Arriving in Frankfurt
The non-stop Lufthansa flight between Portland, Oregon and Frankfurt, Germany has us going through Frankfurt almost every year. The Frankfurt airport has a train station in the basement, making it a snap to get into the city or on to another destination. The downside of Frankfurt (as well as Cologne) is that it is a frequent host to huge conventions, filling the hotels and driving up their prices. Since we usually stay at least 1 night in Frankfurt to clear our heads a bit, we don't want to arrive during a busy time.
Our ritual before booking the Lufthansa flight through Frankfurt is to check for events by checking hotel availability. The easiest way we have found to do that is through the Ibis hotel website: www.ibishotels.com. There are at least a half dozen Ibis hotels in the city and by checking a couple of the centrally located ones for prices and availability, you can quickly determine if there is an event in town. The prices can be wildly different from one day to the next. We usually check hotel availability for a 3 or 4 day window for both our expected arrival and departure dates. When we find a quiet window where the prices are down to their baseline, we proceed with booking our flight. Prices of course can vary from day to day on flights, so having a bigger window on the hotel availability cuts down on the need to jump between websites while making reservations.
Biking in Germany is great as cyclists are given the right of way and there are many bike lanes, routes, and paths. BikeLine makes a wonderful series of route books that unfortunately are mainly available in Germany though they have routes that extend into other countries. They can be purchased at bike shops and bookstores. They are beginning to translate some of their route books from German into English. The maps in the route books are still worth having even if you don't read German.
Biking along the rivers is a favorite summer activity in Germany and people flock onto the routes on their 1 or 7 speed bikes for a day, week-end or week-long trip. Many will bike down stream and take the train back. The river routes are generally out of traffic, well marked and the usually the only climbing is for going over rail or road overpasses. The more popular routes have charming B&B's and beer gardens sprinkled along the routes with signage to nearby banks and bike shops.
Just about anywhere a train goes in Germany, you can take a bike on the train for a fee, usually in the passenger cars of the non-express trains.
Both Germany and Austria have bike tour companies offering package deals at affordable prices. I don't know if they are set up for non-German speakers, but we sure admired the complete services offered in their catalogs including bike and day pannier rentals, luggage transport, and guides for some: www.donaureisen.com for Germany and www.austria-radreisen.at for Austria.
In 2009 we saw an enticing brochure for self-guided touring around Lake Constance/Bodensee in southern Germany: www.bodensee-radweg.com. Their lodging + route info + bike rental + luggage transfer package would make it easy to drop-in for a 6 day tour without bringing a bike or buying panniers. They were also promoting www.donau-radweg.com on the Danube. www.radweg-hotels.com was another site on their brochure.
Some lodging establishments hang out "Bett & Bike" banners, indicating that they are a member of an organization with lodging well-suited to cyclotourists. Features like not having 3-night minimum stay penalties, having a secure area for bike storage, and making a drying room available are among the requirements of members. We stayed a several and found them to be good values. We didn't buy the books listing each hotel but noticed that they have a website www.bettundbike.de, in German, no doubt.
Grocery Store Finds
My special treat is a "Radler," which is a beer cut in half with lemonade so the alcohol content is about 2.5%. "Radler" translates as "bike rider" so the label will often have a cyclist on it.
We also look forward to the hearty dark breads throughout Germany and the readily available muesli cereal.
Near Christmas time the prepackaged "Lebkuchen" cookies appear in the stores, which are a moist, gingery cookie. With careful label reading I can usually find a relatively healthy brand cooked without saturated or trans-fatty acid oils--an unusual find in prepackaged bakery goods.
Discounts are available on the German trains and we are just learning how to access them. We were able to get fares less than half the usual price by purchasing online more than 3 days in advance for a 1 way trip from Munich to Frankfurt on the website www.bahn.de. It appears the the deep discounts are only available on trips of more than 100 km. You do need to board the train with both the credit card you used to buy the ticket and a hardcopy printout of the online order. Bikes can travel on many German trains and often special cars allow you to effortless roll them onto a low car rather than shove them up steep narrow steps as on many trains. You must buy a ticket for your bike which can often (always?) be purchased at the same machines when you purchase your tickets at the station or online.
In Munich we were pleased to find an online trip planner for using the city transportation network at www.mvv-muenchen.de. We needed to arrive at the main train station for a Sunday morning departure when fewer local trains and buses were running so it was great to have a to-the-minute schedule for changing trains.
We found both of these German websites by searching on the internet and both had English language options.
Business Hours & Holidays
Only the smallest businesses close for an hour or 2 at lunch time but many businesses close early on Saturday afternoon and are closed on Sunday. Some banks close early on Friday afternoon for the weekend also.
www.buyusa.gov/germany is a good site to check for holidays in Germany.www.german.about.com/library/blbraenche-ostern.htm gives the school holidays, with the 2 week Pentecost holiday for the Catholic regions of southern Germany being especially important if you are heading to the Italian lakes and beaches as they are.
The Berlin Mitte Ibis hotel rates are quite low in the winter months. At 49€ for 2 people (February 2006) without breakfast it was substantially below the youth hostel rates. Its location near Alexander Platz which has a Kaufhaus with a food market in it made it very convenient. The rooms were bigger than some of the other Ibis's and our only regret was the lack of English news on the TV. (www.ibishotels.com)
If you are coming or going through Berlin's Tegel airport very early or very late, consider staying a night at the Mercure Hotel Airport Berlin Tegel. It is adjacent to the runway but with very effective soundproofing windows. The rooms are the best we've stayed in in Europe with comfortable with good beds, bathtubs, mini-refrigerators, and CNN & BCC on the TV. We took advantage of their fitness room with 3 pieces of equipment and the free airport shuttle van. Their Wifi and customer internet terminal are overpriced but we were able to connect to the internet for free via the room telephone line. It's too far out of town for a satisfying sightseeing base but great for an overnight while in transit. Our internet special price on 2 different weekends in March 2006 was 49€ for 2 people without breakfast. Like Ibis, they are a part of the Accor chain, though a notch up from Ibis in quality and usually in prices. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Telephone from outside of Germany: 49 30 41 06 0, from within Germany 030 41 06 0. Address: Kurt-Schumacher-Damm 202, 13405 Berlin. We didn't know to try it, but you may be able to make a free call for a shuttle pickup from the airport at the hotel advertising board near gate 7.
Make no assumptions about the Berlin museums. Ever since East and West Berlin merged, the museums have been playing musical chairs with their exhibits. Entire museums have been closed, combination ticket deals have been restructured and open hours have changed. What's housed at a location maybe entirely different than what is indicated in your guide book and it takes some persistence to sort out what's available.
We dropped in on Fat Tire Bike Tours at Alexanderplatz to use their inexpensive WiFi service. The enthusiastic and friendly English speakers looked like they would be fun bike tour guides. If you'd rather rent a bike and tour on your own, you can also do that. Berlin is pancake flat and a bike tour would be a good way to get acquainted with the city and its history. www.FatTireBikeToursBerlin.com, Tel: 0049 (0)30 24 04 79 91.
We enjoyed the "Historischer Kunstbunker" tour of the 14th century beer cellars converted into art preservation vaults during WWII. Foresighted city fathers started moving cherished works of art underground as soon as war was declared, almost 4 years before the first air raid sirens screeched in the city. Objects as well as casts of ceilings and stonework were also stashed. The same people constructed concrete bunkers around unmovable objects inside churches and outdoors in the public squares. The underground storage areas were staffed 24 hours a day by 3 men and were air conditioned and humidity controlled. The last of the stored art treasures weren't moved out until the 1970's for lack of reconstructed buildings to return to. The tunnels can only be visited at 3 pm with a guide. Ask for the very informative English booklet as the tour is only in German.
We ducked into the "Spielzeugmuseum" or Toy Museum on a lark after other plans fizzled and thoroughly enjoyed the visit. The substantial collection with some insightful comments in English held our attention for hours.
We have visited the "Dokumentationszentrum" at the old Nazi party rally grounds twice and appreciated the slant they presented on Nuremberg's place in that dark history. The audio guides deepened our understanding of the cult created around Hitler and how his organization carefully maintained parallel policies of keeping a happy, upbeat spin on affairs before the public eye while simultaneously implementing vicious segregation and extermination policies.
The much lauded "Germanisches Nationalmuseum" was a major disappointment. The special exhibits that drew us in the door missed the mark for us and 3 of the 4 of the permanent exhibits that we looked forward to were closed.
Visiting Hitler's Eagle's
Try to coordinate your visit to the Eagle's Nest or "Kehlsteinhaus" as it is known in German, with the weather. We unfortunately were in the area in the middle of a 2 week-long storm system in early August of 2006 and missed the fine views. The round trip bus fee and admission ticket to the Eagle's Nest from the nearest departure point, the Documentation Center, is almost 30€ for 2 people and there isn't much to the building up there. It was sited for the dramatic setting in a cluster of sharp peaks and we saw it shrouded in clouds. It would be a much more satisfying visit to see the magnificent panoramas it was intended to capitalize on.
Next time, I would buy a 1 way ticket up to the Eagle's Nest and save time to walk back down to the Documentation Center to savor the views even longer.
The Documentation Center at Obersalzberg between Kehlsteinhaus and Berchtesgaden covers the history of Hitler's regime. It's all in German so the inexpensive English audio guide is essential. We underestimated the extent of the audio guide coverage and realized too late that it would take 4-5 hours to hear it all. We listened to over half of the more than 80 different info points on the guide and then decided in was time to move on to see the bunker ruins and the Eagle's Nest. The first 15 info points were of the most interest to us as they explained Hitler's carefully crafted cult, which is key to understanding how the Nazi's were so successful. Most Nazi exhibits we've visited focus on the Holocaust without enough emphasis on the backdrop that allowed it to happen.
The round trip bus tickets between Berchtesgaden and the Dokumentation Obersalzburg were 8.20 € for 2 and the audio guides and admission tickets at the exhibit were close to 10€ for 2. The bus schedule that tourist info gave us had the wrong bus number on it: we were waiting for 849 and really wanted 838. It's very confusing as there is a stop for 849 at the same place as 838 but neither of the 2 scheduled 849 buses showed up. (Our guide book listed the old, 4 digit bus numbers.)