As we set off for Germany's Rhineland this weekend, I think back to an exchange I had with a tourist from Stuttgart the other night.
“It’s been really fun visiting Berlin this week. It’s like traveling to a different country from Germany,” he said.
We laughed. We understood. This is often what we tell people when they ask us how we like living in Germany. We've found that we picked up a bit of the Berliner habit of forgetting that there's a country to explore outside of the city limits of its capital.
It's time to do a little something about that.
After two months of enjoying summer in Berlin, we’re heading out by train to Germany this weekend. We'll be exploring Germany's Rhineland — a new part of the country (for us). Our trip will include places like Essen, Aachen, Cologne and the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.
Here’s where we're going and what we'll be up to.
I never would have thought to visit an old coal mining facility, but my interest in Zollverein Coal Mine was piqued recently when Dan mentioned the name in connection with a novel he'd read entitled “All Light We Cannot See.” Beginning on the eve of World War II, the novel tells the story of a German boy — whose father died as a miner in Zollverein — and a French girl, both trying to cope with the horrors of war.
In addition to once being a coal mine, Zollverein is now known for its Modern Movement in architecture — something we know admittedly little about, but whose appearance we are often visually drawn to on bicycle rides around Berlin.
So we’re looking forward to understanding the historical, industrial, and architectural layers that make up UNESCO-protected Zollverein and learning more about the Ruhr region.
Aside from likely being a candidate for a spherical panorama of its interior, the 1,200-year-old Aachen Cathedral has been on our Germany sights shortlist, as it's been recommended so often by others.
We're looking forward to finally seeing this interior for ourselves.
Cologne / Köln
Years ago when I lived in Estonia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my Estonian friend, Sirje, showed me her faded photographs of the Cologne Cathedral. I'll never forget it. Visiting Cologne was among her first travels outside of what was the Soviet Union; she described her impressions of being in the “West” with all the fancy cars and endless shopping options. For me, as an American, the photo of the Cologne Cathedral looked like something straight of a fairytale with its towers and Gothic architecture. It will have taken fifteen years for me to finally see the Cologne Cathedral for myself…and share with Sirje an updated photo.
Another Cologne icon that we're interested in getting to know a bit better is Kölsch, a local style of beer that is light in color and is only served in thin, tall glasses (in fact, we hear that drinking Kölsch in a beer stein is considered sacrilege). This style of brew does not travel well, so it's necessary to go to the source — or to the Berlin Beer Festival — to enjoy it.
Given all that we're heard about Kölsch, we imagine that it may someday achieve its own UNESCO culinary status.
If you have any recommended places to drink Kölsch in Cologne please let us know!
This is where the road trip portion of our Rhineland travels begin. We'll pick up a rental car in Cologne and use it to explore the castles of Augustusburg and Falkenlust near the town of Brühl before heading further into the Rhine Valley. I’ll have an opportunity to exercise my newly acquired German driver’s license on both the autobahn and tiny village roads. Dan will have an opportunity to exercise his fatalism, as he's the one who usually does the driving in our family.
He's frankly terrified by the thought. This should be fun.
Upper Middle Rhine Valley
As some of you may remember, we also never pass up an opportunity to taste and learn more about wine. So it won't surprise you when we confess that we timed this journey to coincide with the Bingen Wine Festival, taking place in the first week of September. This segment of the Rhine Valley is smack in the middle of four German wine-growing regions: Rheinessen, Nahe, Rheingau and Middle Rhine. Although we have learned a bit about German wines over the years, we looking forward to a deeper dive by dropping in on the wine festival and by visiting a few wineries along the way.
This particular segment of the Rhine River has been a water trading route for over two thousand years, which is why it is dotted with castles across its various clifftops. Add to that its steep terraced vineyards that appear to fall right into the river and its almost too-quaint-to-be-true collection of villages that trace the river's edge, and it's no surprise that our parents have had nothing but great things to say about the region after their visits many years ago. My mother even made me promise to wave to the Loreley rock for her.
Although we’ll have a rental car with us, we'll leave it behind for a spell to take a boat ride or two and to explore by bicycle the surrounding hills, from Bingen to Rüdesheim, Lorch, Bacharach, Koblenz and all spots in-between.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites as Itinerary Anchors
We confess, we have a mixed relationship with UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
On the one hand, we find that tourists can sometimes approach them as places to “consume” or check off a box as if collecting, rather than experiencing. We find this approach can lend a little bit of tunnel vision to one's travels — enabling visitors to ignore companion experiences or nearby areas that might help to round out their trip.
On the other hand, UNESCO sites have often pushed us to visit destinations we otherwise wouldn't — often in the middle of nowhere — just because we’re curious about what makes that a place so special to have earned it official World Heritage status. It’s this curiosity that led us to UNESCO sites such as the Jesuit Ruins in Paraguay, Paharpur Buddhist Monastery in Bangladesh, Gobustan in Azerbaijan (and had to hitchhike back), or the Valley of the Whales (Wadi Al Hitan) in Egypt. We were even married at a UNESCO site in Italy. (Sadly, our fateful day had nothing to do with its earning UNESCO status.)
In this way, UNESCO sites can serve as itinerary anchors and can highlight an aspect of history or culture that a visitor would have otherwise never heard about (e.g., that Tantric Buddhism likely got its start in Bangladesh – who knew?!).
You may have have noticed that we’re anchoring our Germany trip around several of Germany’s UNESCO sites, taking us from a coal mine to cathedrals to castles to wineries along the Rhine Valley. And as much as we're looking forward to seeing these sites, we're just as excited for all the experiences that will happen in and around them — including getting lost.
How can you help with our trip?
If you have recommendations for places to eat and drink in Essen, Aachen, Cologne, and in and around the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, please send them our way! We’re looking forward to balancing out our historical and cultural learning with a bit of the culinary and vinicultural variety.
Follow along with our Germany adventures
Feel free to engage with us there and share your own tips as we explore this new-to-us part of Germany!
Photo Credit: All photos above are courtesy of the German National Tourism Board.