Germany Travel Notes — September 2012

Wanted to fly the new Airbus 380. It is a big plane all right. Upstairs is all business class and first class. Downstairs the economy class is very large — Touring the airplane, Elizabeth started walking down the aisles and then stopped saying, “I get the idea.” It is quieter on this plane which means your kids seem louder. Flying time to Frankfurt was 6:15 and it didn’t help that the A380 flight leaves at 4pm; they didn’t fall asleep for a few hours into the flight. You must order kiddie meals on Lufthansa in advance, and if your kids aren’t ticketed as “kids” they can’t order kiddie meals. It’s insane; no matter how many times we asked for kiddie meals they told us we couldn’t order them because our kids were ticketed with regular adult tickets so that means that for both flights across the pond the kids ate bread and fruit. If you buy far in advance (ie: January for August travel), you can get business class tickets at pretty close to coach fares. Just before landing, the flight attendant insisted that we wake Jeremy up so that he could sit upright in his own seat with his seat belt fastened. I warned her that this would not be a good idea. She woke him up and he bawled all over the place and refused to sit upright. So about 2 minutes before landing she says to me “Now I am going to be rude.” And this German flight female attendant starts screaming at him and telling him in a thick German accent (as if he cared) that they wouldn’t land the plane until he sat correctly, that 500 people would be inconvenienced and that it would cost the airline thousands of dollars to have to be circling the airport. And thus was Jeremy’s first arrival in Germany. If you recall, in Israel the previous April we had to carry him through passport control on arrival and departure screaming his head off. He redeemed himself by figuring out how to get the second stroller out of the airport when we were all hands full and he insisted on sitting in the first stroller — he pushed the second stroller while sitting in the first one. He may be impossible but he is clever.

We used a taxi service booked through the internet to transfer to our hotel in Baden Baden, about 80 minutes drive away at about 250 Euro. The transfer cost about half of what the hotel was going to charge us, and about the same as it would have been had we taken the train. Train schedules are not so convenient and trains in Germany are expensive (planes can be cheaper) and take a while — the country is larger than it appears.

BADEN BADEN — Baden Baden is a spa resort town 100 miles south of Frankfurt and a very good base from which to tour the Black Forest region. We spent 4 nights here and some of Karen’s cousins came to spend the weekend with us. The town has been famous for over a century for its baths and over the past decade the Russians have become free-spending tourists and holiday home buyers. Our hotel (Brenners) said their biggest tourist segment after Germans is Russians and Arabs; American tourists are about 10% of their total. Brenners is the best in town and it is about 5-7 minutes walk from the center of town, but it is overlooking its own park and it feels like a resort. People come for the spa, there are not really a lot of kids there but the hotel welcomes them. There is a kids club we didn’t use and they have splash hour in the indoor pool from 4-5pm. They were very nice to us and did not nickel and dime us; the morning we showed up at 7am to check in they gave us breakfast for free and gave us our rooms. The kids liked the eggs and the German style pancakes (think thin matzah meal-like pancakes).  Two connecting rooms works well here; one of the rooms had inadequate air conditioning even with an additional portable unit and that’s only a problem during the summer, but otherwise the hotel was great in all respects. The junior suites and suites are lovely and it doesn’t matter which floor you are on as the park has so many trees.

I really liked Baden Baden. Everywhere you look there are fountains and parks and it is a really beautiful town. It is not too small or large and everything is very clean and anything you try to find there is within a small area. Menus tend to be in German only. Café Konig in town has great patisserie. We never ate any meals in town; the hotel restaurants such as the Winter Garden or Brenner’s Park were all excellent. (Rive Gauche was decent but not great.) A tram ride around the town takes an hour and is a good orientation especially on the first day when everyone is jet lagged but the tour is in German. The Faberge Museum turned out to be rather interesting even to the two kids. The Kur House is the casino in town and in front of it is a very pretty garden and they often have free entertainment going on ranging from all types of bands to 70 year old lady choruses singing Elvis songs. There are little playgrounds strewn around town. At 50 Euro an hour we took a taxi to tour the Black Forest area (better to arrange this yourself in town than via the hotel which wanted 80 Euro an hour). Mehlskopf is about 25 minutes drive and has alpine slide (with covers for when it rains, but beware the track gets slippery) and also a zip line, trampoline and a ropes course. Mummelsee is another 20 minutes down the road with a pretty lake and a store that sells Black Forest Cake of international fame, and then another half hour further away is Dornstetten’s Barefoot Forest, which turns out to be really cool and like nothing I’ve ever seen. They have these walking paths in the meadow lined with kids activities such as trampolines and climbing areas, and then you can walk in the forest barefoot. But it was raining the day we were there and it would have been a huge mess to go barefoot (bring towels). And call to arrange a guide in advance of your visit and make the call on a weekday. It takes about an hour to do the 2.5 km walk. Strollers won’t work here so make sure your kids are up to it. It’s just gorgeous landscape here. We ended the day climbing the Old Castle (Schloss) at the edge of the city and taking in the view. The point here is that you can find some interesting things to do with kids but you have to do some research and planning — the hotel concierges are not exactly up to speed in terms of what to do with kids.  Our last night there we walked around town and saw some of the memorials to Jewish remnants of that city that are placed in prominent locations in the town.  We got out of town just as the annual horse racing championship crowd was invading.

BERLIN — We flew to Berlin via Frankfurt but didn’t know that there was a local airport near Baden Baden with nonstop flights to Berlin. Anyway, we had friends to see in Frankfurt and this was our only chance to see them. Air Berlin is a rather new airline with a substantial investment stake by Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airline, and it is a very nice carrier which we flew to Berlin. As soon as we arrived, we went to a location about 5 minutes from convenient Tegel Airport (which is still open since the new airport is delayed, much to everyone’s complete satisfaction).  That location is where Karen’s grandparents used to live. In Berlin we stayed at the Adlon Kempinski, which is a flagship of the Kempinski chain of hotels. The Adlon has a lot of history behind it (there is an in-room video that goes on for over an hour) and a very central location overlooking the Brandenberg Gate, which is at the border of East and West Berlin. The irony here is that the Germans reunified the city and thoroughly rebuilt the eastern part of the city — and lost interest in the western part which is really decaying.  It is a beautiful hotel but yet for the first two nights of our 4 night stay the air conditioning wasn’t working in our bedroom and we wound up sleeping on cots in the living room with the kids. After hemming and hawing with us the first two days while they tried to fix it, they moved us into a suite overlooking the Brandenburg Gate for the last two days and we both have to admit that made up for it as we sat by the windows watching the goings on in the plaza in front of the gate by day and night. (Only problem with the suite was there was no place to put pants and shirts that you couldn’t hang on a hanger so we never unpacked). The Berlin Suite has no real view but it is a large room with lots of storage and it is a good room for a family — if you have an Amex Platinum card you can book an Adlon Executive Suite and get upgraded to the Berlin Suite, making it all around a good deal. The hotel had all the facilities you’d expect although the gym was pretty lame.

The rear entrance of the hotel fronts the city’s Holocaust memorial which is a huge expanse of tall concrete slabs meant to look like an endless cemetery. Hold onto to your kids here because it is a terrible place to have to look for anyone. Potsdamer Platz is very new with lots of interesting looking buildings and is about 10 minutes walk from the hotel (the Ritz Carlton is at that location), and the Tier Garden is a lovely city park near the hotel on a boulevard leading up to the Brandenberg Gate (but no real playgrounds). Sony Plaza is in the Potsdamer Platz and offers Lego Land which was fun. It is more than just a place to play with Legos; there are rides and jumping spaces too. We bought a combo ticket with “Sea Life” Aquarium so that you paid for one attraction and got the second one virtually free. There is a balloon that goes up in the air overlooking central Berlin near Checkpoint Charlie and that was a fun activity. Walking toward the Hilton from Checkpoint Charlie at Friedrichstrasse 186 you come across an outlet of  “Kamps” which is a chain of sandwich shops with very good things to eat, and the warm poppyseed cake just out of the oven was super yummy. Across the street from the Hilton is Fassbender & Rausch, a famous chocolate shop with a café upstairs and a downstairs showroom including chocolate models of Berlin attractions. A taxi ride away is the New Synagogue which is more impressive from outside than indoors (not worth going inside really because there is no more synagogue inside), and then to Adventure Playground Kolle 37 which is a really innovative concept in child play. Here 5 year old kids get adult-size tools such as saws and hammers and get to build things in a playground supervised by rather young teenagers. Parents are not allowed in the playground and have to sit in teepees or other areas of the park. If you don’t think your kids really ought to be doing this at the ages of 5 and 6 and in the drizzling rain no less, there is a play area nearby with trampoline, big sandpit and other stuff. Close to this area is the old Jewish Quarter and there is a super duper Italian restaurant called Al Contandino Sotto le Stellea at Auguststrasse 36 — the eggplant caponetta is deadly and the pasta is home made. On that street a few blocks down is the old Jewish school house which today houses art galleries and a Jewish-style deli which is not kosher. There is a gourmet kosher restaurant called the Kosher Classroom that operates there certain days of the week and you are best to call ahead.

The next day’s sightseeing included a visit to the Reichstag (parliament) which has a dome that kids love because they can run up the ramp around and around the dome till they get to the top, and then run down the ramp. Big glass windows look out over the city and inside the dome. It is very cool. There is a terrace outside where you can look around. You have to order these tickets in advance or else expect to wait several hours to get in. And bring your passports. The Alexa Shopping Mall in Alexander Platz (square) has a food court with a Nordsee fish restaurant (Elizabeth remembered it from Austria the previous year), and they have this really great attraction on the 3rd floor of the shopping mall called Luxx which is a miniature world with trains and a working airport depicting all aspects of Berlin. The kids loved it and kept wanting to return. In addition, there is a chocolate machine dispenser amid the model trains which was a big hit. It is a really impressive attraction. Then we went to the finance ministry which karen often visits as part of her work. Inside, we took a tour and left after a few minutes to take an unauthorized ride on the padanostas — these kind of perpetual motion elevators that go up, across, down, across and then up again that are hidden in the bowels of this building. You have to jump on and off at just the right time. There are only about 5 of these elevators in all of Germany and none of them in the US, because no insurance company would ever insure them. American paratroopers touring this building at the close of World War II were said to be petrified of these elevators. Jeremy of course loved them, and Elizabeth liked them after some initial hesitation. You need to know that Herman Goering built this huge building that spans an entire city block in a feat of engineering marvel — they had huge teams of people building this headquarters for his air force in about 18 months. There is no doubt that Herr Goering must have been rolling in his grave at the prospect of these little Jewish kids somewhat noisily running down the halls of this government building jumping on and off the padanostas 70 years later. And to top it off they gave our kids bags of gummy bears at the finance ministry in the shape of the German state seal.

The next day we visited Sea Life Center which is a sea life exhibit culminating in an elevator ride inside a huge aquarium that goes up the inside of a hotel lobby atrium (Radisson Blue hotel). This was pretty cool and enough to impress even the jaded aquarium visitors among us. About a block away is the Museum of the DDR (the former East Germany) and I quite enjoyed the exhibit and the kids managed also to be entertained. On that block is an outlet of the famous wooden toy store chain from Italy which now seems to have expanded into Germany. That evening Karen and I went to Café Einstein in the western part of the city – it is one of the old school coffee houses and the pastries there are excellent. There is one in the Eastern part but it is modern and lacks the charm of the old. We also went to celebrate the 90th birthday of Karen’s great aunt.

ELMAU / Bavaria — The next day we flew to Munich which says a lot because Lufthansa went on strike in Frankfurt and thankfully did not strike in Munich. But it was a real pain in the ass because I had to go out and buy 2,000 Euro worth of refundable tickets on another airline to cover ourselves because it was a Friday and we were not about to be stuck on an 8 hour train ride to where we had to be for the weekend. And it was a rainy day too. An hour flight and then a 2 hour drive from Munich to Klais, Germany where Schloss Elmau is. No, it’s not Elmo’s Castle mis-spelled. This is something like Grossingers Resort for Germans. By that I mean this Jewish place where my parents honeymooned in the Catskills Mountains of New York in the 1960’s — you pay your fare, and you get all your food, entertainment, activities all day long and it’s just a lot of fun. Except this is on a much higher level. The hotel was gorgeous in the German Alps with lovely views of mountains and valleys; the kids loved the kids club and they had different activities for 5 year olds rather than 6 year olds. Elizabeth loved the evening activities — dance parties don’t require German and many of the kids there are said to speak English, at least during peak tourist periods. We saw few English speaking people there and most of the literature distributed in the hotel is only in German. They had 2 great playgrounds. At night they had classical music concerts and a jazz pianist in the bar. There was the Cake of the Day every afternoon. There was a Children’s spa complete with several different steam rooms with colored lights and treatments for kids, and the adult spa was just amazing with various ornate rooms such as the Oriental Hamam. Jeremy broke a toenail and they fixed him right up with no charge. There were several restaurants and a daily buffet for adults and kids, and they rotate the restaurants so that you always have some choices but not the same ones all the time, and all of them are really nice and the food is excellent. So often you read about these hotels advertising organic fruit and vegetables but you never see it on the plate — here it is all out there in front of you to take as much as you want and it is all excellent. The menu is very innovative and the staff are easy to work with if you need accommodation. The hotel arranged for a photographer to take family pictures.

We visited some local attractions such as the Zugspitze, a 10,000 foot high mountain reached by an insane cable car ride. This is about 30 minutes drive from the hotel and requires 90 minutes to visit; I never saw so many Arabs at an attraction in a western country. The nearby town of Garmisch has a lot of Arab tourists because a Saudi Sheikh has a hotel there, and the Sultan of Oman has a compound there with a large entourage. The US Army has a recreation facility in that town as well for veterans. This attraction is on the way to Neuschwanstein, a castle in German Bavaria near the Austrian bordertown of Fessel which was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella’s castles which frame his theme parks. That attraction is an additional 45 minutes drive on a road that crosses in and out of Austria and requires 4 hours to visit. You need to arrive about an hour before your scheduled 30 minute tour (you need timed tickets here best arranged in advance) because you have to either walk a mile uphill to the castle or get on a horse and buggy and there is still a lot of walking to do, a good amount of it uphill and with stairs. You can either walk about half an hour from the castle to a bridge overlooking the castle for a great view (you can’t really see the castle well up close) or you can go back down to the village and then take a bus ride to that bridge. The line looks long but it moved fast for us at least. There is a second castle nearby which is not important to see, we are told. There is another castle about 45 minutes away which we didn’t see because we had done as much as we could in a day with the kids. It would be a stretch to see the Zugspitze and Neuschswanstein in a day but you could manage both with an early start and a lot of energy. The scenery on the drive was just gorgeous and it is part of what is known as the Romantic Road. We weren’t so lucky with the weather — it was the first week of September and for 4 of the 5 days we were there it was cloudy or rainy and cold. But it was a pleasant cold — I’d come out of the gym at 8am in my shorts and T-shirt and walk outside and it would be 45 degrees but I’d be standing out in the field smelling all the lavender bushes and seeing all the mountains with snow up top, and it was just beautiful. This place has a lot going for it — so far not so many Americans around to ruin it, and we’d come back. We’re told it is a lot of fun for Christmas-New Years, ski season and Mardi Gras. I don’t know if that’s for us, but we were a bit chilled out for this late summer visit except that a week before it was close to 100 degrees out there and there is no air conditioning in the hotel. So you just have to be lucky.

As we left Germany, the Lufthansa strike was picking up steam and spread to Munich a few hours after we left. Hopefully, the Germans can get their act together and at least manage to have an airline that doesn’t go on strike and disrupt a whole country. Our 8 hour flight back to NY was fine.

So now over these past 3 summers we have visited German-speaking Europe. One year was Switzerland, one year was Austria and this year Germany. We vote Schloss Elmau as best family resort in the region, with Parc Royal in Evian coming in second.  Also a nice resort with a cool kids camp but not nearly as much activities as Elmau and the kids are more likely to find other kids who also speak English rather than all French. Brenners was also nice but not a whole lot to do with kids there; it is better for adults to spend a weekend there after a week of business in Frankfurt, for example.

Before I close, I need to spend a minute talking about the Jewish aspect of this trip to Germany. Our kids are too young to know anything about Germany’s history, but a kid like Jeremy would have been shot on sight at least 100 times had we been there in a previous generation. Karen’s cousin is 22 years old, looking to find his place in that country, and being Jewish is terribly inconvenient. There are very few Jews in the country of real German stock (lots of Israeli and Russian immigrants) and everywhere you go you see these constant reminders of the country’s Nazi history. At a metro station in West Berlin across from the KDV department store (good toy department; not much in children’s clothes) there is a sign listing all these concentration camps and I had thought the sign was there because perhaps in earlier times that train station was a deportation point. But no, I’m told the sign just says that people went to all these places and that we have to remember this. As you drive from Munich airport, you pass a few exits for a town called “Dachau” which was the site of a prominent concentration camp. In Baden Baden you come across a parking lot a block from the main shopping street or a square right in front of city hall with signs about how these were sites of Jewish importance that were destroyed and the town’s Jews murdered and deported. In the Reichstag right at the entrance there is a plaque about the person who did the lettering that adorns the building “For the People of Germany” and it says that his Jewish family was deported and killed in a concentration camp. And the Café Einstein in Berlin which was the house of a Jewish doctor that became a Nazi casino. And that finance ministry building in Berlin which also used to be owned by a Jew and we’re a bit curious to know if the guy was ever compensated for the square block of prime real estate they took from him to build Goerring’s headquarters. Jews might have never numbered all that much in Berlin, about 160,000 before Hitler came into power, but their influence in the upper tiers of society was great and they owned a ton of real estate in the most prime locations such as the area straddling east and west Berlin. Almost anything you come across in that country that is important has a Jewish connection. I would find it intolerable to have to live in that country under that shadow. To be a Jewish tourist there requires you to put on some blinders and just enjoy the moment and ignore all perspective. Triply so when you consider that my wife Karen is an executive with an organization that deals with Holocaust restitution and a lot of her family were killed by the Nazis. That said, there is no doubt as you look around the country that knocking off the Jews might have redistributed wealth for the Nazi regime and some lucky Germans, but ultimately left Germany a lot less successful as a country than they would otherwise have become, because everywhere you look you see that what was working was destroyed simply because of who built or owned it. But if you can get past all that and just play tourist or be a 5 year old kid who doesn’t know any better, I can say that today you can have a very nice time as a visitor there. We had a good time and we would definitely return.

Guide to Photos which follow: Family at Castle at Baden Baden, Kids in front of Brenners Resort in Baden Baden, At Trabant World in Berlin, Riding the Padanosta Elevators at the Ministry of Finance in Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie Berlin, Brandenburg Gate Berlin, Cafe Einstein Berlin, Jeremy at a Coffee Bar in Berlin, At Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, At the Zugspitze Summit, Nueschwenstein Castle, Jeremy Ready to Spa, Neuschwenstein Castle, Schloss Elmau.


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