The River of life, The Ruhr
The Ruhr is actually an idyllic little river, at least at its source. The best place to experience it is in Mülheim an der Ruhr. On the edges, the grass rustles and cormorants rest, and in the narrow course of the river, excursion ferries ply on dozy afternoons. The villas of the Ruhr barons are scattered along the slopes, including the old Thyssen fortress.
Just a short walk from the river valley, you can visit an open-air museum, the Camera Obscura, and explore the history of this soot-smeared corner of the world. There is the urban center, built thanks to the now defunct coal and steel industry. At the main station there is typical 70s model city chic, with an intricate shopping center complete with residential towers. The pedestrian zone is genuinely charming with a pawn shop and bakery. This city has not yet found its role in post-industrial society, despite its superb location.
- Getting there: From Berlin-Hbf 7:39, 6 changes, among others via Hannover, Wolfsburg, Minden.
- Staying there: Gartenhotel Luisental, Trooststr. 2, 45468 Mülheim an der Ruhr. Single room from €80, double room from €100. Tel.: 0208/99 21 40, gartenhotel-luisental.com. A convenient starting point for trips, for example to venues of the Ruhrtriennale (Aug. 11-Sept. 18) or to sights such as Zeche Zollverein in Essen.
Art-lovers dream in Kassel: the Documenta festival
From June 18 to September 25, Documenta will once again transform the former residential city of Kassel into the artistic epicenter of Europe. Every five years, several exhibitions cover the entire city area – for the most part housed in historic buildings such as the Fridericianum, one of the oldest public museums in the world, but also in otherwise culturally remote locations such as the Hotel Hessenland. Although it is not currently possible to spend the night there anymore, you should still stay in the city for a long weekend. Kassel has much more to offer besides the Documenta: Two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, the largest of its kind in Europe, and the fairytale world of former residents Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who left their mark all over the city.
- Getting there: From Berlin main station: 5:59 hours, 3 changes, via Magdeburg, Sangerhausen and Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe.
- Staying there: Biohotel Kassel, Heinrich-Schütz-Allee 24, 34131 Kassel, single from €81, double from €110 per night, 0561/93890, biohotel-kassel.de
The lakes of Ratzeburg
Let’s hope those dams are up to code! Ratzeburg’s history dates back some 950 years and features an incredibly cute old-town. This picturesque town in Schleswig-Holstein is surrounded by four lakes and is therefore very popular with water sports enthusiasts. It was also here that the renowned Ratzeburg Rowing Academy was founded in 1966. Henry the Lion – a Saxon duke with a Guelph background who was notably keen on conquest (1129-1195) – laid the foundation stone of the Ratzeburg Cathedral, which towers over the episcopal town. The brick buildings that rise out of the water are particularly instagrammable (especially when seen from a paddle boat).
A city tour “In the footsteps of the lion” shows the way to 35 landmarks with pink lion paw prints , from the Old Town Hall to the curious limestone figure “The contented citizen”. Especially in summer, the little island town is easily worth a day trip. With its alleys, the spa park with swan pond, the bathing area at the Schlosswiese, the various ice cream parlours and several restaurants (our tip, the Fischerstube with lake view!) and nature-rich biking and hiking trails, maybe even a few days.
- Getting there: From Berlin main station 4:04 hours, 2 changes, via Schwerin and Büchen.
- Staying there: Ratzeburg Youth Hostel, built in 2012, with a view of Lake Ratzeburg, Reeperbahn 6-14, 23909 Ratzeburg, bed and breakfast from €31.50 (shared room), also 1- to 4-bed dorms, Tel: 04541/840 95 04, [email protected]
Rügen, Germany’s largest island, is more than just chalk cliffs. It’s much too crowded anyway, and the rock face is crumbling. The Königstuhl, the most famous part of the chalk formations, is closed for construction work from July on. Many are expected to visit before it closes, so there is even an extra “closing program”. If you explore the other corners of Rügen, you will definitely find some peace and quiet away from the crowds. To the west of Cape Arkona, the windswept Nordstrand leads west for hours and later south to Dranske, where kite surfers speed across the Wieker Bodden, along the old military site on Bug, a closed headland that is currently a nature park, soon perhaps (unfortunately) a luxury resort. The view across the water to Hiddensee compensates for the fence.
- Getting there: From Berlin-Hbf 15:56, 1 change, among others via Stralsund
- Staying there: youth hostels Rügen, from €9.60 per night, gruppenhaus.de
- Camping: camping-auf-ruegen.de (with vacation bungalows), guesthouses, hotel, vacation apartments: ruegen.de. Attention: Rügen is booked out quickly in the high season
Hiking up northern Germany’s highest peak: The Brocken
If you prefer an A to B hike instead of a loop, the €9 ticket is a godsend. You can walk from one station to the next, no need to backtrack for your car. The most beautiful ascent to the highest mountain in the Harz range is not in our opinion from Wernigerode, but from Ilsenburg through the wild and romantic Ilsental. It’s tradition to kiss or at least touch the summit stone once you get there. What you should avoid: the wretched restaurant in the defiant TV tower built in 1936. Walking time is a good six hours. Make sure your boots are already worn in!
- Getting there: From Berlin-Hbf 3:18 h, 2 changes, Magdeburg and Halberstadt, on the way back, rom Torfhaus, 16:35, 4 changes, in Bad Harzburg, Vienenburg, Halberstadt and Magdeburg. It’s best to start early, 6:11 at Berlin Hbf to be precise.
Where three lands meet: Zittau
Zittau is probably the most exotic destination you can reach from Berlin with a 9-euro ticket and only one change of train. The small Saxon town itself is cute but the star of the show is what surrounds it. Notably, it’s just outside Zittau where three countries meet: Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. Such places always have something magical and yet The Neisse River -at this point more of a stream- separates a large meadow on which three national flags are flying. No matter which direction you look, you will see the same wonderful mountain landscape of lush greenery, craggy rocks and neat houses.
It’s only a little further to the Czech Republic with its peaks up to 1000 meters high, rustic inns and delicious beers. The obscure tip of Poland is also worth seeing, but in its own way. The Turow open pit mine is over 200 meters deep, one of the largest in Europe. Coal is still to be mined until 2040 – but the EU has actually banned this and fined Poland 500,000 euros. Don’t worry, that’s not the total amount, it’s what they are charged daily. Zittau once had an open pit mine. However, it has been flooded since reunification and is now called Olbersdorfer See. A wonderful leisure and recreation area, a beautiful lake for swimming with a mountain panorama.
- Getting there: From Berlin-Ostkreuz to Zittau, 3:09 h, 1 change via Cottbus
- Staying there: Caravan & Camping Christina Lake, Hrádek nad Nisou 709, 463 34 Hrádek nad Nisou, Czech Republic, kemp-kristyna.cz
Tom Hanks has visited “Iron Hut City” several times and raved about it on U.S. talk shows. Eisenhüttenstadt is a wondrous blend of the organically grown medieval town of Fürstenberg and the Stalinstadt, as it was then called, which sprang up in the 1950s. Considered to be Germany’s first socialist planned city – a showcase project of the DDR, it was built for the workers of the Eisenhüttenkombinat Ost.
Eisenhüttenstadt turned 70 last year, and even though the once booming model city has its best days behind it, it remains a work of art. A walk through one of the largest landmarks in the republic reveals the architectural and urban planning ideals of German socialism, which explicitly included art in construction. A detour to the “Museum of Utopia – Everyday Culture and Art from the DDR” and a snack at the restaurant “Aktivist” is also a must.
- Getting there: From Berlin-Hbf 13:30, no changes necessary with the RE1 – day trip possible.
Hessen in „Frau-Holle-Land“
The Hessian Mountains are achievable to all who want to summit a peak without being a hardened hiking professional. The routes in the region between Bad Sooden-Allendorf, Berkatal, Waldkappel and Hessisch Lichtenau – all close to the border with Thuringia – are well signposted and quite easy to hike. The Hoher Meißner, the region’s most prominent range, was the site of the first “Freideutsche Jugendtag” (Free German Youth Day) in 1913, a kind of anti-Wilhelminian Woodstock where the over-drilled teens of the Empire made a statement against militarism.
But the Hohe Meißner is also the scene of some German mythology: according to legends, the Frau Holle pond here is infinitely deep and forms the entrance to the “Otherworld”. The Brothers Grimm apparently took one look and declared the story plausible. No wonder, the entire nature park “Frau Holle Land” is enchanting.
For those who didn’t grow up German, or didn’t read the original Grimm fairy tales, Frau Holle dwells at the bottom of a well, rides a wagon, and first taught the craft of making linen from flax. Holle is the goddess to whom children who died as infants go, and alternatively known as both the Dunkle Großmutter (Dark Grandmother) and the Weisse Frau (White Lady).
But Frau Holle was not always just the nice little grandmother who makes it snow. According to a Hessian folk tale, she sometimes turned nasty girls into cats and then locked them up in the “Kitzkammer” – a rock face made of basalt columns, today a natural monument. If you are ever in the area, you should visit (with a guided tour!) the Kripp- und Hielöcher, a bizarre limestone landscape that is a protected nature reserve. In 1958, a herd of cows fell into the cow hole, which apparently didn’t have a name beforehand -supposedly every child in the area knows the story. A region of wonders and pitfalls – and easy to reach from Berlin with the 9-euro ticket.
- Getting there: From Berlin-Hbf 5:29 hours, 3 changes, via Magdeburg, Sangerhausen and Eichenberg.
- Staying there: Pelikans Krone, Kirchstr. 76, 37242 Bad Sooden-Allendorf, rooms from €79.90, 05652/2057, pelikans.de
Filmed on location: the Elbe Sandstone Mountains
Some consider the Elbe Sandstone Mountains to be the most beautiful region in Germany, or even Central Europe. The landscape extends all the way from the Czech Republic to Bohemian Switzerland. And from Dresden (which is always worth a visit), you can even get there by S-Bahn! The S1 runs every half hour along the Elbe via Pirna, Wehlen, Königstein and Bad Schandau through the picturesque Elbe Sandstone Mountains to Schöna, past tranquil villages and spectacular rock formations. You can get off anywhere: in Pirna, for example, you can explore the historic town center, and from Wehlen you can start a hike up to the Bastei Bridge, a 76.5-meter-long stone bridge that connects a mighty sandstone formation.
In Königstein, climb up to the fortress of the same name, one of the largest mountain fortresses in Europe. It was once Saxony’s state prison. In the 19th century, celebrities such as the SPD icon August Bebel and the author Frank Wedekind were imprisoned here. Today’s celebrities like Quentin Tarantino are drawn to the impressive natural backdrop of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains based only on their beauty; Some scenes from “Inglourious Basterds” and “Cloud Atlas” were filmed here.
From Bad Schandau, the idyllic spa town in the heart of Saxon Switzerland, you can set out on various hikes or change to the old Kirnitzschtalbahn train, which winds eight kilometers through the Kirnitzschtal valley that gives it its name. None other than Hollywood star Kate Winslet once checked tickets here – in the movie “The Reader”. You’ve no reason to fear the conductor here: The 9-euro ticket is valid on the cable car. The same applies to the U28 National Park Railway, which connects the Czech towns of Děčín and Rumburk via Bad Schandau – and thus the Saxon and Bohemian Switzerland National Parks. All the way to the Czech Republic for €9! You better believe it.
- Getting there: From Berlin main station: 16:27, 4 changes, via Elsterwerda, Riesa, Dresden, Pirna.
- Staying there: Pension Bergfriede, Schmilka 63, 01814 Bad Schandau OT Schmilka, directly on the Elbe, approx. €65 in a double room with breakfast, Tel: 035022/92 60 36