My Germany Journey
How to visit Germany and not set foot into Bavaria.
Unless you are an avid skier, a trip to Germany in January or February may not sound like such a hot idea. I went because the flights are inexpensive and I wanted to see my Germany.
I saw my sister, my half-sister, one aunt, several cousins, my nieces, and grandnieces, my best friend from high school, and two German clients. One now owns a five-acre parcel on the Olympic Peninsula; the other used to own a home on the Sammamish plateau. I also made some new friends whose faces I knew only from Facebook. The Facebook group, over 4,000 strong, is the online place to be if you are a fan of the SC Freiburg. The actual place to be is the Schwarzwald-Stadion where I watched my first Bundesliga match. More about that later.
I landed in Frankfurt,spent the first ten days with my sister in Kirchzarten near Freiburg, then headed all the way north to the countryside around Oldenburg located in the state of Lower Saxony, then back south to the Cologne area and after a side trip to Münster, traveled back to Frankfurt. From Freiburg, I took a day trip to the Bodensee (Germany’s largest lake) and some jaunts into the Black Forest and the neighboring countryside toward the Rhine valley. You will come across these cities in my Germany journey below.
In Kirchzarten, I stayed on the ground floor of the same apartment building where my sister lives on the third floor. Since my last trip five years ago, the ground floor apartment had been converted to house local tourists.
My Germany journey took many forms of transportation. I walked a lot, hopped on streetcars, boarded buses, and took trains. Car travel was an exception. The public transportation system of Freiburg is exemplary, even for Germany. The frequency, the on-time departures, and the reach into every part of the city and the outskirts make taking public transportation the natural choice. This is not necessarily the case in other cities. Also, the Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) has lost some of its luster. Equipment failure and aging tracks routinely cause delays and even cancellations.
The favored means of personal transportation is the bike. Bikes are everywhere. There’s nothing flashy, no colorful spandex. It’s about getting from point A to point B in ordinary clothes and largely without headgear. When not in use, the bikes are parked in designated open or covered places. Otherwise, they are creatively attached or tossed wherever there’s space. One of my relatives commutes to work with car and train from a small town to the big city where he pedals to and from work from a bike garage where he rents a monthly space. The large student population contributes to the bevy of bikes in Freiburg and Münster which is known as the bicycle capital of Germany.
My German journey confirmed that the best food is locally grown and seasonal. Two of the winter month specialties are game and “Feldsalat”. For a while, Trader Joe’s used to carry it in bags under the French name “Mache.” I bought all I could but that wasn’t enough to sustain the supply line. In the US it is known as field lettuce or corn lettuce because it is grown between the rows of harvested corn. The smaller the rosettes of five to seven dark green leaves the better is the taste. Around Freiburg, the people call it “Nüsslisalat” because of its nutty flavor. Grown mostly in sandy soil, cleaning each rosette is a chore. It’s not inexpensive and, buying it already cleaned, adds to the cost. The usual dressing is a vinaigrette with tiny bacon bits and croutons the size of pinheads.
The food alone made my Germany journey a success. Freiburg shares its gastronomic heritage with France and Switzerland. The science and art of good eating is central to the way of life. The city’s market place offers locally grown vegetables, fruit, and lettuce that attracts shoppers from all three countries.
In Münster, located in North Rhine-Westphalia, there’s a fabulous outdoor food market each Wednesday and Saturday. It may not offer as much farmer-grown produce as Freiburg, but it has row after row of specialty foods, ranging from spices to cheeses, seafood, meats, and sausages. Despite these temptations, the longest line had formed at a food stand that offered nothing but the local variety of home-fried potatoes.
I enjoyed most meals at the homes of my hosts which helped with my dietary restrictions. Hard to believe, I landed back stateside five pounds lighter which I attribute to all the walking I did. Still, there were some fine restaurant meals and none more memorable than the dinner at a 500-year old restaurant in Bad Zwischenahn near Oldenburg.
On short notice, we got the last dinner reservation at 8 pm. My hosts and I ordered the traditional specialty of the house which was smoked eel served with home-fried potatoes and scrambled eggs. Eel is as tasty as it is fatty and the generous portion was as delicious as the heartburn at three in the morning was pernicious. I should have followed the example of the local patrons who chased their eel down with copious portions of locally produced Schnaps. Schnaps is what we call the clear, distilled alcohol in Germany, not the Americanized variety of “schnapps” (spelled with two p’s) which in Germany we call liqueur. Read about the difference here.
Around Freiburg, the Black Forest, and the Bodensee
On the only sunny day, my sister and I took the train to Basel. There, we transferred to another train to Überlingen, located at the Bodensee, (Lake of Constance) the largest inland lake of Germany. There, we met with our half-sister. Überlingen is where our father was born in 1910.
Other shorter excursions included an impromptu bus trip up into the Black Forest and a train ride back to where we started.
One day, after visiting my clients and friends in a small village south of Freiburg, I took the train from Basel to Freiburg. The late afternoon sun drenched the fertile fields and vineyards of the Markgräflerland against the backdrop of heavy winter clouds over the foothills of the Black Forest. I should add that I went to the world-famous Basel School of Design and took that train ride from and to Freiburg a hundred times.
On the final day of my stay with my sister, we took the train to the Kaiserstuhl. (Emperor’s chair). The warmest place in Germany with mountains of volcanic origin, it is the soil where some of the choicest German wines ripen to perfection. We visited our youngest cousin who had the good sense to marry a man who is a successful vintner there.
In Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia
I’m quite familiar with southern Germany. This time around, my German journey took me north to some areas I had not visited before. On a chilly afternoon, my friends drove into the town of Bad Zwischenahn where we visited the St. Johannes Kirche, a church that dates back to the 12th century. It houses one of the largest and most exquisitely carved alter pieces of Christendom. The nearby park borders on a lake called the Zwischenahner Meer. It is also the venue of an open-air museum featuring farm buildings with thatched roofs. One of these buildings houses the aforementioned restaurant where we dined on the smoked eel.
While staying with one of my nieces, we went to see one of the largest coal strip mining operations in Germany near Cologne. Coal still accounts for about 40% of Germany’s energy sources while wind power accounts for about 12%. Interestingly, energy from wood pellets, very popular here, is counted as part of the biomass (green) energy. Solar energy still accounts for only about 7%, although solar panels on residential rooftops are ubiquitous.
For the first time, I visited the Cologne cathedral. Taller and larger than the Freiburger Münster, it is younger having been completed only in 1880 after a total building period of 632 years. Extensive excavations provided proof of a much older church beneath dating back to the fourth century. I also visited the “treasure chamber” in the undercroft where original sandstone statutes of the cathedral, vestments, and religious implements, ornaments, and artifacts are on display.
The last full day in Germany, I spent with my niece, husband, and grandnieces in Münster. Located in North Rhine-Westphalia, Münster was the location of the Anabaptist rebellion during the Protestant Reformation and the site of the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. The St. Paul’s Cathedral is built in the late Romanesque style and was consecrated in 1264. It features a number of contemporary stained glass windows. The cathedral rests on the foundation of a missionary church built in the year 793.
The two tickets to the always sold out games were graciously provided by a member of the SC Freiburg Facebook group. This was my first Bundesliga game in over four decades and the first of the SC Freiburg. I didn’t know what to expect.
My team lost. My sister and I saw six goals. Unfortunately, four of them scored by TSG Hoffenheim, the opposition. Hoffenheim has never won in Freiburg, so this was in different ways a first for them and me.
I’ve never been to a Seahawks game so I don’t know how the atmosphere and the events around the game compare. Words like tumultuous, joyous, noisy, boisterous, unbridled, jam-packed, crammed, passionate, fanatical, enthusiastic, excited, and frenzied barely begin to describe the scene.
The match was a local derby between two teams from Baden-Württemberg played in the appropriately named Schwarzwaldstadion. Think Huskies versus Cougars. The police force, a highly visible presence at all Bundesliga games, was everywhere, some in riot gear. Nothing happened. The opposing “Ultras” as they are called, a small ultra-fanatic minority, didn’t clash outside the stadium or anywhere else in the city.
Before and after the game, I met members of the SCF Facebook group in a nearby restaurant. The place was packed inside and out. The outdoor beer garden, with tents to protect fans from the elements, barely accommodated the human throng and saying excuse me when you bumped into someone would have been a constant utterance. The songs, specially composed to celebrate the club, blared from the speakers. Beer and wine flowed freely, and the conversations were competing with the din of the music. Despite the result, this event was the highlight of my Germany journey.
Although their team had lost, the SC Freiburg fans were in good spirits in more than one way.
Germans still smoke, especially younger women. I guess they are trying to catch up. Young people are especially conscious of environmental issues. Gluten-free and vegetarian foods are popular with Millennials. I blame social media. Grafitti is everywhere, from train stations to historic buildings. Here’s what distinguishes graffiti from street art. Tattoos are on the rise, and so are facial adornments.
Real Estate Related
When you are a real estate broker, you see the world with different eyes. My German journey was no different. I pay attention to homes wherever I travel. In Germany, homes are not built with wood but with masonry blocks. Roof lines are steeper and covered with ceramic or fiberglass/asphalt tiles. Solar panels are commonplace. Here is a great article about the difference between American and German homes.
When it comes to interiors, two things stood out, one old, the other relatively new. Germans always liked exterior shutters. They are not just for decoration but for protection once closed. To close and open the old, wooden ones you had to lean and reach out the window. Nowadays, the exterior shutters open and close with a switch. The other stand out was something that didn’t stand out. To take a shower, you don’t need to raise your leg. You simply walk (or roll) in. The bathroom tile floor gently slopes from the periphery of the shower to the drain. Often there isn’t even a door, just a curtain.
Back on American Soil
So much about my Germany Journey. I’m happy to be back, especially now that the snow is gone and spring is in the air. The evidence is now also on the ground in my garden.
First published by Gerhard as his
January 2019 View from the Street Newsletter published for 96 months.