Photography by Emma Krasov

The majority of tourists come to Frankfurt – Europe’s premier transportation hub – just for a layover at its massive International Airport. Plus, a good amount of businessmen from all over the world flock to the financial capital of Germany to conduct their various businesses.

Meanwhile, Frankfurt am Main, State of Hessen, the fifth largest city in Germany, is located in the heart of Europe and bears its own cultural and historical significance, offering an array of unforgettable experiences for a discerning traveler.

The grand hotel Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof greeted me with impeccable service, artful ambiance, and a spring fragrance of my favorite hyacinths in planters placed on every antique surface under sparkling crystal chandeliers. Founded in 1930 by Albert Steigenberger, and ran for decades by the descendants of the original owner, with dozens of trademark properties all over the world, the massive Frankfurt hotel is lavishly decorated with period furniture, paintings, tapestries, and porcelain from the family art collection.
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I took my sweet time exploring the many facilities of the hotel designed for business and leisure – from tasteful meeting rooms to a grand ballroom that sits 300; from VIP lounge (some guests return here for 40 years!) to a decadent cigar room; and from cozy library to Autorenbar (the authors’ bar) – a place for book signings, high teas, and literary discussions.

There were no authors at the bar (besides myself) but there was a dashing young man with a dazzling smile who offered me a glass of house-made lemonade of black and green teas steeped for three hours, lemon and orange slices, and fresh mint leaves – delish!

Despite this refreshing drink, the moment I arrived in my room with high ceiling, wood wall panels, heavy plush curtains, and snow-white down comforter, I was tempted to curl up on the bed and hit some zzzs for the next 10 to 12 hours, but got a hold of myself upon drinking a couple of espressos from the in-room coffeemaker.
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When I dressed up for the evening and arrived in the lobby to ask for a taxi, the hotel’s head concierge, who’s been with the company since 1966, offered instead a glorious limo service with a uniformed chauffer. I immediately felt very special, and enveloped in the warmest Gastfreundschaft.

Villa Merton, a two Michelin-star restaurant, led by the celebrity chef Matthias Schmidt, born in Frankfurt, takes the notion of local and seasonal to its highest imaginable degree.

In his pursuit to deliver the freshest tastes of the region – inspired by old traditions, driven by new creativity, and comprised of the best ingredients – Chef Schmidt works with local farmers, forest rangers and fishermen from the surrounding mountain ranges and river valleys.

He puts on his guests’ tables the most surprising culinary creations made with dandelion buds, cauliflower stalks, spruce sprouts, and radish fruit – no, not the round red and white root that we all know and use in spring salads, but the tiny green fruits, looking like little pepper pods and found between the radish leaves, usually discarded by the less ambitious chefs.

There are no peppers in the chef’s kitchen – they are not local! As well as no olive oil, citrus, coffee, chocolate, and other things from faraway lands we seem to be addicted to.

There are plenty of German vegetables and herbs, local fish and game, regional cheeses, aromatic bread and butter from the organic Dottenfelderhof farm, and Luisenhaller salt from the Baltic Sea.

“I work on regional dishes that you can’t eat anywhere else,” said Chef Schmidt. “It’s good for our bodies, and it’s good for the planet. It takes time to develop a new dish with unusual ingredients, and sometimes hard to get it right, but I continue to try, or I put the idea away, and try something different.”

Of all the dishes of my memorable multi-course tasting dinner there wasn’t a single one short of amazing! With so much creativity and dedication invested in every morsel, sometimes arranged with tweezers, each plate looked like an art piece and contained wonderful surprises.

A pouched quail egg was served in a nest of row potato shavings.
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A tiny smoked piece of wild goat meat was garnished with a bead of goat cheese dusted with elderberry flowers and a tart rowan berry. The dish was served on a construction of the animal’s horns.

A sour cream cookie with green juniper and pickled lemony spruce sprouts was brought to the table in a cookie tin.

Jerusalem artichoke with sunflower oil colored with charcoal, chickweed, and frozen horseradish adding a hot/cold kick to the mash, was paired with 2007 St Anton Riesling of clean minerality, hints of petrol and sweetness.

Roasted duck breast was accompanied by a slice of duck heart and a crispy pointed cabbage leaf. Fresh chives popped against a tad of sour cream in duck gravy. With that, I had one of the best reds in Germany – 2011 Schneider Steinsatz – 71% cab Franc, 21% merlot, and 8% cab sauv.

Between the courses, before cheese and dessert I received a refresher of frozen parsley root juice with wild apple puree.

A very traditional Frankfurt dish, “marinated hand cheese with music” was creatively reinvented and contained crunchy cubes of roasted bread, spring onion whites, pimpernel mousse, and caraway seeds jelly. With that I had the most delightful local staple – apple wine redolent of juicy brined apples.
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My final course was a mother’s dream come true – vegetables for dessert! First, I was presented with a glass jar of warm roasted carrot seeds to inhale and appreciate the sweet smell. Then bright orange carrot coins arrived garnished with frozen diced purple carrot, crushed rowan berries, chamomile flowers, and carrot seeds. That was my kind of dessert – sugarless, yet dreamy.

Early next morning, after an excellent breakfast at the hotel’s Hofgarten restaurant I was ready to explore the vibrant and elegant city.
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On our stroll through the compact and walkable city center, my tour guide started with the introduction of “Mainhattan” – a banking district known for its spectacular skyscrapers.

“People come from all over the county just to look at them,” she said. “Even in Berlin and Cologne there is nothing like these.” Then she looked at me and said, “Well, you are from America, you might not appreciate them.” But I did appreciate them! Especially after she explained to me the asymmetrical forms of the buildings dictated by the German law that requires all workplaces in offices to have access to daylight. I was further impressed by their other features, like natural air conditioning and solar panels.

We were standing at the edge of Rossmarkt looking at the Gutenberg monument constructed in 1858 by Eduard Schmidt von der Launitz. The inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg, who lived in Frankfurt in mid-15th century, shares the monument space with his collaborators Peter Schöffer and Hans Fust, surrounded by the four allegorical figures of theology, poetry, natural science and industry that sit by their feet representing the main reasons for printing.
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The most impressive contemporary building nearby with a dazzling glass funnel in the middle of its window-wall is one of Germany’s most popular shopping centers, MyZeil. Its multiple floors are flooded with natural light, enveloped in no-hard-corners hallway-escalator system, and provide shopping therapy with regional and international labels to 13 000 shoppers a day.

From here, a short walk away is Goethehaus – the birthplace of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – the genius poet and playwright, notorious womanizer and anti-cleric scientist. Born in this house “On the 28th of August 1749, as the midday bell struck twelve…” and “The stars were favorable,” he spent many years here, writing his masterpieces – “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and the beginning of “Faust”.
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Die Kleinmarkthalle (“a small market hall”) in downtown area is an obvious misnomer. The international covered market is huge, overflowing with earthly delights of all imaginable origins, and featuring artisanal breads, meats, and ripe, freshly picked delicacies like mangoes from Peru and aubergines from Sicily. Here I discovered a traditional green Frankfurt specialty Grüne Sosse made of seven herbs into a delectable accompaniment to hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, or just about anything!
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We walked by the dark and imposing Frankfurt Cathedral with its 95-meter spire. Properly called Dom St. Bartholomäus and built in the 15th century, it became a site of elections of 25 and coronations of 10 emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and kings of Germany, since Frankfurt was a major city of the Empire.

On our tour I’ve learned about more than 100 city museums, and even enjoyed a well-curated show, “Esprit Montmartre” dedicated to bohemian life in Pars circa 1900 at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt – one of the most recognized art-exhibition institutions in Europe. Early paintings, hardly known to the general public, by Van Gogh, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and other modernist iconoclasts were presented here in historical and cultural context of the era.

We had a nice lunch at Zu Tisch bei Michael Frank serving simple farm-fresh daily specials before heading to the Römerberg square with the world-famous statue of goddess Justitia at the top of the 1543 fountain Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen. At times of historic coronations, the fountain was filled with wine, which caused the misbehaving city dwellers to damage the poor goddess of justice more than once.
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After many repairs and replacements, the current bronze statue was installed by a Frankfurt wine merchant in the 19th century. The goddess is lacking her traditional blindfold – a voucher of her objectivity. “She need to keep an eye on the city hall across the square,” joked my tour guide.

We proceeded past Frankfurt Museum Embankment along River Main with museums of art, architecture, film, communication, world cultures, applied art, Jewish history, children’s museum, etc., and boarded a Primus Linie cruise boat for a seasonal overview of the city’s gorgeous skyline and its many remarkable bridges.
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That night, true to my principle to eat local in any location in the world I happen to be at the moment, I met my new Frankfurt friend Vanessa at the overcrowded boisterous Apfelwein Wagner. We sat at one of the many communal tables next to other healthy eaters devouring lamb shanks, pork knuckles, and Grüne Sosse with eggs and potatoes. By now I’ve realized that sweet and tangy apple wine – Frankfurt’s most popular beverage, served here in a traditional blue-grey jug called Bembel became my new favorite – just like the city itself. More information at: www.frankfurt-tourismus.de

Okay, I admit it. I’m a business traveler. And when I travel on business, I can get so involved in work, in getting things done, in just reading and replying to email, that I don’t always take the time to lift my head up, look around, and really see the place where I am. And I’ll admit it – that’s a huge mistake.

While business travel doesn’t often take me to the typical entertainment or best vacation destinations in the world, it does take me to some wonderful places, where there are still delightful people to meet, interesting attractions to see, and great local foods to eat.

Take Frankfurt, Germany, for instance. Most vacationers head to the sights of Hamburg or Berlin, or seek history at Zwickau or Dresden, or travel further south to Munich or into beautiful Austria. Frankfurt is known as the financial district of Germany, and so usually isn’t on the top of the list for sightseeing. But there is still so much beauty, history, and wonderful people in Frankfurt, it’s worth the stay.

I started my own Frankfurt visit by meeting up with my local tour guide, Dagmar (okay, she’s really my coworker). Although not necessary, having a local who can speak the language, understand the customs, and recommend places to go is a huge help in really getting to know a country and city.

To get a sense of authentic German food, Dagmar started us on our visit by taking us to Haus Wertheym, one of the few remaining original timber-framed buildings that survived the Second World War, situated just off the river Main in central Frankfurt. Since other structures have been rebuilt to showcase Germany’s pre-war architecture, this structure built in 1600 doesn’t stand out much as different until you enter the restaurant on the first floor. Inside, I was struck by the amount of stained glass windows, carved boards with past and modern quotes hanging from the ceiling, and beautiful figures and images carved into the wooden walls, doors, and posts.

As a suburban American, I’m used to sitting in a restaurant at my own table. At Haus Wertheym, in addition to the smaller individual booths, there were longer tables where diners from multiple parties are seated, which is a common European practice. I like the sense of closeness and fellowship it provides, and the opportunity to talk with friendly strangers who instantly become fellow participants in your journey.

Dagmar advised me to try a local specialty, the “Grüne Sosse”, or green sauce. I couldn’t have been happier with her suggestion. This herb-based sauce tasted so clean and wholesome, poured over boiled potatoes and the Wiener Schnitzel I ordered. I enjoyed the local dish so much I ordered it twice more during my trip.
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After dinner and an apple cider called “Äppelwoi” in the local language, we walked outside the restaurant into the brisk December evening. A left turns and a few steps later, we entered the Römerberg. The Römerberg is a town square lined by historical timber-lined buildings, all restored to their original form and appearance as if the war in 1944 had never happened to this beautiful city. Here in the square, among the other stately and resonant buildings, is the Römer, a majestic house that has served as the town and city hall since 1405. I read that there are 52 oil paintings of past emperors who ruled the Empire until 1806 placed in the Emperor’s Hall on the first floor of the building.

Truth be told, I didn’t get a chance to go inside and see them though. All my attention was drawn by what was happening outside, in the Römerberg plaza and up and down neighboring streets. Since this was Germany in December, and the Germans really know how to celebrate Christmas, there was a bustling and vibrant Christmas market, filled with stalls offering food, drink, and Christmas gifts and decorations aplenty. And it was also the main reason Dagmar had brought us to this part of the city. While there are Christmas markets in many other German cities, the Frankfurt market is arguably the most important, due to its size and number of visitors. This Christmas market has history dating back to 1393. However, the Christmas tree tradition didn’t arrive until the beginning of the 19th century. Two hundred years later in 2012, the Christmas tree tradition was alive and well, taking its place in the picture-worthy form of a statuesque 25 foot (at least) tall tree standing in front of the Römer, brilliantly lit and decorated.
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The crowds at the Frankfurt Christmas market

On this first and subsequent visit to the market (it was worth going more than once), I sampled and saw much of the local fare. I ate and drank items such as sausages in buns, roasted chestnuts, and mulled wine, replacing mine with the child’s non-alcoholic version called “Kinder Glühwein”, which tasted like a perfectly brewed wassail. There was gingerbread to eat, street performers to hear, and nutcrackers to buy. But my favorite was the chocolate, which was everywhere.

Alongside the stalls featuring chocolate-covered bananas, chilies, pretzels and wafers, the treat that caught my eye the most was the solid chocolate in the form of machine parts, cameras, hand tools, and other shapes. They looked almost real; wrenches and bolts that had been left out in the rain and become worn and rusted over years of neglect. I’m not keen on neglect, but I would take one of those “neglected” tools any time.
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Chocolate paradise

If you visit the market, remember to bring plenty of cash, since few places in the city and fewer in the marketplace take credit cards. And bring your appetite. As soon as you think you’ve sampled enough, you’ll come to another stall with another treat you hadn’t seen yet, and you’ll have to try it.

After thoroughly enjoying the Christmas market, we began to get a bit cold being out in the snow and winter weather. On a main avenue just outside the market, we found a nice modern café named Weidenhof, where we could relax and warm up. A nice cup of hot chocolate (of course) with cream, and I was as toasty as ever. While Weidenhof is more modern than traditional, it still acts a gathering place for locals and tourists spending time shopping or visiting the center of the city. It also gave me a chance to sit back and people watch. Old friends, new acquaintances, families and couples, all would greet each other with a smile and a hug, glad to be with loved ones during Christmas and out of the cold. Germany really is wonderful at Christmas time.

After such a successful and enjoyable first night, I made it a point to see as much as I could. While the downtown Messe conference center, where I spent my next three days, is interesting by itself, wrapping its several buildings around the Festhalle concert hall, I couldn’t wait to get out and visit more of Frankfurt. Some of my favorite places to visit any time I travel are the beautiful architectures and peaceful settings of local churches and places of worship. There are no fewer than eight churches, old and historic and regal buildings, in the heart of the city of Frankfurt. So I made a point of visiting at least one of them when I had the chance.

Just off of Töngesgasse lies the Liebfrauenkirche, a beautiful and historic Catholic church. The Liebfrauen has a comfortable grotto and cloister grounds, and as you step inside, presents you with a quiet, solemn chapel, resplendent with stained glass windows, Gothic panels, and Baroque figures. I stood, pondered, enjoying the difference in sound after being in the market, but I couldn’t stay too long. I had other places to see.
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The Liebfrauenkirche

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Inside the Liebfrauenkirche chapel

I wanted to take the opportunity to get out of the city, so I jumped on an S-bahn and traveled out to Friedrichsdorf, where there is an LDS temple with its more modern architecture and inviting grounds of grass and winter landscaping.

The smaller town of Friedrichsdorf is about 45 minutes outside of Frankfurt by train, so it gave me a chance to see some of the German countryside as well. After spending three days within the city, it felt great to see some farmlands, meadows and the modest train stations in the country villages we passed through.

The further away from the city I traveled, the fewer people there were who spoke English; however, I could still feel their warmth and genuine concern as we struggled to understand each other while they gave directions and help. I needed the help, since I ended up wandering around Friedrichsdorf for several minutes before I gave up and asked for directions to the temple. Which I would recommend anyway; take a stroll, view the sights of the villages with no destination in mind, and visit the small shops and cozy main streets of a German country town. I felt at peace and comfortable in Friedrichsdorf, even though I was thousands of miles from home.
And home is always nice to get back to after a business trip. Seeing my own family again and recounting the wonderful sights and experiences is a joy, and Frankfurt didn’t disappoint. On any business trip, necessary work can take up a lot of the time during a short visit, but remember, there is always ample opportunity to see something and meet someone new. It’s my version of “slow down and smell the roses.” It’s good advice. I suggest you take it next time you find yourself typing madly away at an email in your hotel room after working all day. Pause, breathe, and then get out there. Wonderful things can happen.

In November we travelled on Viking River Cruises’ Fontane ship on the Elbe River, formerly in the Eastern bloc countries. We spent several days in the former East Berlin and were amazed at what a difference two decades can make, since the Wall came down in 1989 and Reunification of East and West was accomplished in 1990. Today, to see a city, which had so much destruction in World War II, a prosperous, thriving, unified, and Social Democracy is a miracle of modern history. We enjoyed the good location of the Berlin Hilton Hotel, which makes the public transportation system easily accessible, whether you choose to traverse the city by taxi, subway, public bus, or the way we chose: The Hop on Hop Off Yellow Berolina Sightseeing Buses using the three day WelcomeCard, which stop every 10 minutes at each of the 20 most interesting areas tourists want to see. We found the buses to be convenient, plentiful, and they have excellent narration in any language as you tour around the town using the free earphones your ticket gives you. You can purchase the ticket for one or several consecutive days. We recommend riding it all the way on the complete 1-20 stops (beginning at any one of them) for an excellent city tour in a couple of hours. Then you can stop at any place you choose to remain for a visit.
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Checkpoint Charlie, the once famous border checkpoint between the American and Soviet sectors, is of great historical import for everyone to see. Along one block the street is lined with a temporary wall of billboards with photographs depicting life in Berlin before, during, and after the War and Division of the city. This is the location of the museum and another one which is being built in the future. At the beautiful Brandenberg Gate you can find many Embassies and the most photographed place of the city. Nearby is the Jewish Memorial with 2,700 concrete blocks of various sizes which offer one the chance to wander contemplating what ethnic hatred did. At one point you can look down into a bare room similar to where the Jews were tortured in the most horrible ethnic cleansing the world has ever known.

We chose to spend the better part of a whole day at the Jewish Museum, a huge building which portrays Jewish history all the way from Biblical times through the 20th Century. To see the indomitable spirit of the people who were displaced many times through history is both poignant and inspiring. The attendants at this museum were some of the most friendly and helpful people we met in all of Berlin. And the food in the little cafe there is delicious!
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Everyone wants to know about the famous Wall, which extended around Berlin a little over 100 miles and separated the Soviet sector of the city from what was known as West Berlin, went up overnight with barbed wire and was later constructed of iron, stones and concrete, and was backed by wire which tripped easily setting off automatic guns and sirens. This wall ran at times along the Spree River, dividing the city into two parts impenetrably, and even went through some houses and businesses causing forced evacuation and the cementing up of windows and doors. West Berlin, which was controlled by the US and its World War II allies, became an island where lifestyle was better and people felt more freedom of movement and thought, finding themselves isolated from friends and family in the Soviet sector suddenly, overnight.
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Today a double cobblestone strip along the walkway beside the Spree River shows the exact location of the Wall. And then when the Wall came down some of it was preserved for history to see in various sections of the Berlin of today. Part of that is a bit of concrete with rebar steel struts and another part is concrete walls which form the longest outdoor art gallery in the world: many artists being invited to decorate specific portions of the wall with the unique modern art depicting all kinds of symbols and portraits of that troubled time in Berlin. To visit this peaceful, thriving, modern city today and enjoy all the fun and sites of a prosperous and happy city is truly a miracle!
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Along with the Hop On, Hop Off Bus ticket, we also recommend the Berlin Welcome Card for discounted tickets to numerous ;museums and attractions for tourists. Berlin contains more museums than just about any city we have ever visited, five of which are on Museum Island and are treasured as Unesco World Heritage Sites. The Welcome Card gives you a very good discount on most of these impressive places and 12 different city tours. The grand historic buildings house these museums and are worth a tour for the architectural significance. Since many of these buildings were were leveled in War, one can marvel at their having been reconstructed to their original magnificance. It seems impossible that this city has been rebuilt in such a short time.
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The largest collection of Old Masters paintings is housed in the huge Gemaldegalerie Museum in Central Berlin close to Berlin’s modern concert hall and is a place you will want to spend many hours. Beside it is the Museum of Handicrafts, another place really worth a visit. There are too many museums to describe, and you will enjoy making your own selection according to your specific interests. Charlottenberg Palace is one of the grand places in this city and nearby is the film center that begs to rival Hollywood.
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And no one can miss the Kurfursdambur Street of beautiful homes and fabulous shopping to rival Paris’ Champs-Elysees. The enormous KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens) is one of the largest department stores in Europe (with prices just as large!) and not to be missed. Be sure to make it to the upper floors, where you will find highly select foods of all kinds from meats and cheeses to beautiful breads and desserts, chocolates, spices, teas, coffees and much more. You can eat here or go up to the top floor for a lovely food court with glass walls overlooking the city.
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As one of the world’s premier cities, we adored Berlin and were surprised by this in every way. The little coffee bars which are everywhere beckon tired sight-seers to stop for coffee, tea, hot chocolate (the BEST in the world!) and alcohol of any kind, at almost any time of day or night. This is the city built for modern tourism and will meet your every expectation of service, interest, and delight.
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Photography by Emma Krasov

Enlightened despots of the 18th century are not the historical figures I typically turn to in search of enlightenment. However, during my recent trip to Potsdam, Frederick II (the Great) – who ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786 – captured my imagination. A controversial risk-taker, Frederick the Great managed to pull Germany from the backwaters of Europe and climb to the top of political power. I was stunned by his New Palace, decorated with colored gems, and awed by the Sanssouci Palace and Park – his refuge from the officious Berlin. What endlessly fascinated me was his character – a study in contrasts.
This year, Potsdam celebrates Frederick’s storied history.

The enlightening exhibition

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“Friederisiko” celebrates 300th birthday of the most famous King of Prussia

Frederick’s Risk, or “Friederisiko,” is the major exhibition organized by the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation in Potsdam to celebrate the King’s 300th birthday from April 28 to October 28. The exhibition, divided into 12 themes presents Frederick the Great – the man and the ruler – on a discovery tour through 70 rooms of the New Palace, some open to the public for the first time. Contemporary installations and actor impersonations of the court ceremonies are a part of the exhibition.

A celebrity tour guide

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I traveled to what was formerly known as East Germany, or German Democratic Republic (GDR), out of morbid curiosity. Hailing from Russia (the mother-ship of the historical Communist Bloc), I felt drawn to this former satellite of the former Soviet Union.
Little did I know that I was about to find a prosperous land of dense forests, flowering meadows, hills and lakes – and 500 castles – all waiting to be re-discovered by the traveling masses. I joined a walking tour of Sanssouci led by Kevin Kennedy – a tour guide and a local Potsdam celebrity who delivers tons of relevant information in perfect English.

Kennedy, the son of a German mother and an American GI father (a rather typical child of the GDR era) is working on his Ph.D. in history, focusing on military orphanages of Potsdam. Those were implemented in the 1720s and expended by Frederick the Great who was childless, considered Prussian soldiers his “children,” and strove to create a nation of military men.
“As a child, Frederick II was cruelly ridiculed by his father, Frederick William I, for the lack of masculinity,” said Kennedy. “Ultimately, his father was pushing him to suicide so Frederick’s brother could inherit the throne.”

Apparently, in his younger years, the future King of Prussia hated the mandatory military exercises, the daily religious studies, and the discipline of the Berlin court, so he settled in the white-walled medieval Rheinsberg Castle in Brandenburg and made it his primary residence. “He called it a ‘court of muses’,” said Kennedy, “and hosted actors, dancers, and painters, played flute, and composed sonatas…”

Frederick’s artistic inclinations did not prevent him from becoming the brashest Prussian conqueror and doubling the territory of his kingdom through several risky and lengthy military operations against the surrounding nations. Frederick’s tactical genius was legendary. He prevailed in the Seven Years’ War despite the much greater opposing forces of Austria, France, and Russia.
As a ruler, Frederick initiated domestic reforms that included religious tolerance and freedom of the press. He created the first German legal code and set rules for public education in Prussia. He also built roads, financed agricultural reforms, and introduced potatoes to his countrymen. I enjoyed this last but not least part of his legacy along with smoked fish, cured meats, and just-from-the-oven breads served on a white tablecloth at the lavish buffet breakfast included in the room price of my hotel.

Frederick’s Potsdam

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Potsdam, once the official summer residence of the Prussian kings, is now the capital of the federal state of Brandenburg and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located just a 20-minute drive from Berlin, Potsdam is known for its palaces – many of them commissioned by Frederick the Great. The enormous New Palace was built to commemorate his victory in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), which established Prussia as a powerful European state. For this monument to himself Frederick chose an opulent Baroque style, which was going out of fashion with the advance of neoclassicism but still symbolized power and inspired awe.

Four hundred statues line the roof and the walls of the massive sprawling structure. Inside, the grand halls are decorated with 20 thousand chunks of amethyst, topaz, opal, and agate, rare shells, crystals, and multi-colored Carrara marble. The mosaic floors were built to be observed from the upper galleries, and dancing on them was prohibited. The King’s favorite summer palace, Sanssouci (“carefree”), is surrounded by neatly landscaped gardens and was conceived as “Prussian Versailles” where he would spend most of his time – practically moving his court from Berlin to Potsdam.

Reflecting Frederick’s enchantment with the landscape and architecture of Italy, a terraced vineyard, split by a grand staircase, extends downhill from the Rococo building. In Sanssouci, Frederick also built the Friendship Temple (dedicated to his sister Wilhelmina) the Antique Temple, Belvedere, and the Dragon Pavilion. He reconstructed and modernized downtown Potsdam. Although Frederick commented on his father’s “bad Dutch taste,” the classic red-brick Dutch quarter still remains and is now filled with artisan shops and restaurants that habitually serve local seasonal fare, like white asparagus in the spring – silky and tender with butter-and-lemon hollandaise sauce.

A king of contrasts

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Frederick II the Great hated the court life, but built gorgeous palaces. He despised his “Soldier-King” father, but strived to achieve military glory. He supported religious tolerance, but barred non-Protestants from positions of power. Frederick spoke French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and understood Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, but considered German ugly and criticized German writers for their long arcane sentences. He called himself the “servant of the state,” but didn’t like to see his own servants, so he built hidden hallways for them in his palaces.

He banned torture and barred his court from interfering with the justice system, but was a ruthless politician, invaded neighboring countries and changed their borders. Frederick was close with his sister but hated his wife, Elizabeth of Bavaria, and prohibited her from visiting his palaces in Potsdam. He was known as an extreme misogynist throughout his lifetime. To decorate his palaces, he chose artwork depicting women as depraved and treacherous creatures or as men’s toys. In the Sanssouci music room, Frederick placed a painting dedicated to the Ovid’s classic legend of Pygmalion – a sculptor who created a statue of a beautiful woman, Galatea, and brought her to life. The court artist Antoine Pesne modeled Galatea after a famous Venetian ballerina La Barbarina who had narrow boyish hips and was therefore considered beautiful by the king.

In the wrought iron Sun Pavilion, just steps from the Sanssouci Palace, Frederick installed an antique bronze statue of a young man from Rhodes. During his rule, this statue was thought to be an image of Antinous – a deified lover of Roman Emperor Hadrian – and served as a “rainbow flag” of the time. Was Frederick gay? Voltaire thought so. Andy Warhol did, too. His 1968 portrait of Frederick the Great is the last artwork on the Sanssouci tour, placed by the palace exit.

The dog lover’s grave

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Frederick considered Christianity a fairy tale, detested his predecessors, and wrote in his will that he shouldn’t be laid to rest in the Berlin Cathedral with other members of the Hohenzollern dynasty, but instead on the vineyard terrace in Sanssouci. In his older years, he repeatedly stated that he preferred the company of his dogs to the company of men and wished to be buried next to his beloved Italian greyhounds. The grave of Friedrich der Grosse is marked with the same humble tombstone as those of his dogs. The only monument at his burial site is a marble Roman statue of the goddess Flora playing with baby Zephyr – a symbol for spring.
If you go
GETTING THERE
Lufthansa flies from SFO to Tegel Berlin airport with stopovers in Frankfurt, London, or Munich. Taxi from Tegel Airport.
WHERE TO STAY
Steigenberger Hotel Sanssouci, Allee nach Sanssouci 1, 14471 Potsdam, +49 331 9091-0, www.steigenberger.com
Steps from the Sanssouci Park, modest rooms, full breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT
Zum Fliegenden Hollander, Benkerstr. 5, 14467 Potsdam, www.zum-fliegenden-hollaender.de
Local seasonal cuisine.
WHAT TO DO
“Friederisiko” exhibition from April 28 through October 28 at the New Palace in Sanssouci. More information: www.friederisiko.de, www.spsg.de, www.potsdam.de.
MORE INFORMATION:
www.cometogermany.com, www.germany.travel, www.brandenburg-tourism.com

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Photography by Emma Krasov

Formerly known as East Germany, this land of dense forests and flowering meadows, rolling hills and blue lakes, went from being a part of Prussia to becoming a part of Communist Bloc, and is now waiting to be re-discovered by the traveling masses. My visit started at Potsdam – the summer residence of the Prussian kings which boasts several UNESCO World Heritage sites. The most important one is Sanssouci (“carefree”) palace and park, built by Frederick II (1712-1786) who disliked the officious Berlin and preferred to spend his days among the Roman statues and wild grape terraces of his private Versailles.

Frederick II the Great had a somewhat ambivalent personality: hated the court but built gorgeous palaces, despised his “Soldier-King” father but strived to achieve military glory, was a patron of the arts but a known misogynist… To decorate his palaces, he chose antique plots depicting women as depraved and treacherous creatures or men’s toys at best. On a Pygmalion painting by the court artist Antoine Pesne in Sanssouci, a figure of Galatea was drawn after a famous ballerina La Barbarina, who had narrow boyish hips, and therefore was considered beautiful by the king.

A European ruler of Enlightenment, Frederick supported religious tolerance, banned torture, and barred his court from interfering with the justice system but was a lawless politician, invading neighboring countries and changing their borders.
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His enormous New Palace, with 400 exterior statues and 20 thousand precious and semi-precious stones in the interior décor, was built to commemorate his victory in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), which established Prussia as a powerful European state. For this monument to himself Frederick chose opulent baroque style, which was going out of fashion with the advance of neoclassicism but still symbolized power and inspired awe.

Frederick’s grave by the Sanssouci Palace is steps away from Sun Pavilion, which holds a bronze statue of a young man from Rhodes. During Frederick’s rule, this statue was thought to be an image of Antinous – a deified lover of Roman Emperor Hadrian and a “rainbow flag” of the time. Frederick considered Christianity a fairy tale, and in his older years commented on how he preferred a company of his dogs to the company of men.
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According to his will, Frederick the Great is buried next to his Italian greyhounds under a Roman statue of goddess Flora playing with baby Zephyr…After a tour of Sanssouci, I spent the night reading about Prussia and the house of Hohenzollern in Steigenberger Hotel Sanssouci (www.steigenberger.com) a short walk from the park. My jetlag and my firm and narrow “army” bed with only one skinny pillow kept me alert. Next morning, a lavish breakfast with freshly-baked breads, rich salads, cold cuts, and many-many kinds of herring set me off for the day of further discoveries.
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In Brandenburg (www.brandenburg-tourism.com) a white-walled medieval Rheinsberg Castle on Lake Grienerick, surrounded by a vast garden, used to be Frederick the Great’s refuge when he was a crown prince. Here, young Frederick created “the court of muses” and hosted actors, dancers, and painters; played flute, and composed music in his happiest years.

Moving north to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a non-stop vacation world called Land Fleesensee (www.fleesensee.de) is materialized in a thousand lakes, sandy dunes, and green meadows, framed by majestic pines and oaks. Parks and swamps are teeming with wildlife – deer and rabbits, ducks, storks and eagles, fish and frogs, and there are no crowds, just random nature enthusiasts with their bikes, golf clubs, canoes, and kayaks.
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Brand new Iberotel Fleesensee (www.iberotel-fleesensee.de) overlooks the lake and has private beach and marina. Inside, it is graced with: all modern conveniences, lake-theme decorated rooms and restaurants with great food, and even a free of charge personal trainer for the guests.
This night, I slept like a baby after a gourmet dinner at the hotel’s Lakeside Restaurant accompanied by crisp local wines.
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Farther north, closer to the Baltic sea shore, there is the capital city of Schwerin famous for its fantastic castle situated on a small island in the middle of its namesake lake. Built and rebuilt numerous times from a Slavic fortress (year 973) to the five-wing Sleeping Beauty castle modeled on the Loire Valley Chateau de Chambord by the duke Friedrich Franz II in 1845-57, it is a magnificent structure surrounded by English landscaped gardens with statuary and flower beds.

Love is in the air in and around the Schwerin Castle. In some of its 653 rooms there are “love chairs” which allow a couple to sit sideways face to face with each other for easy kissing; there is Island of Love in Burggarten (castle garden), and there are “love trees” with their branches joined in a hug by clever grafting. Schweriners love their harmonious city – one third water, one third gardens, and one third buildings, and 95% of them wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

A resort town of Boltenhagen on the southernmost shore of the Baltic Sea is called a cradle of the German bathing culture and the Berliners’ bath tub, and has a beautiful promenade leading from the main drag to a long sandy beach. I couldn’t help but take off my sandals and wade through the cool calm water. Then a white swan crossed my path, and was just standing there, next to me, looking at the horizon…
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Staying at Schlossgut Gross Schwansee (“swan lake” www.schwansee.de) for the night seemed only natural considering the swan theme of the day. There are ten luxurious guest rooms and an upscale restaurant in the manor house, built in 1745, but as much as I like historic buildings, after a day of intense discoveries I prefer to crash in a comfy contemporary environment. The new building of the hotel provided simplicity, functionality, and a great room layout. Located on 900 hectares of serene fertile land, Schlossgut Gross Schwansee has its own agriculture and a lake with a swan house right outside the guest rooms’ balconies. In the morning, I watched two fat hares playing on a meadow by the lake in the first rays of dawn.3dae269d0
The last stop on my trip was the Free Hanseatic City on the Elbe – Hamburg, where there are more bridges than in Venice and Amsterdam combined. Despite the fact that Hamburgers (not beef patties) are extremely proud of their independence and cosmopolitan appeal, they have the most impressive town hall, Das Hamburger Rathaus (1897), which to me signifies their devotion to the local government. Behind the town hall building there is a fountain dedicated to Hygieia – a symbol of cleanliness, erected in 1892 during the cholera epidemics which claimed many thousands of lives. Since then, Hamburg went a long way toward improving the quality of life for its citizens. It is now one of the greenest cities in Europe – in more than one sense.
More information at www.cometogermany.com and www.germany.travel.

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Riesling is experiencing a resurgence. This grape is grown in Northwest Australia, and elsewhere, but it’s the German Riesling that is the stalwart. Romans and Celts first planted vines 2,000 year ago. I recently returned from a tour of the Mosel River region – a lush wine area about two hours west of Frankfurt.

The Mosel region (one of Germany’s thirteen wine areas) is close to France and Luxembourg and abounds with steep vineyards, slate soil, terraced hillsides and verdant valleys that run along the Mosel River and its tributaries – the Saar and Ruwer Rivers. Rieslings from this area have the right combination of residual sugar and acid to produce elegant and balanced wines. And with the low alcohol level (around 8%), it’s easy to have another glass.

The Weinromantikhotel Richtershof, a member of the luxurious Relais & Chateaux group, was home base for my wine excursion. Situated in the little town of Mulheim on the east bank of the river in the “Middle Mosel,” it’s all about relaxation and enjoyment. In fact, their mantra is “a hotel to feel well, a gastronomy to enjoy and wine-growing estate to explore.” Each unique room is beautifully decorated and comfortable with views of the surrounding park and vineyards. Herb gardens, patios and a lily pond await outside. The Richtershof opened in 2000 and is adjacent to the Max Ferd. Richter Winery.
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Every morning starts in the garden restaurant, formerly a butcher shop from 1911. The extravagant buffet offers champagne, omelettes, pastries, cheeses, salumis, fruits, breads, coffee – full fortification for the day ahead. At night, dinner is equally sumptuous served in an intimate setting. Only the freshest ingredients are used and whether you enjoy squab, perch or any other selection from the seasonal menu, you’ll delight in the flavors – especially with those German Rieslings which complement so many ingredients (spicy and sweet Asian, Indian, Caribbean).

(Time to throw out the memory you might have of Blue Nun and get serious about the wine. Before I tell the story of my experiences, check out the information about Riesling in the Essentials box below.)

There are lots of ways to tour the Mosel – hiking, biking, via the river (ferry, canoe, row boat) and, of course, by car. The statistics alone are staggering: 70 million vines, 23,000 acres, half on slopes from 328 to 935 feet high, 5000 winemakers in 125 villages and towns. The Mosel region is the largest contiguous planting of the Riesling grape in the world and the 5th biggest wine region in Germany. Ready to taste?

Bicycle was the mode of transport for my group. The first stop was immediate: The Max Ferd. Richter Winery right next door to the hotel. The cellar was built in 1880 although their ancestors started a wine and food business in Mulheim over 3 centuries ago.

Today, about 95% of the vineyards are planted with Riesling. The wines run the gamut from a sparkling to a dessert wine. The 2008 Zeppelin Label Riesling Mülheimer Sonnenlay (wines from this vineyard were served on the Zeppelin airships in the 1920’s and 1930’s) and both the 2007 Richter Estate Riesling Kabinett and Spatlese even have screw caps.
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From the Richter estate, it was less than a mile across the river to the town of Leiser and Weingut Schloss Lieser. The blue slate soil produces wines that are dynamic, refreshing with minerality and tasting of ripe fruit. The grapes hug some of the steepest hillsides in the Middle Mosel with about a 70% grade. Owner Thomas Haag focuses on quality not quantity. He bottles about 2,500 cases per year with 12-15 wines per vintage. Try the 2008 Schloss Lieser Riesling Spatlese Niederberg Helden – it’s young and lively but can be cellared for 20 years.

Continuing north along the river, we stopped at the estate of S.A. Prum. The proprietors have been making wine along the Mosel for 33 years. The steep blue, grey and red slate hillsides produce enough grapes for over 40,000 cases a year. A delicate balance of acidity and ripeness combine for refreshing, fruity wines. Standouts are two Riesling kabinetts from 2007 – Prum Blue and Wehlener Sonnenuhr.

At Bernkastel-Kues, we crossed the river after pedaling south and found a picturesque 700 year old town in the center of the Middle Mosel. Dating to Roman times, medieval architecture abounds. High atop a hill are the ruins of the Castle of Landshut built in 1277 and accidentally burnt down in 1692. Cafes spill into the narrow streets – perfect to enjoy more wine.

Off the bikes, we drove to the Ruwer Valley, home of Weingut Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt. This prolific winery, founded over 650 years ago, has plantings along all three rivers – Mosel, Saar and Ruwer with most being single site vineyards. The owners produce wines that typify the best of the region’s terroir – mineral-driven, balanced and at a perfect level of ripeness. Favorites include the 2008 Rieslings from the Ruwer – Kaseler Nies’chen (kabinett) and Kaseler Nies’chen (spatlese).

We chose Trier, the oldest city in Germany for one final stop along the Mosel. One of the most famous and best preserved Roman city gates is here – the Porta Nigra. Translated as “black gate,” it was part of an ancient Roman system of four city gates. Today it’s open to visitors and makes for a great place to start a tour down the town’s main street. Take in shops, cafes, the medieval marketplace and the plentiful ice cream.
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Germany’s Mosel region reflects its wine – rich, lush, balanced and energetic. Enjoy the countryside, bask in the history and best of all – relish the Riesling.

Essentials:
Getting There:
Mosel River Region, Germany: About a 14 hour flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt, then about a two hour drive. www.expedia.com/gogreen; www.eco.orbitz.com.
Tourist Information: www.germany-tourism.de/moselle_region; www.mosellandtouristik.de/en/default.aspx; www.bernkastel.de.

Where to Stay and Eat:
Weinromantikhotel Richtershof: 0049.6534.948.0; Hauptstrafpe 81 – 83, Mulheim, www.weinromantikhotel.de.

Don’t Miss:
Max Ferd. Richter Winery: Hauptstrasse 37 / 85 Mulheim, 0049 65 34 933 003, www.maxferdrichter.com. Available at PlumpJack Wines Fillmore, 3201 Fillmore Street, 346.9870. Schloss Lieser Estate: Am Markt 1, Lieser, 0049 6531-6431, www.weingut-schloss-lieser.de. Available at K & L Wine Merchants, 638 4th Street, 896.1734. S.A. Pruem Winery: Uferallee 25-26, Wehlener, 0049 6531-3110, www.sapruem.com/. Available at Beverages & More, 1301 Van Ness Avenue, 447.8483; William Cross Wine Merchants, 2253 Polk Street, 346.1314. Weingut Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt: Schlossgut Marienlay, Morscheid im Ruwertal, 0049 6500 91690, www.kesselstatt.com/. Available at K & L Wine Merchants, 638 4th Street, 896.1734.

Must Try:
Other Rieslings: St. Urbans-hof 2007 Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese, D & M Wine & Liquor Co., 2200 Fillmore Street, 346.1325. Weingut Josef Bernard-Kieren 2007 Graacher Dompropst Riesling Kabinett, Wine Bar SF, Two Embarcadero, 391.0758 & Wine Impression, 3461 California Street, 221.9463. Weingut Dr. Thanisch 2008 Riesling Kabinett Bernkasteler Badstube, Sputino Di Ottimista, 1957 Union Street, 931.6410.
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Riesling Primer:
Rieslings range from dry to very sweet and from light to medium body. And even though the sugar content is high, the acid balances the flavor to produce fruity and fresh wines. It is this combination of ripe fruit and acidity that helps Rieslings age well. The slate soil gives the mineral overtones.

Terminology specific to Rieslings further defines the essence of the wine. Kabinett, the lightest of the wines, is picked when the grapes are ripe. Spatlese means “late harvest” so it has a more intense flavor. Extremely ripe hand-picked grapes are used in Auslese “select” wine. Beerenauslese refers to “selected berries” for a perfect dessert wine. The grapes are picked overly ripe, have some botrytis fungus and an intense fruitiness balanced with the acidity. Eiswein grapes are left to freeze on the vine and then pressed while still frozen. The result: a concentrated sweet dessert wine. Trockenbeerenauslese (“TBA”) are shriveled, botrytis ravaged beerenauslese grapes – excellent, expensive and rare.

One more bit of information is about Wehlener Sonnenuhr. In 1842 in the small town of Wehlen, a sundial (sonnenuhr) was placed on the most visible rock in the steep vineyards along the Mosel. Now there are over 80 sundials in the area. It is within this region that grapes from the blue slate soil are picked for some of the more elegant German Rieslings.

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Banked by Swabian state forests with beautiful hiking trails and picnic areas is the picturesque city of Karlsrue in Southern Germany. A visitor will find that a good starting place would be to go for an excellent lunch or dinner and a wonderful view of the city by driving up or ascending by funicular the small mountain overlooking the city to Klenerts Restaurant where you can dine inside or on the terrace overlooking the long 800 year old Darlach Road, marking the old part of the city, which is laid out like a fan from the Palace. A newer area of Karlsrue is the bustling modern city, which extends into the Black Forest and to the Rhine and is home of many industries.

You’ll find wonderful hotels and good public transportation in Karlsrue, a city of education with the technical college, a teacher’s college, an academy of art school, and music academy, and Fridericiana University, adding more than 30,000 students to the population of about 270,000. The city houses the Federal Court and the Supreme Court of Germany, so it is an interesting city of many lawyers, judges, and official business.

Many museums are among the city’s points of interest: several grand art museums and a huge Natural History Museum, which includes animals, plants, and minerals. But the most important and newest museum is in the former ammunitions manufacturing buildings of World War II, which were amazingly not destroyed by the bombing. The technological museum is enormous and shows all about media and computers, the best such museum in the world. Allow a minimum of half-day and much walking, but you’ll really learn a lot and find it fascinating.

One of our favorite places was the magnificent park and gardens around the palace of the Dukes from Charles and Frederik Wilhelm and the Karls in the period from 16th century. Unfortunately, this palace was destroyed in World War II but was rebuilt in all its grandeur and is now a Regional Museum for the Boden Region, open for tours. The gardens cover many acres and are beautifully landscaped, free and open to families to enjoy. Huge grassy areas and miles of walking or running, bicycling, skating pathways exist through manicured grassy lawns, exquisite flower gardens, and wooded pathways. One blue tile pathway leads to the 100-year-old ceramic factory on the Rhine for a tour and souvenir shop. Frequently, various amusements are featured in the grand park, and each July a giant Ferris wheel behind the palace centers the anniversary festivities. The lovely palace and other important buildings are lighted at night for romantic walks also, but visitors are advised to stay in open areas at night.

Two excellent buildings, perfect examples of Neo-Classical Italianate architecture, built in the 1800’s and still maintained as a bank and the Federal Court building, face each other. The cobbled pedestrian way has the symbolic pyramid beneath which the Karls are buried. And the marvelous colored cobble stones recreate the rose windows of three cathedrals on the Rhine River:
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You have many choices of places to stay, but we chose the whimsicaly unique Kubler Hotel, a short walk from the Palace Gardens and across the street from the Teacher’s College, well located for shopping or entertainment and the museums. Our quaint hotel was immaculate and had so many fascinating things to see in the décor, especially in the dining and reception areas. The breakfast area is composed of many small rooms, each decorated as a German home might be. The reception area feels like a home’s living room. Our room was spacious and modern and thoroughly unique in its charming décor, with a marble and glass bathroom. Looking across the parking lot we viewed the irresistible restaurant and bar area, a four story building in modern art, with one tower forming a jack-in-the-box’s funny face as a tower. The bar and café have a large glassed ceiling which opens for outdoor eating in good weather. The design and architecture of the whimsical building is the most unusually fascinating we had ever seen. And the food is excellent, as well as the beer, which is brewed right where you can see it. A fun experience day or night… and a play area is incorporated for kids to have fun while parents watch and enjoy their beer. Although this is not a city on many German tour routes, we think Karlsrue should be and we hope to return again to this lovely city which has so much to offer.
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Just a twenty kilometer drive away is the famous playground of kings for centuries: BadenBaden, where natural hot mineral water springs were discovered in ancient times, and Romans built baths here. Ever since that time the privileged of Europe and later of the world have come here for cures and for pampering and restful holidays. Untouched by the war, the city is exquisite in a way they only built cities in the peak of wealth in the romantic 1800’s.
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Buildings of classical beauty in architecture are magnificently decorated with colorful mosaics and gold leaf. One of the most beautiful of all is now the tourism department where you can make your plan for your visit. The grand casino and amazing thermal baths are in Baden Baden and many exclusive shops, hotels, and restaurants. We walked around the town and climbed the hill to the cathedrals just below the castle. While we were eating a 6 PM snack on Sunday evening, the church bells all over the town started outringing each other and for fifteen minutes they resounded everywhere. It was beautiful.

We kept trying to find a glockenspiel but the only one listed in the tour guide was a broken clock. We drove on little roads to the top of the hill behind and far above the castle and churches where we could get a good view of the countryside and also see the place in the forest where the mineral water comes out in an ancient fountain. An absolutely lovely place to visit. We’d like more time here but also lots of money because it is planned for a wealthy clientele.
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We had a 45-minute drive through a quiet little highway in the Bavarian countryside to reach Maulbronn, the site of the best preserved 12th century monastery north of the Alps in all of Europe. In 1991 this was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, little known by the public so the German National Tourism Office asked us to write about it. We arrived early for coffee at the Monastery Café across the street.

We met Ursula Lierse at the Monastery Entrance who, thankfully, spoke good English and was knowledgeable of the beautifully preserved site.

The monastery was started by about a dozen Cistercian monks in 1147. They were looking for a place where they could grow crops and be self-sufficient and had trouble finding water. The legend says they turned their little mule loose who found for them a fresh water spring and little river, so they named the place “Maul”(mule) “Bronn”(fountain). The sandstone and brick buildings they erected for their simple 12th century life of vows to God are amazing. Thick walls, which once were surrounded by a moat, an abbey with a dormitory, large refectory for eating, apothecary, a heated room for warming themselves two hours a day, beautiful chapel or meeting room, a large grassy courtyard with a lovely fountain, which was for drinking from the top level and washing clothing or themselves at the lower levels.
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The monks’ vows prohibited eating meat, but fish was allowed. They dug by hand 20 small lakes to use as fish hatcheries, the largest of which is today a beautiful lake for swimming, fishing and canoeing for the people of the town. The monks were given simple meals, and the story goes that wine was in one large container on a column, which dripped down into a little place where they could only dip their fingers for a small taste. One monk said ruefully, “If only I had eleven fingers instead of ten,” hence the name of the wine from the vineyards here is “Elf,“ meaning 11 fingers.
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Daily life in the monastery was of silence except for one room in which they were allowed to converse for a strictly limited period each day. They worshipped seven times in 24 hours, including getting up in the cold, moist air in absolute darkness and making their way by candlelight to the huge cathedral they built. Originally it had no ornamentation because of the Cistercians’ vow of simple life. As the monastery began to grow their numbers of monks increased to over 100, and they were joined with a group of about 300 laymen, who lived here and helped work but were not under vows of the Cistercians. The cathedral was divided into two sections for the two different groups to worship. It is interesting to see the hand carved wooden choir stands for the monks who were required to stand during the hours of prayer, but clever little shelves were inserted into each for more restful half-sitting in the dark during night prayers.

In the sixteenth century when Luther’s Protestant Reformation was sweeping the Catholics out of Germany, the dukes of this area became protestant and took over the monastery as their city. They added many of the buildings you see today and added frescoes, stained glass, and stone decoration to the cathedral, still keeping the ornamentation simple but employing many Christian symbols to enhance worshipful attitudes.

In all of Europe this monastery/village is the best preserved in tact example of 11th – 16th century living North of the Alps and is worth a half day to tour. You’ll find a lovely café and a few souvenir shops, and the surrounding area is beautiful.

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My wife, Diane, and I have got just two days to explore central Berlin. After leaving our Hotel, the Relexa in Anhalterstrasse, we quickly find the only remaining stretch of the infamous Berlin Wall, alongside the original old cobbled street. Behind the wall is the `Exhibition of Terror’ containing photos of people shot trying to get over the Wall. It mixes strangely with modern life, but it is something essential, if grim, to retain. Just past this is the famed Checkpoint Charlie, complete with pretend guards and guns. Reminding us that life goes on, regardless of a murky past, is a quirky shop selling East German military and polizei caps, and uniforms, at a very reasonable price!
Returning to the main thoroughfare leading to Berlin central (`Mitte’), we reach Potsdamer Platz. We are amazed by the breathtaking modern architecture of the three huge business towers, whose angles and materials give them an almost surreal look. As if to soften this tough financial image, brightly coloured tents litter their base, selling hot-dogs, beer and crafts. Between the Platz and the Brandenburg Gate appears a large plot of land that is at first perplexing. It contains hundreds of grey stone blocks, all different heights and widths, with a maze of pathways between. Then we find a poignant plaque set in the pavement – this was a monument to the Jews killed by the Nazis, built over what used to be Hitler’s bunker. Diane didn’t want to walk the pathways, saying it would be too upsetting, so we carry on, returning our minds to happier themes.
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Not far away is the Brandenburg Gate itself (`Brandenburger Tor’) where, as I read the blurb on a poster, an old lady saunters up to me and flashes the front page of a dubious magazine from under her coat. Its cover has a picture of a clothed man and a woman in a compromising position. The old woman asks me something in German. Shrugging, I just say `Britischer’. She says `oh’ impassively and saunters off again. I am unsure what exactly she is doing, but it seems furtive and possibly illegal! Under the archways and we stand in the square, looking up at the golden statues on top of the Gate. At the other end of the square is an amazing, full-size, photographic copy of the whole Gate, on a plastic sheet covering a building site – a brand new metro station.

The imposing Reichstag is just down the road from the Gate toward the river Spree – though, at first, I confuse the back for the front. Its parking area is filled with the most expensive looking police cars I have ever seen, all top model Mercedes and BMWs, some with darkened back windows and curtains. We stroll down to the riverside and find three small white crosses, with photos of people shot by the East Berlin guards for attempting to swim to freedom. Then, we go around the real front of the Reichstag and come across the huge expanse of ground made famous in films of Hitler’s rallies. The concrete has been replaced by grass, but the view is still imprinted on the minds of the whole world, a chilling reminder of unchecked dictatorial power.
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In the centre of the Reichstag (now used by the German parliament) is a big glass dome, open to the public and offering a great view of Berlin. But, the public happens to form a very long queue, so we skip that, hoping to get in tomorrow. Back at the Brandenburg Gate, we have been out just over 3 hours and our bellies tell us it is time for a snack. We enter an expensive-looking restaurant, where a waitress speaks in German. Again I say `Britischer’, trying to shrug amiably, and she replies in German. In English, I ask for a snack. She responds in German and hands me a different menu… also in German. I say we want something light. Trying to describe `light’ with my hands doesn’t work. She goes away. A second waitress comes over and asks, in broken-English, “You like a croissant with bacon and cheese?” I give up and meekly reply `yes’. I’d written down some useful phrases, but the sheet is still in a bag at the hotel! After this we make a quick exit and take a closer look at the Gate.

Leading from Brandenburg square is the Unter den Linden, a wide, tree-lined road with several lanes. It allows the grand statues and buildings space to breathe and show themselves off, which they do, admirably. As I look in a shop window, a youngish but dowdy man approaches me. He, too, furtively opens his raincoat and flashes the same magazine shown to me by the old woman, muttering in German. `Britischer’ I reply. So, he disappears, too. Have I got a `furtive’ magnet attached to my head? Just past Museum Square with its fine church and contemporary arts building, over the bridge, we have a close-up view of the tall communist-built Fernsehturm tower (television tower, with restaurant), that can be seen from almost anywhere in Berlin. We wanted to go up to the top, but, where’s the entrance? No idea! We’ll return tomorrow.
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Heading back to the Gate, we come across a very impressive car sales building and are blown away by a gleaming new Bhugatti, a beast of a sports road car. Then, we notice a lower floor containing antiques.We go down to see what’s on offer, wearing our trekking jackets and rucksacks, looking like fish out of water…Salesmen in pin-striped suits and dickie-bows hover everywhere, and a German TV crew takes close-ups of very small jewellery, costing hundreds of thousands.

When I visit a new place we usually take in the location of the main attractions on the first day or two. Then, we return to visit sites already ear-marked. This time? Inexplicably, we decide to go west to the Charlottenburg area, thinking it would be a great place to buy gifts for Christmas. What a mistake!
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So, today, Tuesday, we start out in high spirits, and reach the edge of the massive Tiergarten, filled with grass and trees. It used to be a hunting park for royalty. The trees have that wonderful autumnal mixture of browns and reds. Cyclists speed past, some singing to themselves. Groundsmen clear fallen leaves and one is flirting with an attractive female jogger. It is, well, a happy place, and we enjoy the walk immensely.We keep going, and going…and going. Finally, we reach the wide Strasse des 17. June. Eastward we can just see the Brandenberg Gate. Westward, we see a gigantic gold statue atop a monolithic, extremely tall, plinth, the Seigessaule (triumphal column). Until 1938 it stood in front of the Reichstag. It is reached via underground tunnels and there’s a great view of the park from the top.
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With one eye on amiable but maniacal cyclists, we plod on, enjoying the lovely blue skies and slightly warm temperature, thinking of the presents we’ll buy. On the outskirts of Charlottenburg, we walk past a huge Mercedes showroom, filled with every model you could think of, displaying prices proving the British are paying well over the odds for their imports!Eventually, we reach the university and sit down. The shopping area remains elusive, so I make an executive decision to give up! We’ll return to Berlin centre instead, using the west-bound Strasse des 17. June.

Like an oasis in a desert of extra-wide martial boulevards, we see a secret bakery tucked away underneath the railway station just past the university. I try my old trick again: shrug, look helpless, and say: “Britischer”. Also shrugging, the shop assistant replied: “I don’t care”. So, I choose what looks edible. Two of those…and… two of those.

At the western end of the Tiergarten we find a park bench. By this time our feet have been worn away to stumps and bending to sit hurts my back. But we’ve got food (we think) and the day is wonderful. As we start to devour a puffy pastry appley thingy, a man in dungarees, pushing a leaf blower, blows leaves everywhere, mainly on us. But, we sit resolutely munching our rations. Who cares – it’s almost romantic!

We finish off the sticky `something’ filled with currants, cinnamon, wash it down with mineral water, and carry on, enjoying the lovely day and people-watching. We pass an older man, trying to fix his bike, his rucksacks and bags piled against a fence. He lets out an angry, exasperated yell. I don’t offer to help because by now I can’t bend down! And, anyway, all I can say is `Britischer’.

We reach the Siegessaule again, and marvel at suicidal Japanese tourists trying to dodge the extremely busy four-lane traffic to reach the statue. I like statues, too, but not enough to get squashed for. Maybe they don’t like tunnels. On we travel with aching feet to the Reichstag. We note, and studiously obey, the graphic signs telling us there is a ban on sun bathing, lighting fires, and barbeques under trees. The queue to get into the building is still long! By now it is getting darker, so we again return, giftless, to the hotel.

Later, in the hotel restaurant, we are served by the best waiter I have ever come across, in any country. Özgür Üzmen, is a personable young man, knowledgeable about wine and food, flamboyant and welcoming, chatty and very friendly. He wishes to make us feel at home…which he does, wonderfully. For three evenings he has gone out of his way to give us a special table. On our days out, we only spent 15 Euros between us, but at dinner I made the mistake of asking Özgur for a `good’ wine. It turned out to be 60 Euros (72 US Dollars, or 41 English pounds) a bottle!
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Berlin seems to contain a large number of exhibits and buildings devoted to two of its most horrific eras – the Jewish holocaust and its brief affair with communism. The magnitude of these times cannot simply be forgotten. Yet, today, Berlin is a happy and prosperous place. Its architecture is superb and its spirit is big! Its past does not detract from its position as a great tourist venue.

Though it has the usual expensive restaurants, food is generally cheap enough, and many exhibits are free. Next time, I will have to master use of the `bus and train services, but we enjoy walking anyway, especially as Berlin is `walkable’. Maybe next time we’ll visit just before Christmas: German festive fairs are legendary. Our two days in Berlin didn’t quite go to plan; our return flight was turned back twice and the `plane was changed! But what the heck – we loved it and will just have to go back again to see all the bits we missed.