My travels in Germany were some of the most memorable in my life. I was only 19 on my first time out of the country. The trip began with my first ever trans-Atlantic flight, a non-stop 16-hour ride from San Francisco to Frankfurt, Germany. It was surreal crossing the big pond as I witnessed the sun set and rise again in about three hours. I didn’t sleep during the flight, and almost a full 24-hours on the clock had passed.
Being young at the time and not very experienced in the ways of the world, I stepped off that plane and into a different world. Culture shock does exist. Everyone around me was speaking a different language. They were dressed somewhat differently. But I was anxious to get on with it.
But this is where my trip to Germany differs from that of the average traveler. I was about to spend the next four years of my life living in Germany. I was an enlisted member of the US Army at the time. Within hours of my arrival, I was on my way to my first duty assignment in Hanau, Germany. Hanau by the way is the home of the famous Grimm brothers of Hansel and Gretel fame. Their statue is at the heart of the main town square, covered of course in pigeon poo. While I could tell you stories about my service, I’ll stick to the travelling around stuff.
The most memorable times I had were taking short leaves or three-day passes to visit different places around Germany. I will let you in on a couple of excellent places beyond the typical. The first is breathtakingly beautiful, and the other is a sobering monument to the inhumanity of man.
Of all the places to visit in Germany, Berchtesgaden is at the top of my list. Nothing can top the grandeur of this Bavarian mountain village. Nearby is where the famous motion picture The Sound of Music was filmed. Overlooking the small town is Mount Watzmann. Its saddle shaped mountaintop feature is like no other I have seen. I enjoyed the tour boat ride several miles up the Königsee (Kings Lake) to visit the St. Bartholomew church.
A tour of the salt mines is a real adventure. Dissolving the salt underground then piping it up to the surface is how salt mining is done. I got a taste of how it used to be made as I donned some overalls to protect my clothes. Along the tour, we were required to slip down old wooden slides-more like banister railings actually. I was nervous at first but overcame it after the first slide.
About 20 miles to the northeast of Berchtesgaden is the famous Austrian city of Salzburg. It’s narrow streets, and old buildings make me feel like I took a trip into the past. That is of course until I stopped to eat a Big Mac “mit pommes frites” at a McDonald’s across the street from Mozart’s birth home. The ancient catacombs in the hillsides and cemeteries that go back some 500 years or more are a different sight. A local told me how the graves have to have their “lease” renewed every 75 years by a relative, or the grave becomes available to someone new. Talk about creepy.
My other memorable side trip in Germany was a visit to one of the most sobering reminders of the horrors of World War II. The Dachau Concentration Camp is fully preserved with a fully interpretable museum. The side entrance gate of wrought iron was clearly labeled, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” This was the first camp constructed by the Nazi regime. The crematoriums located out of view of the main camp sent a shiver up my spine.
I have every intention of returning there again when my children are just a little bit older. Germany has a rich history. I learned a lot of side things during my stay that you will not hear about from any tour company or travel agent. Set your sights on places that interest you and plan it out. Here are a few tips on things I wish I had known before arriving in Germany.
Tip #1 Staying in a hotel is nice, but if you want an extraordinary experience, seek out German versions of Bed and Breakfast Inn’s. You can find signs along your travels that say pension or gastehaus. There are some webpages with listings, but I do not know how accurate they are. I loved these accommodations as they were significantly less costly than a hotel, and what could be more exciting than staying the night as a guest in a German family home.
Tip #2 Don’t book a trip on tour buses with cramped schedules. Rent a car instead. Plan out your own trip and the things that interest you. However, you will need an International Driver Permit. This is NOT a license. You must also carry your government issued driver’s license with you. The US Department of State recommends you only obtain a permit from AAA or the National Automobile Club. All other advertisements for these documents are scams. Another important reminder when driving in Germany, don’t drive while under the influence. If you do and you are arrested, you can expect a significant amount of time in prison. Germany does not tolerate drunk driving.
Tip #3 When exchanging dollars for Euros, go to the bank. You will receive the best daily exchange rates with nominal fees if you use a bank. If you choose to use your dollars directly at a business establishment then you are foolishly handing over your money. Literally every business can set its own rate of exchange if you spend dollars in their establishment. I beseech you; don’t throw your money away.
Tip #4 This is a huge one. Germany charges a 19% Value Added Tax. This tax is hidden in the price of the product you buy. Millions of travelers are clueless that you can get a VAT refund, and leave millions of dollars on the table every year. Don’t be shy when shopping. Ask for the documents from the retailer after you make a purchase. Many businesses will have signs letting you know they fill out the documents. Have your passport handy. After making your purchase, get the paperwork filled out. Once your trip is over, and you are at the airport waiting to leave for home, find customs officials and turn in the paperwork. You can receive a full refund on most items.
I often think Germany is overlooked as a country to visit. People seem to like France or Italy. Of course, these are fine places to visit as well and the tips in this article apply there aw well. But I love the German culture. It is robust, and the people are open. I have a lifetime of memories from my stay there and look forward to the day when I can return.