Dschinghis Khan and Eurovision

That’s another spelling of the ancient Mongol warrior’s name. But I’m talking about another Dschinghis Khan – the band!

Dschinghis Khan Photo

Photo by: Makakaaaa

Who was Dschinghis Khan?

Well, this Dschinghis Khan was a band formed, like Abba, to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest. Abba had a bigger success, but Dschinghis Khan stuck around to produce more songs too. One later song, “Moscow,” topped the charts in Australia for 6 weeks. Their songs popped up in TV shows and movies for years afterwards and in the 2000’s they went back on tour briefly.

 

Why are we talking about Dschinghis Khan, anyhow?

Eurovision is just around the corner. OK, it’s not until May, but the first round of tickets for Eurovision 2014 finals in Copenhagen are sold out, and more are going on sale at the end of January. I really want to go! As an expat transplant, I am more excited about Eurovision than any of the Europeans I know. Eurovision is an annual ode to Euro-dance music. It’s fun to see what kind of  music each country produces every year. Sometimes they mix pop beats with traditional melodies or instruments. Sometimes they sing in their own languages, sometimes in English. My favorites fuse European style with something of their own. Stuff like that makes me jealous of Europe’s huge diversity.

 

Can you listen to Dschinghis Khan without laughing… or cringing?

The song is pretty dated. The disco beat is the first giveaway. The lyrics are not very PC any more. “Dschinghis Khan” is about storming the steppes, stirring up fear, drinking, and don’t forget they praise the guy’s prowess in bed, too. Also, try watching the video from Eurovision. Are their costumes accurate? Is it OK for these guys to imitate another so-called “exotic” culture like that? Why sing about Dschinghis Khan, anyway?

Dschinghis Khan 3

Photo by: Foxtongue

My advice? Try to overlook all that stuff. I admit it’s not sensitive. But the beat! I wasn’t around when disco was new, so this stuff is awesome and funny to me. Crank up the volume on a Dschinghis Khan video and shout. “Hah! Hoo! Hah!”

Dschinghis Khan Albums

Photo by: Rochus Wolff

 

What is your all-time favorite Eurovision song?

7 Quirky German New Year’s Traditions

2014 is just around the corner. Some German new year’s traditions are pretty familiar – drinking sparkling wine, watching fireworks – but a few others might make you shake your head and say, “Wie, bitte?” Here are a few offbeat German new year’s traditions… and the stories behind them.

New Year’s Eve is called Silvester in Germany. This name comes from Pope Sylvester I, who lived in the fourth century. He was canonized by the Catholic Church, and his saint’s day is December 31. No actors or cartoon cats to be found. That fact was for free and doesn’t even count towards our list! Here we go…

German new year’s traditions: melted lead, good slipping, sweet pigs, a lady and her butler?!

German New Year's Traditions: Lead pieces

Is that a spoon, a deer or a star? Photo by: Eric Delcroix

1. Bleigießen

What does the new year have in store for you? Germans have a funny way of predicting the future. They melt bits of lead over a candle flame, pour the lead into a bowl of cold water, then find what shape each re-hardened piece looks like. A lion predicts you’ll make good friends, while a bell means you will inherit some money.

2. Guten Rutsch

Second in our list of German new year’s traditions is to wish people a “guten Rutsch” (a good slip). Why would you want to slip into the new year? The best guess is that it comes from the Yiddish phrase “Rosh ha-Shana tov” (a good new year, or literally, a good head-of-the-year). So a guten Rutsch is really a wish for a good start to the year.

3. Glücksschwein

The tastiest of the German new year’s traditions is to give your loved ones a lucky pig, often made out of marzipan. Not full-size, please!

German New Year's traditions - Watching Dinner for One

Photo by: Luke Montague

4. Dinner for One

This has got to be my favorite of the German new year’s traditions. It is a German tradition to watch the recording of a play called Dinner for One on New Year’s Eve. Miss Sophie is hosting a dinner for her 90th birthday. But she’s outlived all her guests, so her butler James plays the parts of all four gentlemen, PLUS his butler duties. Each guest has a different accent, and of course each of them gives a toast to Miss Sophie at each course of the meal. With each guest’s toast, James gets more toasted. I won’t spoil the ending for you, though! Once you’ve seen the original, try the Lego version.

German new year’s traditions from Oma

I asked a couple of Germans for some family traditions, and here’s what I got.

5. Don’t do laundry!

Don’t wash your bed linens between Christmas and New Year. The superstitious believe that if you do, someone in your family will die. One friend’s grandma would give her clean bedsheets for Christmas, just so she’d have an extra set. You can survive a few more days in those sheets!

6. The food also rises

Have some bread on January 1. If you eat food that has risen (dough, noodles, anything with yeast), your money will also “grow” in the next year. And here are some other German new year’s traditions around food!

German New Year's Traditions: pig and chimney sweep

Photo by: Margrit

7. Mary Poppins had it right

Chim-chim-cheree! Remember the chimney sweep who said touching him brings you luck? Or blowing a kiss? It’s even luckier at New Year’s. They make party poppers (crackers) which burst out with chimney sweeps for the new year. Quadruple your luck by kissing a chimney sweep on Silvester. Pucker up!

There you have it: seven German New Year’s traditions you probably never knew about. Now go melt some lead, follow the same procedure as every year, and have a good slip into 2014!

Lubeck Marzipan: Almonds as you’ve never imagined

Germany’s best-known marzipan comes from Lubeck, on the Baltic Sea. Read on to learn a German New Year tradition featuring Lubeck marzipan and some interesting marzipan facts.

 

Marzipan was brought to Europe by the Crusaders, but it’s popular around Europe and has left traces and traditions all over the world. Countries from Germany to Italy, Estonia, Portugal, Cyprus, the Netherlands and Belgium all have special ties and traditions with marzipan, and marzipan-like sweets can be found in Iran, Latin America, India and the Philippines.

 

Lubeck marzipan fruits

Why are those fruits plastic-wrapped? Look closer… that’s not fruit, it’s marzipan! Photo by: GaijinSeb

 

What makes Lubeck marzipan so special?

Within Germany, Lubeck marzipan is such a tradition that it has its own protected geographical indication (PGI). That’s the same name protection as Champagne and Roquefort cheese. Some Lubeck marzipan makers have been at their craft for more than a century. That’s a tradition with a history.

 

Traditions with Lubeck marzipan

The New Year is around the corner. Have you got a German you want to impress? Be prepared as the clock’s counting down. Germans have a tradition of giving out pigs made from Lubeck marzipan at the new year. There’s still enough time to get all your pigs in a row (get it?), but only if you hurry! So where should you rush to find the best Lubeck marzipan?

 

Lubeck marzipan schweinchen pigs

Photo by: Alice Wiegand

 

The best place to get Lubeck marzipan

First, get yourself to Lubeck! Lubeck itself is well worth a visit. It’s a lovely city with a gorgeous Old Town and beautiful architecture. One popular spot is Niederegger, which hosts a Lubeck marzipan cafe and a well-stocked gift shop. They’ve even got a cool quiz machine where you can win your own piece of marzipan if you answer three questions in a row correctly. And don’t miss the special tea offerings, flavored with – what else – the house’s own marzipan.

 

Lubeck marzipan variety

There is something there for everyone. Unless they don’t like marzipan at all. Photo by: Susie Wyshak

From fruits to Marzipankartoffeln (yes, that’s marzipan potatoes… just don’t try making potato pancakes out of them), to solid logs flavored with chocolate or booze, to colorful animals, seasonal decorations and even dinosaurs: The makers of Lubeck marzipan are nothing if not creative! While you’re getting your Lubeck marzipan piggies, snap up a few other tasty companions for those oinkers. One bite will have you saying “wee, wee, wee” all the way home.

German Potato Pancakes

Who doesn’t love German potato pancakes? Crispy, fried medallions of goodness are a wonderful treat for the winter, using seasonal vegetables (potatoes and onions) and always served hot. You can find them at any Christmas market. German potato pancakes are traditionally served with applesauce, but you can try topping them with jam or sour cream.

What’s special about German potato pancakes?

If you have to ask, you haven’t had one. German potato pancakes are easy, tasty, and filling. As they’re fried in lots of oil, they’re not too healthy, but they are a great indulgence now and then. You can count the number of ingredients on one hand, and all they require is to throw everything into a food processor (or grate by hand), mix, and fry.

How do I find German potato pancakes?

Lots of stores sell potato pancakes in the freezer, but they’re very easy to make yourself. Here’s a favorite, easy recipe for traditional German potato pancakes! They’re also quite in season, as they’re sold not only at Christmas markets but also cooked as a treat for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, where they’re called latkes.

German potato pancakes by lynn.gardner

Photo by: Lynn Gardner

German potato pancakes

Ingredients:

1 kg waxy potatoes

1 large onion, halved

1 large egg

2 tablespoons flour

Salt and pepper, to taste

Freshly ground nutmeg, to taste

1 tablespoon fresh parsley

Vegetable or canola oil, for frying

Applesauce, for serving

 

Directions:

Peel the potatoes. Grate them with a food processor or grater. Grate the onion as well.

Empty the potatoes and onions into a strainer over a large bowl. Squeeze out as much water as possible and collect it in the bowl.

Give the water a few minutes to settle. The potato starch will sink to the bottom. Empty as much water as possible from the bowl while keeping the potato starch.

Mix the potatoes and onions with the remaining potato starch. Mix in the egg, flour, spices and parsley.

Preheat 1 inch (2 cm) of oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot, form the potato mixture into patties with your hands and carefully place into the oil – or, put large spoonfuls into the hot oil and form into a round shape.

Fry for 5-8 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. German potato pancakes can be kept warm in the oven for up to an hour, but they’re best eaten when fresh! Serve with applesauce, sour cream, jam or kimchi.

Berlin Christmas Markets: ‘Tis the Season!

Berlin Christmas Markets at Potsdamer Platz

Photo by: onnola

Yesterday was the first of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Here in Germany the start of Advent is a big deal. It means the festive season can really start – and the doors of more than 60 Berlin Christmas markets open in earnest. Whether you’re shopping for unique holiday gifts or just want to enjoy a glass of mulled wine, you can find it at one of the dozens of Berlin Christmas markets. As the days get shorter, tourists and locals alike flock to Berlin Christmas markets to enjoy a warming glass of mulled wine and special winter treats: candied nuts, gingerbread, and lots of Wurst! No two Berlin Christmas markets are alike. Read on for some ideas on how to make the most of the Berlin Christmas markets, whether you’re here for a weekend or the whole season.

Berlin Christmas markets are something special.

From arcades and thrill rides to Scandinavian charm to outdoor skating rinks, Berlin Christmas markets are incredibly diverse. And if one of them doesn’t tickle your fancy, there’s bound to be another one within just a few subway stops. The nights are long and many Berlin Christmas markets are open from early afternoon until 10 PM. When the sun sets early, the best cure for darkness-induced blues is the sparkle of Berlin Christmas markets, the sugar rush of sweet treats, and the buzz of the festive atmosphere.

Surviving Berlin Christmas markets – Tips for your wallet and your waistline

The biggest shock for many visitors to Berlin Christmas markets (or Christmas markets anywhere in Germany) is the concept of Pfand. It’s a deposit for the charming mugs they serve mulled wine in – anything from 50 cents to a few euros. It’s not included in the price of the wine, but it’s always written somewhere. If you give your mug back, you get your money back – but for the price of the Pfand, you can also bring the mug home as a keepsake. It makes a lovely gift, too, if you don’t have room for German beer steins in your suitcase! You can scout out the Berlin Christmas markets to find your favorites. Some Berlin Christmas markets have mugs with pictures of nearby landmarks (like the TV tower at Alexanderplatz), or write out the location and sometimes the year (which you can find on the mugs at Gendarmenmarkt).

Like in any market situation, I suggest making your way around the market square first and having a look at all the options. There’s a huge selection of food and drinks at all of the Berlin Christmas markets, and with so many standard Christmas market offerings there are always a few repeats. It’s all too easy to be caught up by the first stalls, then see a tastier-looking option just a few meters away.

Berlin Christmas markets are a hotspot for pickpockets. Keep your valuables close and safe! Stay alert and follow the precautions you’d take in any bustling urban space. Zip your bags and pockets, keep camera straps around your wrist or neck, and so on.

This is wintertime, and the food is rich. You won’t find many healthy options at Berlin Christmas markets. Carnivores can feast on dozens of sausages, while dairy lovers will have their fill of cheese from vendor stalls or raclette to go, smeared on slices of dark bread. The classic meat-free option is a crispy potato pancake slathered with applesauce, but a big bowl of sauteed mushrooms with garlic sauce is also delicious and easy to find at any of the Berlin Christmas markets. Keep your hands warm with a hot drink: apart from mulled wine, the more adventurous can try mulled beer or mulled apple wine with cinnamon. Cookies, waffles, candied almonds and roasted chestnuts are par for the course, and there are always plenty of samples to taste. Load up on your healthy foods during the day, then eat your heart out at the Christmas market!

The best Berlin Christmas markets

So, now you’re ready to experience Berlin Christmas markets for yourself. But with so many to choose from, where do you start? Here are a few special Berlin Christmas markets to get you inspired.

The Lucia market in Prenzlauer Berg’s Kulturbrauerei specializes in Scandinavian and Nordic specialties. Stroll around the candlelit square for a charming atmosphere with Scandinavian music playing and vendors offering Finnish honey, Swedish elk bratwurst, and a dozen variations on mulled wine, glogg, apple cider, mulled beer, or hot chocolate. Of all the Berlin Christmas markets around, it’s particularly intimate and special.

The WeihnachtsZauber market at Gendarmenmarkt is a perfect example of how Berlin Christmas markets should be – offering dozens of vendor stalls, a stage hosting neverending performances, classic Christmas music on the speakers… and with such a perfect atmosphere, it’s packed elbow-to-elbow with other eager visitors. Sandwiched between the French and German Cathedrals and charging a 1-euro entrance fee, the Gendarmenmarkt market also stands out for its upscale offerings: sit-down restaurants, a heated tent of artisan vendors, and costumed performers interacting with the crowd. Be sure to visit the Fassbender & Rausch chocolate shop-cum-cafe nearby to see some of Berlin’s most famous landmarks erected in solid chocolate.

Berlin Christmas Markets at Gendarmenmarkt Weihnachtszauber

Photo by: Gertrud K.

Finally, the be-all and end-all of Berlin Christmas markets – well, it’s a tie between Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz. Alexanderplatz’s market is larger. Along with every sort of vendor you could imagine, it’s home to a carousel, thrill rides and arcade games, an outdoor skating rink, a snow-producing Christmas pyramid, and the huge Alexa shopping mall nearby. Get in a bit of sightseeing by checking out the TV tower while you’re there. Meanwhile the Potsdamer Platz market opens its gates in late November and boasts a massive onsite snow-tubing hill. After a mug of mulled wine, you could catch a movie in English or German at the Cinestar theater nearby.

Berlin Christmas markets at Alexanderplatz

Photo by: Charlott_L

That’s all you need to know to get started in the Berlin Christmas markets. Which are your favorites?

A Go Trabi Go Roadtrip

Go Trabi Go: A working Trabi from a spy museum

Photo by: Elizabeth Suckow

There have been some pretty strange German things that I have noticed since moving here. Curry ketchup is one of them; it’s the only kind of ketchup I’ve ever requested on fries in my life. Hefe beers are another; who knows how I survived so long in California, the land of IPAs (bleh). There’s also one non-food item that I have to think of when I think of Germany, and especially Berlin: the Trabi. A semi-affectionate name given to the Trabant, even the word ‘Trabi’ has the ability to take some people right back to Germany before the wall fell. This frankly matchbox sized car is the subject of much nostalgia and quite a bit of joking, especially with former owners of the spunky soviet car. This reflection on Trabi’s for me inspired something, though. Having never owned one, I decided to do a bit of research.  Luckily Google brought me the classic 1991 film Go Trabi Go. Go Trabi Go was one of the first films made in Germany after reunification, and follows a family (the Struutz’) on a Goethe (yes the philosopher) inspired roadtrip in their Trabi (that is at least 20 years old) from their home in Bitterfeld to Naples. Yes that Naples. The one in Italy. It is a genuinely enjoyable movie to watch, and I wholeheartedly recommend checking it out. But seeing how this is technically a Germany travel blog, and not necessarily a Germany culture tchotchke survey (like it has been for the past couple weeks) I figure I’d try my hand at crafting a roadtrip guide based off of Go Trabi Go. So here it goes. Here’s my version of a Go Trabi Go Trip!

Go Trabi Go Trip: Get to Know A Trabi! 

A little background: the Trabant was the only car produced in East Germany, and this made it the fastest and most readily available car to most East Germans when it was first released in 1958. Further more, the production methods and designs for this crazy little car hardly changed at all over the car’s nearly 30 year lifespan. But, as you might notice, 1958 was a while ago; to put it nicely the Trabant did not age well. This made Trabi’s and their two cylinder engines look like toy cars next to the gas guzzling sedans of the 70s.  By the 80s, Trabis were something of a joke, as they were mostly famous for falling apart really well, going slower than anyone in a car ever needed to go, and belching an oily smoke at any sign of effort by the engine. They also became a sign of the inefficacy of the East German government; production shortages often meant month or even year long waiting lists for parts and new cars. And yet, Trabi’s still have their little tires hooked into the hearts of some Germans. However, to their benefit, as seen in Go Trabi Go, the car is insanely easy to put together again, and seems to have the suspension of a monster truck. Also the Franken-Trabi they end up with in the end looks pretty sweet.

And now to begin the roadtrip! Firstly, I want to say I do not recommend finding a Trabi to take you on this journey. No offense to any Trabi die-hards out there, but they really are unreliable vehicles, especially today. Secondly, I’m not even going to provide direct map directions here. As I don’t even know how to drive in my native California I think it would be irresponsible to dole out driving instructions in a foreign country. For the sake of this article, and everyone on the roads, I’m just going to provide links to bus lines that run between these three cities. Also thirdly, if you’ve seen the film you will realize that the story follows the Struutz family from Bitterfeld to Naples, but I’m only going to guide you through the German portion of their trip from Leipzig to Munich.

Go Trabi Go: Okay this one is definitely a toy

Photo by: János Rusiczki

Go Trabi Go Trip: Leipzig →Nuremberg

What the Struutz’ did in Leipzig:

  • Stayed: Well, they kinda live here, in the nearby town called Bitterfeld
  • For fun: Well… They left to start their great Go Trabi Go journey…

What you should do:

  • Stay: For the budget crowd, the Say Cheese is a fun, cheeky hostle in the city center that is clean, cozy and modern. And for those of you who can enjoy the better things in life, one of Leipzig’s nicest five-star hotels is the Steigenberger Grandhotel Handelshof.
  • For Fun: Take a stroll through the city center and enjoy the marvelous 16th century architecture that survived in this majestic city through the Second World War. It’s also worth mentioning that Bach, Wagner and Goethe himself all lived, studied and worked in this city at some time in their lives, so many museums, monuments and exhibitions can be found dedicated to these great minds. If you’re a fan of literature, you can visit the setting of a scene from Goethe’s Faust, and if you’re crazy for classical music, the church where Johann Sebastian Bach worked as Cantor still stands in the city center.

After a few days soaking in the greatest of German culture, head south to Nuremberg.

What the Struutz’ did in Nuremberg:

  • Stayed: With their annoying (not to mention racist) relatives in a creepy trailer in the relative’s backyard
  • For Fun: Tried not to punch said annoying (racist) relatives or piss off the gigantic dog who lived in said creepy trailer

What you should do:

  • Stay: Hostel goers should check out Arthotel for a great value and location, while Le Méridien Grand Hotel provides an amazing five star experience. And feel good in the fact that no matter where you stay, you’ll probably be doing better than the Struutz clan.
  • For Fun: Nuremberg is a city with a lot of history, like a lot of German cities. While you’re here you can enjoy the castle towers scattered around the city, and see the location of the Nuremberg trials of World War II. There are also some great museums to check out in this small city, including one dedicated to toys.

Once you’ve enjoyed a bit of a history lesson and a view, head even further south to Munich.

Go Trabi Go Trip: Nuremberg → Munich

So the Struutz family was lucky enough to have their Trabi towed for this part of the trip, by a jovial truck driver who really never stopped laughing. Highlights of this amazing scene include this fantastic Trabi joke:

-How do you double the value of a Trabi?

-Fill it with petrol

Too bad we didn’t get to hear the other 117 Trabi jokes that driver had up his sleeve!

What the Struutz’ did in Munich:

  • Stayed: In their Trabi (yes, three grown adults slept in a miniture sized four-seater overnight) unknowingly on a nude beach (which I might mention has the fittest bathers in the world. Seriously, I thought nude beaches were all over-fifty-and-you-should-have-pants-on kind of places. Well done for proving me wrong, Munich!)
  • For Fun: Go shopping! The ladies head to the mall to shop for bathing suits to begin their Italian portion of the trip, while the father heads to the scrap yard to find a new bumper for their poor Trabi they call ‘Georgie.’

What you should do:

  • Stay: While I couldn’t find any rooms near nude beaches, the Wombats City Hostel in Munich provides a comfortable, hip atmosphere that the Wombat hostels are known for.  If you’re into living it up, head to the München Palace for a charming stay you’ll not soon forget.
  • For Fun: Munich is definitely a great city for shopping, so if you’re inclined to follow the Struutz’ lead, Neuhauserstraße and Kaufinger Straße are famous for their offerings. But Munich has more to offer you than a lighter wallet. It is easily known as one of the most beautiful cities in Germany. Take a lovely stroll through the English Gardens, or if you’re lucky enough to visit in late September remember that little thing called Oktoberfest? Well it was invented here (more info about this traditional festival can be found here at our previous post on Munich’s Oktoberfest)!

And who knows, maybe by the time you get to Munich you’ll also have the road-tripping bug under your skin and head even farther south to Italy just like the Struutz family did in Go Trabi Go.

But hey, that’s a whole other blog, isn’t it?

German Beer Steins & You

Photo by: Celia Esguerra

All across the world a very specific stereotype of Germans and Germany has developed. This stereotype most likely consists of a man wearing Lederhosen, an alpine hat; maybe he has a mustache or a potbelly, but he is definitely humorless and eating a huge pretzel or sausage with one hand, and drinking a strong beer from a gigantic stone mug(German beer stein) from the other. Basically, this guy.

But anyway, that’s just the stereotype. Most of these elements have been taken from Bavarian or south German culture (i.e.: lederhosen, alpine hats), some of them are just random (what do mustaches have to do with one country specifically?), but a couple of them might have a bit of truth behind them. There are bakeries with Brezel brot, or what us non-Germans would know as soft pretzels, on just about every corner of larger cities, walking sausage stands in front of every mall, and beer pretty much wherever you could want to find it (bless the Späti culture). But one thing that I’m honestly a little bit sad and disappointed for never seeing in Germany is German beer steins. I personally have lived in Germany for a year now, and I have yet to see something that I would put under the ‘German beer steins’ category in the wild. So this got me to thinking:  Do people use them at all anymore? Where did these things even come from? Why do my German friends look at me like that when I use the word ‘stein?’ And, of course, germany-travel is all about answering these kinds of queries: this week we present to you a little trip into the truth behind German beer steins.

German Beer Steins: the English Language Strikes Again!

When I first was deciding to write this article, I was surprised by the reaction of my German colleagues and friends when I started talking about German beer steins: mild confusion and apathy. So it turns out, the English term ‘stein’ is basically gibberish in modern German. As beer stein can be simply shortened to ‘stein’ in English and still refer to the huge stone mug, it’s what is referred to as a neologism, or new meaning for a pre-existing word. In German, the word ‘stein’ means ‘stone’ with no reference to the large drinking vessel, so when an English speaker says they want to talk about ‘German beer steins’ the aforementioned confusion and apathy make a bit more sense.

Why German Beer Steins?

With this confusion out of the way, we can discover that this tradition of earthen or stoneware mugs makes perfect sense in the context of German and European history. Simply put, it was the best crafting medium available to the majority of Europe for a very long time.  Glass and glass blowing was only really perfected and easy (or easier) to utilize beginning in the late 1800s with the technological advances brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Before this, ceramic, stoneware and porcelain were the best and cheapest ways to make dishes, cups and other house hold items.  For example, the now famous glass beer steins seen at Oktoberfest celebrations across the globe were only introduced to the festival in Munich in 1892. Before this the festival used heavy plain stoneware mugs.

But what about the monstrous, heavily decorated German beer steins with the funny little lids, you might ask? Well, it’s a little story that involves the Black Plague (probably). Legend has it that in the 14th century when the Black Death was running rampant in Europe, the lid was devised for beer mugs to keep the fleas and flies that were crowding the city air at bay, in order to prevent infection or contamination of the brew. There is no proof for this tale, but the logic stands. With so much death in the streets of European cities and villages (more than 25 million people died in the span of a few years), and what with the sanitary standards of the 14th century being what they were (mainly, non-existent) it makes sense that hoards of flies and insects were swarming across the continent. It’s easy to imagine being a city dweller at that time, just trying to go about your daily life, trying to survive and getting more than a little bit annoyed with corpse flies landing in your beer. Though there is no real evidence to this Black Plague origin story, I’m more than happy to believe it.

Where Have All the German Beer Steins Gone??

Sure, they are readily available at memorabilia shops across the globe (fun fact: the world’s leading producer of ‘German’ beer steins is Brazil), but steins, especially the lidded versions, have fallen heavily out of fashion. They are still being produced, especially in the Westerwald region of south Germany that is famous for being the original producer of German beer steins, but mostly these heavy mugs have become another souvenir option for tourists. Especially because of the low cost and easy production of simple, lightweight beer glasses, German beer steins have somewhat gone the way of the dodo as far as everyday use is concerned.

I don’t know if it’s a symptom of my disappointment of never seeing them used in pubs here in Germany, but I think it’s a shame that German beer steins aren’t more popular. They’re a pretty interesting part of the European beer culture, especially if you know the reason that they gained such cultural recognition (and even their own word in English) over the years.  Then again I can’t complain too much. At least German beer is still popular.

What’s the deal with Black Forest cuckoo clocks, anyway?

Photo by: James O’Rear

I don’t know about everyone else, but when I think of cuckoo clocks, or more specifically Black Forest cuckoo clocks, I think of retirement communities and cartoons.  The retirement community probably comes into play because my grandfather was a woodworker, and I’ve always associated fine wooden objects with my grandparents, and the communities they lived in when I was a child.  The cartoons, on the other hand, are maybe easier to explain; simply put, I think I watched one too many old cartoons as a kid.  So all in all, Black Forest cuckoo clocks (or any other kind for that matter) don’t really piqué my interest, so to say.  But, being that we at germany-travel are an open minded, open hearted bunch, and that I’ve been living in Germany for exactly a year now, I figure it’s fair that this American gets familiar with least one (maybe slightly obscure) German original. As a totem for German history and innovation, there are actually few other objects that say so much about this great (and sometimes weird) country than the Black Forest cuckoo clock.  So, as I throw off the shackles of preconception, join me on a Black Forest cuckoo clock fact finding mission that turns out to be surprisingly fascinating, and undeniably impressive.

The Origins (or maybe not) of Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks

One of the silliest and most intriguing things about the Black Forest cuckoo clock story is the origin, or more specifically, the debate on the origin. So it goes that there are two main origin stories for the Black Forest cuckoo clock.  They both take place in the early 17th century, but while one story claims that it was a German invention, the other say that it was a copied design from a Bohemian craftsman traveling through southern Germany.  The first story, penned in 1810 by a priest, states that a gifted German watchmaker was inspired by a church organ to invent a clock with a small cuckoo bird to announce the hour. This story sounds all well and good, until we learn that Franz Anton Ketterer, the aforementioned gifted clock-maker, wasn’t even born when the cuckoo  clock was first invented (in the early 18th century), so that rather deflates that claim.

And on the other hand, the idea of a German craftsman buying and copying a Bohemian cuckoo clock is somewhat unbelievable as well, as there is no evidence of Bohemia (what is now the Czech Republic and South-East Germany) ever having a significant trade or tradition of watch or clock making.  However, no matter the origin, the Black Forest, or Schwarzwald, region of southwestern Germany is without a doubt responsible for the development and popularization of the cuckoo clock.

How Do Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks Work?

On first glance, your basic cuckoo clock may not seem so impressive, but there is an astounding level of engineering that goes into that tiny bird counting out the hours.  Imagine, if the first Black Forest cuckoo clocks were inspired by massive organs in churches, the first clock-makers to craft cuckoo clocks had to harness, and scale down the bellows and pipes that usually fill an entire wall, into a small box that can easily fit in the home, and that’s not to mention it having to share space with the clock gears themselves. And these clocks were invented long before computer aided drafting, calculators and even penicillin.  If that’s not impressive, then I don’t know what is! If you’re still curious as to the actual mechanisms that go into classic Black Forest cuckoo clocks here’s a fun video that shows the inner workings of this type of historic timepiece.

Where to Buy Your Black Forest Cuckoo Clock

Photo by: North Coast Imports

As far as finding the perfect Black Forest cuckoo clock for you during your trip to Germany, it’s obvious in the name that you have to go to the source: the Black Forest.  Because the Black Forest area has such a long tradition of fine woodworking, and clock-making, it should be easy to find a well crafted time piece along your trip.  However, you should be prepared for a few things. First, these timepieces can be astounding, but also pricey.  Prices can range anywhere from under a hundred euros, to thousands.  Also, because these pieces are hand crafted, you should be prepared to take extra precautions when transporting it to your final destination.  More tips on buying and caring for a Black Forest cuckoo clock can be found here.

However, if you are prepared to hunt a little bit, and pack lightly, you should be able to find just the right Black Forest cuckoo clock for you.  Because of their popularity, too, there are thousands of different styles to choose from; everything from the traditional cuckoo bird cuckoo clock, to clocks that tell fairy tales (like the picture above, don’t forget to read the tale at the link!) and little stories every time the hour turns.

So it’s still true, cuckoo clock’s aren’t exactly en vogue right now, but that’s no matter.  They’re impressive and important in their own right. And I mean, if I can learn to appreciate them after a couple of Google searches, anyone can!

Oktoberfest Munich 2013: Dates & little bit of history

Photo by: Stefano

German or no, everyone seems to have their own idea of what Oktoberfest is.  For arguably the vast majority of non-Germans  Oktoberfest usually conjures visions of beer steins, lederhosen and yards of delicious pretzels and wursts of all kinds.  Oktoberfest traditionally takes place in the last weeks of September, through to the beginning of October, and is one of Germany’s (not to mention Munich’s) longest running and most famous events.  However, as Oktoberfest Munich is visited by an estimated 6 million people annually, the event can be a bit overwhelming, but that’s what we at Germany-travel are here for.  For your convenience, here are the Oktoberfest Munich 2013 dates, highlights (and just a little bit of history) to guide you through this Bavarian festival.

Oktoberfest Munich 2013 Dates

This year the original Oktoberfest in Munich begins on September 21st, with events every day until October 6th.  Festivities begin daily between 9:00 a.m. & 12:00 p.m., and last well into the evening.  While entry to the fair grounds, and each of the 14 beer tents is completely free, competition is high.  The 100.000 seats available in the beer tents are usually filled to capacity early in the day.  To avoid disappointment we recommend either booking your tickets for Oktoberfest Munich 2013 in advance, or preparing to queue at the fair grounds well before the gates open, especially on the extremely high traffic days at the weekend (8:00 a.m. or even earlier). Recommendations on planning your arrival to the festival, as well as a full list of Oktoberfest Munich 2013 dates and opening times can be found, in English, at the official Oktoberfest website.

What Not to Miss at Oktoberfest Munich 2013 

Oktoberfest Munich is a long standing German tradition, and with this there are some traditions and ceremonies that are not to be missed.  The opening parade is the traditional beginning to the Oktoberfest festivities, and will officially start Oktoberfest Munich 2013 at 11:00 a.m. on September 21st.  This celebration will feature traditional beer carts, beautifully decorated floats and live bands.

The parade leads to the festival grounds, usually in time for the tapping of the first keg of beer, which happens precisely at noon on the first day of the festival.  This year this ceremonial tapping will be done by the mayor of Munich, and will be followed by a 12 gun salute, that signals the beginning of Oktoberfest and is followed directly by each of the beer tents tapping their first kegs.

After you’ve seen the parade and the official tapping of the first keg, we also recommend you stick around for the famous open-air concert.  If the weather is good, this concert takes place outside at the base of the Bavaria statue, and features live performances from the brass bands that will be performing throughout the week at the fair grounds.

And if you get tired of all the beer, the grounds also provide excellent (non alcoholic) entertainment for the whole family during the day.  Every year Oktoberfest is filled with different carnival style rides and sweet treats to be enjoyed by everyone.  A list of events and activities can be found (again in English) at the official Oktoberfest website.

A Brief History of Oktoberfest Munich

As you trample the festival with the nearly 10.000 other Oktoberfest Munich visitors, don’t forget to consider the over 200 years that this tradition has taken place.  Oktoberfest was created in 1810 by Prince Ludwig of Bavaria to celebrate his marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen with the city of Munich.

The entire city was invited by the royal family to join the celebrations outside the city gates, in the field that is now called Theresienwiese, or ‘Therese’s meadow’ in honor of the princess (you may also hear Theresienwiese referred to as simply the Wies’n).  The festival has survived two world wars, and in it’s over 200 year history, has only been canceled 24 times (due either to war, or cholera epidemics).  The famous Bavaria statue, which watches over the Wies’n, was only erected in 1850, and has been overseen by five different Bavarian kings.

This festival, founded in love and celebration, has come a long way since 1810, but still remains an outstanding celebration of Bavarian and German history.  This celebration has even incorporated some of the best parts of the 21st century into its yearly repertoire, as you can now watch Oktoberfest Munich live via web-cam.  So even if you can’t make it to Bavaria in person, you can still raise a mug, and say prost as you enjoy Oktoberfest Munich 2013!

Things to Do in Berlin: Berlin Parks

Berlin is a unique capital in many ways – its history, its nightlife, its people. But an aspect not to be overlooked is one many Berliners perhaps take for granted – the frequency of green.  With around 70 parks in just one city, I’d say we’re quite spoiled. Berlin parks are everwhere and have become a staple of the city lifestyle as the venue for not just a lazy stroll, a dog walk or an afternoon read but also the thriving alternative of food stands, flea markets and sing-your-heart-out karaoke. Here at germany-travel, we’ve rounded out our top 5 favorites to unwind in the city we call home.

germany-travel’s Top 5 Berlin Parks

1. Görlitzer Park

Görlitzer Park Berlin

Photo by: Rachel Roze

Grimy,  gritty, green – an alliteration one probably doesn’t expect to describe a park, let alone a favorite. Yet Görlitzer Park remains in our top 5 Berlin parks because it’s a Kreuzberg landmark. It’s always at the epicenter of the action, be it May Day or Fête de la Musique. Görlitzer Park’s prime location makes it a perfect spot to relax, best reflected by the interesting mix of people it attracts.  Spätis, shops and restaurants line the park and with Hühnerhaus 36 just at the corner, you needn’t worry when those hunger pangs strike.

2. Volkspark Friedrichshain

Volkspark Friedrichshain
Photo by: © visitBerlin | Koschel

Berlin’s first municipal park has never let me down.  On any given summer day, you’ll find an idyllic landscape of people laying on the grass chatting, grilling, or reading alongside livelier crowds strumming on guitars, battling out fierce, sand-in-your-eye sets of beach volleyball or mastering the halfpipe. With Volkspark Friedrichshain’s extensive amenities, spare some time to check out the Märchenbrunnen, an impressive fountain commemorating the Brothers Grimm‘s popular fairy tales. If you’re too hip for that, head over to the Freiluftkino and catch a film. If you’re still too hip for that, we recommend a nap.

3. Mauerpark

Mauerpark Berlin

Photo by:  Steven Oakes

Mauerpark: noun the quintessential park entry in any Berlin travel guide, only topped by Tiergarten.

Every Berliner (and tourist) knows about the lively flea market culture in Berlin; even places like the WYE and Kater Holzig have taken advantage of the Berlin trend with their own indoor versions. But serious flea market enthusiasts know that the real scene lies in Berlin parks, with Mauerpark at its helm. Mauerpark has been synonymous with its Sunday flea market, attracting hundreds of vendors for its affordable rental policies – only to rival Hartz IV as a means of livelihood – and thousands more on the lookout for the hip, cheap and delicious. Take a break at the ampitheater (pictured above) and either shine or spectate during Sunday karaoke. Weekend events aside, Mauerpark is an unmissable expanse of green in the heart of Prenzlauer Berg where one can always find an ideal corner – or a children’s swing with excellent views.

4. Monbijoupark

Monbijoupark

Photo by: © visitBerlin | Koschel

Nestled in the popular district of Mitte right along the river Spree is Monbijoupark. French for “my jewel”, Monbijoupark embodies what it is: a green gem with breathtaking views of famous sights like the Berliner Dom and the Bode Museum, with its prime location a stone’s throw away from Museum Island. A castle once stood at the park, which the Second World War has since claimed. Today, locals and visitors can now enjoy a little piece of green and quiet, in the middle of the hustle and bustle.

5. Preußenpark


Photo by: Jusan

Our wild card entry, but one that’s definitely deserving for a quirky reason. Visit Preußenpark anytime during the week and it’s just what it is – a common green space in Berlin-Wilmersdorf. But come Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the little humble park transforms into a Thai Park where middle-aged Thai women armed with snacks, sweets and meals set up shop to showcase their exotic homeland delicacies. Turn on the picnic mood and elevate your palate for a truly unique park visit – drinks included.

With so many Berlin parks to enjoy, did we miss your favorite in our top 5 Berlin parks? Let us know!

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