Alright, finally Germany. Let’s see if I can do this without mentioning the war. Deep breath, aaand…
Riding out of the Netherlands and into Germany was like rubbing my eyes and seeing clearly again – suddenly the road signs seemed to make so much more sense. Back in high school I learned German, you see – I was rubbish at it then and 8 years of not practicing it hasn’t improved it much, but I still know far more German than I do French or Dutch. As such I was looking forward to no longer having to apologetically ask if someone spoke English…. instead annoying them with my broken, grammatically corrupt German. Wunderbar!
Vier, bitte. No more holding up my fingers when buying petrol! Geil!
During my stay in Germany I managed to get a bunch of stuff done in German – mainly buying things like tickets and even a new mobile phone (hence getting a start on fixing all the various things that I’d broken at this point). What completely ruined me was trying to go to McDonalds first. Buying a phone is fairly easy in comparison – you find the one you want and buy it. But at McDonalds one doesn’t simply ask for what they want – instead they’re asked if they want to buy a bunch of stuff they don’t want. Weird stuff, in German, that I don’t understand.
I was forced to capitulate. “Entshuldigung, sprechen sie Englisch?”. Damnit… you win this round Germany.
All the tourists are old people on coach trips... ahh the peace!
First stop was Bremen. I’m still not entirely sure why I went to Bremen… it was in between Amsterdam and Denmark, but Hamburg was only an hour further. After Amsterdam I think I just wanted to go somewhere quiet, that wasn’t full of drunken backpackers. Bremen fit the description pretty well – it seems to be a popular destination for older Germans and Americans (I think people come back to trace their ancestors because many came through Bremerhaven on their way to the New World), and little else. Bremen has a long and diverse history but somehow the tourism industry is all focused on one thing – the rather small statue of four animals that’s in the middle of the city. There’s a Grimm Brothers story where four ageing animals – a rooster, a cat, a dog and a donkey – escape their owners and start making their way to Bremen to try their luck as musicians (as was the fashion then, I guess). They come across a house and stand on each other’s shoulders in order to peer inside, intending to take shelter – and find it occupied by robbers. The robbers, upon encountering a stack of shrieking assorted animals, flee the house and the animals stay there and live happily ever after.
Yeah... it's okay... I guess
To be honest the statue, like all statues that are the symbols of cities (the peeing baby in Brussels or the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen come to mind) isn’t all that exciting. What’s more amusing is the amount of Stadtmusikanten (that means town musicians I think… either that or it’s a canteen for statiticians) stuff that you can buy.
Now *this* is what they should have in the town square
One of the first things I did was go to the Kunsthalle (that means art gallery… how good am I?), which was a total bargain at 3 euros, and I managed to buy a ticket without using any English. The art gallery has a few interpretations of the Stadtmusikanten, as well as a bunch of pretty cool contemporary art. It’s funny how every city has something cool in it, even if it’s off the main tourist track.
On the other hand, I guess if they put the stuffed ones in the square this would happen
The other cool thing about Bremen is that it has a cellar full of mummies. In Germany! Sick! Perhaps it’s some English-speaking-world prejudice, but I find having a cellar full of visible, two-hundred-year-old corpses right beneath a church to be a bit weird. It’s one of those funny things about German culture that they don’t seem to find the slightest thing wrong with it… there’s an old man down there in the cellar with the mummies who sells tickets and he didn’t seem to care in the slightest. There’s a soldier who’s died mid-scream and everything. Totally metal.
The German people are a funny lot – the culture is obviously familiar, but there seems to be this tendency to take things to extreme conclusions.
Freeways? why not have no speed limit at all?! If you’re in the left lane on an autobahn, cars will tailgate 10 centimetres away from you at 150km/h… then when you get back in the right lane they’ll fly past and you’ll realise it’s not some boy racer – it’s a whole family complete with “baby on board” sticker.
Beer? We’ll drink it out of one litre glasses and have a massive festival with a billion people in tents.
Reparations? Well, instead we’ll build all these tanks and…
… nearly mentioned the war there didn’t I… time for a new subject.
I really enjoyed Hamburg. I had a bit of a poor start… broke a pannier key inside the lock, then realised that all my spare keys were in that pannier. Clever. Fortunately I was the hostel I was at (have a shoutout, Arena Hostel Hamburg) was pretty good (they even make your bed for you!) and the guys working there helped me get it out and referred me to a locksmith to make a new key. Hamburg seems to be a popular tourist city, but it does suffer a bit for big sights to see. There’s a whole square called Beatlesplatz complete with a statue of the band… based on the fact that they lived and performed there… once… before they were famous. Great.
This is the most photographed thing in Hamburg. It's an office building that looks a bit like a ship. You can see why they'd want to invade France... oops
While it’s not much to look at (although the lake is nice) Hamburg does have a buzz about it, and an interesting culture. It’s a bit like Germany’s Amsterdam in a lot of ways, and as I was there on the weekend, there were bucks and hens parties *everywhere*. Literally every 100m or so you’d pass a bunch of guys dressed as nuns, or a guy wearing a pig mask who was being forced to sort bottle caps with toothbrush, or a group of gtoomsmen inviting girls to whack a arseless-trousers-clad groom-to-be with a riding crop (and in another demonstration of German extreme-ness, he was bleeding as a result). The Reeperbahn (which is nothing to do with The Grim Reaper and everything to do with rope, disappointly) on a saturday night is a crazy sort of tiny German Las Vegas, with bright neon lights flashing and people trying to pull you into strip clubs (and worse). It also has a bar where you pay 99c to get in and 99c for every drink, which is amusing… the music is so loud you can’t even shout in someone’s ear there, because if you talk to people you might drink slower.
I actually took this on Sunday night so it was a bit quiet, but you get the idea
The other interesting thing about Hamburg is that the whole culture revolves around the sea. When a walking tour guide said this I was a bit skeptical – it sounds like one of those nice things tour guides say that isn’t really true in practice. However, at the time I was in town so were the ocean liners Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary 2, which both left the third night I was there. And as they departed, there was a *massive* crowd to see them off, complete with fireworks and everything.
Heaving, as Uncle Keith might say
By far the best thing in Hamburg though (and possibly the whole world) is Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s biggest model railway. To be honest I’m the kind of person who’s sold at “model railway”, but it’s so much more. When I was a kid I used to love Stephen Biesty books – the big picture books that would have a cross section of, for instance, a ship, with detailed drawings of where everything went and all the people on board and if you looked really carefully you’d see funny things happening in various places. Miniatur Wunderland is like that – basically you see these giant scenes of various places (like Hamburg or Switzerland or an Airport) complete with cars and trains (and even planes!) buzzing about, but then you look very closely and find all kinds of random things happening with the little model people.
Smelly backpacker included for scale
Unfortunately a lot of close-ups didn’t come out too well (damn you phone camera) but here’s a few that did:
Cows drinking beer out of straws in Bavaria
A guy getting chased by raptors
Some Franciscan monks copping a perve
A guy riding a kangaroo becoming an arriere du peleton
Given how fun the whole place is for kids, there were a rather disturbing number of model public sex acts too (another one of those quirks of German culture I guess). By far the most impressive thing is the airport – this became massive when a video of it hit the internet, and it’s actually even more impressive in real life. They didn’t skimp on a single detail – it would be enough to have a single plane just land and take off, but they modelled everything. Planes land, taxi to the terminal, offload passengers, taxi to a hangar, the hangar door opens, the plane enters, the hangar door closes. The cargo doors on front-loading cargo planes swing upwards, fuel trucks buzz around to parked planes – it even has a departure board on a TV screen that matches the departures of the planes in the airport. It is beyond incredible.
It is so realistic that it actually conjures up the same feelings I get in real airports - that is to say it reminds me of waking up at 5am and flying to Canberra. Thanks IBM!
After 3 nights in Hamburg, it was time to go to Denmark. But then as I checked the address I was supposed to head to in Arhus, I suddenly had a sinking feeling. The date on the screen in front of me wasn’t today’s date… it was tomorrow’s date. I’d accidentally scheduled a gap. Oops :-/.
Ganesh, a guy I met on the tour and ended up spending 3 hours with in Miniatur Wunderland (it’s supposed to take like 2, tops, but we shared a certain nerdy enthusiasm) had mentioned that there was a Volkswagen theme park in Wolfsburg, 2 hours south. Well, why not? So I loaded up and streaked down the autobahn.
It's looks sort of like one of those Star Trek episodes where they land on a perfect planet only to find that something sinister is afoot
So I found myself at Autostadt. It’s kind of like a World’s Fair for car brands in the VW group. Basically every brand has a pavilion to present itself, which sounds cool until you find that most of the pavilions are dull as a piece of biege cardboard. For instance, the Lamborghini one involves you being ushered into a darkened room with a Murcielago on the wall, then there’s some bright lights and car noises through a speaker. Then the bit of the wall with the car on it spins around a couple of times. I suspect they were stuck with ideas on how to have a Lambo pavilion without letting any of the great unwashed near an actual Lambo, then one of them saw their son playing with a matchbox car, a shoebox and a torch and thought “ehh that’ll do”.
The Audi Pavilion has you pick up this sphere which glows red and makes things turn on when you hold in near certain places. Which is cool, but all it turns on is Audi advertising.
I suspect the best thing about Autostadt is the factory tour, which I somehow didn’t know about (there weren’t signs anywhere
) and missed. Ah well, the museum there had some pretty cool cars. The other fun thing about Wolfsburg is that the majority of the population works for VW, and hence *every* car is either a VW or a member of the VW group like Audi. You drive into the city and get the feeling that something’s not quite right… then gradually it hits you – every car is the same!
Having gone out of my way only to be a bit disappointed, I spent a night in the worst hostel I’ve ever been at, loaded up and with my bank balance shuddering in anticipation headed up the same autobahn I’d come down… to Denmark. Finally I was entering Scandinavia, and it was still summer too!