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Offbeat Tourism in Germany

There are a lot of fascinating sights in Germany that most tourist books never mention. Here's a sampler.

A waterway in the Spreewald Nature Preserve.

For a country that's so heavily populated, Germany has a surprising number of often little known places of natural beauty, many of them in the former East Germany. Here are a few.

In the East: Waterways and Forests

The Spreewald nature preserve, 45 miles long and 10 miles wide between Berlin and Cottbus, 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 levelled 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.

Puffers in the Harz

One of the steam railways of the Harz Mountains.

The picturesque Harz Mountains have three narrow gauge steam railways. 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.

Fairy Grottoes

The "Fairy Grottoes" at Saalfeld, south of Erfurt, were 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.

In the South

Thirty minutes southwest of Munich lies the "5-Lakes" district. The Ammersee, Starnbergersee, Pilsensee, Wesslingersee and Wörthsee offer swimming, sailing, boating and canoeing. There are 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.

Ten minutes' drive east on the western shore of Lake Starnberg is Possenhofen where the ill-starred Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the beloved "Sisi" grew up. The beautiful cosort of Emperor Franz Josef was happy in Possenhofen, but her marriage was stormy and she was eventually assassinated.

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 Starnberger See 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.

Central Germany

In other once-Wittelsbach Family domains, the former Kur-Baden town of 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. Anyone interested in the maritime world will enjoy a visit. Museum institutions such as the sea water aquarium, the Wattenmeerhaus national park center, the German maritime museum, the Oceanis theme park and the whale worlds permanent exhibition in the Coastal Museum are popular attractions along the city's South Beach.

An hour away in the Hanseatic City-State Bremen, DASA - Germany's answer to NASA - assembles the EU share of the space program directly adjacent the Bremen Airport. Here the Ariane rockets and the EU portions of the giant space module are slowly coming together. Groups can actually visit the assembly area under strict security. Write to the Bremen Tourist office for details.

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 kms 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 3 consecutive NFL football fields. Adjacent the yards, peat is still farmed and exported to Ireland! The boats themselves (almost 15 storeys high -- 55 meters ) tower over the trees and flat low countryside. Watching them gliding to the sea is a really incongruous sight.