Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the city’s emblematic Brandenburg Gate now stands as a symbol of optimism, while names such as Checkpoint Charlie seem (almost) consigned to the history books. Classic sights like Unter den Linden Boulevard still draw the visitors, while innovations such as the controversial glass dome atop the Reichstag building have already gained acceptance amongst the forward-thinking burghers. Museums are filled with fine art, Bauhaus styles, Guggenheim collections and Warhol and Lichtenstein signatures. There is shopping to suit all styles along the Kurfürstendamm and its more upmarket asides, parks and Prussian palaces aplenty, plus cocktail bars and music venues that cater for all tastes, loud or lewd.
There are bands – oompah and otherwise, there’s hearty traditional food, there’s a splendid procession, there’s a 180 year tradition. Oh and did we mention the beer? It’s Munich’s Oktoberfest, of course, and the Wiesn ‘meadow’ beer is specially brewed for the party by all six of Bavaria’s brewers. More of a wine-buff? Try the enchanting Rhine and Moselle valleys where hillside medieval castles seem to hang suspended over the neat lines that mark a well-kept vineyard – all warmly welcoming of tasters and trenchermen. For senses other than the palate, leave the Lorelei and the Rhine-maidens and follow the mighty river to Cologne where the glorious cathedral is a Gothic miracle in stone and glass that will set the plainest soul singing. No-one, on the other hand, is going to rave about the beauty of Berlin. But there is an almost tangible sense of history that fascinates – from the Prussian monarchy’s Brandenburg Gate, to the remnants of the Wall and Checkpoint Charlie - physical reminders of the Cold War divided City.
Cologne Cathedral is a miracle in several ways. A true masterpiece of gothic architecture, it survived as an island in a sea of destruction after the carpet bombing of WW II. The city centre has been superbly restored but is still dominated by the Cathedral. The world renowned fragrance Eau de Cologne was created by an Italian perfumer, Farina, in the German city, and given a perhaps more elegant name in French than the harsh Kolnisch Wasser. (The 4711 brand is the original factory/house number.) Cologne boasts the biggest Carnival in Europe and no fewer than eight colorful Christmas markets – one in front of the Cathedral naturally.
Hannover (German spelling) is the capital of Lower Saxony and the ‘home town’ of the British monarchy. It is a handsome spacious city with many parks, often on the river or lakeside, including what can be deemed the forerunner of Kew Gardens in London, the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen, laid out by the Electress Sophia in the early 18th Century. Modern Hanover is above all a Festival city, from the great Spring Festival, through July’s ‘Schutzenfest’ to a riotous Oktoberfest that rivals Munich’s. There are also more sedate but important Expo’s for various business/trade groups. The after-business nightlife includes many 1930’s style Cabaret theatres and clubs (there’s a cabaret festival too!). Hanover also has its romantic Marienburg Castle (gothic style but mid-19th century) and the enormous Market Church – and helpfully links many sights by a ‘Red Thread’ pavement trail.
Munich (München), the former royal capital of Bavaria, undoubtedly has its dark side. Hitler’s failed Beer Keller putsch, Neville Chamberlain’s ‘peace in our time’ talks, the black day of the1972 Munich Olympics massacre. But it is a beautiful city with the fun and gaiety of the Oktoberfest being much more typical of the place and its people. The ‘greatest beer festival in the world’ actually lasts for 17 days during which no less than 7 million litres are consumed, with many types specially brewed by Munich’s 15 breweries and accompanied by a vast array of traditional foods. The city also has its Christkindlmarkt in December. For the more sober-minded, there are many fine parks and palaces with the landmark Frauenkirche Cathedral being an unusual red-brick renaissance style.
Stuttgart in Swabia, Southern Germany, is perhaps Europe’s best example of how to combine major heavy industry with an attractive, spacious environment. Built on hills and valleys, it has much open parkland, and the surrounding vineyards on the R. Neckar start around 1,500 metres from the very centre. Its repute rests mainly on the car, of course. Porsche and Mercedes have their homes here and the VW Beetle was designed by Ferdinand Porsche, though manufactured elsewhere. Both companies have very stylish museums that are worth a visit by non-petrolheads, just for their futuristic architecture. The city has four major parks including the famous Wilhelma Botanical Gardens and Zoo. There is an ‘old castle’ (AD 950) and a ‘new’ castle (mere 18th century). As a German town, Stuttgart has its fests – more real fairs than pure beer celebrations (good though local beer is). There’s a Spring Fair in April, the Volksfest in Sept/Oct, and for good measure a smaller one in Summer.