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Sunday, December 25, 2011

One Week in Germany


Schloss Braunfels
Never heard of it?
Read on...
Would you like to combine some of Germany’s well-known tourist areas with a few “hidden gems”?
Would you like to save money doing it?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, please read on.
This is a practical guide to a wonderful (and busy) week in Germany.
This itinerary will keep you moving but is not a whirlwind "block-checking" tour bus type week. The drive times are reasonable and the drives are scenic. We were able to see some sights and have relaxing meals. 


Transportation considerations: 

1. If renting a car I suggest having a GPS. Germany is not difficult to navigate but it is easy to take a wrong turn if you are not familiar with some of the subtleties of the area.

2. This note is for “old-school” navigators. If you are visiting from the US for the first time, be aware that cardinal directions (North, South…) are essentially non-existent with respect to highway navigation. The signs do not read “A-81 South”. It will read “A-81 Stuttgart”. You should be a little familiar with the general layout of the (major) towns in the area. The good news is that Germany is so scenic that even the wrong turns are nice (seriously).

3. If you are a “old school” navigator, use a European navigation aid like this oneThe driving direction were more practical for reading (it included the city you needed to drive towards) before Nokia bought them out but I haven’t found a suitable replacement yet.

4.  The places I suggest here are mostly accessible by car or train. The areas not accessible via train are the Black Forrest and Insel Reichenau parts. I wrote this itinerary for driving but it can be modified for train with some adjustments. 

Day 1: Frankfurt to Braunfels

Since many flights land in the morning (Frankfurt time) the adventure can begin right away.
A short hour and a half drive will take you to the beautiful city of Braunfels.
View from inside the castle walls
The main attraction in Braunfels is the Castle (Schloss)
The castle has tours from 9:00am to 6:00pm with the last tour starting at 5:00pm. It is definitely a “hidden gem”. Being veterans of many castle tours in our 3 plus years of living in Germany, this castle is simply the one we enjoyed the most. It still serves as a residence so one wing is not open for tours. Visitors are asked to slip on these large wool house shoes to protect the original flooring. Once inside, you will see an amazing display of original suits of armor and weapons as well as artwork. Our tour guide, Rudolph was very good.
English speaking tours need to be arranged in advance so I recommend arranging this via e-mail to info@schloss-braunfels.de

Before and after the castle tour, enjoy walking around the city’s pedestrian area (fussganger zone).

Braunfels view from the base of the castle
Check in to your bed and breakfast (Gasthaus). The gasthaus we loved is apparently no longer operating. There are several options listed on the city's web site. Each offers a unique experience and they are typically very affordable. Most have web sites with previews of the rooms and e-mail addresses to reserve a room.

For the first day, try to stay awake until at least 6:30pm.  Later if you can. My personal experience has been that this helps with jet-lag. Do resist the temptation to take an afternoon nap. My “quick” naps in the afternoon have found me waking up around 2:00am and did not help with jet-lag at all. 

Day 2: Braunfels to Baden-Baden

In the morning, enjoy a relaxing breakfast. A traditional German breakfast will typically have breads, sliced meats, milk, juice and coffee. 
Once breakfast is done take the 3 hour (240 km)  drive down to Baden Baden. The bulk of the trip is on the Autobahn and is basically a direct route to the south.
A room at the Altes Schloss
In Baden-Baden, we slept in the Hotel Altes Schloss. The hotel is part of the historic 9th century castle built by the founders of the modern day Baden-Baden. The location is prominently noted on city maps and the there are lots of signs pointing to the “Altes Schloss”. When in doubt, look at the top of the biggest mountain in the area. On a clear day, you will see the castle. That’s where we slept. 

Entrance to the Altes Schloss
The Altes Schloss is another “hidden gem” located near the well-known attraction of Baden-Baden. For this day, we made it the only destination to allow for sleeping in and jet-lag recovery time. Once you arrive, we recommend purchasing a guide book from the front desk and exploring the castle ruins. Also enjoy the restaurant and outdoor biergarten (seasonal). If you are feeling energetic, the main city is a short drive (or hike) down the hill for your enjoyment. 

Day 3: Baden-Baden

Enjoy a traditional German breakfast in the restaurant.
Then take the short drive down the hill to the city. Baden-Baden’s reputation is legendary. This former Roman Spa town has been the playground of royalty and the subject of writings by many including Mark Twain. It did not take long for us to us to realize why this was the case.

Since our time is limited, you might want to take a guided horse carriage tour (reservations available through the tourist office) or simply enjoy exploring the fussganger zone on your own. A trip to the Caracalla Therme is a must-do. Towels are available for rent at the front desk along with a very helpful, multi-lingual staff. The Caracalla gave us the feeling of being in Ancient Rome. The experience can be captured in one word, “WOW”!
If a little time at the casino is more your style, Baden-Baden has a world-famous casino. There are many other interesting things to do and see including the Roman Bath Ruins.

Day 4: Black Forest to Insel Reichenau:  

Haus der Schwartzwald Uhren
(House of Black Forest Clocks)
After a quick breakfast in the hotel, it’s off to do a bit of clock shopping. Black Forest Clocks are famous around the world and Adolf Herr’s House of Black Forest Clocks (Haus der Schwartzwald Uhren) is, in my opinion the best clock shop in the Black Forest. A 5th-generation clock maker, Adolf Herr still makes clocks in his wood shop on the second floor of his family store. The quality of his workmanship really shows through. The prices are competitive and service is very good. Even if you are not in the market for a cuckoo, wall, mantle, or grandfather clock, it is worth stopping in to admire the workmanship and purchase other souvenirs as well.  The Herr’s can save you the chore of hauling your souvenirs around by shipping them back to your home for a reasonable fee.

Insel Hof Hotel
Once you have completed your shopping, head south 2 hours to the lovely town of Insel Reichenau. A small island in Lake Constance (Bodensee) that is home to the Insel HofHotel.  Our rooms each had a modern European flair. The plumbing in the bathrooms still sticks out in my mind. We found ourselves staring at it and asking ourselves if it was decoration or fixture. Our conclusion was that they were very decorative fixtures. We found their rates to be reasonable, especially with the very nice accommodations and location.   
We enjoyed a nice dinner in the hotel restaurant and took a nice long walk around the Island’s quiet streets. A very quiet and peaceful experience.  

Day 5: Insel Reichenau to Neuschwanstein Castle

Swan on the lake at Insel Reichenau
After a breakfast in the hotel, we went for another walk. The swans were swimming in the lake and the towns that were only lights on the far side of the lake were now visible in the morning light. 
Then it was time to make our way to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle.
We took the ferry in Konstanz to Meersberg and worked our way to the Alpine town of Füssen.
Once in Füssen, the castle is pretty easy to spot, just look up. Follow the parking signs to park, purchase tickets and take a tour. I recommend walking up the hill. It is a steep walk but you’ll get there faster than if you waited for a horse-drawn buggy. English tours are offered on a regular basis.

The famous Neuschwanstein Castle
After touring the castle, take a one hour drive to the walled-in city of Schongau.  Follow the signs to the Altstadt and you will find the Hotel Alte Post. This charming hotel has a nice restaurant where we enjoyed a nice dinner and walked the city afterwards. We found an ice cream parlor serving ice cream through a window on a chilly evening. For some reason, it really hit the spot. 
Schongau from the bottom of the hill






Day 6: Schongau to Dachau and Munich

From Schongau, we drove for about an hour and ½ to the Dachau Concentration CampMemorial. Once in Dachau, follow the signs to KZ Gedenkstatte.  Parking and admission to the camp is free. Audio and Guided Tours are available in English for a nominal fee. The experience has been very sobering and solemn every time I have been there. The historical significance of this place speaks for itself. It is a must-see.

After leaving the camp, we drove to our hotel in Munich. Munich is the one place where we decided to pay a little more and get a hotel near the regular tourist areas. We stayed at the Regent Hotel. The room rates were relatively reasonable. The location is near the main train station (Bahnhof). This is a good location to turn in the rental car and forget about driving for the rest of the trip. Everything else is walking distance or a train ride away.  

The Hofbrau Haus
Main things to do in Munich are to eat at the Hofbrauhaus, see St. Michael’s Church, enjoy the HUGE fussganger zone, visit the Deutsches Museum, and somehow find time to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee at an outdoor coffee shop near the Neu Rathaus in the Marian Platz
Please keep in mind, we could have spent the entire week in Munich and had a wonderful time. 


Day 6: Munich and return home
  
The Neu Rathaus
If your flight time will allow it, additional sites worth seeing in Munich are the Nymphenberg Palace and The Olympic Stadium (Olympia Platz).  If you have a few hours to spare, a very nice side trip would be to the Therme Erding. Located in the city of Erding, this thermal bath is an excellent place to forget about the world and relax for a few hours. A great way to wind up a trip and a sure way to make you want to return.

Erding is a short ride away on the city train. Erding is also the location of the Munich Airport