“Google Maps, where have you taken us?” I screamed at my phone for maybe the fifth time in an hour. I was blindly following a disembodied GPS voice off the autobahn and onto a series of hairpin turns down a mountainside in southwestern Germany’s Black Forest. My travel companion, John Eligon, a national correspondent covering race for The New York Times who happened to be in Germany on a journalism fellowship, just laughed and laughed. Soon, though, we were both speechless.
The thick trees had opened up to a view of an endless river valley and mountains covered in evergreens so dense they indeed looked black. We felt powerless to do anything but pull over and take pictures that will never do it justice. If this is what happens when robots take over the world, I might be OK with it.
And that was just the start of our four-day loop through the German states of Baden-Wurttemberg, Rheinland-Pfalz and Hessen. It marked the third proper road trip of my 52 Places trip (Chilean Patagonia and Iceland were the other two). And it was made all the better by having unexpected company who spoke German and knew the country well from having studied abroad here and visited many times. Here is a look at our trip from each of our perspectives.
Jada: We seemed to have similar road-trip styles: Head to a signpost destination and do a lot of meandering along the way. Once I drove from Frankfurt to meet you in Stuttgart, I didn’t care where we went as we eventually got to the ice age caves in the Swabian Jura, or Swabian Alps, which was a reason this area was on the 52 Places list.
John: I think you picked a perfect route to give you a diverse look at Germany.
Frankfurt is really a cosmopolitan city. More than half of its inhabitants or their parents were born in another country. It is a city of finance, beautiful riverbanks and Germany’s main airport. Locals tell me that people there are pretty open-minded and inviting.
At the same time, Baden-Wurttemberg, the southwestern German state that was on the itinerary, is known to be more conservative and maybe more traditionally German as foreigners might envision the country.
Jada: Frankfurt felt really alive to me. A friend’s husband took me around before you and I met up, and explained that Germans see it as ugly and functional. The city was flattened during World War II, so it’s now a hodgepodge of modernist architecture mixed with reconstructed medieval buildings.
And then, as soon as we went 30 minutes south on the autobahn, it was like stepping into a Grimm’s fairy tale. I really wanted to see the Black Forest Open Air Museum Vogtsbauernhof, where we got to wander through farmhouses from the 1600s, and the world’s largest cuckoo clock in Triberg-Schonach (which wasn’t cuckooing when we got there). But it wasn’t necessary to go out of our way to get a sense of German traditionalism. Pretty much every village in that part of the country felt frozen in time, in a beautiful way.
John: After leaving the cuckoo clock, we snaked through the countryside; I did a double-take when we were driving through this speck of a village, Flozlingen, and I saw a black man sitting outside of a garage. Being a black man myself, I am always interested in hearing the stories of black people I meet in Germany — a small but growing part of German society.
Patrick Koffi Agbavon-Wolf, with blue overalls and a cigarette, was winding down after a day of factory work. He’s 52 and originally from Togo but has been in Germany for more than two decades, settling here after several visits to Europe.
What struck me was that he said he did not really have to confront the far-right, xenophobic populism that is growing in Germany (and all over Europe, for that matter). Not that he was naïve to the challenges presented by that rise; but I think that Agbavon-Wolf represented how immigrants can sometimes integrate into quiet corners of the country, even as debate rages over their place in German society.
Jada: I talked a lot more to Agbavon-Wolf’s co-worker, Milan Skoric, 48, a Croatian immigrant. He trains Rottweilers — the town of Rottweil was only 14 minutes from Flozlingen — and spoke great English after living in the United States for four years. What struck me most, though, was the way he talked about America as a place he loved but would never get to see again because of what he believes is a hostility toward newcomers. It’s been disheartening during my travels to see that America has earned this reputation.
John: I was happy to experience their hospitality; they wouldn’t let us leave without giving us beers from the local brewery, Hirschbrauerei Flozlingen.
Unfortunately, all that talking set us back on our journey to Lichtenstein (a municipality, not to be confused with the nearby principality of Liechtenstein). We arrived around midnight and almost didn’t get to check in to our hotel because there was no nighttime front-desk service.
Jada: The one boon of all our bad timing is we often got to see Germany’s fiery sunsets over fields of hay or sunflowers. Two travel lessons learned: Call small hotels and warn them if you’re coming in after 8 p.m., and plan for dinner or you’ll end up eating sad schnitzel in a gas station. Lichtenstein was way more remote than we’d anticipated, but at least it was stunning in the daylight.
John: I certainly saw that the next morning when I went for a run into the woods and ended up taking a hike. I struggled up the mountainside, beneath a beautiful canopy of trees and rugged track.
It ended up being totally worth it, though. At the top of the incline, I reached Lichtenstein Castle. I did not have the 2 euro entry fee with me — I don’t typically run with cash — but one of the groundskeepers was nice enough to let me in for a quick peek. It was built in 1842 at the edge of a cliff for a rich art collector who wanted to live in a castle.
That collector had an amazing view. You can see the entire Echaz valley: lush greenery surrounding charming houses with pitched roofs.
ICE AGE ART
Jada: The whole trip had been building up to Archaopark Vogelherd, a newly named UNESCO World Heritage site that contains some of the six caves in the Swabian Jura where archaeologists have found ice age art, among the oldest examples of figurative art in the world.
The park felt more like a children’s museum, with activities like racing the clock while dragging a sled of hides and throwing spears into foam mammoth targets. There is also a delicate 40,000-year-old figurine of a mammoth carved from a mammoth tusk — art that apparently grew out of inspired boredom, since hunting and gathering only took up a few hours of the day. But I think we were both most intrigued by the Eurocentric way the exhibits described how Neanderthals migrated to Germany from Africa, followed by homo sapiens.
John: Yes, the story was definitely framed from a white European perspective. I was happy to see a sign explaining that Africa was the cradle of mankind.
What the park may have lacked in excitement was totally made up at Charlotte’s Cave in Giengen-Hurben, a 15-minute drive up the road. It was very cold inside the 3-million-year-old cave (they provided jackets), which formed after an earthquake allowed water to seep into the mountainside and wipe out much of the limestone.
Jada: It was a ton of fun squeezing through all the tiny entryways. I loved the story the guide told, about how the cave’s namesake, Queen Charlotte of Wurttemberg, visited in 1893, but she didn’t get to see the whole thing because the passages got too narrow for her hoop skirts.
HIGHLIGHTS, FOOD AND BOOZE EDITION
John: Though we didn’t get to climb the 530-foot-tall steeple of the minster in Ulm because it was inexplicably closed, we found a silver lining: an outdoor wine festival right next to it.
Jada: Germany is famous for its beer, of course, but this part of the country is really known for its dry white wines. Rieslings get a bum-rap in the states for being too sweet, but after trying these, I’m convinced we’re just importing the wrong stuff.
John: I prefer dry reds. And apparently there are some good pinot noirs in Germany as well.
Jada: The food recommendation you gave me that I liked the most was maultasche, at a beer garden on the Neckar in Tubingen. It’s a Swabian specialty, a dumpling filled with minced meat (there’s a veggie version, too). I had mine in a soup with a tasty broth.
John: That quick stop we made in Tubingen was a highlight for me. One-third of the city’s 85,000 residents are university students. Culturally, it’s an interesting mix of young and vibrant and classically traditional: the old brick city wall that bordered a main thoroughfare stood right across from a crowd of millennials gathered at sidewalk tables, enjoying libations.
KING OF THE CASTLES?
Jada: I knew Germany had a lot of castles — estimates put it at 25,000, but there’s no official count — but I didn’t realize just how accessible they would be. I loved that these structures built for royalty have now basically turned into public parks.
On the way to meet you, I stopped by Frankenstein Castle, overlooking the town of Darmstadt. It actually once housed a mad scientist who experimented with human body parts and is said to have inspired Mary Shelley’s novel. They were having a medieval festival with sword-fighting demos; I got to shoot a bow and arrow.
And then a couple hours later I was at the spectacular Heidelberg Castle, the crown jewel of a picturesque university town on the Neckar river and filled with tourists. But I really liked how after the castle shut down, Heidelberg residents showed up to wander its vast parks and take in the view with, say, a bottle of wine they’d brought from home.
John: Heidelberg may have been the most spectacular, but I think we’d probably both agree that the Rheingau is the place to go for castles. Just a short drive from Frankfurt, this picturesque region is marked by the Rhine River, which winds through it. On our boat ride along the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, which is another UNESCO World Heritage site, it seemed like we saw a different castle with every turn of the head.
We only did part of the route, getting off at the St. Goar castle, but if you did the entire trip from Rudesheim am Rhein to Koblenz, you can see about 40 hilltop castles in a 40-mile stretch. And, of course, the region has wineries galore. Interestingly enough, though, unlike many other wine regions in the world, you don’t taste wine at the vineyards here. Instead, there are wine shops in towns where there are tastings.
Jada: It’s the part of our trip I would repeat without hesitation. Ed had given me the blueprint on how to do it. We drove to Rudesheim am Rhein and, with help from the tourist office, hopped on one of many commuter boats heading downriver toward Koblenz. If you get an early boat, you can make at least two pit stops to explore towns or grab some wine, and then keep going downriver on the next scheduled boat.
The way back is slower because it’s upriver, so we took the speedy train that runs along the Rhine and cut our travel time by two hours. Pretty much every second, you’re looking at cute villages or hills covered in vineyards. It made me regret the two decades of my life I had spent riding New York City subways to work.
John: It was a fortunate circumstance that we sat next to a man named Clemens on the boat. He lives in Munich but was on his way to Koblenz for work. He’s a lawyer and had court the next day. The 65-year-old could have just taken a train all the way, but he realized that he had never taken this beautiful boat ride that was right in his backyard.
Jada: The heavy downpour that started right after we boarded was a bummer, but in a magical moment, the rain cleared up just around the time we reached the famous Lorelei rock, which juts out of the water just before the tiny town of St. Goarshausen. Clemens told me it was named after a young siren who used to sit on the rocks, singing, distracting men in passing boats so they crashed to their deaths. As we floated by, a group of women started singing a song of Lorelei they said they had all learned in school, and then others on the boat joined in. It was wonderful.
JADA’S PRACTICAL TIPS
Transit: I showed up at the train station car rental center in Frankfurt with an online reservation at Europcar, only to be told there were no cars and I should have booked 24 hours in advance for my reservation to be “guaranteed.” Expedia let me book at three other rental counters; none had cars. Renting at the airport, a short train ride away, though, was fast and easy.
Tech: Download apps like Moovit or RMV for directions to get around Frankfurt. The U-Bahn subway system doesn’t show up in Google Maps.
Dining: German summers are all outdoor socializing, but you’d be wise to take up the local practice of covering your drink after every sip. There are bees buzzing everywhere.