A Trip to Germany That was a Quarter Century in the Making

Before I get to the details of our time in Germany, I’ll share why I wanted to go in the first place.

My grandfather, my Opa, was from Munich, and I grew up hearing about him hiking in the Alps. My Oma was from Nuremberg, and I grew up hearing about that historic city’s landmarks, festivals, gingerbread and sausages. My son grew up playing soccer and dreaming of playing in Europe (he eventually played in Germany and lived in Munich).

But my most enduring connection to Germany began at a dinner party in Birmingham 25 years ago.

My husband and I were guests, along with a couple from Germany—Norbert and Maria. They had met our hosts some 20 years earlier while on holiday in France. Maria’s English was quite good. Norbert was awfully quiet.

I struck up a conversation with Maria and after they got back to Germany, she contacted me and suggested that our girls (her two and my older one) begin an email correspondence so they would have a friend in another country. (Maria has friends all over Europe since going to another country there is like us going to Florida.) She wanted her girls to have a friend in the States.

It was a good idea that never took off.

But Maria and I began to email each other regularly (sometimes weekly) for the next 25 years. Our children have benefitted from our friendship. Her daughter Linda came here one summer for a whirlwind cultural visit that included two galas (we got her a ballgown); a trip to Selma; an event where the late John Lewis spoke; and an unbelievable trip to New Orleans where she and I ended up at a small, private, interactive concert with the saxophone player from the Preservation Hall All-Stars. Then when our son, Brother, went to Germany for soccer, Maria and her family became his family abroad. He even stayed with Linda and her boyfriend until he got his own apartment.

For years, Maria had urged Rick and me to visit. We first went several years ago when Brother was there, but our focus was mainly on him and his games. (During one of his matches, they played “Cotton Fields Back Home” during halftime, I kid you not.) We mostly stayed in Munich and spent only a few days with Maria and Norbert in Schwabmünchen where they live. (Those two days were full though; we visited Oberammergau, where the once-a-decade Passion Play is performed, ate at restaurants with no tourists except for us, and toured the glamorous, gold-gilded Schloss Linderhof (the smallest of the three palaces built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria and the only one he lived to see completed).

Our Munich highlights included touring various churches (and marveling at the bejeweled bones of martyrs in their glass coffins; the skeleton of Saint Munditia in St. Peter’s is particularly dazzling, and she holds a vial of dried blood. We toured the New Town Hall (crazily making our way onto the balcony where Germany’s national soccer team gathered after winning the World Cup); we stood there under the world-famous Rathaus-Glockenspiel waving to the tourists below in the Marienplatz.

We went to a bar in a boat set on an overpass (you read that correctly). We bought snacks in the Viktualienmarkt just outside the old city walls and had coffee in a cat café. We ate giant, delicious pig knuckles at a table of strangers at Haxnbauer and drank beer at a table of even more strangers at Hofbrauhaus (the world’s most famous beer hall). We spent a somber afternoon with Brother at Dachau—something we all felt we really needed to do. We walked through the English Garden (one of the largest urban parks in the world) to see the surfers, and visited the Residenz with Maria’s older daughter, Sandra. Maria took the train to Munich, and we spent an entire day shopping for dirndls (the best souvenir ever!). Also, we heard “Sweet Home Alabama” in one dress shop, I kid you not again.

A day trip to Nuremburg started with a breakfast of giant pretzels and a garlicky cheese spread called obatzda on the fast train with Linda. Once there, we toured that historic city, marveled at St. Lorenz’s Church and snacked on gingerbreads beside the 14th-century Schöner Brunnen (beautiful fountain) in the main market. We visited the Imperial Castle and toured a vast network of tunnels beneath the city (used for fermenting beer in the Middle Ages and later to escape the bombs during WWII). We drank red beer and ate the city’s famous, tiny bratwurst—about the size of your finger—cooked to order over an open flame and served “drei im weggla” (three in a bun). We even enjoyed hot mugs of glühwein at the end of our long day.

This past summer, though, we went back mainly to visit with Maria and her family. And she had spent decades planning this trip. As a result, it was incredibly personal and aimed at showing us a side of Germany most tourists simply don’t see. Her entire family participated. And in their beautiful Bavarian countryside, we lived like locals—totally immersed in that culture.

The first thing we did was go to a small town called Kempten with Sandra and Linda for a festival that the city had not had in two years of Covid. They were ready for it! The Allgäuer Festival (their fall festival) starts with an hour-long parade of the area’s music clubs and shooting clubs, alternating. We watched it from a café where some of us had beer, others had ice cream. Then we followed the last of the parade to the huge festival tent and beer garden and carnival (kind of a mini Oktoberfest) where we guessed there were only about two tourists present:  Rick and me.

Another day, we took the train with Linda to Munich where she attended to some business and Rick and I walked around the city (that felt sort of like home) looking for the four remaining ancient city gates. We found them. We climbed the 299-foot tower of Saint Peter’s—Munich’s oldest church and some say the originating point of the city—for a grand view. We also ate Turkish food for lunch (the city has a large Turkish community). We ordered all wrong, but they were gracious and took great care of us. Our server even brought us cups of tea at the end of our meal—a traditional sign of friendship. We ended our great day with both Sandra and Linda and a sushi-and-beer picnic on the grounds of the Nymphenburg Palace before taking the regional train back to Schwabmünchen.

The next day, we went on an epic hike in the Alps near Oberammergau where the hills echoed with the sounds of cow bells, and I felt the spirit of my Opa with almost every step. (It kept my mind off how hard this hike was.) This hike was 10 miles long and it took us seven full hours. We hiked through alpine meadows with happy cows (and one anxious cow that chased us). We climbed up hills with tree roots for footholds and up even higher hills each crowned with a huge cross. Three hours into the hike, we stopped at a hut (a restaurant) for beer to go with the picnic we had been carrying in our backpacks. All around us were stunning views of the snow-capped Alps. It was just incredibly beautiful, and I felt such a huge sense of accomplishment at the end. Oh, and we saw a golden eagle.

The next day was a rest day (of sorts) when we drove to Lindau to see Bodensee (Lake Constance). The largest lake in Germany is bordered by Austria and Switzerland and is a popular place for Germans to go on holiday. We walked around the lovely harbor entrance with its famous Bavarian Lion sculpture and lighthouse (which we climbed since clearly, we had not done enough climbing). We visited the Church of St. Stephan, which dates to 1180 (with remodeling in 1782) and the Church of St. Peter (founded about 1000).

Another day we went to Dießen am Ammersee, which is also a popular place for vacations. The first historical mention of the village “Diezen” dates from 1039; the name means waterfall. It was incredibly picturesque with sailboats on the lake, cozy fish restaurants and one of the most beautiful churches we saw during the entire visit— the Baroque-style Marienmünster Church.

Throughout our trip, we enjoyed Maria’s delicious home cooking—her traditional and beautiful sweets, her homemade spätzle (unique to her region of the country; the distinction dates to the Middle Ages when Swabia was its own duchy). We had pretzels from the local bakery and cheese and liverwurst for breakfast. Norbert shared various local beers, all served in the appropriate glasses. That matters. He opened wines he had collected on their summer trips to Italy and Spain. We toasted our friendship by looking intentionally into each other’s eyes. That matters, too.

Our last night with them, we went for dinner in a little town about 20 minutes away. The restaurant was in a 200-year-old barn and the servers all wore dirndls. Maria wore her dirndl. I should have brought mine. On the small menu: sauerkraut in pastry. It sounded so odd, I had to have it. It was amazing. And best of all, it was hyperlocal. Maria told me, “I’m so glad you ordered that. You can only get it in this town and the next one over. Nowhere else. Not even in our town. It is unique to here.”

It was a fitting end to a singular visit—a once-in-a-lifetime visit lovingly curated by a dear long-distance friend.

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