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Europe's sleeping beauty

Germany is a revelation for those with an oompah-band bias. A country of snow-white peaks and lyrical castles, it unfolds like a fairy tale.

October 22, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Cologne, Germany — WHEN we told people we were going to Germany for our summer vacation, the universal response was, "Oh, you're going for the World Cup. Cool."

When we explained that no, actually, we had timed our trip to miss the World Cup, with all its ancillary hotel and traffic jams, our friends looked at us with mild bewilderment and asked, "Then why are you going to Germany?"

Tell someone you're going to Italy, France, London, Ireland, Prague or Vietnam and they'll nod with envy -- lucky you. But unless you're off to Munich for Oktoberfest or Berlin for the film festival, Germany is a cipher -- for Americans anyway -- trailing Mexico, Canada, Britain, France, China and Italy as an international tourist destination.

We came to Germany because we have good friends who are German, and we thought it would be fun to learn about their country the way they have learned about ours. Some of what we learned during almost three weeks of our German summer:

* The landscape is as green and pastoral as Ireland with, at least in the areas we visited, castles everywhere you look.

* Likewise, the landscape is dotted with vineyards, Roman ruins and medieval cities just like in Italy.

* The people, though not unfriendly, are reserved, which may seem at odds with their penchant for beer gardens and public nudity -- it's legal here.

* The food is not for the faint of heart, relying on cured meats, cheeses, pork and a variety of tasty but heavy sauces.

* You may never again be able to settle for an American pretzel or even American bread.

Because we were traveling with four young children, ranging in age from 6 to 12, we decided to save Berlin for another trip and concentrate on outdoor and medieval Germany.

The two families were to meet in Cologne, travel southwest along the Moselle Valley and then pick up the Romantic Road, which runs through western Bavaria. We would spend a week in a Bavarian farmhouse before parting -- they to Stuttgart, we to Munich, where my cousin and her family had recently moved.

Cologne is a busy, mostly modern city, so after meeting at the famous Cologne Cathedral, we pushed on to our first real destination: Koblenz, which, situated at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine rivers, is considered the gateway to the romantic Rhine.

We stayed one night at a Pension outside of town, where we learned a valuable lesson: Eat dinner in beer and wine gardens because German restaurants are mostly very quiet, and beer and wine gardens often have a play area for the kids.

Koblenz is a lovely little city, but we spent most of our time there exploring the Ehrenbreitstein, a fortress overlooking both rivers that has been in place since pre-Roman times. A visit to the fortress, which contains a hostel, a restaurant and two museums, could occupy most of a day. In its Landesmuseum, artifacts from local digs chronicle the area from prehistoric times through the Celts, Romans and early Germans, which was fascinating.

From Koblenz we drove through the Moselle Valley to Trier. If we have one regret about our trip, it's that we didn't spend enough time in the Moselle Valley, which is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. Hills green with forests and steep vineyards cradle the twisting river. Castle ruins rise from the greenery like a Romanticist's dream as one charming town after another beckons with geranium-frilled windows and shady cafes.

Trier is one of the oldest cities in Germany, anchored by the Porta Nigra (Black Gate), the ruins of the 2nd century fortification that surrounded what was then a Roman outpost. We took a two-hour walking tour with a guide supplied by the tourist office (we told them we had young children), and she, and the town, were so interesting that the kids didn't start whining until about five minutes before the end. Miraculous.

Roman ruins dot the city, including an amphitheater and ancient baths, recently restored. The Roman Emperor Constantine spent some time here, building an awe-inspiring throne hall that is now a Protestant church, as well as a series of baths that are still being excavated. A more modern figure, Karl Marx, was born here; his house, now a museum, details the rise and fall of Marxism and Communism. (All exhibits are in German, but there is an English audio tour.)

*

Cool sites for a kid

FROM Trier, we headed southeast to Bruhl, a small town outside Heidelberg, where our friend's mother had kindly offered to put us all up. There we learned a very helpful thing about German towns: Many of them have terrific public swimming pools. Although I hope my kids remember the various castles, parks, ruins and trails we visited in Germany, I know they will remember the super-cool waterslide in Bruhl.

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