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Germany is not usually number one on the international tourist's hit list, so we here at h2g2 thought we would try to breathe life into the Guide by asking for your help on this major league European player. We wanted to expose the underbelly of Germany - and we got more than we bargained for.
You gave us the full lowdown on how to avoid cultural cock-ups, getting around the major cities and also where to stock up on good food at affordable prices. But, as ever, you all came up trumps and gave us a sneak preview of major festivals and uncorked the mysteries of German wine as well.
Together, we have elevated Germany to its rightful place among the top hitters of Europe's tourism table.
Cultural Cock-ups and Top Tourist Tips
There's nothing worse than arriving in a strange land, where you're so unsure of the language that simply going to the bathroom can be a painful experience. You've got to be wary of local habits and customs while getting around cheaply and effectively. Want to know which beer will give you the greatest hangover? Read on...
When touring in the wine-growing regions, camping in one or all of the vineyards that sit on the banks of the Rhine is strongly recommended. When you get there, ensure that you wrinkle your nose at the sweet wines that are sold to tourists, express a bit of interest in dry wines, and bingo - you will be dragged into the wine racks by the delighted owners and forced to taste huge quantities of their best produce. Expect to be joined by half the staff and their families.
Never, ever, walk on the grass. Ever.
Never cross a pedestrian crossing when the man is red, even if nothing is coming. On the other hand, crossing where there is no official crossing-place is perfectly acceptable.
Old ladies expect you to give way, especially if you are young and at the head of a long queue. Sharp elbows are the best defence.
If you are in Munich, get up early one day, go to the market in the centre of town, and obtain a Weisswurst. You must go in the morning, because by midday they are past their best. They are white sausages made from the white fatty gunk that runs out of the pig when they cut its throat, and taste very nice. Try one, you will be surprised. Honest.
Never, ever spend an entire evening drinking Altbier. It is very nice but gives you a pounding hangover.
If you get caught up in a bar where drinking songs are being sung, do not hide behind your beer hoping that nobody will notice you. It is far more acceptable to join in. Of course nobody expects you to know the words, you're a foreigner, so just wave your beer around and make appropriate singing noises during the chorus.
In what used to be the West, it is much, much better to be thought a foreign tourist than a foreign worker. Unemployment is a big problem and feelings against 'foreigners taking our jobs' run high.
In Hamburg, get onto one of the harbour tour boats (Hafenrundfahrt). They are well worth it, as these are some of the biggest shipbuilding yards in the world, and your little grockle boat is dwarfed by the shipping that is in dock. Awe inspiring.
Planten und Blomen in Hamburg is a horticultural park, a bit like Kew Gardens, London. At dusk in the summer months, go to the fountains (near the Telemichel - see below). They have coloured lights beneath them, and in the evenings for an hour or so they dance to music played over loudspeakers across the lake.
The Telemichel is Hamburg slang for their telecommunications tower. There is a rotating restaurant (with an excellent menu) at the top, from which it is possible to look down on Planten und Blomen, the Olympic Village, and also plummeting bungee-jumpers. On a summer's day it is often also possible to look down on swarms of hot-air balloons.
If you switch on the radio, don't be surprised if the music sounds the same on every channel. This is absolutely normal.
One in three Germans is a smoker. Cigarette promotions are held in bars, and asking for a non-smoking seat in a restaurant will be met with blank looks...
...Except in Berlin, where service doesn't extend to blank looks. Expect a disdainful stare from the bar area where the staff are enjoying a drink.
To tip waiters customers usually round up the bill to whole units. For example a beer costing DM4.50 costs DM5 with tip.
Public transport is excellent all over Germany although it's cheaper to rent a car and drive for long distances than it is to take the train.
Credit and debit cards are not as widely accepted in Germany as in the rest of the West. Cash is always welcome, even small change in fact, as keeping the Pfennig in circulation is the subject of a campaign in Germany1.
Also the subject of a campaign was the Ampelmännchen - the little green figure telling you it's safe to cross the road. In the old days of the east/west divide the DDR benefited from the services of a very jaunty little figure, complete with hat and, in one case, an umbrella. Due to EU standardisations the figure was to be replaced with the generic international version and people all over the East were up in arms.
Germans are generally very friendly and hospitable people, all the more so in the East. It's perfectly normal if you're in a crowded restaurant to squeeze onto a table with a few complete strangers.
Indian restaurants in Germany are terrible, because German food is very bland and there's not much of a demand for late-night chicken vindaloo. The mainstay of the German fast food industry is the doner kebab.
When buying fruit and vegetables in a German supermarket weigh your own produce, push the button corresponding to what you're buying and affix the resulting sticky label on the plastic bag. It's not cool to have separate bags for everything, so put your potatoes in with your carrots and beans with all the labels on the outside. Bring your own bag to carry your shopping in and don't forget to recycle.
Recycling is very popular in Germany. Biodegradable rubbish gets taken away and composted, glass is melted down (bottles generally have a deposit) and re-used, and most packaging bears the 'green point' which indicates that it can also be recycled.
Nudism is acceptable in many public parks. Picture the first sunny day in May, with half a dozen naked men trying to convince themselves that it's warm enough to be sunbathing and a little old lady in a coat and furry hat out walking her dog and not paying them the slightest bit of attention.
Drinking in public (or at work) is also tolerated and the police, although they don't stand any abuse, are generally lenient.
You can visit the Reeperbahn, Hamburg, the most famous and biggest red light district in Germany. You can have a look in hundreds of sex-shops for every need you have, and can also have a nice time in the pubs, drinking whatever you want until you drop on the floor. But be careful, as 'a little bit' of champagne will cost you.
Every 'Hamburger' thinks Hamburg is the most beautiful town in Germany, maybe in the whole world.
Hamburg has got a lot of water. It has a harbour, and it has some lakes in the middle of the city. You can sit at the sea or harbour, and have a drink. There are no pubs, just a few restaurants, where you pay $10 for a small beer. So be careful.
The Oktoberfest in Munich has an interesting history dating back to 1810 when King Joseph of Bavaria decided to celebrate his marriage to Theresa of Saxony in style. The Bavarians had such a jolly time that they decided to repeat the celebration year after year. The festival is traditionally opened by the Mayor in the 'official' tent after a procession through the town.
The Mayor opens the first keg and declares the festival open. The crowds rush into the tents and within an hour or so there's enough merriment and dancing with bands striking up all over the place to last for the whole festival. According to the Munich Tourist board, this goes on for two weeks - there are usually over seven million visitors who drink over four million litres (not pints) of beer. All this drinking leads to a serious attack of the munchies which results in the consumption of hundreds of thousands of chickens, just under half a million sausages, a quarter of a million fish and a quarter of the city's water supply.
The festival actually starts in September and runs through to early October. It is recommended to book a room before arriving in the city as accommodation is sparse. Also it's worth stocking up on any hangover cures you may require. As always, variety is the spice of life and it's best to run around a few tents in the first couple of days to see which ones you prefer. Not only do you get to taste a variety of local brews, but you can then get to you favourite tents early, get a seat and settle in for a mega-drinking session.
Much maligned, avoided even, many people still associate German wine with the oily syrups that were found at parties in the 1970s2. Another off-putting factor is that German wine labels are notoriously mysterious. Often gothic in appearance, the bottles are brown as if to hide the contents inside, and are adorned with labels decorated with coats of arms and severe-looking chevrons. It's serious wine and a bit scary too, and the names don't help either. Most wine drinkers would choose a Penfold's Chardonnay over a JL Wolf Pfalz Forster Jesuitengarten Riesling Auslese Trocken any day of the week, because, well, you know what you're getting.
As a result of all this, good German wines (and there are many of these) are, if not undiscovered, certainly outside the mainstream. In addition, for what you get, decent German wines are relatively inexpensive, which is good news for anyone prepared to leap into the unknown, armed with a little knowledge.
Here are a few things to bear in mind when choosing German wine:
Before you dismiss them completely, German medium-sweet wines have their uses. They go very well with South East Asian food and anything with a good dose of chillies, as the sugar offsets the effects of the heat.
If you're bored with drinking Chardonnay, check out Riesling3, Germany's greatest grape variety. Rieslings have minerally, flowery, almost spicy notes. Riesling is also produced in other wine-growing regions with great success, especially in the New World. Note that Rieslings from Germany are sometimes, but not always dry. It depends what else the label says.
The word trocken on wine labels means 'dry', so that might help.
Look out for QmP4 on German wine labels. These three letters indicate that the wine in the bottle is a good one. It also means that no sugar has been added to the wine, but this doesn't mean that QmP wines are not sweet (see below).
Some of the greatest German wines are sweet. Naturally sweet dessert wines, with nutty, almondy, and raisiny flavours, these bear no resemblance whatsoever to the sort of wine that have sugar added to them (like Liebfraumilch). The two just don't compare. For really good examples of German dessert wines, look out for the words:
Beerenauslese5 wines are made from overripe grapes that are harvested individually.
Eiswein6 wines are made from grapes harvested and pressed while frozen, which means they are extra concentrated.
Trockenbeerenauslese7 wines are made from individually-harvested grapes left so long on the vine that they've nearly shrivelled to raisins.
The other thing to remember when buying German wine, especially when touring the vineyards in Germany, is that the German word for 'Cheers' is Prost!. Happy drinking.
Aldi is one of the, if not the, most successful German supermarket chains, due to its low prices. Only non-branded goods are sold there. Moreover, Aldi spends very little on advertising and on equipping its stores - for example, scanners are unheard of.
Their owners are in the Forbes list of the richest people on earth, and in the eyes of many people they deserve it. Aldi stores used to be a bum hangout, but in recent years, they have developed into in-places for grocery shopping, even with the rich, super-rich and mega-rich. This has lead to the appearance of several publications, such as the recipe book Aldidente, which shows how to cook complete family meals for less than £10 by solely using Aldi products. Although some Aldi stores have been spotted in the UK and the US, they seem to be less successful abroad than in Germany. Which is a shame.
The Hidden Haunts
h2g2 has already brought you entries on one or two of the jewels in Germany's crown with entries on Freiburg im Breisgau, Neuss and Düsseldorf - cities with major pulling power. We thought we would reveal two hidden corners of Germany that deserve special mention. They may not be hives of metropolitan decadence but they have a charm all of their own.
The Mosel Valley is a big valley located in Germany, with a brown river that flows through it, not mirroring the big vineyards on the side of the surrounding hills, because it is full of dirt and soil (the water, that is). If you travel downstream you notice the water slow down and become clearer as the river grows larger from the many streams that run down from the vineyards. On the riverside there is an old road that seems to be involved in a sensual game with the river; it squirms and turns and you lose count of the many bridges you cross. Along the road there are a few villages holding on to the steep mountain walls, making use of every inch of ground there is. Sometimes you actually have to pass through a tunnel through a house. The houses are very beautiful but, despite their age, they seem to be too modern for the abandoned, magnificent dark castles or monasteries that peer over the red rooftops. You have to see it with your own eyes.
Wuppertal (the 'u' being pronounced as 'oo') is often called the capital of the Bergische Land (mountainous territory). It is an utterly provincial town. In 1929 more than ten small cities joined together to build a big town which was then supposed to be called Wuppertal, being the only name everyone could cope with. Between all these urban settlements there have always been (and still are) woods dividing one small centre from another. Thus it is easy to understand why there is no point in Wuppertal from which you have to walk more than ten minutes to reach a major assembly of trees.
The first thing you should do after arriving in Wuppertal is to go and have a look at the Schwebebahn. This is a kind of tram hanging down from rails which are mounted about ten metres above Wuppertal's river Wupper8. Literally translated, Schwebebahn means 'Floating Railway' which is exactly the last thing it actually does. Instead it is a rattling monstrosity that carries some 50,000 people per day from point A to point B while making as much noise as possible.