10 things you should know before going to Berlin

Berlin, Berlin…What can we say about you? To explain it to Americans is to say it is a mix of New York and Washington. It is both a haven for policy wonks and government interns, but also stays up all night and attracts those searching to live an alternative lifestyle. So before you go, here’s what you should know about Germany’s capital.

Carnival of cultures

By any standard, Berlin is an international city. Its population, albeit ever transient, is made up of 13% people of a non-German background. In fact, Berlin has the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey! Much like New York, Berlin’s collection of cultures is reflected in their food offerings—with Turkish, Japanese, and Greek food as commonly found as traditionally German restaurants.

Berlin wasn’t always the capital

Bonn was the capital of West Germany previous to the fall of the wall. Berlin became the official capital of a reunified Germany in 1990.

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10 facts you didn’t know about Cologne

  1. Looks Aren’t All that Matters

Cologne is not the most picturesque city one can imagine. We admit it lacks the sprawling old town and magnificent castles that many acquaint with Germany. But whilst much of the city was destroyed during WW2, the area surrounding the banks of the Rhine immediately by the Dom (Cathedral) still boasts various beautiful buildings. Besides, as we all know, it’s what’s on the inside that counts and you would be hard-pressed to find a friendlier city in Germany!

  1. Kölner Dom

The one huge exception from the above-mentioned rule, is Cologne’s crown jewel; the Dom. As Germany’s most visited landmark, this magnificent cathedral has drawn people to the city for decades. At 157m, it is the tallest twin-spired church in the world and attracts between 20,000 and 30,000 visitors a day.

  1. Three Wise Men

According to legend, the relics of the Three Wise Men are housed in the golden Shrine of the Three Kings in the Cologne Cathedral.  They were transferred there by Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor in 1164. To honor the Three Kings, the coat of arms of Cologne prominently incorporates three golden crowns.

  1. Universität zu Köln

Founded in 1388, the University of Cologne missed out on the title of oldest German University by just two years to Heidelberg. It is nevertheless one of the oldest universities in all of Europe and boasts over 50,000 students, making it the second largest university in Germany.

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In Germany, swimming in Flussschwimmbäder (“river swimming pools”) is part of the culture

When it’s hot outside, where do you go? Some of you may go to your local pool. If you’re lucky, you may even be near a beach.

But for Germans, the answer is often a nearby river – or a so-called Flussschwimmbad (“river swimming pool”).

There are plenty of clean rivers to swim in throughout the German countryside. But in recent years, German cities have made an effort to convert city rivers into swimming areas. For example, the Flussbad project in Berlin is an initiative to transform an unused part of the Spree River into a giant swimming pool that is equivalent to 17 Olympic pools. This “will provide a public urban recreation space adjacent to the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Museum Island, for both residents and visitors,” according to the foundation planning the project.

But for now, Berlin already has the so-called Badeschiff (“swimming ship”) – a pool that floats in the River Spree and allows visitors to feel as though they are in the river already.

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Some German cities, however, are already home to clean rivers for swimming. In Munich, for example, many residents choose to cool off in the Isar River in the hot summer months. Part of the Isar River is even used for surfing!

For those who want a well-manicured Liegewiese (“lounging field”) and changing rooms to add to their experience, they can visit a pool filled with river water, such as the Naturbad Maria Einsiedel in Munich.

A Naturbad (“nature pool”) that consists of river water is free of chlorine and is therefore a healthy alternative to conventional swimming pools.

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The German city of Lübeck also has a popular Flussschwimmbad. The so-called Marli-Freibad pool is a swimming area in a river. The water is supposedly clean enough to drink. With water slides and changing rooms, swimming in this section of the river can be fun for the whole family.

Although there are occasional rivers that may not be clean enough for swimming, the vast majority are: a recent study found that 98 percent of the rivers, lakes and coastal swimming areas in Germany met the water safety requirements set by the EU, according to the magazine Monumente. Of these, 91.4 percent were considered to have “excellent” water quality.

And swimming in rivers is an aspect of German culture that dates back hundreds of years. The first river bathing establishments were set up in the 1800s and usually including food vendors, changing rooms and sectioned-off areas for swimming (often separated between male and female swimming areas).

Some of these establishments were shut down in the early 1900s but are being reestablished today. Having access to a clean river for swimming is simply part of the German culture!

 

10 facts about Bavaria

1. Bavaria is both the oldest and the largest state in Germany. It is home to 12.9 million inhabitants as of 2016 and it encompasses over 300 cities and towns.

2. There are three primary dialects spoken in Bavaria: Austro-Bavarian, Swabian German and East Franconian German.

3. The first Nobel laureate for physics, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923), made his home in Munich, Bavaria. Röntgen is most famous for discovering x-rays.

4. The world famous Neuschwanstein Castle is located in Füssen, Bavaria. This fairytale castle was built by King Ludwig II (1845-1886).

5. Levi Strauss, a German-American businessman who founded the first company to manufacture blue jeans, came from the Bavarian town of Buttenheim (north of Nuremberg).

6. German NBA player Dirk Nowitzki is a native of Bavaria. The basketball player was born in Würzburg and is often called the “German Wunderkind.”

7. German artist Albrecht Dürer, a painter, printmaker and theorist from the German Renaissance, came from Nuremberg, Bavaria.

8. Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837 – 1898), also known as “Sisi”, was born into  the royal Bavarian house of Wittelsbach and was originally known as the Duchess of Bavaria. It was only when she married Emperor Franz Joseph I  that she left her beloved homeland to become Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary.

9. Germany’s highest peak, the Zugspitze, is located in Bavaria. At 9,718 ft above sea level, the Zugspitze has three large glaciers and is also a top ski resort in Germany.

10. Bavaria is home to Oktoberfest, an enormous festival that has been held in Munich for over 200 years. The first Oktoberfest took place in 1810 to honor Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage, but today it is associated with German beer, cuisine and Bavarian culture.

This summer, bike along the former Iron Curtain – it only takes a month!

Millions of tourists visit remnants of the Berlin Wall each year. But if you had a chance to bike along the former Iron Curtain, would you do it? It would take you about a month! In Germany, biking is a popular method of transportation – especially in Berlin, where an estimated 15-20 percent of all trips occur on bike. About 17 percent of Berlin residents use their bikes daily. But while commuting through Berlin’s flat open roads is both easy and affordable, biking along the Iron Curtain takes a much more serious athlete.

In 2014, politicians at Vienna’s House of the European Union unveiled plans to improve a 4,750-mile bike path along the former Iron Curtain, which stretches through 20 countries (14 of which are part of the EU) from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea. Although this trail, which has been named EuroVelo 13, has existed many several years, parts of it remain largely unexplored. But overall, the section of the trail that runs through Germany is mostly complete. The trail passes along numerous historic watchtowers, including Observation Point Alpha in Thuringia. Those who bike along the entire trail would pass by 14 UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the way.

The European Parliament previously described the project as a “tourist trail that would preserve the memory of the division of the continent, show how it has been overcome through peaceful European reunification, and promote a European identity.”

With summer just around the corner, history buffs and cycling enthusiasts may choose to explore all or parts of the trail.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Stolpersteine: Stumbling Into History

Scattered throughout Europe, planted in the streets and sidewalks of cities whose past is not forgotten, commemorative brass plaques eternalize the lives that were lost in the great tragedy of the 20th century. Called the Stolpersteine (in English: “stumbling stones”), the shiny bronze plaques commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime in more than 1,100 locations in 21 countries.

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More than 67,000 of these stones are solidly rooted across cities in Europe, including 916 places in Germany alone, where large strides have been taken to memorialize Jewish life, history and culture. Each Stolperstein commemorates a victim of the Holocaust at that person’s last known address. The plaque includes the victim’s name, date of birth, deportation date and death date, if known. In Berlin, more than 5,000 Stolpersteine have been carefully implanted in the city’s sidewalks and streets, serving as a constant reminder of the many valuable lives lost tragically during the Holocaust.

But unlike many museums, the stones specifically pay tribute to individuals – names that can too often be forgotten when focusing on the sheer number of victims the Holocaust accounts for. Standing before a stumbling stone in a vibrant neighborhood in Berlin, the world comes to a stand-still as the engraved name of a single individual triggers an empathetic reflection of the life that might have been lived on that very street.

Multiple stumbling stones are often found on the same street, marking former locations of deportation. They therefore put into question what has often been said by many Germans – namely that they didn’t know what happened to their next-door neighbors who suddenly vanished.

The Stolpersteine are a project initiated by German artist Gunter Demnig, who strives to bring back the names of the millions of Jews, gays, Gypsies, and politically or otherwise persecuted victims who were either killed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 or driven to commit suicide.

“A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten,” Demnig frequently says, citing the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, the Talmud. Frequently, it’s family members of Holocaust victims who sponsor a stone in memory of a loved one. Sometimes, residents purchase a stone in honor of a victim who once lived in their building. And on other occasions, people sponsor stones simply to promote the project and help preserve the memory of those who suffered – without having any particular ties to an individual. Whenever someone chooses to sponsor a stone, Demnig visits that location personally to install it and say a few words about the meaning of his work.

The Stolpersteine are embedded securely into the ground, so “stumbling” over them is meant in a figurative sense: by spotting these tiny memorials, people stumble over them with their hearts and minds, stopping in their tracks to read the inscriptions and bring someone back to life. Even though each stone takes up only a few inches of space, all 67,000 Stolpersteine dispersed throughout the continent together make up the largest Holocaust memorial in the world.

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Travel Tuesday: Partnach Gorge

The Parnachklamm (“Partnach Gorge”) consists of rock strata formed 240 million years ago. © dpa / picture-alliance

In the mountains of the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen is the Partnach Gorge – a natural monument filled with waterfalls, rapids, caves and beautiful water basins.

The 2,303 ft long gorge is incised by a mountain stream and visitors can walk through it year-round.

The hike along the Partnach Gorge goes partially through mountainous caves. © dpa / picture-alliance

The sedimentary rock strata of the gorge (called Muschelkalk in German) was formed 240 million years ago – back when the region was still a shallow sea. Traces of the burrowing and feeding of marine animals can still be seen on the strata. The gorge itself was formed many millions of years ago when the Partnach stream cut into the rocks, creating  a river that flows through the mountains and forms the gorge.

Back in the 18th century, local Germans used the gorge to transport firewood to nearby towns on a raft. This, however, was quite dangerous, due to the strong current of the Partnach Gorge.

Today, however, the gorge is more of a tourist attraction than a method of firewood transportation. There is a small entrance fee in the summer months.

The Partnach Gorge is filled with icicles in the winter months. © dpa / picture-alliance

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Germany: Home to more than 20,000 castles

Many travelers who come to Germany choose to visit the country’s many majestic castles and palaces. But even those who don’t go out of their way to visit one may stumble across the ruins of a medieval castle: Germany has over 20,000 castles, some of which are well-known tourist attractions and others that lay isolated in the countryside.

The most famous castle is, of course, Schloss Neuschwanstein, which was built in the Bavarian hillside in the late 1800s. Walt Disney’s castle was inspired by Neuschwanstein, and the site is known worldwide for its magical appearance. It is Germany’s most-visited castle, bringing in over 1.3 million tourists per year.

Another well-known castle is the Burg Eltz, which looks as if it came straight out of a fairytale. This magical medieval castle lies on a hill near the River Rhine. It has belonged to the same family for over 800 years. Near Frankfurt, Frankenstein’s Castle may attract those are fascinated by scary stories. The fortress was once the home to mad scientists John Konrad Dippel, who was known to conduct freaky experiments on corpses. Some believe that the author of the Frankenstein story was inspired by his work.

Further south, the picturesque Heidelberg Castle overlooks the town below it, making you feel like you’re living in a fairytale. The romantic ruins of the castle loom over the town, attracting many artists, poets and writers seeking inspiration.

The famous Hohenzollern Castle, located on a mountain in the Swabian Alps, is currently celebrating a milestone: this year marks 165 years since construction began and 150 years since its completion.

“This castle was built to show the unification of the German peoples after the revolution in 1848 – 1849. But it was never the home for the Prince of Prussia. It was not built as a residence but rather as a cultural memorial. Today it is protected by the German memorial protection,” Anja Hoppe, manager of Hohenzollern Castle, told CCTV.

These are among the most well-known castles in Germany, but there are plenty more hidden and nameless castles that you’ve probably never heard about. So if you’re considering a trip to Germany, make sure to put a few castle visits on your to-do list.

Travel Tuesday: the Saalfeld Fairy Grottoes

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Many people know Germany for its quaint villages and Bavarian mountains, but the country is also home to many deep caverns shrouded in mystery. One such place is the Saalfeld Fairy Grottoes, which are colorful caves in Thuringia. So colorful, in fact, that the Guiness Book of World Records once named them the “most colorful cave grottoes in the world.”

In the 16th century, the caverns were used as an alum shale mine. Back then, alum was used in medicinal products, to tan animal hides and as a food preservative, among other uses. According to legend, some of the miners at work had an encounter with a beautiful fairy, who vanished as they approached her in the mines. This is how the grottoes received their name.

The caverns were mined for their alum shale for centuries, but more effective chemical compounds were developed over time and the grottoes were closed in 1850 and largely forgotten about. The caverns were rediscovered by explorers in 1910, who were amazed at the beautiful mineral deposits that has accumulated in the years that it was abandoned. The mineral deposits created interesting formations in shades of beige, red, brown and grey and these formations were reflected in the underground pools of water below them. The caverns were opened up for sightseeing in 1914 and are a popular tourist destination today.

Travel Tuesday: Naumburg Cathedral

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The picturesque Naumburg Cathedral in eastern Germany is an 800-year-old cultural landmark that is famous for its Romanesque and Gothic architecture. This week, UNESCO designated the Naumburg Cathedral as a World Heritage site.

The Naumburg Cathedral is a masterpiece of human creativity,” Maria Böhmer, President of the German UNESCO Commission, told Deutsche Welle. “It is in line with the cathedrals of Amiens in France, Modena in Italy and Burgos in Spain.”

The cathedral is famous for the works of the Naumburg Master, a German architect and sculptor who combined architecture, statues and glass paintings in the building. His identity is unknown, but his artwork brings visitors from near and far alike.

One of the most famous pieces of art in the Naumburg Cathedral is the statue of St. Elisabeth of Thurinigia, who is considered one of the most important woman of the Middle Ages for her devotion to and sacrifice for the sick and the poor.

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