Tuesday, January 21, 2020

German Impressions - What I'd do again and what I'd do differently

Oh Germany. I’ve always had a soft spot for the place, having spent 6 months on exchange in my last year of uni in Dusseldorf. I love the quaint old towns, delicious German beer, the hearty food and the efficiency of how everything runs.

Although I’ve been back to Germany a couple of times since exchange, it’s never been over the Christmas period for all the Christmas market fun, and never with Brad (although we’d both been back to Europe separately twice each in about an 8 year period - go figure). 

With neither of us having visited Europe over the Christmas period, we didn’t really know what to expect, or even necessarily where to go. The German leg of the itinerary was focussed around getting from Frankfurt to Zurich for Christmas (since we had the offer of some free accomodation). I spent much time fretting over if I had packed enough or too much, worrying if I would be cold, or if the cold would for some reason make the trains a little less efficient. 

So having now just spent a week in Germany, currently hurtling down train tracks at 200 kph on the way to Strasbourg, France (or at least when I started writing this), I thought I’d quickly summarise the impressions of the places we’d visited, and learnings as well.

I think the main suggestion/learning that I’d share about Germany broadly, is that the Christmas markets are the perfect way to get around to less touristy cities and make a good trip out of them. If we were in summer, two full days in Nuremberg or Stuttgart might have felt a little long, but with the Christmas markets to fill in the time, we had plenty to explore!

To summarise our German itinerary briefly:
  • Frankfurt - land at 3pm - stay 5 nights. Includes one day trip to Dusseldorf and one day trip to Heidelberg.
  • Nuremberg - stay 2 nights
  • Stuttgart - stay 2 nights 
Our entry point into Germany, and many other people’s entry point into Germany no doubt as well. Although I’d enjoyed a very short trip to Frankfurt in the summer of 2014, I found on this visit it lacked the charm I thought it had. In comparison to the other cities we travelled to, it felt a bit sterile and bland - and probably the dirtiest of the cities we’ve been to - although hard to fault the city since it is such a major business hub with so many people going in and out. Don’t get me wrong we still enjoyed ourselves though!

I particularly enjoyed a meal we had in the Sachsenhausen area across the river, where a lot of the old Apple Wine taverns can be found, at Adolf Wagner. We had our first taste of Frankfurt’s ‘Green Sauce’ - a regional delicacy - a sauce made with heaps of parsley and herbs, with sour cream, which is often served with hard boiled eggs and potatoes, or schnitzel. Brad and I loved how refreshing the sauce was, and are planning to make it at home to have with salads in the summer!

Frankfurt’s Christmas markets were a lovely introduction to Christmas markets, which quickly brought on large crowds gulping down gluhwein, but I enjoyed the other cities markets that we went to more. Still we had some very delicious grilled salmon in a baguette and overall enjoyed the atmosphere, with the big merry go rounds and bright glittery lights.

What I’d do different next time:
  • We did 5 nights in Frankfurt to use it as a base for day trips, and also to have more time to acclimatise - assuming that jet lag was going to be a pain. In hindsight, I would have reduced our time in Frankfurt by a day, and spent more time in another city, or used a different city as a base for day trips. 2 nights for Frankfurt alone is more than enough.

What I’d do again:
  • Visit more Apple Wine taverns! So vibe-y and the food is so good. 
  • Eat lunch at weird times - although I’m normally a sticker for breakfast, lunch and dinner time, this trip we’ve generally been eating lunch at 2 or 3pm, and rather than sitting down for dinner, snacking our way the Christmas market until 6 or 7pm.
  • Holy Cross Brewing Society - cute spot for good coffee (!) and great cake
  • Palmengarten - I’m a sucker personally for botanical gardens and zoos, but the Palm House here is very impressive, and a surprisingly good rainy day activity as there’s quite a lot of green houses to wander through
  • Adolf Wagner - one of my fav spots that we ate in! 
  • Stadel Museum - impressive art gallery! There was a great Van Gogh exhibition on when we went 
  • Get a lunchtime sausage from Schreiber in the Markthalle. Just tell her if you want her pork or beef (pork is the best) and how much she should chop for you. Have with mustard and you’re mint. 

You’ll have to forgive me for a I have a huge bias towards Dusseldorf. Having spent 6 months here in 2008, my first time really away from my parents and on my own, this city holds so many memories. Some great, some…maybe a little too drunken for my liking - but that’s university life right?

Although Dusseldorf is a business city in it’s own right, there are quite a lot of international expo’s held here, on arriving you can instantly feel it’s just quite a bit more personality than Frankfurt does. 

The gorgeous old town helps. The huge promenade next to the river helps. The lived in city vibe helps, it feels like more locals live here and aren’t just transitioning in and out for work. 

It’s the kind of place I want to stop by all the boutiques and peer on in because everything looks so cool and interesting. 

And oh my goodness, the Christmas markets! There’s a warmth to the markets here that I felt was lacking in Frankfurt - and they were endless! Clustered close to each other, one market led into another, and each had so much to look at and offer. Each market area had their own cup, which made it quite hard to narrow down just one to take home. We ended up picking two, but I saw at least 5 different types of Dusseldorf Christmas market mugs! We also tried a pomegranate mulled wine which I don’t think I saw at any other Christmas market!

We ate lunch in one of my favourite restaurants in Dusseldorf, Zum Schiffchen, which is over 390 years old. Apparently Napoleon ate here, and they a bust of him in the corner of the restaurant where we supposedly had a little snooze. The pork knuckle and sauerkraut is just divine here, along with the dark beer. I personally think Dusseldorf does some of the best dark wheat beer (although I’m by no means an expert…) 

We were also in town on a Saturday night, before the local soccer team was playing, and it makes for such a fun festive atmosphere to be in. So much vibe in the Altstadt! Red and white scarves everywhere, full grown men bursting in song chanting and singing. Despite the trickle of rain, it was such a fun evening for people watching. 

What I’d do different next time:
  • Buy my train tickets in advance! I was tossing up whether to pre-buy tickets in advance as I did with all our other trains, but decided we could keep it loose and just get to the station and buy a ticket for the next train. Oh goodness! This turned into quite an expensive exercise. But worth it. Because I love Dusseldorf.

What I’d do again:
  • Visit Dusseldorf Lowensenf to buy ALL THE MUSTARD. Lowensenf is a mustard company that started in Dusseldorf (1903), and they make my family’s favourite mustard - ABB mustard, which comes in these cute ceramic blue and white jars. The more mainstream Lowensenf brand is also equally delicious, and they have shelves and shelves of different flavours. I ended up getting a truffle mustard as well, but wish I had bought the gluhwein mustard! 
  • Eat at Zum Schiffchen - pork knuckle and Schlosser Alt beer. You can’t go wrong with the combo!
  • Eat at Freitbox - these have always been my favourite fries, in the world I think. So golden, and always perfectly crunchy on the outside and fluffy inside. Joppiesaus is also so delicious! 
  • Coffee at Coffe. Super cute spot. Scandi/Melb vibes. 
  • Wander around Carlsplatz market - an everyday produce market in Carlsplatz that I’ve always enjoyed with local produce. 

What I wish I had had time to do:
  • Drink more beer! It was a bit rainy, and due to it also being a Saturday, the bars/pubs in the Altstadt were pretty packed. We tried to figure out to order some beer in Uerige, one of Dusseldorf’s microbreweries but gave up as we could hardly get in!
  • Get mandelhorchen (like a almond/marzipan horseshoe shaped biccie with the ends dipped in chocolate) at Backerei Hinkel. Again, it was Saturday afternoon. There were 4 rows of people in front of each cabinet at the bakery. Too much work for one pastry!
  • Get hot chocolate at Gut and Gerne, these guys actually put chocolate into a saucepan and melt it down with milk and cream. Talk about super duper chocolatey. 
Extra fun fact:
  • Dusseldorf is home to the third largest Japanese population in Europe. If you’re missing your Japanese food, there are definitely plenty of Japanese spots in between the old town and the main train station to get your fix! Na Ni Wa used to by my local haunt as a uni student, and it’s amazingly still around!

When you think romantic German medieval town in the middle of the mountains…Heidelberg could quite comfortably tick that box off. 

The old town is quite a long walk from the train station, and it’s a pretty boring walk, but worth it! We broke up the walk with a coffee break at Coffee Nerd, which is almost perfectly halfway between the station and Heidelberg castle.

Heidelberg’s Christmas markets are so picturesque, and I continue to be impressed at how each city seems to do up it’s Christmas markets more than the last! 

Naturally, Heidelberg’s castle is a must visit. Although there are parts of it in ruins, there’s still plenty to walk around and look at, and to think how old the buildings are, and the fact that so much is still standing is pretty darned impressive. You also get some wicked views of Heidelberg from the castle terrace.  

The world’s largest wine barrel that was ever filled also lives here. Think big…then think bigger than that. You could basically build a small apartment in it I think. 

You then also have to do the walk to ‘Philosopher’s Way’ on the other side of the river, to get  more wicked views of Heidelberg with the castle in the background. Stunner. 

What I’d do again:
  • Break up the walk between the station and the Altstadt with a little coffee break at Coffee Nerd.
  • Eat and drink at Vetter’s Brauhaus, which is a local brewery in Heidelberg. The tasting platter is a great way to get through all their delicious beers - which includes the ‘Vetter 33’ which is 10.5% ABV! It’s kind of sticky and treacle-y like a dessert wine, which of course makes it totally delicious.
  • Head up to Philosopher’s Way in the late afternoon as the sun sets so you can see the lights at Heidelberg Castle switch on. Gorgeous.

The theme of Germany is that each city gets cuter than the last. Once you step out of the main train station, you’re greeted with a huge medieval looking tower, and a view into the gorgeous old town immediately. 

Whilst Heidelberg was charming and felt a bit more romantic, Nuremberg felt a little more medieval and quite a bit bigger, with so much more to see. Large, ornate churches to marvel at, and the biggest Christmas market to date! Nuremberg’s Christmas market is also one of the oldest which is why I wanted to swing by - and so did a lot of other tourists! Definitely heard a lot of American accents and Japanese floating about as we strolled through row after row at the markets. 

It’s quite interesting that although Nuremberg is technically within Bavarian (like Munich), there’s a micro region within Bavaria called Franconia, which is what Nuremberg associates itself with. While it means no white sausages for breakfast like in Munich, you instead get Franconian cuisine which includes Nuremberg bratwurst/Nürnburger, small but delicious sausages (they must be 7-9cm long) and Schäufele - baked pork shoulders. 

As you stroll through the markets you’ll notice that more than any of the other German cities, Nuremberg is the home of gingerbread (lebkuchen) - which were apparently first baked by Frankonian monks in the 14th century. Eat plenty of these. So delicious!

It’s also entirely surreal to go to the old Nazi Rally Grounds, and go through the museum and see how central Nuremberg was for the Nazi party, with hundreds of thousands of people gathering to march, or just spot Hitler. Crazy to see footage of Hitler going through the same parts of the old town we had just been walking through which look largely the same…just without Nazi Swastika flags flying. 

What I’d do different next time:
  • Double check what time the Imperial palace is open til! We happened to just luck out to sneak into the inner courtyard before they closed the doors to public, but didn’t get to go through the museum. 
  • Not the half metre long sausage. I mean for the novelty it was fun, but the smaller Nuremberg sausages were definitely better!

What I’d do again:
  • Stay two nights. It was the right amount of time to take in the Christmas markets and town one afternoon, then head to the Nazi Rally Grounds the following morning, and squeeze in a bit of the Imperial Palace in the afternoon. Definitely worth planning some time to be in the old town before and after the Nazi Rally Grounds to try to imagine it in the late 1930’s. 
  • Nazi Rally Grounds. Really, really impressive. Make sure to go to through the museum first (which is very well done), then walk around all the grounds to get more context. 
  • Coffee/chai at Machhorndl Coffee Espresso Brew Bar. Brad said it was a very good coffee. They also do justice to Prana Chai. On a nice day, the seats outside are perfect.
  • Find the stall that sells ‘Frisch Frankische Kuchle’ - a fresh Franconian pulled out doughnut, topped with icing sugar that’s so airy and light, and a touch on the savoury side like a Chinese doughnut. I ain’t mad in the slightest. 
  • Find the stall that sells mushrooms fried in beer batter with garlic aioli. Oh my lord. 
  • Make sure to explore the Christmas market at night - so many lights, so magical!

Again, each city ends up being cuter than the last. I didn’t really know what to expect with Stuttgart, it was more of a stop gap between Nuremberg, and Zurich (with Strasbourg in between), as heading to Munich didn’t make the train ride super direct to Zurich after that. 

However, I was absolutely delighted with just how much I enjoyed Stuttgart. 

Stuttgart is stunning. The buildings are tall, impressive, but more elegant and beautiful, with slight French architecture details coming through. I loved walking everywhere in this city. 

And honestly, the Christmas markets in Stuttgart are probably my favourite out of the all the cities we visited. They really get into decorating the roofs of the stalls here, so it feels so festive and fun. The markets also go on forever, with a couple of big setups in a couple of the squares, connected by stalls lining the streets between each of them. We did a couple of laps trying to suss out what to eat and drink!

I really enjoyed that the markets felt family focussed (such a cute train ride for the kiddos!) and local, not so many tourists here! All of the food at the markets here were so delicious.

Stuttgart enjoys Swabian cuisine, which introduced us to some new dishes, like Spatzle - kind of a German/French pasta, and Maultaschen which is like a German ravioli/dumpling, with an outer casing of pasta dough, filled with minced meat, bread crumbs and onion. The Kasespatzle (cheese spatzle) in the market is not for those watching their waistlines, but is perfectly warm and comforting in the wintery air.

We also enjoyed really cute little cafes, which tended to be on the fringes of the town and more in the residential area where our Airbnb was. 

What I’d do differently:
  • Buy snacks at the Markthalle! So many beautifully stuffed dates, stacks high of halva, beautiful looking fruit…and I didn’t try any of it because I was busy on the hunt for something breakfast-y!
  • Eat more before going to the Mercedes-Benz museum - got real hangry by the end of it and there's not a lot of food nearby!

What I’d do again:
  • Stay two nights over the Christmas market period.
  • Do the Mercedes-Benz museum. Note: I am NOT a car person, but they cover off so much history of automobiles as well, which is actually tied very closely to the development of the Mercdes-Benz brand and company, and it’s such a well done museum with so many of the old cars all done up beautifully. We spent 3 hours in the museum without even really trying - it’s absolutely ginormous! We only really left because I was hungry and tired!
  • Go to Carls Brauhaus - always busy here, but the service was so friendly, and the food was so so so good. The Apfel/apple rings are another Swabian delicacy we didn’t really see elsewhere in Germany that were just delectable.

Additional thoughts:
  • There’s a big automotive industry in Stuttgart, and along with the Mercedes-Benz Museum, there is also a Porsche museum. However based on the reading I did, people suggested the Mercdes-Benz museum is the more interesting of the two if you had to pick, and I would find it hard to imagine what the Porsche museum would have to offer over the Mercedes-Benz museum, unless you’re a Porsche diehard. I mean, the guy’s name who invented the world’s first automotive car was Benz. How much more history do you want? 

As I finish writing this, I now wish I was back in Germany frolicking in Christmas markets again and drinking more beer. What a country, with it’s small variants from town to town, region to region. Brad commented this trip was really one of nuance, as many of the places we visited don’t have the big tourist sight seeing checklist to get through, but it’s about finding those little differences in the architecture and cuisine and appreciating that. It’s so interesting that despite how close so many of these cities are, there are so many things that aren’t moved between them. 

I can’t wait to come back in the future, and maybe finally get to Munich and spend a bit more time in Berlin!