosel are making a comeback, after having been neglected for decades, The slate soil and sunny conditions on the steep hillsides account for the wine's piquant, racy flavors. It goes well with salty appetizers, creamy sauces or even, in the case of Spätlese (late harvest), with the stronger flavors of game and spicy oriental foods.

The Mittel Mosel is anchored in Cochem, about halfway along its length. The famous castle, towering 600 feet above the steep vineyards, is its landmark. You can get a good workout by hiking up to it. What better way to pique your appetite and enjoy a legitimate thirst for Riesling? The wine and good family cooked meals can be had at one of the many Besenwirtschaften found along the Mosel. You can recognize one by the broom hanging out in front. Visit their website at: www.cochem.de.

The equally impressive Mosel wine towns of Dhron, Kröv, Bernkastel, Wehlen, Traben-Trarbach and Trittenheim, are minutes away from Cochem. A river cruise is the best way to take in the entire area.

Beyond Rheinland-Pfalz, up against the French and Luxembourg borders, is the small state of Saarland. It's usually looked upon as a gray industrial zone, but this may be misleading. The capital city, Saarbrücken, has an international flavor. The Saar River, a tributary of the Mosel, which gives the state its name, is pleasant and is being promoted for boating and for a bike trail that follows it through its entire length in the state.

Saarland is also respected as a brewing area. One of Germany's best known manufacturers of fine porcelain, Villeroy and Boch, is located in Mettlach's 250-year-old Benedictine abbey, which in turn gives its name to what is said to be the westernmost brewery in Germany. Mettlacher Abteibräu is brewed and served in a pleasant brewpub. The Ceramic Museum at Schloss Ziegelberg, near Mettlach, has a collection of beersteins.

Way Down South

Bavaria also draws many tourists. Thirty minutes southwest of its capital city of Munich lies the "Five-Lakes" district. The Ammersee, Starnbergersee, Pilsensee, Wesslingersee and Wörthsee offer swimming, sailing, boating and canoeing. There's plenty of easy hiking trails and forest paths. The Andechs Monastery on the "Holy Mountain" is famed for its powerful beers, exquisite Baroque church, rich concert programs, and fine view of the Alps.

One of the best ways to enjoy this area is by historical horse-drawn period carriages with drivers in full costume or livery. Bavaria's "navy" -- a series of electric and steam boats plies the shores of Starnbergersee and the Ammersee. A rental bike program through the Deutsche Bahn allows you to S-bahn out from town and pedal to your heart's content, return the bike, and head for home.

The Starnbergersee has royal associations. It was on its western shore, at Possenhofen, that the ill-starred Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the beloved "Sisi" grew up. And there is an even greater association with Bavaria's "Mad King" Ludwig II. He was deposed in 1886 because he had totally retreated into unreality and showed no interest in state affairs. Shortly after that, under mysterious circumstances that remain unclear to this day, his dead body was found floating in the Starnbergersee. There is a chapel dedicated to him on the lakeshore and a cross in the lake where his body was found.

The best reminder of Ludwig, however, is near Fuessen in the Alps. It's the "fairy tale castle" Neuschwanstein, which, as most know, isn't an authentic medieval castle at all. The king, an impractical dreamer, had it modelled after the storybook illustrations. Ludwig is the subject of a musical comedy Fuessen presents each summer in a specially built theater on the shore of a lake. It's entitled Ludwig II -- Longing for Paradise, and subtitles in English are projected above the stage.

Fuessen, in the alpine "Königswinkel," is also a spa, noted for mud pack treatments, and has an authentic old castle, Hohenschwangau. It's either the starting point or the ending point of still another Bavarian attraction, the Romantic Road. It depends on which way you're traveling. The Romantic Road links up a number of nicely preserved medieval towns, including Rothenburg, Dinkelsbühl and Nördlingen.

There are also interesting parts of Bavaria to the north of Munich. Ludwig II was likewise associated with Bayreuth, a city permeated with the spirit of Richard Wagner. Ludwig, a great fan of Wagner, aided the composer in the construction of the Festspielhaus, which was built especially for performances of his epic operas. Wagner designed it himself, feeling that no theater in Europe had a stage big enough to accommodate the huge casts he demanded. It's a plain place. The seats aren't upholstered and there are few decorations on the walls. These, he felt, would interfere with the acoustics.

It is also at Bayreuth that we find Wahnfried, the house where Wagner and his wife Cosima lived, and where they are both buried. Cosima was the daughter of Franz Liszt, who also lived in Bayreuth and is buried there.

Down the Isar from Munich is Landshut, overlooked by the big Burg Trausnitz. It makes a pleasant medieval impression, with its arcaded old city. This is the site, every four years, of the reenactment of a huge, gala royal wedding in 1475. The Martinskirche has the world's tallest brick church tower, and a very popular activity for visitors is cycling along the pleasant banks of the Isar.

The crowds at the royal wedding reportedly consumed, among other things, 323 oxen, 285 pigs, 1500 lambs and 40,000 chickens. This, it would seem, established a tradition with echoes in the present day. The famed Michelin Guide has presented a star, the first ever in Lower Bavaria, to AndréGreul of Landshut's Romantik Hotel Fürstenhof.

AUGSBURG: Still A Renaissance Gem

The 2000-year-old imperial city of Augsburg is the third largest city in Bavaria, a university city, the seat of the Swabian government and an important economic center. Founded in 15 B.C. by the Romans, Augsburg, along with Trier and Kempten, is one of Germany's three oldest cities.

Augsburg is a beautiful city that still maintains a large degree of its Renaissance character despite World War II damage. The highlight is the Maximilianstrasse, which features many fine houses with fancy Renaissance gables and three magnificent fountains.

Just off this main street is the Fugger. Known as the "Town within a town", it was founded in 1516 by Jakob Fugger and his brothers as the world's first social settlement for hardworking, honest but impoverished Catholics. The settlement comprises 67 two-storey structures housing 147 apartments, a church and a simple, elegant fountain. The yearly rent is, to this day, one Rhinish Gulden, equivalent to about €0.88. Daily recitation of The Lord's Prayer for the founders remains part of the house rules.

The Rathaus, or Town Hall, built by the City Architect Elias Holl between 1615 and 1620, is the most important secular Renaissance structure north of the Alps. In 1985, on the occasion of Augsburg's 2000-year jubilee, the Golden Hall, with its imposing portals, gold-leaf coffered ceilings and murals, was extensively restored.

Augsburg takes great pride in a "Mozart connection." and considers him one of its own; a native son, once removed. It was the great composer's father, Leopold Mozart, also a celebrated teacher and published music pedagogue, who was born there in 1719. His patrician house is now the Mozart Memorial. Its exhibits include a Stein pianoforte.

For more rigorous entertainment, Augsburg's National Forest Preserve, hiking trails, and water sports areas along the Lech are delightful in the warm months. Plentiful cross-country skiing and proximity to the Alpine foothills and the magnificent Alps are favorite winter draws.

Visit the East

The former East Germany, long largely hidden from western tourists, is making up for lost time. Among other things, it is full of reminders of Martin Luther and the Reformation. Luther's grave is at Wittenberg, where he posted his 95 theses to the church door. There are also reminders of him at Eisleben, which is the site of both his birth and death, and at the Wartburg Castle at Eisenach. It was at the Wartburg that he hid out after being denounced at the Diet of Worms and did his translation of the New Testament, which was the basis for modern High German.

The reunification of Germany has also made the three narrow gauge steam railways of the Harz Mountains accessible to the western visitor. The Harzquerbahn runs from Nordhausen to Drei Annen Hohne with many curves and steep grades, providing views of forest and deep valleys. The Brockenbahn runs from Wernigrode to the summit of the Brocken, the highest mountain in the Harz, whiile the Selektalbahn runs from the very picturesque, half-timbered town of Quedlinburg to Eisfelder Talmühle.

There are numerous special arrangements, with hiking, restaurant meals and outdoor grills, which can be booked in conjunction with a ride on one of the old puffers.

Very near to the Harz is the impressive town of Quedlinburg. Its 1,200 half-timbered buildings make it such an architectural gem that UNESCO has declared it a "World Heritage City." There are modern amenities within, but a step outside transports you to another era. The sacred treasures housed in the St. Servati church alone make a visit worthwhile. They include a jewel-encrusted gold-on-silver Bible that was stolen by an American officer entrusted with its safekeeping following WWII, and returned for a ransom of some two million dollars by his heirs in Texas.

Fairy Grottoes

A bit to the south of the Harz, at Saalfeld, are the "Fairy Grottoes," which have been declared "the most multicolored grottoes in the world" by the Guinness Book of Records. They have chambers, accessible through tunnels, that bear such fanciful names as "Fairytale Cathedral" and "Holy Grail Castle."

The grottoes are located in a park-like area, surrounded by forest, with restaurants and a children's playground. The visitor can take a coach ride, see mineral exhibits and watch such handicraft skills as glass-blowing and pottery.

This unusual attraction started as a slate mine, which operated from about 1530 to about 1850 for the production of alum and vitriol for use in medicines and for tanning leather. When the mine was reopened in 1910 it was found that the interaction of water and minerals had created a rainbow of color.

The grottoes are also plugged as a place of healing. The cool, humid, unpolluted air in them is said to be beneficial for ailments of the respiratory tract. A specially equipped area has been set aside for this purpose.

The Spreewald nature preserve, 45 miles long and 10 miles wide between Berlin and Cottbus in the former East Germany, is an area of islands, swamps, waterways and forests. It's so hospitable to wildlife, including 500 storks, that UNESCO has declared it an important biosphere.

There are 40 lakes and ponds and 250 miles of waterways, which means that the area is best explored by boat. You can ride an excursion boat or rent your own paddleboat or canoe. In addition to hotels, the area has many campgrounds and a number of farms that take guests.

The area was formed when glaciers so leveled the land that the Spree River, which had carried a great deal of water, could no longer stay within its banks. The water flows so slowly that the whole area is an excellent breeding ground for fish, and the local cuisine leans heavily to tried and true ways of preparing pike, trout, carp and eel. Spreewald Bitter is a liqueur made from a blend of the local herbs.

For a complete change of scenery within the former East Germany, go to the Hanseatic coast of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. It beckons to those who yearn for the sea, fresh salt air and seafood. There are endless beaches and 1700 lakes in this area, which also was the seat of the Hanseatic League. The magnificent, red brick architecture of Wismar bears witness to the wealth of this powerful trading organization, which dominated Baltic shipping for centuries.

Central Germany

Schwetzingen, midway between Heidelberg and the Rhine, produces a monster July summer party with ten or more live bands. It takes place on the Palace grounds. The extensive formal gardens and wooded areas are open throughout the year for promenades and relaxation. The annual May Concert Festival coincides with the height of the German asparagus season for which Schwetzingen is world-renowned. Mozart loved the Schloss and its musicians, and you will, too!

Way up north

Wilhelmshaven, home of Germany's largest Navy base dates back to Imperial times. The town on the Jade-Bay has Germany's largest tanker port and miles of beach. The new Coastal Museum tells you all about life on the seashore. There's a restored house typical of the Watt, the broad tidal flats on the edge of the North Sea; plus a Marine Museum, an exhibit on whales and an aquarium. The city also offers harbor tours on historic ships.

West of Bremen, along the Ems River, is the town of Papenburg. Here, brand new 83,000-ton cruise ships, and monstrous cargo and tanker ships are launched some 60 kilometers from the North Sea from the B. Meyer Shipyards. Construction times are being reduced to just a year for these floating hotels destined for the Caribbean and the Pacific. Built indoors on two parallel construction docks, future ships will soon exceed 300 meters, more than the length of three consecutive NFL football fields. Adjacent the yards, peat is still farmed and exported to Ireland! The boats themselves (almost 15 stories high -- 55 meters ) tower over the trees and flat low countryside. Watching them gliding to the sea is a really incongruous sight.