With Vineyards, Castles, Monks and family festival fun all to be enjoyed, Germany has more to offer than you might think.
Border town amid the wilderness
Bayerisch Eisenstein’s railway station straddles the border with the Czech Republic, with a ticket office in each country. Trains now run between Munich and Prague but the line was disconnected during the cold war, when barbed wire and watchtowers took its place. Nato listening posts lie dormant now, high on the 1,500-metre Großer Arber mountain, near a small memorial to the Sudeten Germans. The town sits next to the Bavarian forest, and adjoining the Bohemian forest, which together constitute one of the greatest areas of protected nature in Europe, including the largest area of wilderness between the Atlantic and the Urals. Nature, history, fabulous public transport and the chance to walk across national borders: they are all here. Just remember to bring a German phrasebook as English-speaking visitors are few and far between.
Perfect bar, Berlin
Becketts Kopf bar
Becketts Kopf is the coolest bar I’ve been in. It looks like the set of a David Lynch film – low lit, moody and decorated with red velvet drapes. A massive picture of Samuel Beckett adorns one wall. The cocktails are strong and made to be savoured, exactly as they should be. Plus, with the menu written in German only, it was fun not knowing what I was getting.
The oldest city in Germany
Trier, in Rhineland-Palatinate, is Germany’s oldest town and dotted with Roman arches and churches. Stroll across a stone bridge over the Moselle river and down to an amphitheatre where the ancient Bread and Games festival takes place in September, featuring music, dancing and splendidly illuminated contests. Local wine and beer is drunk in cafes in the pretty town square full of timbered framed houses. Stay at the beautifully located youth hostel (from €23 a night) on a river bend with sweeping views of forests and castles.
Beers with the monks, near Munich
One of the highlights of any München trip would be a train ride out to Herrsching, 40km to south-west. A short walk up to the Andechs Klostermonastery is a brilliant experience. Here, with views of the Alps on a clear day, you can enjoy Bavarian food and plenty of the monks’ brew, which combines Benedictine brewing traditions with the latest techniques. You can also visit beautiful Ammersee lake while there.
Germans love the variety and scenic trails of the spectacular Saxon Switzerland national park near Dresden. It’s a lose-yourself, multi-coloured surreal landscape of pristine white limestone peaks, lush verdant meadows, dense woodland and crystal clear streams centred around the rushing, twisting path of the Elbe river. Entry is free and there are 400km of signposted tracks for all abilities and energy levels.
Family festival fun
From 23 September to 9 October 2016, visit the amazing Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart. It is one of the biggest funfairs in Europe and a perfect family holiday experience. Get there for the first Sunday of the festival to witness the Volksfest parade with horse-drawn brewery wagons, and loads of traditional costumes, bands and people just having fun. This is the real Germany, loud and proud and unashamedly German. The atmosphere is amazing, the food is incredible and the beer is superb.
Enchanting castles, Fussen, Bavaria
Neuschwanstein castle. Photograph: Alamy
King Ludwig II’s fairytale castles (Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau) in Fussen will leave you with magical memories. I spent the day on a guided tour of the castles’ opulent interiors learning about King Ludwig’s fascinating life, then rounded the evening off with a concert at the Musical Theatre. This is on the beautiful Lake Forggensee, with a spectacular view of the castle across the water. Neuschwanstein was the setting for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and was also in the Great Escape. An almost perfect day was only slightly marred when I ordered what ought to have been a vegetarian pea soup, in a restaurant below the castles, to find it came with two large sausages plonked in it.
Spies and boar, Berlin
In the depths of the Grunewald forest on the outskirts of Berlin (where wild boar are often seen) is an abandoned cold war relic turned street art haven. At the end of the second world war, 12 million cubic metres of war rubble was dumped on top of a Nazi military college. This formed the tallest hill in Berlin known as Teufelsberg (Devil’s mountain). Perched on top of this mountain is an abandoned US National Security Agency spy station amid abundant street art on the crumbling walls and canvas radomes. Climb the imposing 80-metre domed towers for the best views of the Berlin skyline. Several companies offer tours.
The Darß is a peninsula on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea that has some of the most beautiful countryside in Germany. It is famous for its wildlife, particularly migrating geese and cranes and has deserted beaches and plenty of places to cycle and walk. There a many nice bungalows to rent, many of them having a sauna and close proximity to the beach. The Strandhotel Dünenmeer (four nights in a double from €625pp half board) is a great place to stay; it’s right on the beach and has amazing cuisine.
Europe’s most northerly vineyards
Visit the vineyards around the confluence of the Saale and Unstrut rivers, straddling Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. This little-known gem of east Germany is heaving with history, beautiful rolling landscapes and excellent wines. Among the highlights are Naumburg, with its Romanesque cathedral, an important stop on the Anhalt/Thurinigian Romanesque road. Take a small detour to Schulpforta, Germany’s oldest boarding school (in a 12th-century Cistercian monastery), whose gothic cloisters witnessed the education of Nietzsche, Leopold von Ranke and Möbius. Don’t forget to take in the fruits of Europe’s most northerly wine region – any local weingut (vineyard) will be delighted to let you sample as many wines as you can handle, with Weingut Heft offering a fine view across the valley. The final bonus of a holiday in east Germany is the cost – prices for accommodation and restaurants are closer to those in Poland than in western Germany.