Monday, May 11, 2009


Freiburg is idyllically situated between the Kaiserstuhl region and the Rhineland Plains to the west and the valleys and the mountains of the Black Forest to the East. Our second day in Freiburg we took the “double decker” train to explore the scenic region of the Black Forest where our schedule was to stop at amazing places en route such as Titisee, Donaueschingen, Triberg and Offenberg before returning back to Freiburg. To take us on the route was Mr. Andreas Döring who runs a travel company and his 91 year old mother in tow. I wasn't surprised to see the two of them hail and hearty especially as they come from this very beautiful region of Germany. It doesn't quite surprise me that even in 2009 Freiburg is amongst the 8 greenest cities of Europe and 4% of the city's energy consumption is derived from renewable energy sources such as wind, sun and water. We all know Black Forest Cake which comes from this region and like the cake which consists of several layers of chocolate cake with whipped cream and cherries between each layer, the region itself is a wooded mountain range (like the chocolate cake) interspersed by the waterfalls and crystal clear lakes (like the whipped cream) and the lovely towns and attractions of the region add up to make the cherries. The region is rectangular (very much like the cake itself) and covers an area of 12000 square kilometres.

Amongst the 8 rivers of the area, it is the Danube which rises in the Black Forest and of the 8 mountain ranges, it is Feldberg which is the highest of them all standing tall at 4900 feet. The entire Black Forest belongs to the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg and the forest comprises of pine and fir trees with scenic hills in between. For an active traveller, this is the place to be to do long distance walks or treks, mountain biking and during winter, cross-country skiing. The city of Freiburg is the best hub to explore this region although if you want to stay right in the midst of the Black Forest you have a choice of over 12 lovely towns (the cherries of the cake) where you can stay in some very romantic and countryside hotels - a delight for honeymooners and nature lovers too! One can easily spend an entire week to explore the area and still come back looking out for more. From clock museums to wine routes to cycling paths as well as specialized routes like the German Clock road, there are more ways than one to explore this wonderful region. However, we chose the train which seems to be the best way to see the countryside and it offers you the option of getting off at any of the towns on this scenic route.

As we chugged our way in the double-decker train made especially for the Black Forest circuit, we traversed lakes in enchanted valleys, luxurious meadows bordered by dark forest. As we crossed the charming Dreisam River Valley, we soon approached Hoellental or Hell Valley where the walls of the rocks rise steeply up to 600 metres high which makes the Hell Valley one of most impressive valleys of the region. Up to 200 years ago there was only a mule track in the gorge about 10 kilometres long which was later expanded into a roadway and today the route through Hoellenthal is an important connecting road from the Rhine Plain into the southern Black Forest. In 1770, the old roadway was also taken by Marie Antoinette when travelling to France to join her bridegroom King Louis XIV and this further makes Hoellenthal one of the most interesting rail routes of Germany. The rail route has operated since 1887 and millions of visitors have gone through the stunning scenery that you get to see on your way - whether in spring, summer, autumn, winter or even on a rainy day.

Further on, we saw an interesting Stag statue perched atop a mountain in a leaping posture. Known as the Stag Leap, this was the narrowest part of the valley. The bronze statue denotes that this is the place where the stag and similar species used to leap across the gorge to save themselves from being hunted down. We stopped for a short break at Breitnau, which is half way between Freiburg and Titisee approximately 15 kilometres east of Freiburg. Here you find the Hotel Hofgut Sternen which has seen celebrities like Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe and Princess Marie Antoinette taking a break. Today, this is a modern hotel with souvenir shops and claims to have the largest cuckoo clock in the world. The hotel is located immediately on crossing a village called Himmelreich or Heaven. So after Hell Valley and Heaven, we had a short coffee break before heading to the picturesque town of Lake Titisee. Lake Titisee is an Ice Age glacier lake lying at the foothill of Mount Feldberg – the highest mountain in the Black Forest. Titisee is famous for shopping especially for cuckoo clocks and has a wide variety of restaurants, an ideal place to break for lunch on the Black Forest train route. The town attracts tourists from all across the world and we happened to see a few Indians who were boating on the crystal clear lake. The Titisee Lake is approximately 40 metres deep and is located in a picture postcard setting at a height of 858 metres. We had ample time to grab a meal and also do a 25-minute boat ride besides taking a short stroll around this beautiful town.

Our next stop, although for a short while was at Donaueschingen, known throughout the world as the site of the Danube Spring and for its annual festivals of contemporary music and equestrian championship which is held during late summer. For beer lovers, a visit to the town is a must as a famous local beer known as Fuerstenberg is brewed here. The town with a population of 21000 residents is on the eastern side of the Black Forest at an elevation of 800 to 1000 metres and is a health resort where one could stay a couple of nights to enjoy the fresh air and climate of the area. Besides the Danube Bicycle Trail, Donaueschingen also has 18 and 9-hole golf courses, a 16th century Fuerstenberg Palace and a park alongside. In addition, there are sidewalk cafes, shops, boutiques, fountains and a lovely town square. Donaueschingen is at a strategic location and there are several things you could do by spending 3 or 4 days in this wonderful town. For instance, there is the Danube Bike Trail - a classic bike route with superb stages along the Danube and a trail that extends up to Passau in Bavaria and beyond. Approximately 45 minutes away you have Europe's biggest waterfall at Schaffhausen in Switzerland. Then there is the spa garden and bathing cum therapy centre of Solemar at Bad Deurrheim where you can float in salt water and experience a Black Forest sauna with therapeutic treatment. Lake Constance – one of Germany's largest lakes located on the Austrian-Swiss border is just 80 kilometres away and en route you can visit some quaint villages and small towns such as Meersburg or the islands of Reichenau and Mainau. The wine growing region of Kaiserstuhl is also in close proximity and produces some top quality wines. The Kaiserstuhl lies between the Vosges and Black Forest mountain ranges. If you stay overnight at Donaueschingen, you are allowed to use the local buses and trains free of charge in the Black Forest region and do ask for the KONUS Guest card which allows you free access to public transport in the area. What we got is a little glimpse of this region but we knew we have to come back again to explore the environs.

We were a bit unfortunate with the weather and we had to cut short our visit to Triberg as it was drizzling and we missed out on seeing Germany's highest waterfall in Triberg. Triberg is also known for the Black Forest clock maker industry as the cuckoo clock was founded here. There is also an interesting bike and walking path known as the Clock-Carrier Path which goes through Triberg and it is this path which was used in earlier times where the clock carriers used to carry large number of clocks on their backs to deliver it to other places around the area. The Black Forest is truly an adventure country and whether it's the spa town of Baden Baden, Leorrach – the city of voices, the Roman spa ruins of Badenweiler or the valley of 100 valleys in Meunstertal, there is lots to do. We headed back that evening to Freiburg and we were looking forward to an exciting day ahead to visit the town of Rust and one of Europe's largest theme parks – the Europa Park.

The town of Rust is one hour by bus from Freiburg and what was once a small fishing village now houses Germany's largest leisure park. The park covers over 70 hectares and you need more than a day to experience over a 100 attractions divided into 13 different European themes and is an ideal location for the whole family to spend a couple of days of fun and excitement. With the size which can accommodate more than 140 football fields, Europa Park offers boundless fun for the entire family. Over 4 million visitors visit the park each year and it has a 78% repeat value. We were indeed surprised that not many Indians were there in the park. In fact, I recall we were probably the only Indian family out there and the kids had a great time and they wanted more at the end of the day. Ideally, I would recommend a 2 nights/3 days stay to explore one of the 13 European themed areas and you have a choice of four 4-star themed hotels – El Andaluz, Castillo Alcazar, Colosseo and Santa Isabel. The park is open between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. in summer and tickets are reasonably priced at 34 Euros per adult. For a child between 4 and 11 years as well as for those above 60 years, it is 30 Euros and children under 4 get a free entry. Germany's biggest theme park has as many as 10 roller coaster rides and the latest edition in 2009 is the new catapult-coaster which goes from 0 to 100 km/hr in 2.5 seconds with a 32 metres high loop and a full 360º roll, not once but 3 times and all in absolute darkness - not really for the faint-hearted. You will find this 1000-metre thrill ride in the new themed area of Iceland. This state of the art rollercoaster has a seating which combines audio and special effects.

The other interesting roller coaster is the “Poseidon” water roller coaster in the Greece area which takes you between the sky and the sea. The Pegasus YoungSTAR coaster is for the younger visitors who do not want an extremely high-adrenaline experience at their age. The Matterhorn-Blitz in the Swiss area takes you through curves around mountains and valleys and the Silver Star which reaches speeds of 130 km/hr is also one not recommended for the faint-hearted. It's not about roller coasters only at the Europa Park, although we preferred to go on each and every roller coaster ride. There is also the Magic 4-D cinema, a Magical Garden, a Castle and loads of other activities including an outdoor Tipi Village with tents built in a Native American style. There is a wide range of options to eat and plenty of souvenir shops and the day just flew by and it was time for us to take the bus back to Freiburg. The next morning we bid adieu to one of the most beautiful regions of Baden-Wuerttemberg and to the last leg of our stay in Munich, Bavaria.


We were indeed fortunate to have Charlotte Frey as a guide during our very short stay in Heidelberg as she did give us more than an overview of this wonderful University town. As we were exploring the beautiful city of Heidelberg, we briefly stopped in the Old Town to see the building that Louis XIV did not destroy and where stands the Hotel Ritter - one of the famous landmarks of the Old Town square which also has a gothic style Church of the Holy Ghost. Further down is the Old Bridge which offers a spectacular view of the Heidelberg Castle on the other side of the Neckar River. The funicular station which is the gateway to Heidelberg Castle is also located less than 5 minutes from the Old Town Square. The original building was built over 400 years ago by a cloth dealer and has undergone several renovations retaining its original architectural beauty and renaissance style which makes the Hotel Ritter one of the most historic and artistic buildings of this charming town and is an ideal place to stay especially as it is located right in the centre and in close proximity to major tourist attractions.

As we walked towards the Old Bridge we came across the Café Konditorei Knösel – the makers of the Heidelberg Student's Kisses – praline nougat chocolate filling on an exquisite wafer bottom and coated in delicious dark chocolate. Café Knösel houses Heidelberg's oldest confectioner's store and was established in 1863 and was a meeting place for the residents of Heidelberg. Knösel, the dedicated chocolatier was a master confectioner and young ladies who used to attend Heidelberg's finishing schools loved his sweet chocolate delights and used to flock to the store. Fridolin Knösel came up with a brilliant idea of inventing a delicious chocolate delight called the Student's Kiss which if given as a present, was a discreet way to show your affection. The tradition of this original recipe continues since 1863 when it was first invented and today is a sweet symbol and charming souvenir of Heidelberg and captures the hearts of generation after generation. Regretfully for us, the café was closed during our visit. However our guide was sweet enough to send us the Heidelberger Studentenkuβ - as it is known in Germany - by parcel post to remind us of the affection shown by the people of this wonderful and charming city. The Student’s Kisses is one thing that is indigenous to Heidelberg.

As we started walking towards the historic Old Bridge which was originally constructed in 1284 and later replaced by a wooden bridge in 1788, we noticed a Bridge Monkey or Bruckenaffe on the south bank of the bridge. This carved monkey from medieval times was made of bronze by sculptor Gernot Rumpf and was installed here in 1979 and carries a mirror and a small inscription in German which translates as “Why are you looking at me? Look in the mirror and you will see more of the same.” Today, however, many tourists do a photo stop here and touch the mirror held by the monkey as it is believed to bring you luck. The bridge monkey in Heidelberg dates back to the 15th Century.

Just across the Old Bridge in the Old Town is the famous Vetter Alt Heidelberg, a famous Brauhaus and a must- visit place in Heidelberg not only for its ambience but the fine cuisine served. Here you will get traditional German food and it is extremely popular with tourists as they brew their own beer. A meal would cost you in the vicinity of 6 to 8 Euros; good value for money indeed. Further down, we came across the Holy Ghost Church which was started in the 1400s and then it was Catholic and now it is Heidelberg's main Protestant church. Until 1623, the church's galleries contained Europe's largest collection of handwritten books and documents, the Biblioteca Platina. Afterpassing the Rathaus or Town Hall where civil marriages are held, we saw the statue of the Madonna on the Corn Market Square which has been part of Heidelberg since 1718 and it was the Jesuits who built this statue here to motivate people of Heidelberg to switch to Catholicism. Next we took the 90 seconds funicular up to the Heidelberg Castle. The Heidelberg Castle, now a ruin, is one of the most important of the Renaissance structures and was built before 1214 AD and later expanded into two castles. Thereafter it was destroyed by lightening, wars and fires before being rebuilt. The castle is located approximately 260 feet on a hillside known as Königstuhl and you can get a spectacular view of the old town from this castle.

The highlight of the tour was the story of Frederick V, also known as the “Winter King” who at 16 years fell in love with the daughter of the King of England, Elizabeth Stuart and he built for her an English building connected by a tower as much as 7 metres thick and also commissioned the Elizabeth Gate at the peace garden. He was nicknamed the Winter King as his rule merely lasted one winter after which there was the Thirty Years War – the most brutal war in German history. Later, Liselotte, the granddaughter of Frederick V, was born in Heidelberg and grew up in Hannover but often returned to Heidelberg.

The other highlight was the biggest wine barrel in the world which can be visited in the cellar of the Heidelberg Castle and was originally built in 1591. Thereafter, the barrel was made bigger in 1751 and can store almost 225000 litres of wine. In the 18th Century, the vat's guardian was a dwarf named Perkeo, a court jester with tremendous thirst for wine. Perkeo had the capacity of consuming eighteen bottles of wine to empty the cask for almost fifty years till one day he consumed water and that led to his demise. Today, an antique statue of Perkeo stands next to the Great Cask. Such interesting legends are part of the guided tours of the castle.

Our last stop was at the North Patio - the large balcony which overlooks the Old Town. Here one finds a footprint and local legends say that the footprint was that of a knight who tried to save the princess from a burning castle. Another legend is that the Queen was having an affair and the King caught them in the act. The man leapt out of the window and the footprint is where his foot first hit the ground. However, the latest legend is that those who step on the footprint stencil will definitely return back to Heidelberg again and that's what all of us did before bidding adieu to this wonderful city and heading to the southwest corner of GermanyFreiburg.

Freiburg lies on the western edge of the Black Forest and is an excellent hub for day trips whether it is to see the Black Forest or Europa Park in Rust or even day trips into France or Switzerland as Freiburg although in Germany is actually on the crossroad of France, Germany and Switzerland. It took us less than a couple of hours to reach Freiburg from Heidelberg and we had to change trains en route at Karlsruhe. We arrived into Freiburg a little before 1500 hours and later that evening we did a short walking tour of Freiburg and its Old Town.

Freiburg is one of the “greenest” cities in Germany with its diversity of forests and vineyards surrounding this region of diverse landscapes. From the altitude of Black Forest to the alluvial forests by the Rhine River, Freiburg is a city worth a visit not only for being the capital city of the Black Forest region but also the Gothic cathedral and the Munster Market which is held near the square of the cathedral. The unique part of the city of Freiburg is the famous Freiburg “Bächle” or streams which run through the town for a total of 9 kilometres including 5.1 kilometres above ground. The pavements of the Old Town are decorated with mosaics made of stones taken from gravel pits along the Rhine. The mosaics in front of many stores depict guild symbols or typical tools of that particular trade which is again peculiar to Freiburg. The town has its own University and hence it is bustling with cafés, pubs as well as vibrant night life. Additionally, the town is an important hub to visit one of Europe's largest theme parks – Europa Park in Rust. In our next issue we would be talking about exploring Freiburg and its environ.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

GEMS OF GERMANY - Romantic Rhine & Heidelberg


It was time for my annual vacation with my family in May and I had an interesting challenge as the youngest member travelling was my son who had just turned 6 in April and the senior most member of my family was my dad who was 75. I started short listing destinations and I narrowed down to Germany - a country that offers diverse experiences across all age groups . Although, this was my second trip to Germany in less than 8 months, I had to put together an itinerary which had an ideal blend of experiences . In 2007, I had taken my kids to the Eurodisney, on the outskirts of Paris and they loved it, so this time I decided to include two theme parks; although in Germany there are as many as 7 theme parks to choose from. There is the Europa Park in Rust, which is close to Freiburg. Then there is Legoland of the famous Lego Company of Denmark which is half way between Munich and Stuttgart. Phantasialand and Moviepark which are close to Cologne and in close proximity to Bonn as well as Dusseldorf is in the Ruhr Valley. Then there is the Heide Park near Hamburg and Holiday Park which can be accessed from Frankfurt, Stuttgart or Heidelberg and finally there is the Hansa Park which is easily accessible from the Baltic Coast.

My associate and Skalleague Thomas Giesick , based in Weilmuenster, a town located 50 kilometres north west from Frankfurt am Main helped me to put together an interesting 10 day itinerary which we started from the Mainhattan of Germany and city of art & culture, Frankfurt. We were to spend a couple of days in this very important business city of Hesse before heading south into Freiburg and the region of the Black Forest and finally to Bavaria in the south.

We arrived into Frankfurt around 0745 hours and were transferred to Hotel Bristol, located very close to the Hauptbahnhof or the main train station. I ensured that during our 10 day itinerary, we stayed close to the train stations in various cities as our entire travel was to be by train starting from Frankfurt and ending in Munich.

We had ample time to check in and have a quick meal before leaving at around 1400 hours for the Frankfurt City Tour. There are various ways to see the city such as the Super Saver Frankfurt Card. A one day ticket costs 8.70 € (euros) and a group ticket which include 5 persons costs a mere 15 € and includes free and unlimited travel on Frankfurt's public transport system within the city as well as reductions ranging from 20% to 50% to visit the Frankfurt museums, botanical gardens, zoological garden, Frankfurt Theatre and Opera as well. Additionally, you get discounts at various restaurants, cafes, bars and retail stores. If you are staying longer, you may also opt for the 2 day ticket. There is also a reduction that you receive for the Frankfurt sightseeing tour which is the best way to get an overview of the city. The 2 ½ hour city tour starts from the main train station, covering the famous skyline of Mainhattan or the business and banking district, the museum embankment, Old Sachsenhausen, St Paul's Church and you get an opportunity to alight and walk around the Roemberg and visit the Goethe-House or the Main Tower's rooftop observation platform 200 metres above street level.

Frankfurt am Main is a city having a population of over 650000 inhabitants and is a very cosmopolitan city with nearly 25% of the population comprising of foreign nationalities. It is a major congress and conference centre and home to over 110 trade fairs, exhibitions and public events, most of which are hosted at Messe Frankfurt. Some of the popular fairs include the Frankfurt Book Fair, the International Automobile Show which is hosted every 2 years and the ACHEMA, the international chemical engineering fair which is once in 3 years. Hence, it is not surprising that Frankfurt has the third biggest exhibition area worldwide comprising of 578000 sq.metres and the Frankfurt airport is also the 3rd largest airport in Europe in terms of passenger traffic and largest in Europe in terms of freight traffic. The train station has over 1730 trains every day with a commuter traffic of 350000 each day. Frankfurt is home to over 218 banks including 169 foreign banks as well as the home of European Monetary Institute and the European Central Bank. Frankfurt would undoubtedly be termed as the Commercial Capital of Germany as it is the financial and trade fair hub not only for Germany but for the European continent. During our short stay in Frankfurt, we got the opportunity to go up the Frankfurt Main Tower and get a spectacular view of the urban development and sky scraper from the top of the 55 storey building. One of the interesting highlights of our sightseeing tour was a visit to the historic area of Roemberg, which is a city within the city comprising of the Roemer Town Hall, the Frankfurt Dom or Cathedral and the St. Paul's Church which is where the first German National Assembly was held in 1848 and is known as the cradle of German democracy.

Frankfurt is also a city of museums and more than 200 million euros have been invested into the unique museum landscape. During my tour of the Magic Cities later in July, I had the opportunity to visit the historic Goethe House and Goethe Museum built to commemorate Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and those who have followed the works of Goethe must visit this historic museum situated at 23 Grosser Hirschgraben. The Goethe House provides interesting insights into the routine and life style of the Goethe family, a typical 18th century home and the Museum exhibits the life and works of this famous poet and his contemporaries.

Frankfurt is also famous for traditional apple wine which has been associated with the city for over 250 years and I had the opportunity of accompanying Thomas to a local apple wine restaurant Wagner and try out the ebbelwei or stöffche as known in the local dialect which has a history dating back over 1200 years. Originally believed to contain medicinal value and recommended by doctors, the apple wine is supposed to increase blood circulation and delay ageing process and is a big hit with local Frankfurters and tourists who come to places like Wagner every evening in the region of Sachsenhausen and have the Stöffche with a juicy rib and sauerkraut or pickled bacon or pork ribs and of course, it tastes best with Handkäs mit Musik, a dish which consists of aromatic cheese simmered in cider and served with onions. Traditionally, the apple wine is served in a blue grey crockery jug known as Bembel and a traditional drinker of the apple wine would drink it straight although it could also be had with lemonade. During summer, strawberries are often added to the apple wine to create a fruity apple wine punch. I relished the apple wine accompanied with Handkäs mit Musik and I would recommend this combination to anyone visiting Frankfurt. It is indeed a great experience where you share a long table with strangers and have your apple wine and strike a conversation with those you meet at the table and those who you may have never met before or never meet again. The old Sachsenhausen where you find restaurants like Wagner is to the south side of the Main river and the Main river itself is a wonderful place to cruise and is one more exciting way to see the city of Frankfurt. An ideal river cruise lasting between 50 minutes one way or 100 minutes return from the Offenbach Watergate from where you can view the impressive skyline of Frankfurt you cover interesting sights en route to the Griesheim Watergate and is an ideal way to explore the city on a warm sunny day along with a chilled glass of beer. Whether you want to do day trips to Mainz and Wiesbaden and onwards to the Rhine Valley or a dinner cruise, the Main river adds yet another dimension to explore Frankfurt.

There are several extensions that one can take from Frankfurt which would include day trips to Heidelberg, Wiesbaden – the capital city of Hesse, Mainz and the romantic Rheingau with its castles and vineyards. The Upper Middle Rhine Valley - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - is where we planned to head next, to the city of Rüdesheim, to take a scenic cruise on the river Rhine. We had a long day ahead of us and the best way to travel within Germany is by train as there is an efficient rail network across the 16 Federal States. We boarded the regional express train known as RE which took us from the Frankfurt Main Station and into Rüdesheim in 1 hour 8 minutes. We arrived at the Rüdesheim Railway Station and were welcomed by Mr. Laber from Rüdesheim Tourism and we had a couple of hours to explore this wonderful town before boarding the KD (Köln Dusseldorfer) cruise to St. Goar and onwards to Koblenz.

The Upper Rhine Valley offers the most stunning scenery as the riverscape is dotted with castles and age old townships and is one of the most picturesque and romantic locations of not only Germany but across Europe and has been inspiration to several painters, artists and authors from across the globe. Rüdeshiem belongs to the state of Rhineland Palatinate of which the city of Mainz is the capital. Known for its world famous Rheingau Riesling wine, the cuisine of this region also is world famous especially the Ritterschmaus or the knight's meal and the Rüdesheim coffee. It is here that you will find some of the most spectacular landscapes and vantage points in Germany. The famous Drosselgasse is a street adorned with shops and boutiques. On our arrival at Rüdesheim, we first took a short walk around this beautiful town before taking the cable car up to the ruins of the Ehrenfels Castle from where you get one of the most picturesque views of the vineyards and the Rhine Valley. The view is simply breathtaking and I would recommend the cable car to each and every one who plans to visit Rüdesheim besides having a walk around the town and taste some of the local culinary delights along with a glass of wine. For hikers there is an option of taking the cable car one way and doing the Rheinsteig walk on the way down and enjoy spectacular views of the vineyards across various altitudes extending hundreds of metres above the Rhine river. The colour green predominates the regions as you see vineyards everywhere and for lovers of nature and countryside an overnight stay in Rüdesheim is well worth it. Rüdesheim also hosts wine festivals and a very interesting Magic Bike Rally, one of the largest European Harley Davidson events in early summer every year. Unfortunately, we were one week early at Rüdesheim and we missed the roaring of over 2000 Harleys. Next year the event is scheduled between 11th and 14th June 2009. We had Herr Laber who took us around the wonderful area of the Rheingau Riesling wine regions. Rüdesheim is a good option to stay when the hotel accommodation prices in Frankfurt hit the roof during the Trade Fairs and at times you have to pay as much as 600 Euros per night. So Rüdesheim undoubtedly is a good option as it is just an hour from Frankfurt and can be reached by road, rail or by river as well. The capital of Rhineland Platinate is Mainz and that of Hessen is Wiesbaden which is one third the size of Frankfurt. Wiesbaden has 27 hot springs and the interesting part of this region is that no where in Germany are two capitals Mainz and Wiesbaden so close to each other and separated by a river. So the Rheingau region is an interesting place to combine with Frankfurt even if you intend to have a short business trip to Germany. There are wine distilleries to ensure that you can even get wine without alcohol. One of the places to visit is Asbach, which is a shop which houses selective wines of the regions along with the original Asbach chocolates, Rüdesheim coffee sets and connoisseur glasses. At Rüdesheim you will also find Käthe Wohlfahrt, the most exceptional Christmas specialty store in the world to take back wonderful decorations comprising of a great selection of nutcrackers, Christmas pyramids, German black forest cuckoo clocks as well as traditional Bavarian beer steins and celebrate Christmas all year round. Another must visit store off the main shopping street of Drosselgasse is Siegfried's Mechanisches Musikkabinett where you can see and hear one of the largest German collections of self playing musical instruments from the 18th to the 20th Century.

As you go up the seilbahn or cable car in the direction of the Ehrenfels castle you get one of the most spectacular views of the Loreley Valley and it is not surprising to note why Rudesheim is one of the 70 UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites globally as the region is extremely rich as a singular cultural entity of great beauty with a rich landscape. There is lots one can do in and around the area, whether it's a visit to the 1000 year old Brömser Castle or the red wine village of Assmannhausen, or a hiking or biking trail or board the winegrower train or even play golf in one of the golf courses in the area. For overnight stays, the best place to stay is the Rüdesheimer Schloss run by the Breuer family and located in the historic city centre. The modern 4 star hotel is located in a building dating back to 1729 and offers rooms and suites besides a wintergarden. Wines are from their own vineyard and the restaurant garden serves traditional local dishes with live band music playing in the background. There is also the Lindenwirt Hotel which is unique as besides regular accommodation they also have an original wine barrel room and is a few steps away from the cable car railway. We wished we had more time to explore this wonderful city, however it was time for us to board the KD ship to move in the direction of Koblenz and our next stop was at St.Goar where we would be visiting the Castle Rheinfels on the little Castle Express train and our kids got extremely excited at the thought of travelling in a train, boat and a mini train all on the same day and seeing several castles along the way...


The KD cruises offers daily service to explore the wonderful Rhine Valley with its good wines, historic villages, beautiful castles and stately homes covering 65 kilometres of the most stunning scenery on both banks of the Rhine. After a short and wonderful stay in Ruedesheim, we boarded the KD cruise at 1115 hours which arrived into St.Goar in around 1 hour 40 minutes and en route crossing the wonderful towns of Bingen, Assmanhausen, Lorch and Bacharach. The good thing is that if you are travelling on Rail Europe and on the German Rail Pass, it is valid for travel on the KD Rhine river cruises as well.

En route to St. Goar we were able to see some stunning castles such as the Stahleck Castle, a 12th Century castle near Bacharach which was built on the orders of the Archbishop of Cologne and overlooks the Rhine and Loreley valley. It was destroyed in the late 17th Century and later built in the early 20th Century and is now a hotel. As we sailed along, we arrived at the most photographed castle on the Rhine – the Pfalz Castle. This castle, built in the 13th Century on the river bed near the town of Kaub, was an ancient toll booth of sorts and made the town of Kaub one of the wealthiest on the river along with the Gutenfels Castle, which is now a hotel. When boats would approach, the Pfalz Castle would raise the chains and on paying a toll, the boats could pass without a problem or else the boats were seized and the crew was put on a raft in the well of the Pfalz Castle. The good thing about the Rhine cruise experience is that as you pass along you are narrated these interesting stories about each of these amazing castles and towns that you pass along the way. Next, we passed along the Schönburg Castle, now a famous hotel but once was called the most beautiful refuge of Rhine Romanticism.

Onwards we cruised along to the region of Loreley – a 433 feet high slate cliff near the town of St.Goar where we were to disembark and spend a couple of hours in this town of the Rheinfels Castle – the largest and most imposing castle on the Rhine. On arrival we boarded the Castle Express which took us up to the Rheinfels Castle from the town centre. It is a train on wheels and goes through the Market Place. The Castle Express operates from 1st April until 31st October and costs 3 Euros for a round trip to and from the Castle for an adult and 2 Euros for a child. It operates every 25 minutes from the St. Goar “Martkplatz” and the Rheinfels Castle car park and is a good way to go up to the castle.

The town of St. Goar was named after the Saint, who built a chapel and lived as a hermit during the 6th Century on the site of the Stiftskirche or the Collegiate Church today. Before 765, the hermitage of St.Goar became one of Germany's earliest monasteries. The Rheinfels Castle was built in 1245 by Count Diether V von Katzenelnbogen to protect the St.Goar tax collectors and soon developed into one of the mightiest fortresses in the Middle Rhine region. You can do the castle tour on your own and get a route description from the tourist information office. The sheer size of the ruins as well as the labyrinth of trenches and tunnels, makes a visit to the castle an interesting experience. The town of St. Goar is also worth exploring and there is good news for our Indian guests - you can get Indian food in St. Goar and there is a fantastic property where you can stay which overlooks the Rhine, the Rheinfels Hotel which interestingly is managed by an Indian who was courteous enough to make us have some good masala tea along with gulab jamuns (Indian desserts) during our short visit to the hotel property. The Romantikhotel Schloss Rheinfels is a good option for honeymooners as you can experience a dream stay at the Castle Hotel overlooking the Loreley Valley. Not too far from St.Goar is Oberwesel which is merely 14 kilometres away and is also an exciting holiday destination with various accommodation options from youth hostels and camping to guest houses and hotels.

After a cup of masala tea, we boarded the KD cruise to head towards the last leg of our Rhine cruise and on to Koblenz where we were to arrive in 2 hours 15 minutes and part of the Romantic Rhine route with a wide range of castles along the way. As the cruise boat started off from St. Goar, on the other side of the Rhine, at a distance was the Cat Castle situated on a rocky mountain and now is a privately owned property. Further down there was the imposing Stolzenfels Castle which was built by Karl Friedrich as a 19th Century palace as an epitome of Rhine Romanticism. The castle with the yellow façade can be visited to see the original furnishings as well as the collections of armour and weapons. As we were approaching Koblenz, besides the stunning scenery of wonderful buildings and castles, we came across a building which had Königsbacher written on it and it is a brewery that makes beer and situated close to Koblenz and sells its products to chains of stores and supermarkets across Germany.

We arrived at Koblenz late in the evening where we were to take a short stroll around town and were received by Kerstin Handwerk from Koblenz Touristik. The city of Koblenz is where the Moselle River empties into the Rhine and on our arrival we first walked to the German Corner which has an imposing statue of Emperor Wilhelm. The “Deutsch Eck” or the German Corner is where the Rhine and Moselle rivers meet at one of Germany's very picturesque cities. Koblenz is famous for its fine wines from the vineyards that slope along the Moselle and is a city which has an interesting history of Empress Augusta in whose name a special Festival is celebrated every year. The Romans founded the city 2000 years ago and called it “apud confluentes” or “at the confluence” signifying the confluence of the two rivers. The city comprises of romantic narrow streets, historic squares and intertwined alleys. Delightful corners and open squares, proud patrician houses and courtyards as well as distinguished old churches are some of the other highlights. Koblenz is a city of lovers of music, art and theatre and is home to several museums, art galleries and exhibitions. The most impressive part of the city besides the German Corner is the 34 kilometre long promenade along the banks of the Rhine and the green areas of the city make it worthwhile to at least spend a night to explore the wine, castles and the old town of Koblenz. We had to head back to Frankfurt and we took the train back the same evening as we were heading to the region of Baden Würrttemberg and one of the southernmost cities located at close proximity to the borders of France and Switzerland – Freiburg, on the western edge of the Black Forest.

The following morning we boarded our train for Freiburg and en route we stopped at the University town of Heidelberg. On arrival at Heidelberg, we left our luggage at the luggage locker and took a taxi to the city centre where we were greeted by an enterprising Charlotte Frey, an American now based out of the wonderful town of Heidelberg which is famous for its castle, the old quarter and also for being Germany's oldest University town. We started our tour from Löwenbrunnen – the Lion Fountain close to the University Square. Heidelberg has been an inspiration for artists, poets, writers and composers and is the centre of Romanticism and is a must visit for the honeymooner not only for the stunning beauty, the youthful town and its cosmopolitan flavour but also for the Café Knösel which has an interesting story of Heidelberg Student's Kiss.

We started our tour with the oldest University of Germany – the Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg which was founded in 1386 when Heidelberg was a little fishing village. Today the town gets 30000 students and one out of every 5 persons in Heidelberg is a student which brings the exuberance and youth to this wonderful town comprising of two mountains, a castle, a University, the Neckar River which flows into the mighty Rhine and an old town. The University is easily identifiable by the clock tower and although due to our short stop in Heidelberg we weren't able to go inside the Old University, we had the opportunity of visiting the Students' Prison which is located at the back of the Old University and a prison where the students loved to go. The prison, which was operational until 1914, was a place where students were punished for common offences like disturbing the peace or excessive drinking at night, insulting official authorities and so on. In fact during those days no one wanted to leave Heidelberg University until they spent a few days in the Students' Prison as they were extremely happy to be there. It did not surprise us on seeing the prison as there was graffiti all around, the walls were decorated with silhouettes and artwork and the story goes that the students came from very wealthy, affluent and protected families. They were Germany's elite who used to study here with a very disciplined life and they used to create a ruckus here in the University and disturb the peace of the town and once reported they would be imprisoned. The first three days they were served just bread and water to sober up and if they were kept for a longer period, like a week or so, they were allowed to attend lectures, visit their friends and also have food and wine sent in. There was a wire on the ceiling and on pulling it the jailer would come and take the order. So if you had a colleague in the neighbouring cell who was serving his 8th day and you had just arrived, he would share the stuff with you and no one wanted to miss this great party. The only restriction was that the prison was for young men only and not for girls studying at the University. Next we visited the University Lecture Hall which we were fortunate to see as it was open for visiting. It was an extreme contrast to the prison cell and the lecture hall is even used today and is very impressive. Special lectures and graduation ceremonies are conducted here even today. The hall is in Neo-Renaissance style and it did not surprise us that the University is associated with over 29 Nobel Prize Laureates and is consistently ranked amongst Europe's top Universities and for those pursuing their Ph. D.

Next we stopped to see the impressive Catholic Baroque Church which was recently repainted white. The next stop was at Heidelberg's most famous building that Louis XIV didn't destroy...

Friday, August 8, 2008

SAXONY - The Hidden Treasure of Germany


Germany is a land of many gems and Saxony is undoubtedly the hidden treasure of Germany. I was convinced about the same after having attended a presentation by Shireesh Sharma , Marketing Consultant for Saxony Tourism for the Americas. In fact, I would add that no other Indian knows Saxony better than Shireesh and this was further reiterated when I attended his presentation earlier this year at the ASTA IDE in Lyon.

Last September, I had the opportunity to visit Germany’s No. 1 Cultural Destination and on arrival at Berlin airport we were greeted by our host Wolfgang Gärtner- Head of International Marketing, Tourism Marketing Company of Saxony and we boarded our coach to head to the South East corner and the capital of Saxony, Dresden. Dresden is located to the south of Berlin and it takes under 2 hours to cover the distance of 165 kilometres on the Autobahn between the two cities. You can even fly to Dresden on Austrian via Vienna as they offer convenient connection to the capital city of Saxony

Saxony, the art and cultural capital of Germany is on the South East corner of Germany and borders the Czech Republic and Poland. We were to spend 4 days to get a flavour of this wonderful area of Germany comprising of 7 regions.

Our first halt en route was at Pillnitz Castle Gardens. Pillnitz used to be the summer residence of the Saxon Kings near Dresden. The park and the castle were built here at the end of the 18th Century. This used to be the summer residence of the Saxon Kings and the Riverside Palace was linked to the New Palace and the Hillside Palace to form a unique ensemble of architecture. The English and Chinese pavilions were added later. We had the opportunity to take a short stroll for about 15 minutes to get an impression of this wonderful area which has been part of the Dresden Elbe Valley UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004. Before Dresden became a centre of research, industry and tourism, it was the seat of the royal residence and being royalties they had castles. Pillnitz was built in a Japanese style and was the closest castle to Dresden with the exception of the city castle. The city castle used to be the winter residence of the royalties. Originally there was a Renaissance Castle in Pillnitz and later the castle was in the possession of Countess Cosel, the most famous mistress of Augustus the Strong. She started redoing the castle in Baroque style with the help of famous architect Matthäus Daniel Pöpellmann who was also responsible for rebuilding Dresden after the fire of 1685. He also built a water pavilion from where you can take gondolas and go along the Elbe River. He also built the Hill Palace which was later connected to the Castle. The architecture here is chinoiserie or Chinese style, probably due to the influence of Marco Polo who three centuries earlier had discovered China and you can see the Chinese impressions in the architecture at Pillnitz. The site consists of an English garden which is used for concerts and cultural events today, as well as a Chinese Garden, a Chinese pavilion and an Orangerie. You can arrive at the Pillnitz gardens and Castle in one of the Elbe Steamboats as well.

After a quick lunch at the restaurant within the garden premises, we took a steam boat ride to the capital of Saxony also known as the Florence on the Elbe – Dresden.

Dresden was one of Europe’s most beautiful cities until 1945 when the Allied bombers turned this city into a pile of rubble. The city which celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2006 is probably much older city as the first settlements who came to Dresden came from the East of Europe from Russia, Poland, Czech and settled on the banks of the river Elbe and they used to speak Slavic language. The name Dresden is derived from the old Serbian word Drježdźany which the Slavic settlers here used to speak. This word stood for “inhabitants on a swampy ground” and over the years this place grew from its obscurity to what it is today, probably the richest in Germany in terms of art, culture, history, architecture, music, shopping, gold, wine and fine gastronomy. Today the city has 510000 inhabitants in an area of 18413 sq.kilometres.

The most inspiring Saxon was Augustus the Strong and you can find his statue as you arrive into Dresden from the Elbe river. After World War II, Dresden was completely destroyed and this was followed by Communist rule before being reunited with Germany.

We took a brief historic walking tour of this beautiful city comprising of many historical monuments such as the reconstructed Frauenkirche or the Church of our Lady which is the largest Protestant Church in Germany. The Frauenkirche which miraculously survived the bombings and subsequent fires thereafter, suddenly collapsed a few days later as the building’s standstone had started to cool down. It was rebuilt as a symbol of reconciliation between former enemies of war. This Lutheran Church, which was built between 1726 and 1743 took 13 years to rebuild and was eventually completed in 2005. It is undoubtedly one of the most famous icons of Dresden. The Church used to also host several musical concerts as it was famous for its acoustics. Richard Wagner did a presentation with 1100 singers here. The cost to rebuild the church was $200 million and most money came by donation and most of the work was voluntary.

As you walk near the theatre square, you see the imposing Semperoper or the Semper Opera House, a later Baroque building in Germany and one of the world’s best opera house where our Zubin Mehta has also performed on several occasions.

The Dresden Zwinger is yet another famous landmark comprising of pavilions and galleries in baroque style and was commissioned by Augustus the Strong, the elector of Saxony. Zwinger which means interspace originates from its location between former city fortifications. The most impressive pavilions are the Rampart and Glockenspiel. The Zwinger with its large inner courtyard was used for court festivities, tournaments and fireworks and today, houses several museums such as the Porcelain Museum, the Old Master’s Gallery and the Historical Museum. One of the highlights of the Zwinger is the Crown Gate – a baroque gate topped by a large crown and the Nymphenbad – a small enclosed courtyard near the Rampart pavilion which has a baroque fountain featuring numerous statues.

Another interesting area of the city centre is Neumarkt. Neumarkt which stands for New Market should be taken to be misunderstood as a market place. Here in Germany, it is the name of the square and is a culturally significant section of the inner city of Dresden. The Neumarkt like most of Dresden was destroyed during WW II and was rebuilt to its original pre-war look.

Amongst the other Baroque masterpieces in Dresden are the Taschenberg Palace and the Dresden Cathedral. Later in the day we had the opportunity to visit the Green Vault- Europe’s most important treasury museum. The original “Green Vault” too was destroyed during WWII and later rebuilt by Augustus the Strong and here you can find the most important pieces of art including the “Court of Aurangzeb”- a masterpiece of the Dinglinger family of Jewellers. This amazing work took as long as 7 years to build one costs as much as the famous Moritzburg Castle of Saxony.

Dresden is a city for lovers of art and is home to several museums. With a standard ticket costing 12 Euros, you can have access to as many as 11 different museums on a single day which include the Green Vault (extra charges for Historic Green Vault), Numismatic Collection, Porcelain Collection, Armoury Museum, Museum of Arts and Crafts, Sculpture Collection, to name a few.

After getting a preview of what was in store for us during our stay, we checked in at the Steigenberger Park Hotel in Radebeul, situated on the foot of the Loessnitz vineyards, seven kilometers away from the city of Dresden. Radebeul is an ideal location for trips to Moritzburg Castle, the porcelain city of Meissen and Saxon Switzerland – one of the most unique landscapes in Germany. It is also on the Saxon Wine Route which runs from Pirna, located to the south of Dresden and runs upto Diessbar-Seusslitz, a village to the north of Meissen. Nearby we had the opportunity to visit one of the most amazing vineyards of Saxony – the Schloss Wackerbarth or the Wackerbarth Castle.

The Wackerbarth Castle, nestled in the town of Radebeul houses Saxony’s oldest sparkling wine(Sekt) producing facility. It is Europe’s first vineyard to allow guest to discover and experience the world of wine first-hand. We arrived at Wackerbath Castle late in the evening where the Mediterranean style palace stood out at twilight and we could smell the fruitiness of the Riesling grown in the area. We were taken for a guided tour of the state-owned winery and got to experience a bouquet of wines from black currant to exotic peach aromas before being treated to some fine gourmet meals prepared by their head chef providing the perfect culmination to our visit to the Wackerbath Castle which has attracted connoisseurs and lovers of the Mediterranean way of life since the 18th Century. The special menu exclusively prepared for us comprised of gratinated goat’s cheese from Altenburg in a filo dough on fig curry jam and reduced grape’s vinegar accompanied by 2006 Riesling Qba semi-dry. This was followed by the main course comprising of breast of Moritzburger pheasant a la vinter on pineapple cabbage and herbal couscous accompanied by a 2006 Frühburgunder Qba dry and concluded by a dessert comprising of Borthner apple soup with iced sour cream accompanied with a 2003 Weissburgunder Auslese. The sumptuous meal accompanied by the finest wines convinced me that Saxony is undoubtedly the gastronomic capital of Germany.

Those who love Indian food needn’t despair for there is Kamasutra! Don’t get me wrong as Kamasutra is one amongst several Indian restaurants that you can find in Dresden which serve Indian cuisine and claims to be the first in continental Europe to offer authentic Indian food. There is also Maharadscha, another Indian restaurant, which claims to be the first Indian restaurant in Dresden. So I wonder who was first. The important thing here is that there are several Indian restaurants in Dresden amongst cuisines from across the world.

There were lots of exciting places in store for us to visit in Saxony. Next on our list of destinations was a visit to.....


After a sumptuous breakfast, our coach left southwards to the region of Saxon Switzerland. Saxon Switzerland which is on the border of the Czech Republic is one of the most unique landscapes in Germany and lies to the south of Dresden.

It was named Saxon Switzerland as there was a Swiss painter Adrian Zingg who came at the end of the 19th Century. He worked in Dresden and he came here and it reminded him of his native land in Switzerland and so he named it as Saxon Switzerland. The people in the administration didn’t like this as they preferred it to be known as the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, which was the original name. However the people liked it and the name got stuck and the national park too is known as the Saxon Switzerland national park. This was only the beginning of several places in Germany being named as Switzerland, there are as many as 120 Switzerlands within Germany although most of them are smaller areas. This place is an all time favourite amongst painters, hikers and lovers of nature. As you arrive here, there is a Panorama restaurant and the Berghotel Bastei. On a sunny day, you can sit out in the Biergarten and also get a view of the stunning scenery of the region.

Saxon Switzerland is one of the favourite holiday destinations of not only the people of Germany but all those who visit the region of Saxony as well as the Czech Republic. It is possible to do a day trip here or stay in Saxon Switzerland and do the neighbouring Ore Mountains as well. There was an ocean here millions of years ago and later the oceans evolved into the romantic scenery that you find here at the Elbe Sandstone Mountains.

Although we were greeted with wet weather, we were simply overawed by the unparalleled nature on display comprising of forests, mountains and gorges in the midst of a green landscape. The beauty of wild flower meadows and the Bastei (Bastion) rock formation provides stunning sceneries of deep ravines, bizarre rock towers and huge table rocks which have been created on the grounds of a former ocean. Truly, photographers and painters can spend days capturing various dimensions of natural beauty of this region.

Located 30 kilometres from Dresden, Saxon Switzerland lies between the Ore Mountains and the Lusatia Mountains extending from the town of Pirna and across the Czech Repubic border to the town of Decin in Bohemia. The German part of the mountains covers a region of 368 kilometres of stunning landscape and this region was created when the rivers flowing from the peaks of the Ore Mountains deposited sediments and seashells as the water flowed to the sea, almost 66 million years ago. The land was formed by erosion of water and wind which gives the distinctive features of sandstone blocks, valleys and vertical walls descending in several steps and broken up into rock towers. The Czech Republic side of the mountains is known as Bohemian Switzerland. The place has over 1100 climbing peaks and is a haven for international climbers from across the globe. The region originally had the Slavic settlers and is believed to have had a number of fortresses around to protect the trade routes. Even today you find the Königstein Fortress and the Hohnstein Castle. There are hardly any remains of the other castles and fortresses except the Bastei or the castle on the Falkenstein, which today is a climbing peak.

This region is the origin of free climbing, with ropes and bolts being used for protection but never meant for climbing. The region comprises of over 1200 kilometres of hiking trails and 14000 climibing routes thru which mountain climbers can conquer over a thousand free standing peaks. There is also the Elbe cycle path or you can board a steam paddle boat along the Elbe river to discover the beauty of the region. This region was made a national park only during the last days of East Germany, rather before the German reunification. It in incredible to note that the famous Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) as well as the Zwinger in Dresden were built with the famous sandstone from the Elbe Valley. Even the historic Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was built from the sandstone that you find here in Saxon Switzerland. It is here that Germany’s first ever landscape photographs were captured way back in 1853 near the Bastei rock formation. The famous Bastei Bridge too was built around the 1850s and later reconstructed out of wood due to increase in the number of tourists and we had the opportunity to cross the Bastei Bridge – the first building in Europe that was intended only as a tourist attraction.

For nature lovers it is strongly recommended to have an overnight stay at one of the 3 wellness hotels in this region- Berghotel Bastei, the Park Hotel or the Lindenhof Hotel. There are a variety of wellness packages available in some of these properties. A good option would be to stay in Saxon Switzerland where a double room would cost 50 Euros per night for a 4 star accommodation and then do a day trip to Dresden which is one hour away and during peak seasons accommodation in Dresden can be 3 to 6 times more expensive than the tariffs you find in Saxon Switzerland.

After a halt for about an hour at Saxon Switzerland we headed to the region of Upper Lusatia which lies to the east of Dresden; en route we halted for lunch at the Rammenau Castle. The building which is a museum today comprises of a treasure chest of late Baroque and early Classicist interior architecture and has various rooms of diverse styles including a Chinese Room, a Birds Room, a Bulgarian Room and a Hunting Room. The Mirror is mainly used for concerts and the international Linen Festival of Upper Lusatia takes place here every August. The Neo-classic interior design with its valuable porcelain, stylish salons and illusionist wall painting along with the grand staircase are some of the highlights of this wonderful baroque castle.

Our next stop was at the easternmost city of Germany – Görlitz which has a Silesian influence and is located on the Polish order comprises of 35000 inhabitants. It is 1 hour 15 minutes from Dresden and can be reached either by road or by rail. If you arrive by train, you will be impressed by the art nouveau styled train station. Görlitz is the centre of Lower Silesia’s Upper Lusatia region and is one of the most interesting towns in Saxony. Upper Lusatia has changed hands very often – it was Hungarian, Bohemian, Austrian, partly Prussian and most of the time Saxony. After World War II, the borders were changed, the eastern part of Upper Lusatia became Poland, the western part in German territory was part of East Germany and Görlitz was part of it. Hence, you find a Silesian influence here in Görlitz. Lots of people here are from Silesia, which is part of Poland. The history of the town has a strong influence of the Sorbs and till date they are able to preserve their culture and later in the day we were going for a Sorbian evening at the Bjesada restaurant in Bautzen. Görlitz, is one of the few places where the synagogues survived the war and the city has a great influence of various religions. We did a short walking tour of Görlitz although we didn’t have time to visit the Holy Grave – a true to life replica of the grave of Jesus that you find in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Very few towns possess an unspoilt old town as Görlitz which boasts of over 4000 architectural monuments dating from different eras and due to the Via Regia- the city on the banks of the River Neisse was part of the old trading town between various regions of Bohemia and Silesia. Having escaped destruction during WWII, Görlitz looks pretty much the same as it was in 1945, and hence is one of the most beautiful towns in Germany. From Renaissance to Art Nouveau, the town is a feast for lovers of architecture. Large parts of the old town have been restored to its former glory and after WWII, the town of Görlitz has been divided with a large part of it in Germany and a smaller portion of it in Poland which is known as Zgorzelec. The major highlights of the city tour include the City Hall Steps which date back to the 16th Century, the Oberlausitz Library of Science – one of the most beautiful European Library, the Church of St. Peter and Paul, a late-gothic hall church and the Church of Holy Trinity.

Our brief halt at Görlitz included a visit to the Strasbourg arcade, a shopping arcade which was built by a Jewish merchant. Jews normally have German names and very often they use names of places from where they originally came from. Probably, in this case that is why it is known as Strasbourg arcade as the person who built it might have originally come from Strasbourg. Interestingly the spires of St Peter’s Church in Görlitz and other areas of the town as well is where the movie Around the World in 80 days starring Jackie Chan was shot, although in the movie certain clips are show as the Notre Dame of Paris, although shot in Görlitz.

Our next halt was at the medieval looking town of many towers, Bautzen which lies approximately 54 kilometres west of Görlitz. As we approached Bautzen, the city was visible from a distance as it has a city comprising of many towers. What is unique about the town is its picturesque location and the upper town is situated on a granite plateau above the Spree River. Bautzen is a historical town and a former capital of Upper Lusatia. The town is situated close to the north border of the Czech Republic in German Saxony. The Spree river runs across the town and creates many amazing curves cut into a narrow valley. Close to the river are remains of middle age walls with many towers bastion.

The Alte Wasserkunst or Old Waterworks is the place from where you can watch the river in the valley as well as view water facilities partially cut into a rock. The remains of the Ortenburg castle are situated close to the tower. A natural centre of the town is the square with its historical buildings of Peter’s Palace and an old Town Hall. Quite specific is the town tower called Reichenturm or the leaning tower of Bautzen. This "leaning tower" dated from 1490 and is 1,44 m off its axis. The tower is accessible for the public and during a strong wind visitors can feel the movements. Thanks to its great position and many sights the town attracts every year many foreign visitors. Close to Bautzen is the small town of Kleinwelk which offers a Dinosaurus stone park and an amazing labyrinth and "Miniature’s town".

Bautzen is also the centre of the Slavic minority of the Sorbs and the Sorbs have been able to sustain their own culture and language over centuries. We experience the Sorbian Culture and along with their tradition and customs over a Sorbian dinner at the Bjesada restaurant. The 1000 year old town continues to preserve the Slavic language and traditions which is reflected by the bilingual road signs in Bautzen. Traditions such as the artistic decoration of the Easter eggs, the Easter Riding or the “Witch Burning” have remained alive here through the centuries. After a traditional Sorbian dinner with a cultural event we took a short walk of the medieval town centre before heading back to Radebeul.

The next day we had yet another exciting tour of the city of Johann Sebastian Bach as well as a visit to the city where European porcelain was invented...


The penultimate day in the region of Saxony we were to visit Leipzig, the city of music, also known as the city of Johann Sebastian Bach who lived and worked in Lieipzig for over 27 years and later was buried in St. Thomas' Church. On our schedule for the day, was also a visit to the city of “white gold” or European Porcelain- Meissen.

Leipzig is historical as it was the first town in Germany to win the right from the Emperor to hold a trade fair, way back in 1497 and it grew over the years to become a cosmopolitan and commercial city and is one of the most important cities of Germany. Leipzig lies to the north west of Dresden and can be reached by road or by train. With a population of over 560000 inhabitants, Leipzig is over 2 hours from Berlin, just an hour away by train and over 3 hours from Frankfurt on Main. It was the largest trading town and has a tradition as a trade fair city. The Leipzig Fair organized in the city is in fact the oldest trade fair in the world and at times is referred to as the “Mother of all Fairs” and was undoubtedly the most famous trade fair town of Germany until the Second World War (WWII). After the Second World War, and after the reunification, it was Frankfurt which gained prominence as the city for the Trade Fairs.

Leipzig has the biggest train station in Germany as it was a trade fair town. The train station has 26 platforms and about 140 shops and restaurants and it is one of the most beautiful and cleanest train stations in Germany. In fact the largest shopping mall is in the Leipzig Main Station which is the largest terminus in Europe and a visit to the railway station is a must as part of your visit to Leipzig.

Leipzig is a city known for its automobiles, industries and technology. The Porsche Cayenne is produced here and also the 3 Series of the BMW. Global players like DHL, Amazon, Siemens have their headquarters in Leipzig.

Leipzig is a city of music with well known names such as Bach, Mendelssohn and Wagner. Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy led the Gewandhaus Orchestra to international fame and Robert Schumann, the famous composer and influential music critic studied in Leipzig University. Leipzig has the second oldest University after Heidelberg and over 50000 students come every year to study in Leipzig. Interestingly, the Berlin Wall came down because of Leipzig as it was in the walls of the St. Nicholas Church, there was a non-violent protest movement that took place in 1989 that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.

During our short visit to Leipzig, we did a walking tour of the city following the traces of some of the well known musicians, the churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas and the tomb of Bach. The Nikolaikirche, or the St. Nicholas Church is the oldest church in Leipzig, dating back to 1165 and refurbished in the 18th Century. The date of 9th October 1989 has a great significance as it was on this date and year that lead to the break down of the German Democratic Republic and reunification of Germany. The peaceful demonstration by over 70000 people took place after peaceful Monday demonstrations were held in this church. The ceiling and columns of the church are very impressive and the columns look like palm trees. Closeby we also had the opportunity to see the tomb of Johann Sebastian Bach.

In the past Leipzig was a small town and the major developments took place here only after the 20th Century. Leipzig is a city which is a delight for fans of classical museum as you have the Bach museum, Schumann's House and Mendelssohn's House which is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

For lovers of coffee, a visit to the Zum Arabischen Coffee Baum is a must, where you can have some coffee and then go upstairs to see the coffee museum. The Coffee Baum is one of the oldest coffee houses in Germany and amongst their guests were Wagner, Schumann and other famous personalities. There are fine cafes also along the Grimmaische Street where we were heading next for lunch to a very historical place - the Auerbachs Keller (or Auerbach’s Cellar in English), a remarkable restaurant in the most beautiful shopping arcade, the Mädler Passage. The restaurant was made immortal by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was a student of Leipzig University, in his famous “Fausthus” novel where Mephisto rides on a wine barrel that is accessible to the visitors of the restaurant even today. The historical rooms in the Auerbachs Keller are illuminated by almost a 1000 light bulbs and approximately 75000 litres of beer are consumed in the cellar every year. The Auerbachs Keller ranks amongst the top 10 most well known restaurants that one must visit across the world.

The Auerbachs Keller is known throughout Germany and is one of the most famous and oldest restaurants and it dates back to 1525 when a wine tavern was established in the cellar of this house by Heinrich Stromer, a doctor who was born in the Auerbach. In 1530, he rebuilt the house completely and soon the property became famous as a tavern and trading house which was known as the Auerbachs Hof. The cellar came to fame during Goethe's time because of the scene in Goethe's drama “Faust” that depicts “Auerbachs Keller in Leipzig”. The most interesting part of the cellar are the wine rooms where gourmet cuisine is served. The Goethe Room, The Luther Room and Alt Leipzig and Fasskeller are places where the historians frequented during the earlier days and in the big cellar of Grosse Keller is where you can experience fine Saxonian hospitality with 100 years of tradition. The big cellar offers a romantic and personal ambience and has a capacity of seating 500 guests. A visit to the Auerbachs Keller was truly a cultural, historic and culinary discovery, very unique and special.

Thereafter we headed to Meissen which is 40 minutes drive and 15 kilometres north west of Dresden. Although European porcelain was invented in Dresden, it was here in Meissen where the porcelain became world famous and later we were not only to visit the State Porcelain Manufactory but to have some fine cuisine served in Meissen porcelain at the Manufactory. Our visit to Meissen commenced with a walking tour of the old town. Meissen, also known as the Cradle of Saxony was the former capital of this region and it is here that the German Emperor established his rule by erecting a castle on the hill during the 10th Century. Later, the first palace building was erected here before the Saxon capital was shifted to Dresden. The historic part of Meissen was never destroyed and comprises of 1500 valuable buildings, some as old as 350 years and have been restored after the German reunification.

Meissen is also on the Saxon wine trail route as it is one of Germany's smallest wine growing regions. Meissen is rich in history and the mighty ensemble of Albrechtsburg Castle and Meissen Cathedral adds character to this beautiful town. You can see the banks of the Elbe from the hill above and is truly a photographer's delight.

The Albrechtsburg Castle was the first castle ever designed as a royal residence in the German speaking region and was built in Gothic style during the 15th Century. Now a museum, it is truly an architectural masterpiece. The old city hall and the Church of Our Lady with its 57 metre high tower are as impressive as the stroll along the medieval streets of this beautiful town with its quiet squares and steep flight of steps, old houses, small shops, cafes and wine cellars. A visit to the Vincenz Richter wine bar is a must. The Vincenz Richter is one of the most famous wine restaurants and is like a museum. This former guildhouse dating to 1523 lies on the main marketplace and is family owned since 1873. The restaurant has a fine antique collection of pictures and weapons on display including a room with instruments of torture dating back to the Middle Ages. The torture chamber as it is known can be visited by the guests of the restaurant and is quite interesting indeed.

On our way across the medieval narrow streets we came across a shop selling Meissen Fummel, a fine pastry with a protected designation of origin from Meissen. The shape is an irregular round “balloon” made of a very thin dough and the pastry is very brittle and fragile. This was the creation of the Elector of Saxony and it was believed that the messengers who used to carry mail on horseback from Meissen to Dresden would damage the mail after having the Meissen wine. So the Elector invented this fragile pastry and the rider had the challenge to bring the mail without breaking the Fummel. The bakers were instructed to create this thin dough. This was created for an evidence of being sober or else penalties would be imposed on these messengers. I am sure not many messengers would have been successful in reaching Dresden without breaking the Fummel whether they were drunk or not.

Our final halt was at the Meissen porcelain manufactory. The “crossed swords” are one of the oldest trade marks in the world and epitomizes accomplished craftsmanship, beauty and style. Each piece of Meissen porcelain is an original hand made work of artists which makes the porcelain truly a collector's item. More than 40000 visitors come to see the highly artistic and masterly production of the porcelain every year at the manufactory which has over 3000 porcelain pieces on display, one of the most comprehensive collections in the world. After a short documentary, we went through a quick tour of the manufactory and the amazing range of porcelain was simply out of the ordinary. We were taken through the various stages of how porcelain is shaped and the time taken to make it a finished product does make it truly the “white gold”. It is said that Johann Friedrich Böttger was supposed to make gold for the Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong and accidentally ended up developing a red stoneware which eventually became the white gold or the European porcelain. Amongst several impressive works of art was a piano made entirely of porcelain on display and was available at a price of 200000 Euros!!! And then we were all set for the grand finale of the Saxony trip… the dinner ceremony on Meissen porcelain. Truly, to take back fond memories of this wonderful region, we were served a special menu known as “Journey of Time” taking us through different periods of cuisine - a cream soup of sugar peas with roasted king prawns, followed by saddle of lamb, medium rare, with olive crust vegetables provence style and couscous and the dessert comprising of panna cotta with peach lavender ragout. The food was accompanied by fine wines of the regions such as the 2006 Riesling Dry (QbA), from the Weingut Vincenz Richter and 2005 Dornfelder Dry (QbA) from the Meissner Weinhaus-Prinz zur Lippe. We were taken through the different styles of dining across different eras and it was indeed incredible to note that an area of 480 hectares in the Elbe valley produces 35 different varieties of grapes thus making Saxony the gastronomic capital of Germany.

The following day I took my flight home and later in 2008, I made my second trip to Germany in less than a year when I planned an itinerary covering the regions of Hessen, Baden Württemberg and Bavaria starting with the magical city of Frankfurt.