Everyone planning a summer holiday in Europe should choose Germany.
I realise this is a hard sell, not least to Europeans themselves.
So as all good salesmen do, let’s start with the positives. Germany – once a conglomeration of princely states, united in the late 19th century, split in half in the wake of the Second World War, reunified in 1990 – is home to the most beautiful walks, charming pubs, spectacular history and excellent food. Yes, food. The magical objects of sausages, beans, fried potatoes and beer are supplied in such abundance and cooked with such skill and love that it is positively shaming if you’re from a lesser sausage-cooking and beer-drinking nation. In my personal calendar of turning points, the evening I first ate proper bratkartoffeln, pan-fried German-style potatoes, is up there with the day I got engaged. And because Germans themselves have something of an inferiority complex about their own food, there are tonnes of excellent Italian, Greek and Spanish restaurants, so just by being there you are already miles ahead in food choices.
Everyone who gets the bug for visiting Germany has their favourites. For me, I never feel happier than in Thuringia, a piece of former East Germany that was for the most part left alone in its wooded dopiness, preserving many of the charming little towns and cities – Quedlinburg, Weimar, Gotha, Altenburg – that were once the capitals of micro-states. Each had their own toytown ruler, who built beautiful palaces, parks and town squares in competition with one another. At the time this was a Darwinian struggle that virtually bankrupted everyone and did little or nothing for the local population. The author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spent many years as chief minister of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. As the money ran out for compensating farmers whose crops had been crushed by the duke’s boar hunt or for paying for uniforms for the duke’s 20-strong army, Goethe would get away from these absurdities by heading off into the dazzlingly beautiful local hills. While there he wrote great plays and poems, studied geology – and he is commemorated by the Goethe Way, a series of walking trails in his footsteps that must be among the most rewarding in Europe, with great carpets of trees stretching out all around you.
It all depends on what you want from your holiday. For the individual, the political and cultural capital, Berlin, covers the lot, with vibrant nightlife, a thriving arts scene and arresting architecture. For family beach holidays the Baltic Sea is a bit placid thanks to a lack of tides – but the Frisian Islands, off Germany’s northwestern shores, and the Schleswig-Holstein west coast – are fun, if not exotic, with endless sandy beaches.
The key reason I would recommend Germany, though, is that it is so consistently unexpected. We all have a clear idea of what, say, Italy is like and we battle endlessly to try to find that ideal in practice. Although often all the beauty is undermined by something going wrong with the hire car, by the bumper-to-bumper coaches packed with people being driven to the same place and by knowing that you can cook exactly this sort of ragu at home.
Germany’s secret lies in its past as a great mass of different-sized, often very eccentric states, which have left behind them literally hundreds of towns that are quite different from each other, that have serious artistic and historical claims and that reward days of wandering. For example, Stuttgart is a great regional metropolis centred on an expansive U-shaped series of gardens. It’s crammed with superb art galleries, restaurants like Weinhaus Stetter serving local cuisine, the Mercedes-Benz and Porsche museums and, nearby, wonderful wine country.
Another favourite is the overlooked town of Darmstadt, whose melancholy Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig became a great patron of designers and architects in the years before the First World War and encouraged artists to create beautiful glasses and vases that now fill the spectacular Mathildenhöhe museum. The town remains dotted with other jugendstil (art nouveau) houses and monuments. His sister Alix had the misfortune to marry the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, and Russified her name to Alexandra. In their somewhat carefree years before the Russian revolution, the couple would holiday in Darmstadt. The onion-domed Russian Chapel in Darmstadt, built of specially imported Russian stone and Russian soil for their personal use, is just one of their legacies.
Or there’s Hamburg, home of great art galleries such as the Kunstverein, which has been in business for nearly 200 years, and some of the country’s best shopping – not simply malls like AEZ but also one-of-a-kind shops such as Otto Hatje Cigars and stationery specialist Bethge. The beautiful northern town of Lübeck is characterised by its walls, turrets, churches and ships, and a great medieval museum, St Anne’s. Even my 18-year-old son was impressed by the city of Potsdam – the plaything of Frederick the Great, with its English parks, the staggering Sanssouci palace and, for anyone even faintly interested in history, Cecilienhof, the small palace where the victorious Allied powers held the Potsdam Conference in 1945, which still retains the uncanny feeling that Stalin, Truman and Attlee have only just left the room. In the Rhineland cities of Worms, Mainz and Speyer there are the great, strange cathedrals of the holy Roman Emperors, in which so much history has been played out. And I haven’t even mentioned the joys of Swabia and Bavaria, which beckon with a swathe of beautiful walks, lovely food (especially the roasted pig knuckle) and peculiar places to visit such as the village of Oberammergau, whose houses are decorated with intricate frescoes. And there’s Dresden, a superb summer city beside the river Elbe, with its terraces, music and great hiking. And the recently rearranged Green Vault in Dresden Castle, one of the most eccentric and enjoyable collections of princely stuff (amber, ostrich eggs, jewelled figures, nautilus shell cups) ever assembled.
Best of all, Germans are generally pleased, indeed puzzled, to see you and lack the understandable weariness of hoteliers and restaurant staff further south.
There’s my pitch. But finally – like all salesmen – I need to win your trust by warning you off a couple of places.
When the tourist board of Mecklenburg-Schwerin boasts of it being the home of ‘the German Amazon’, this is only true in as much as there are some watery areas that can be visited on boats, but the only wildlife are voles and some standard-issue birds. Literally none of the thrilling associations the word ‘Amazon’ triggers actually kick in, such as the flesh-eating fish or blowpipe poisons. Equally I would avoid anything with the word ‘Rhineland cruise’ in it. Most of the Rhine has been so interfered with by generations of engineers that it is like a giant gutter. The one section that is not either featureless cycle path or chemical cylinders is the so-called ‘Rhine Gorge’ area, which is simply not very interesting. The Victorians loved it and would go backwards and forwards on steamboats, dressed in layer upon layer of unhygienic-smelling travel clothing, gasping at the Playmobil-esque castles and the odd crag with a mildly interesting legend attached to it. But do not be fooled: you do not need to have been to the Grand Canyon to know that you are wasting your time.
It is time to break the shackles of tradition and confront the reasons we have not gone to Germany. It is a land of great beer and great wine, excellent sausages but also every other cuisine; a land of magical towns and beautiful countryside. Your great adventure awaits.