Thanks for tuning in to Part II of my European vacation remembrance. If you missed “Portajohn Goes to Europe Part I, The Warm Up” find it here!
I’ve been to Germany twice now – the first time in the summer of 2010 to a super small alpine village to attend our friends wedding, and now the beginning half of this trip. If you couldn’t tell from Part I of this journey – I’m smitten with the country, particularly with Bavaria. It’s pretty easy to see why – the country is clean, the people are remarkably well dressed, the richness of culture, the pride of their heritage, beautiful scenery that never ends. Sure, the reality might be a little different if I were to live there – but if the opportunity arose I think I would jump on it! Let’s explore a few reasons why…
1) Biergartens and Picnic Culture
The US is doing it wrong. Coffeehouses, yeah great you go there, they are social hubs, you get work done – whatever. BIERGARTENS! Are they social – yes they are community meeting places! Can you get work done – yes if you want to. Are they cramped and small and every outlet is taken – No! Is the clientele determined to be isolated from the world in their electronic devices – no!
The biergartens in Munich were simply amazing. Nestled into some serene and beautiful nature, you can get a whole meal, plenty of beer, a picnic table to chat with your friends while your kid plays on the playground. Spend an afternoon, stop in for lunch or dinner – anything you want. After our camping trip ended we decided to head to the beirgarten for some relaxation and to eat dinner – and everyone had a great time. The toddler of the group made quick friends and ran around on the playground while the adults sipped some lagers and snacked on pretzels and various meat products. The biergartens in DC try to be authentic, and maybe some German locations are similar – but in the end they are just bars. I felt like the biergartens in Germany were much more social, relaxed and fun.
But wait, you are a DIY kind of person and don’t want restaurant food? No worries, in Munich the Isar river runs through town, and it is an incredibly popular picnic spot. Set up a grill on the rocky banks, set your beer in the river to stay cool, maybe wade in from time to time, or gaze at the nude sunbathers – can you imagine the National Park Service allowing beers and grilling on the national mall?
2) Bike and pedestrian friendliness
Getting around Munich isn’t hard without a car – busses, trams, U-bahn, S-bahn, and of course walking and biking. Now, perhaps my perspective is skewed because with the exception of two U-bahn trips, we walked and biked everywhere and only in a small portion of the city. That being said, the scale of the roads was in perfect harmony with the traffic volume and character of the neighborhoods. We did not encounter any stroads that I can recall. The drivers seemed to drive at a very reasonable speed, and gave plenty of respect to cyclists – of which there were many.
The cyclists in Munich were very much unlike those in DC – first of all the bikes are simple, utilitarian, upright, urban machines or mountain bikes. I think we only saw a few road bikes – and they were all old steel ten-speeds. No carbon fiber madness, in fact very few cyclists seemed to be out there for exercise alone – most were using the bike as a means of travel. It is too easy to draw conclusions, but I wonder if the fact that the bicycle is used not as a “toy” for “sport and recreation”, but as a mode of transportation is what engenders that extra level of respect that we experienced. While in Munich we rented bikes from a system run my the transit agency called “Call-a-Bike” (yes, in english). This is a “dockless” bikeshare system, where you can reserve a bike from your computer or mobile phone (and you can pick the one closest to you as hey have a live updating map), and are given a four digit code. Walk to the bike, key in a code and you can unlock it – from whereever it is. Bike for however long you want, and key in the code to either return it to the system, or to indicate you are temporarily leaving it but will be back shortly. Much like Capital Bikeshare, the first 30 minutes are free, and a day-long rental is only 9 euro per bike. It’s a great system, the bikes come equipped with 8 speeds, lights that run off a bottle generator, and dual suspension to absorb urban potholes and curb hops. I highly recommend for any visitor to the city
The streets, beside from being a right size were not the only surface that cyclists used. Many of the wider sidewalks we traveled on (yes sidewalks) had dedicated space for pedestrians and for cyclists – and again the spaces and their occupants were respected. Low steel tubes offered plenty of space to lock up.
As a whole, as an foreigner who speaks only a dozen words of German, the city was so relaxing to get around thanks to the excellent transportation system.
3) Old Stuff
Guys, old stuff is neat – whether run down and abandoned, well kept and sparkling, or somewhere inbetween – when you see some really old stuff (and basically all of europe is old compared to the US) your mind can’t help but wander. Who has been in this spot before me? What was the general mood of the public at that time? Can you imagine living here in ______ (insert year or era)? It keeps an active imagination running at full speed to process these types of thoughts, and I love it. In Germany you can’t help but think about the thousand pound gorilla in the room – the Third Reich and World War II. During my first trip to Germany (in the small village) we went into a couple of town halls for the wedding celebrations, and on the wall were pictures of the men who died fighting in both world wars. They weren’t glorifying the causes that were fought for, they were simply honoring their dead relatives – just like we see in the states. However I was first struck with an anger, that faded into confusion, and finally a general unease. It was simply surreal. We experienced many similar feelings later in the trip in France, though these surrounded the evolving role of the Catholic church in society. We left feeling like we had a deeper understanding of the day-to-day life of regular people, and their needs (that the church existed to serve) – as well as an unease at the grandiose nature of these places of worship.
Anyways – the old stuff certainly got you thinking, which helps take you from regular tourist to active explorer.
4) Wiesn (Oktoberfest)
The culture, the fun, the beer! What more can be said about Oktoberfest? Imagine the biggest state fair you can, plus a little Tour de Fat style events, and the biggest beer halls you can imagine – and plenty of dirndls and lederhosen. I can’t even express how amazing and fun this festival is, maybe the pictures will do it some justice – but it is better to see in person to experience.