Our original plan for Germany was to take our train pass and head north from Strasbourg along the Rhine. We were going to go to Hamburg then Berlin and back south to Bavaria before heading to either Austria or Czech Republic. Fortunately, our little dust up with Deutsche Bahn completely derailed those plans. Instead the three weeks we spent traveling across southern Germany were fun, relaxing and one of my personal highlights of the trip. Plus it was much kinder to our budget than our original plan would have been.
I’m supposedly over half German but I’ve never really noticed a resemblance. Regardless, it felt like being home, what with the tractors, livestock and the oh so sweet smell of manure. I imagine when Germans immigrated to the United States in large numbers that they headed west and upon seeing the Ohio River Valley thought, “eh, close enough.” Our three weeks in Germany were spent in three rural communities and after all of the big city time spent in Spain and France it was a very welcome change.
Despite our issue with Deutsche Bahn we had a pretty good experience taking trains in Germany. The network is extensive and you can get to almost anywhere you want to go. Buses fill in the rest. The prices for single tickets aren’t unreasonable but if you are planning on covering long distances and using the ICE (InterCity Express) you will want a rail pass. Order your pass in advance and make sure you have it before you leave on your trip. Otherwise, you can buy one when you get there. There are select DB offices in some of the larger train stations where you can purchase a pass in person.
Every urban area of any size has an S-Bahn network of commuter trains that services the surrounding area. Most S-Bahns have passes for various time periods and can be worth the investment depending on your plans.
The DB Navigator app is easy to use and convenient. You can search and purchase tickets on your smartphone. It gives you route and time updates. Best of all you never have to print tickets. The conductor just scans a QR code off of your phone.
The only negative is customer service and not just because of our experience with them. I’ve heard from other travelers and German citizens who had to contact DB customer service that it usually is difficult. I guess having customer support requires you to admit that your system isn’t perfect, and to admit the system isn’t perfect would imply that it was poorly engineered and to admit that anything in Germany was poorly engineered, well, that just isn’t possible is it?
Buses fill in the gaps in the train system. Every village we visited on the trip had bus service of some kind. There may be only a couple each day to and from the smallest villages but for the most part there is regular service to anywhere you want to go.
Walking & Biking
I have no bona fide proof of the following statement but I am going to make it anyway: There are so many designated pedestrian and bike paths in Germany you could probably walk or bike from one end of the country to the other without ever having to risk traveling on the shoulder of a road. I can’t even get from one end of my neighborhood in Indianapolis to the other without having to do that.
You could try to get yourself lost in Germany but you’d probably have a pretty hard time at succeeding. In all of the places we traveled trails were well marked and there were distance and direction markers at seemingly every junction. Bikes and pedestrians often share the same space. Fortunately most Germans have bells on their bikes to let you know they are coming up behind you. Even if they don’t we heard several people make the “ring ring” noise with their mouths.
Germany is never really mentioned when you bring up the great cuisines of the world. They don’t get as much flack as England but I think one of the reasons Germany as well as other Central European countries are overlooked is simply because of the lack of color. We had some spectacular food while we were in Germany it is just that many dishes are the same three colors: Green, brown & white. Schnitzel, roasted pork knuckles, potatoes served in a variety of ways (the dumplings are the best), spinach and other leafy vegetables.
For food on the go you can usually find a sausage stand serving up a variety of meat in tube form. In many places pretzel stands are also an option.
Giant pastries and delicious bread make trips to the local bakery essential when visiting Germany. I can’t name a single pastry I ate while I was there. I would just walk in, examine the contents of the case and point.
Beer is brewed all over the country but some areas are more prolific than others. We tried several beers while we were in the Black Forest area but none of them were particularly memorable. Bamberg, on the other hand, offered multiple beers that were quite memorable. Not just for their uniqueness but also their quality, taste and variety. I won’t get into all of the styles of German beer but if you want a basic primer check out A Beginner’s Guide to German Beer Styles.
A Note on Bar Tabs
In most bars and beer halls in Germany your tab is kept on your beer deckel (coaster). You order a beer, the staff mark it on your deckel. In many places they’ll mark your food on it as well. If you are by yourself or with a friend, you shouldn’t have a problem. If you go out with a group you might want to keep an eye on it to make sure your friend’s schnitzengruben doesn’t end up on your tab. If you are out making friends on a night when Germany defeats France in the World Cup and rounds of victory shots start flying around….you might want to keep it in your pocket until the server asks for it.
It is pretty safe to say that almost everyone under the age of 40 in Germany speaks English to some extent. Knowing some basic German never hurts though. It took me four years to get through three years of German in college with barely passing grades and it has been almost twenty years since I’ve used it in any capacity. However, I was surprised at how much I remembered and how helpful it turned out to be.
Black Forrest/Kinzig River Valley
The Kinzig River Valley is a picturesque area with wooded hills and plenty of hiking and biking opportunities. If you want some city time, Freiburg is an easy day trip via the S-Bahn. The Black Forest KONUS card covers transport on the entire network so getting to Freiburg is very easy. We stayed in an apartment owned by Gasthaus Ochsen. We loved the apartment and their restaurant was very good as well.
If we went back we would… do much of the same. Next time we would rent bikes for our entire stay to make getting around a lot easier. That and eat at the Gasthaus more than once.
After enjoying our week in the Black Forest we decided to continue our quiet country living. I found a small apartment in an old farmhouse owned by an older couple named Willi & Ulrika. It was a couple hours away by train and bus in the town of Illmensee which is just north of Lake Constance on Germany’s border with Switzerland. The town is surrounded by rolling farmland full of corn, wheat and livestock. The weather dampened our plans to really explore the area by bike because it rained a lot, but we did get some good weather.
We attended the village church social on Sunday afternoon for beers and desserts. We went to the local sports bar for the Germany v. France World Cup match for chicken wings and lots of beer. The celebrating locals started buying shots and things got a little out of hand. Most expensive bar tab of the trip.
While flipping through the binder of things to do in Illmensee put together by our hosts I saw the magic words: Fried, chicken and affordable. We hiked in the rain to the Gasthaus Huber in Judentenberg a couple kilometers away for fried chicken. We didn’t know the hours and when we got there they were closed. Since it was raining we had nothing better to do than stand under the eaves by the front door and try to air dry from our walk while we waited for them to reopen. Eventually a woman arrived in a black Mercedes. She was the bartender and cook (at least for the midafternoon crowd). Their menu was essentially one page as there wasn’t much on it. They are known for one thing and for doing it very well. We each ordered half a chicken and she disappeared into the back. The sound that came from the kitchen when the chicken hit the hot oil sounded like a rocket. Some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. It was also probably the most photogenic. It looked so perfect you almost didn’t want to tear into it. As far as I could determine the only ingredients were chicken, salt and hot oil. No breading or batter. No herbs or spices.
Willi’s large backyard was adjacent to several farms so we had great views of the fields. He also had a firepit/grill so we used that for dinner several times. We hung out with Shane, our Aussie neighbor for the week who was staying in one of the other apartments, and pitched in to cook meals together. We celebrated July 4th by grilling in the backyard and tossing an Australian rules football around. The fireworks were provided by the massive thunderstorm that rolled in across the fields that evening.
If we went back we would…rent a car. We really liked the area but if the weather doesn’t cooperate getting around is very difficult. There are lots of things to see, do and eat in the area but if you can’t get to them it doesn’t do you much good.
Nürnberg is a popular place and accommodations in the city weren’t available in our price range. We ended up in a small farming town/suburb south of the city named Büchenbach. It was located on one of the S-Bahn lines so getting to Nürnberg as well as other locations wasn’t a problem.
We went into Nürnberg to watch the World Cup final featuring Germany v. Argentina. After following a group of people decked out in black, red and gold we ended up at the KulturGarten with several hundred other people. It was great to see the reaction and celebration. We lingered a bit too long and missed the last S-Bahn train. Following the rule “Always try to get closer in case you have to walk” we hopped on a DB train to Roth which is just a few miles away from Büchenbach. I was hoping there would be a taxi or two at the station since Roth is a good sized town. There was a conductor on the train, but no one was checking tickets because no one cared which was good because we didn’t have any.
Arriving in Roth there was one taxi at the station. I approached the cab and leaned down to ask the driver, “Büchenbach?”
“I’m waiting on someone”
I stood up looked around, saw no one approaching the cab, looked back at the cabbie, “Right, so, Büchenbach?”
“Ja, get in.”
Things to Do
Toy Museum – Home to a substantial collection of toys that span several centuries. There is something here for everyone.
Deutsch Bahn Museum – This expansive museum covers the history of railroads in Germany with artifacts ranging from 19th Century maps and carriages to Cold War era advertisements. There are plenty of real life trains on display including King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s personal train cars. Talk about swanky. Ever seen a velvet toilet seat?
City Walls/Castle – Part of the old castle is now a youth hostel but there are plenty of fortifications and parks to explore offering great views of the city and surrounding areas.
Nazi Party Rally Grounds – Once the center of the National Socialist universe, now public spaces used for everything from autoracing to symphony concerts.
Fürth Fest – Held one weekend every July, the town of Fürth, just west of Nürnberg, has live music stages scattered throughout its old town. Admission is free and there are plenty of food & beer vendors.
Bamberg – This center of beer brewing is definitely worth more than just a day trip. However, since it is connected to Nürnberg via Nürnberg’s S-Bahn network it is an easy and affordable trip if you are short on time.
Ride the S-Bahn without a ticket at your own risk. In many cities you can get away with riding public transport without paying or validating your ticket. We never saw a conductor on the Black Forest S-Bahn. However, the Nürnberg S-Bahn is not a good place to try this. Plain clothes DB conductors/enforcers ride the trains regularly. They look like normal passengers getting on the train chatting, but the second those doors close the ID badges come out and they start checking tickets.
If we went back we would…spend more time in Bamberg. I enjoyed Nürnberg but I’d rather spend more time in Bamberg and take a day trip or two to Nürnberg instead of the other way around.
We went a little over budget in Germany. Accommodations were a bit more expensive than we would usually pay but we were able to make that up by cooking at home quite a bit. Beer is pretty affordable but dining out can get expensive. Our field trip to Bamberg and our mystery bar tab from Illmensee were actually enough to put us over.
When planning for the trip we saved for a daily budget of $125. However, our goal is to keep it under $100 per day. In Germany, our budget came out to $130.80 per day.
If We Went Back We Would…
We really need to go north. We both still would like to go to Berlin and Hamburg. We also would like to revisit southern Germany and make it to southern Bavaria and the Bavaria Alps. Julie had a lot more fun there than I think she was expecting so talking her into a return trip wouldn’t be too difficult.