Scene
A Whirlwind Affair
Lim Siew May 
The Brandenburg Gate, built in the 18th century, is one of the best-known landmarks in Germany
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It may intrigue you to learn that a German blacksmith named Johannes Gutenberg is credited for making the printing press commercially viable in the 15th century, even though the history of printing had earlier roots in China and Korea.

Fast forward to the 21st century, the country’s proud tradition with technological prowess remains intact. Mention Germany and its technological breakthroughs come to mind, especially in the automobile industry where names like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are internationally renowned.

In 2016, Germany was the largest car exporter in the world, bringing in about US$152 bil (RM596.9 bil) for the country, as reported by WorldsTopExports.com.

So when the German National Tourist Board invited a group of Southeast Asian journalists for a press junket in Germany last month, I was thrilled, the excitement attributed in no small part to the fact that it would also be my first trip to Europe.

Over four days, we visited four cities – Frankfurt, Erfurt, Dresden and Berlin. Being winter, daylight was short, and the weather was cold and gloomy. And it wasn’t the white Christmas that we had hoped.

Our first stop was Frankfurt, the economic hub of Europe since this is where the headquarters of the European Central Bank, Frankfurt Stock Exchange, Deutsche Bank and German Federal Bank are located.

We only spent about half a day in the city after a surprisingly eye-opening tour inside the airplane organised by the Lufthansa German Airlines. We were invited to go into the cockpit and pretend to be pilots, view the lower deck resting cabins for the crew, and experience some of the facilities extended to Business Class and First Class passengers.

In the city, we had a quick tour in a van that took us past some of Frankfurt’s most interesting skyscrapers. At the end of the ride, we arrived at the famed Frankfurt Christmas Market (more on this later).

However, no thanks to jet lag, I could only remember the sleek modern architecture with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows revealing the goings-on within.

The next day, we took a two-hour train ride to Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia. A quaint city, Erfurt was a refreshing departure from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis of Frankfurt. It is one of the lesser known places in Germany to Asian tourists; a representative from Erfurt’s tourism office shared that the city only welcomed 400 Asian visitors in the last three months.

The vibrant Erfurt Christmas Market is set against the backdrop of the Gothic-inspired St. Mary’s Cathedral and St. Severus Church

Nevertheless, Erfurt was full of medieval charm and character. A leisurely stroll around the city passing its old quarter, the Merchants’ Bridge, the gothic St Mary’s Cathedral and St Severus Church overlooking the main town square, reminded me of the opening scene in Disney’s animated classic Beauty and The Beast, when Belle walked through her provincial town.

The next day, we made our way to Dresden. My heart skipped a beat as I marvelled at the architectural wonders in Dresden, the capital of the eastern German state of Saxony. One of the more fascinating sights was the Albrechtsberg Castle along the Elbe River.

Berlin was the last city on our agenda. We took a stroll at some of the key tourist spots such as the Berlin Wall and the Parliament, which boast various architectural styles like Renaissance, Postmodern and Baroque Revival.

Some sites were particularly evocative, particularly the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered Under the National Socialist Regime. The information brochure had such interesting information such as the chronology of the racially-motivated genocide as well as photos.

In the brochure, memorial designer Dani Karavan explains the rationale behind his simple but profound concept: “(The emptiness and painful memories) are reflected, upside down, in the water of the deep, black pit, covered by the sky – the water, the tears. Only a small stone, which sinks and rises, again and again, day after day. And on it every day a new blossom, so that each day we can remember anew, constantly, to all eternity.”

On a less sombre note, lunch later that day included a dessert of the famous apple strudels. They were warm with just the right amount of sweetness. I loved the taste so much that I wished I could have bought some to take home with me!

Obviously, four days was not enough to properly appreciate all that Germany has to offer to a traveller. One travel tip I would give was to learn some basic German words. Signages, product labels and instruction manuals do not always come with English translation.

Dresden’s The Fürstenzug (or Procession of Princes) mural depicts 35 margraves, electors, dukes and kings of the House of Wettin 


German words are not always easy to decipher. Hence, figuring out which toilet to enter (Damen is for ladies, and Herren is for gentlemen) or even trying to operate the TV remote and heater in your hotel room can be exasperating.

Nevertheless, my unfamiliarity with the local language may have inadvertently enriched my travel adventure. As a well-travelled friend said to me, when you are on holiday in a foreign land, learn to enjoy the experience of being lost.

This trip was made possible by German National Tourist Board and Lufthansa.

Interesting facts about Germany

1. It has the world’s most powerful passport

Germany boasts the most powerful passport in the world, according to the 2018 Henley Passport Index. It has topped the list for five years in a row by virtue of the impressive number of countries (177) its passport holder can visit without a visa. In contrast, Malaysia with visa-free travel to 166 countries, is placed 12th.

 

2. Free education at public universities

A degree in Germany is free for its citizens and international students from all over the world. According to German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), this is possible as public higher education institutions in Germany receive substantial state funding. Hence, public German universities can afford to waive tuition fees all the way to PhD level.

DAAD adds that most undergraduate programmes expect applicants to have some basic knowledge of German, which can be acquired in a relatively short time. Interestingly, postgraduate programmes would often waive the German language requirement, although students will have the opportunity to learn the language while pursuing their courses.

There are about 700 Malaysians studying in Germany, mainly in the engineering field.

 

3. The Christmas Market originated from Germany

Although other European countries have their own versions, Christmas Market or Weihnachtsmarkt has a German origin that can be traced back to the late Middle Ages.

Vendors at the market would start selling a variety of goods four weeks before Christmas. From Glühwein (mulled wine) and hot chocolate to grilled sausages and gingerbread and even wooden toys, the air is always filled with festive cheer.

Every Christmas Market we visited on this trip – Frankfurt Christmas Market, Erfurt Christmas Market, Striezelmarket in Dresden and WeihnachtsZauber Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin – featured pretty much the standard knickknacks, food and beverages. However, one key distinction that sets them apart is the unique backdrop they are set against, which lends each market a different character.

It is also worth pointing out that each market has its own uniquely designed mugs. I regretted not collecting the mugs from the markets!

If you are accompanied by young children or if shopping is not really your scene, you may enjoy the many forms of amusement such as the merry-go-round, the Ferris wheel, the petting zoo, and even live music entertainment. But nothing beats sipping a hot drink and snacking on hot food in freezing winter.

 



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 270.