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Architecture

A wide range of styles through western European architectural history is on show in Germany, in spite of catastrophic damage done to many of its cities during World War II. As well as carefully restored or preserved city precincts, travellers can seek out open-air museums, which provide a guide to regional variety. For a more romantic taste there are countless castles, palaces and country manor houses.

Styles

Before the 19th century, Germany produced few innovations in architecture. Right at the start of German history the emperor Charlemagne chose to largely copy the church of San Vitale in Ravenna to invest his chapel in Aachen with the weight of imperial authority. The result of this patronage is a cathedral with a core in the Byzantine style, later enlarged in Gothic. Receiving influences mostly from France and Italy, Germany’s architecture came to be about blends in styles.

Another of Germany’s oldest buildings, the former abbey church of St Emmeram in Regensburg, shows the same tendency to mixtures and contrasts. The visitor arrives through a Gothic portal to an originally Romanesque nave (maintaining some Romanesque painting) that has given way to rich Baroque ornament overhead. Visits to such sites deliver plenty of variety.

The Romanesque and Gothic periods came later to Germany than their genesis in France and the German Baroque flowered after Italy's. The biggest novelty before the modern period was probably northern Germany’s characteristic take on Gothic, whether in its churches or town halls. The red-brick Gothic (Backsteingotik) spread with the influence of trade from Lübeck and is the style of the other Hanseatic trading ports such as Rostock, Wismar and Stralsund. This form, which overcame the lack of suitable building stone, became Germany’s architectural gift to much of the Baltic. Red brick never lost its utility, surviving through the Renaissance in the stepped-gable town house. Gothic in particular never released its hold on the German imagination, however Romanesque and Gothic are today most prevalent where the lack of later prosperity did not permit expensive Baroque makeovers.

Germany and Austria had largely to themselves the so-called Biedermeier style of the 19th century, being about intimate interiors that appealed to the bourgeois taste of the period. But it was not until the 20th century that a German take on utility and form produced internationally influential work, most prominently the Bauhaus phenomenon.

For discussions of German architecture visit www.goethe.de/en/kul/arc.html at the Goethe-Institut website.

Religious buildings

Churches are the prominent examples of architecture in most cities and towns and their social role as symbols of community belief and worship delivered their builders the resources and determination to produce works of splendour. This holds true from the Romanesque of the earliest churches and monasteries – the foundations of Trier’s cathedral were begun in the 4th century – to 19th century expressions of Prussian might.

The German cathedral (Dom, strictly a term also applied to collegiate churches) survives in splendid Romanesque in Mainz, Trier, Worms, Speyer, Hildesheim and (much rebuilt) in Würzburg, not to mention the almost pristine abbey church of Maria Laach near Koblenz. More modest are the churches of Goslar and the small churches scattered through the eastern Harz and around Magdeburg, gathered into a little-known travel route dubbed Straße der Romanik. Cologne has a valuable and varied group of 12 Romanesque churches surrounding its famous cathedral. Ideally, in medieval practice, the cathedral portal points west, so the bishop and his flock enter – and worship – facing east.

It would be wrong to suppose that grand Gothic cathedrals such as those that survive in Cologne and Regensburg looked much the same to medieval worshippers – Cologne’s Dom took more than 600 years to be realised in its present form and Regensburg too shows the benefits of 19th century Neogothic reinterpretation; in both these cases this is particularly true of the towers.

Yet the Catholic pilgrimage churches of Bavaria would have looked very similar in their Baroque splendour, a beacon on the hill above a town beset by resurgent plagues and a cry to the Virgin for deliverance. Changed forever were others that now stand in ruins as monuments to war, such as Berlin’s Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche or Hannover’s Aegidienkirche. The great bells of Lübeck’s Marienkirche rest today where they fell after a merciless 1942 air attack. Thankfully restored – from no more than a pile of stone with the guidance of pictures and worldwide donations – is Dresden’s precious Baroque Frauenkirche.

Synagogues that survived the Holocaust and the city infernos show more exotic influences. Most of those that had to be rebuilt, such as in the centre of Dresden, are of the Postmodern school.

Active churches are generally open to the public outside service times and the conduct of visitors should be respectful. Admission charges are rare, although parishes are grateful for donations to church maintenance. Church guide booklets covering architectural history as well as describing interior artworks are widely available within. Many cathedrals and churches forbid photography (or flashes) inside while others charge for the privilege. Charges should be expected for scheduled tours, tower climbs or organ concerts.

Townscapes

Rome left its mark firmly on Germany and today its traces are in Cologne, Mainz, Passau, Regensburg and Koblenz as well as restored treasures at Xanten near the Dutch border. But standing apart is Trier, with its claim to being German’s oldest city. Its mighty Porta Nigra has withstood centuries and conversion as a church. A full ancient basilica, the remains of three bath complexes, a fascinating amphitheatre and a museum packed with rescued treasures all place the city ahead of its German neighbours as a monument to Roman power.

Medieval towns in Germany’s southern and central parts tended to surround the main church and marketplace (Marktplatz or just Markt) and grow out radially. In the northern regions some villages tended to string out along one or two roads. These factors can help orient the traveller, especially where the towers of the main church can be picked out as central landmarks. Planning the positions of the earliest churches in the shape of a rough cross is known from cities such as Bamberg and (more exactly) Goslar.

The city fountain (Brunnen), depending on its age, served as a water supply but the more ornate bronze edifices celebrate man's mastery of the waters in the shape of local rivers as represented by figures. It can be worth inquiring to understand the whole significance of such a monument.

Where town walls survive they can present (on a summer evening, when other attractions are closed) a pleasant stroll around the old defences, usually picked out on the map by street names with telltale endings (-mauer, -wall, -wallstraße or -graben). A gateway (Tor) often has its own tower (Turm). Many of the wall precincts, often with water components, are suitably greened today for free public enjoyment.

There are still several medieval walled towns to savour – most fully Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbühl in western Franconia – but there are other delights at Amberg near Nuremberg, which itself maintains an array of defences topped by a castle. In most cities only sections of wall and the gateways survive, but these are impressive enough: witness Lübeck’s Holstentor, Rostock’s Steintor or the remnants in Augsburg or Goslar. Most of the towers and gateways are not imaginatively named: Rothenburg has its Weißer Turm ('white tower') and Rödertor ('red gate'), Regensburg its Ostentor ('east gate'). Other names indicate the next town, hence Berlin's Brandenburger Tor ('gate to Brandenburg').

A rising urban commercial class also spent its wherewithal on building. In Augsburg the wealth of rich banking and trading dynasties shaped the streets. In the north, red brick is given full play in the phenomenon of the town hall, with Gothic or Renaissance gables, frequently attended by the local Roland, a legendary warrior giant standing guard to the city’s security and asserting its civic independence (especially against church magnates).

Hardly unique to Germany are the cobbled street and the half-timbered house (Fachwerkhaus). But in smaller cities such as Goslar, Wernigerode and Quedlinburg in the Harz, or in Hamelin (Hameln) near Hannover, whole half-timbered streets give a real sense of the late Gothic and Renaissance town environment, replete with dated dedications to God in late medieval Low German and often restored in a riot of colour. Only the south-east strip of Bavaria and part of East Frisia fall outside the region for half-timbered building.

Further south, Italian-style Gothic tower houses found a home in Regensburg. Naturally an Italian-flavoured Baroque became prominent in Bavaria, evident in Würzburg, Bamberg and tiny Füssen as well as Augsburg, Passau and Munich, where eastern influences had earlier introduced the onion dome.

Local flavours began to stamp themselves on European paradigms in the 18th century. A more severe interpretation of Baroque emerged in Berlin. The Biedermeier period, from the early 19th century, was associated with the rise of the middle class and a greater emphasis on domesticity and simplified lines. This was best reflected in interiors and furniture. But the Neoclassicism of Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Leo von Klenze left a more external and lasting mark on Berlin and Munich respectively.

It was a second surge of business activity, driven this time by late 19th century industrialisation, that brought the multi-storey barrack-style tenements (Mietskaserne) to Berlin as a new type of mass accommodation for the workers. The Wilhelmine (in its early period known as Gründerzeit) architecture of the Prussian imperial period became known for its bombast, epitomised by the cathedral of Berlin, but its legacy in city residences is looked upon more kindly.

In the 20th century Germany had a powerful international impact on Modernist principles. A German variant of Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) was reflected in key buildings in Frankfurt and Munich but architects pursuing Modernism (Neues Bauen), led by Peter Behrens, quickly moved on to so-called industrial Classicism. The Bauhaus movement, centred on Weimar and then Dessau and led by Behrens’ pupil Walter Gropius, revolutionised design, raising utility and simplicity to top priority and calling for a rigorous and complete approach to buildings, interiors and fittings. Nazism in effect snuffed this out, although not before its influence had spread, becoming Germany's most pervasive contribution to design. Although the grandiose city plans of Hitler and Albert Speer were never realised, the Nazis gave the world Berlin’s Olympiastadion and the enlarged Tempelhof airport.

War damage demanded half a century of city rebuilding. Careful restoration or renovation of key buildings was an important part of this process. After reunification Berlin’s second post-war reconstruction, including Lord Foster’s redesign of the Reichstag, became the focus of excitement as new city precincts were developed. The rise of the new Potsdamer Platz marked this rebirth, as did the renovation of the Olympic stadium.

Castles & palaces

Money and resources elsewhere went to build powerful central states – in German lands they went into impressive and scattered estates. The pattern of German history before the 19th century maintained a political landscape of mostly tiny units. The legacy of their large princely and noble classes was thousands of palaces, castles, manor houses and their households and gardens and many are open for public viewing today.

The military purposes of fortifications, and the desire of powerful builders for imposing residences in the landscape, mean they command striking vistas. Many have interiors that can be toured and some contain museums.

After Aachen, the imperial palace at Goslar is the oldest such building in Germany, preserving Romanesque features despite changes to the interior of the great hall. Considered the truest of the surviving medieval castles are Marksburg, above the Rhine south of Koblenz, and Wartburg, above Eisenach. Representing generations of changing styles from the 12th century on is Burg Eltz in a quiet valley near the Moselle. The romance of ruins brings many travellers to the electoral palace at Heidelberg.

For sheer impregnability and a forbidding collection of stories, Festung Königstein above the Elbe near Dresden stands apart. Its spectacular command of the valley affords a view that is one of the best available in Germany – beyond the border, in fact. Other views to savour are from Festung Ehrenbreitstein above Koblenz, where the Rhine and Moselle meet, and Veste Oberhaus above Passau, where the Danube, Inn and Ilz converge.

By the 18th century, Italian opulence was in full play, exemplified by the Residenz of the prince-bishops of Würzburg and its magnificent staircase. Smaller but almost as lavish is the Bamberg residence.

The French influence, driven by the example of Versailles, returned in buildings such as Frederick the Great’s Rococo palace Schloß Sanssouci in Potsdam and Berlin’s Schloß Charlottenburg. The extensive Renaissance and Baroque palace complex of Dresden and the adjacent court church and Rococo Zwinger used both French and Italian models.

For a 19th century medievalist pastiche from fantasy, many travellers are drawn to Schloß Neuschwanstein near Füssen, perhaps the best known postcard in Germany.

Opening hours at castles and palaces are longer in summer but, given the crowds, there can be waits to enter as well. Tickets at some sites are timed or set tours compulsory.

For a colourful guide to hundreds of castles, palaces, historic houses and gardens open for public viewing, as restaurants or as accommodation, visit the Schenck’s Castles & Gardens website www.schenckguide.com.

Travellers hoping to visit many palaces, castles and gardens in Bavaria should consider the passes offered by the Bavarian state authority Bayerische Verwaltung der staatlichen Schlößer, Gärten und Seen (www.schloesser.bayern.de). This does not administer all sites in Bavaria, but most of the popular attractions are included. For individuals/families (effectively two adults) a 14-day pass costs €24/44 and a 12-month pass €45/65, which will be a saving if the plan is to visit multiple sites in Munich, Nuremberg, Bamberg, Würzburg or Neuschwanstein near Füssen – even though visitors under 18 are normally admitted free. The website, which has an English version, also has full details of the sites, opening times and admission prices. The cards can be bought at most participating castles, at the authority's office in Munich (see the Munich guide) or through the online shop at the website.

The SchlösserlandKARTE offers similar benefits in Saxony. A one-year (€40) or 10-day (€20) pass allow entry to for 40 castles and palaces and their standing exhibits. Passes are available at castle ticket offices. There are also discounts on special exhibitions, but tours are not included. Two children under 15 can accompany an adult. Two one-year passes cost €70, two 10-day passes €35. The castles covered include the chief attractions in and around Dresden, the Albrechtsburg in Meissen and Festung Königstein. For a full list and more details visit www.schloesserland-sachsen.de/en/home, where passes can be ordered online.

Books

Most attention to Germany in the written word probably goes to Nazi and World War II themes but for travellers a fuller grasp of Germany is needed for all its past – and its present – to be understood. Much of this seems long-winded but much needs to be said.

General

There can be few books as penetrating as Gordon A. Craig’s The Germans, first released in 1982 but reissued in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. From politics to literature, it encompasses most aspects of German culture and lays bare the national character with piercing insight. Travellers looking for meaning from only a few pages of German history should read the first chapter, while a superb summing up of Berlin comes late in the book.

History

Keen readers will not be wanting for overall histories of Germany. Geoffrey Barraclough’s benchmark work The Origins of Modern Germany authoritatively covers the history of social and national institutions from Charlemagne through to the Prussian emergence and World War I – with particular emphasis on the medieval period. But it is decidedly specialist in its focus, which is on constitutional development against the background of the struggle between popes and the Holy Roman empire. First published in 1947, its releases continued into the 1980s.

More appealing to general readers might be Steven Ozment’s A Mighty Fortress: A new history of the German people (2004). This is a journey into the German spirit through ideas, dwelling on Luther, Frederick the Great, Bismarck and Hitler and skipping over institutions such as the Hanseatic League and the details of the imperial-papal struggle.

A recent German view is available in translation through the Berlin historian Hagen Schulze and his 2001 work Germany: A new history.

In practical terms Frankish history is the start of German history and the Penguin edition Two Lives of Charlemagne offers a fond biographical view by Einhard from the first emperor’s own time and a more dispassionate summary from a medieval monk. To background Frankish history there is Rosamond McKitterick’s 1983 volume The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, which is not too long but scholarly.

Standing back somewhat from the German perspective on the disasters of the 17th century is Peter H. Wilson’s 2009 tour de force Europe’s Tragedy: A new history of the Thirty Years War. But it takes commitment at 800-1000 pages, depending on the edition.

Even history buffs will find Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom: The rise and downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 a challenge at over 600 pages. It tells the story with plenty of detail, but hits the mark in explaining the forces that unified a fragmented Germany and made Prussia a name to be feared.

For a gritty account of the crucial interwar Weimar politics, try and find the journalist Sefton Delmer’s short but incisive 1972 Macdonald softcover work Weimar Germany: Democracy on trial. It can be read online at www.psywar.org/delmer/1025/1065.

William L. Shirer’s 1960 book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich has been much criticised by historians. First published a year later, also controversial but based on rigorous examination of documents, is A.J.P. Taylor’s The Origins of World War II. For recent perspectives on Germany’s destruction, look for Antony Beevor’s Berlin: The downfall 1945. For Hitler, read Joachim Fest’s monumental 1973 volume Hitler or Ian Kershaw’s more recent Hitler: A biography.

The story of the Berlin Wall is told from all sides – east, west, above and below – in Frederick Taylor's The Berlin Wall: A world divided, 1961-1989 published in 2006 and released in paperback two years later.

Peter Watson's 800-page epic The German Genius: Europe's third renaissance, the second scientific revolution and the 20th century (2010) is a thorough study of thinking and knowledge in the German lands since the Enlightenment and does much to explain the German intellect as well as its international contribution, especially to Western higher education.

For an altogether quirkier take on German history and culture look at Simon Winder’s breezy 2010 travelogue Germania: A personal history of Germans ancient and modern.

Literature

To get a sense of German literature without reading German is not impossible. Plenty of the great works are in translation and even discussion of contemporary trends is accessible. The Goethe-Institut website has a range of magazine-style articles at www.goethe.de/en/kul/lit.html.

It is easy to be controversial but impossible to be truly representative of a culture’s literary output with a short selection. The several titles below introduce some of German literature’s great names, while bearing in mind that Kafka was mostly resident in Prague and Brecht and Mann were forced to spend much of their lives outside Germany. This list is no literary guide but tries to give a sense of German literature’s periods since the late 18th century, blending novels and plays (which have real poetic qualities in the originals) to offer perspectives on German culture, history and thought.

Faust, parts one and two (plays), and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Wallenstein plays (Wallenstein's Camp, The Piccolomini, Wallenstein's Death) – Friedrich von Schiller
Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
The Trial – Franz Kafka
Berlin Alexanderplatz: The story of Franz Bieberkopf – Alfred Döblin
Mother Courage and her Children (play) – Bertolt Brecht
The Tin Drum - Günter Grass
The End of a Mission – Heinrich Böll

For medieval flavour the German verse epics are accessible in English prose, though they should be considered works of fancy with historical interest. In the 1970s and 1980s Penguin Classics released paperback editions of The Niebelungenlied, Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (translated with notes by A.T. Hatto, who supplemented the missing finale of Tristan from the work of Thomas of Britain). A more recent translation is Burton Raffel’s 2006 Das Nibelungenlied: Song of the Nibelungs. Everyman Library released Kudrun (translated with notes by Brian O. Murdoch) in 1987.

German poetry down the years from the ninth century can be tackled with little or no German. The Penguin Book of German Verse was released in successive editions from the late 1950s, offering prose renderings by Leonard Forster of all but the most recent work. Michael Hofmann in 2008 produced an up-to-date paperback collection of translations in Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An anthology, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Both books can be ordered online.

Berlin

In a rambling, anecdotal but fairly compact storyteller’s format, Michael Farr chronicles the city’s personalities and its cultural development in Berlin! Berlin! Its Culture and Times. It can seem disjointed at times but actors, architects and kings all march in his passing parade.

Berlin and Its Culture: A historical portrait by Ronald Taylor is more solid and methodical, extremely good as a cultural survey of all periods, given that the information available for Berlin’s medieval and Renaissance period is limited.

The novel is one of the best ways to experience the colourful and amoral interwar period. The classic in English is Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, the basis of the Broadway musical and 1972 Bob Fosse movie Cabaret. But Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (see above), from the German, takes the reader straight to the streets.

The giant Taschen volume Berlin: Portrait of a city assembles photographs from Berlin’s rich life in unmatched breadth and variety with backgrounding text. It’s the ideal place to look back into the many lost Berlins since the mid-19th century – the Imperial Prussian, interwar and wartime capitals, the rubble at so-called Stunde Null (the end of World War II) and the divided Cold War metropolis. Precious snapshots plus aerial views and maps show how much, and how often, the city has changed.

The handbook-sized Art & Architecture Berlin, published by H.F. Ullmann in English translation, is a rich and lively background resource for artworks, buildings and places throughout Berlin and Potsdam and the people who built and shaped them. It has wide scope and will be quite informative in the hands of the traveller even if its English expression falls short of the overall standard in some parts. There is also a solid hardback bilingual volume. Both can be ordered at www.ullmann-publishing.com/en/books/themes/art-and-architecture.

Cuisine & refreshment

Food is regional and in Germany this is particularly so. Some of what are now identified as German dishes are derived from other parts of central Europe and there is often a broad distinction drawn between south and north that is probably overstated. Nonetheless seafood is inevitably northern and a wide range of Bavarian and Swabian specialities are clear in their origins.

German menus

The accent might seem to be on the rich and the sweet but the subtleties are important. One generalisation is possible: meat, usually pork, beef or poultry, tends to be pot-roasted or marinated or made into countless varieties of sausage. Breads and rolls of hundreds of types, colours and textures are a breakfast staple to be expected in most hotels and pensions.

Contributions from minorities – especially the Turkish – have helped put a more international face on a German food scene that now more readily shares diverse tastes. But some characteristics can be picked out for travellers to experience.

For an authentically regional German experience, observe the tradition of the Ratskeller restaurants in or under the town hall (Rathaus) building in most cities and towns. These will not often be cheap but some of the local fare will be mid-priced.

A bewildering range of types of mushroom (often Champignon or Pilz, but also rejoicing in names of varieties such as Pfifferlingen) is likely to be on menus in modest or mid-range restaurants. Likewise the love for asparagus (much of it white) leads to the common sight of a Spargelmenü with a range of dishes designed around it. Potatoes (Kartoffeln) are still the usual partners on the meat plate.

Konditoreien are cafes serving rich cakes, pastries and confections, firmly part of the culture. Icecream – often stacked into large glasses (Eisbecher) and served with varieties of fresh berries – is one of the delights of German summer travel.

Typical tastes

A short list of dishes travellers can look for at traditional restaurants follows. Vegetarians and vegans will mostly be disappointed.

Klöße, Knödel: both referring to types of potato dumplings, Klöße being the more common term in the north. Knödel is the term in the south (sometimes the word will be Nudeln).
Rotkohl: red cabbage served with meat dishes.
Sauerkraut: pickled white cabbage prepared in a variety of regional styles.
Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte: the famous Black Forest cake, a chocolate sponge with cream and cherries.
Schweinshaxen: Bavarian pork knuckles (trotters).
Spätzle: soft pasta egg noodles generally associated with Swabia.
Strudel: layered pastry most often associated with apple filling and originally from eastern Europe.
Wiener Schnitzel: these breaded veal cutlets are obviously from an Austrian home but there is little separating what is now Bavarian from Austrian food. Schnitzel varieties have proliferated.
Wurst: sausage, whether served with a meal or as street food with mustard, has many regional forms that are worth sampling, notably Weißwurst and Bratwurst (both have several variations).

Local tastes

Dishes, delicacies and drinks associated with particular cities are many but several worth looking for follow.

Bamberg: Bamberger Rauchbier is a term covering a group of reddish smoked strong lager varieties using kiln-dried malted barley and produced in pub breweries. The most reputed is Schlenkerla but most of the local breweries have varieties to sample.
Berlin: the Berliner Weiße sour light beer is traditionally flavoured with a berry syrup. While in the capital, try what the rest of Germany calls the Berliner, a type of sugared jam doughnut Berlin residents themselves call Pfannkuchen (and very different to the Pfannkuchen seen elsewhere).
Dresden: Dresdner Stollen or Christstollen combines bread and bun, coming as a long loaf spiced with dried fruit (the tastiest with marzipan) and strewn with icing sugar. Known traditionally as Striezel, it belongs to the bakers of Dresden and is a favourite at the Christmas festival or Striezelmarkt.
Lübeck: Lübecker marzipan, the spiced and sweetened almond and honey confection, first came to the city in late medieval times and became known for its high almond content. Tradition links the name with St Mark (Marci pane or Mark’s bread).
Nuremberg: Nürnberger Rostbratwurst, the oldest (14th century) recorded of the sausage varieties most identified with Franconia, today is presented as a short chopped-pork sausage, seasoned with marjoram and best enjoyed grilled over a flame. A trio served in a roll (locally Weckla) with mustard is the popular city street food, otherwise served on a plate with sauerkraut or potato salad around Hauptmarkt or in Rathausplatz.
Regensburg: the Regensburger, known locally as Knacker, is a boiled variety of white pork Wurst served with a salad of red onion, mustard, oil and vinegar.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbühl: Schneeballen, a sweet ball of rolled short-crust pastry strips, is larger than a tennis ball and typically brushed with sugar but sometimes glazed and flavoured with chocolate or nuts. It is the No 1 item in the local Konditoreien and popular in tourist cafes. Plum Schnapps or rum are additives for extra flavour.
Worms: Liebfraumilch or Liebfrauenmilch is a white, slightly sweet and low-cost wine first produced from the vines of the Liebfrauenstift but now through exports associated with much of the Rheinhessen wine region.

Alcohol at table

No country is more closely associated with beer. There are more than 1200 German breweries and many of the brands are now internationally known. The many varieties and brands of Pilsener – actually from Bohemian origins – lead the choices in lagers.

Among the wines, of which the 13 recognised German regions produce more than a billion bottles a year, the Riesling (white) varieties are probably the leaders and the local pinot noir (Spätburgunder) variants are the chief reds.

The word for a shot of sharp white liquor, Schnapps (also Korn or the stronger Doppelkorn), is applied to drinks distilled from fruit and grain or potatoes and taken neat with meals.

Events

Big events are not always celebrations. Business is big in Germany and the many trade fairs (Messen) seem to dominate accommodation in cities such as Hannover, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt and make a big impact in Nuremberg, Munich, Cologne and Berlin. There are many hundreds in Germany each year – sometimes multiple events at once in a big city – and this affects especially budget accommodation, which is often booked out or much more expensive at these times. Hannover – the home of Deutsche Messe – in March and April is abuzz with activity. To check, especially for the abovenamed cities, travellers should go to www.tradefairdates.com and select Germany for the full trade fair calendar.

But costume fun also attracts the masses to local events of all types. There is a German fondness for summer festivals based on local historical events such as Dinkelsbühl’s Kinderzeche late in June as well as the gaiety of Fastnacht, which overtakes many of the western and north-western cities. These festivals tend to last about 10 days, no doubt because this covers two weekends. The third weekend of September is the Spreewaldfest in Lübben, a town in the region of Lusatia south-east of Berlin, interesting because amid the revelry it acknowledges the native ethnic minority the Sorbs, with traditional punt rides and costumes.

Calendar of celebrations

Here are the big events probably likely to affect travellers – whether or not they are keen to take part:
New Year brings on celebrations of an international character and New Year’s Eve, known as Silvester, is party time, with fireworks in most cities.

The mid-February Shrovetide Monday festival of Fastnacht, Fasching or Karneval (the name depends on the location) brings costumed night parades and festivities that tend to take over cities such as Cologne, Düsseldorf, Bonn, Mainz and Aachen and other parts of North Rhine-Westphalia, as well as parts of Rheinland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemburg.
April 30 brings Walpurgisnacht and its traditional associations with witches, and the Harz region comes alive with modern celebrations of Wicca. Next day brings May Day labour parades throughout Germany (and some political demonstrations) and maypoles combined with town or village fairs are common in southern Germany, though they are also seen far to the north in East Frisia.

The three-week city fairs Stuttgarter Frühlingsfest and Nürnberger Frühlingsfest in Stuttgart and Nuremberg run from mid-April to early May with fairground activities and beer tents and the cities’ activity intensifies at weekends.
Hamburg’s Hafengeburtstag is recent but rests on an 800-year tradition and brings fleets of craft including tall ships to the giant port area on the first or second weekend of May, associated with other festivities and a trade show of navigation.

The Thursday of Corpus Christi, in late May or June 60 days after Easter Sunday, is celebrated as Fronleichnam in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Rheinland-Pfalz, Saarland and parts of Saxony and Thuringia, processions being the common link in most local observances. In Cologne a boat procession is held on the Rhine. From mid-June, the Bachfest Leipzig organises more than 100 musical events, most of them in the city, over about 10 days, in honour of J.S. Bach as well as his family of composers. Target shooting is a traditional activity and each June the world's largest Schützenfest, including a fair and a parade of marksmen, is held in Hannover. The Kieler Woche, the third week of June, is Kiel's own regatta, mixed with music and city-wide summer party. The Christopher Street Day parades for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities are especially prominent in Berlin and Cologne, where CSD-Berlin and Cologne Pride run from late June into July.

The last week of July and the start of August brings the Richard-Wagner-Festspiele to Bayreuth (last home of the composer), mostly selling out months in advance to local and international devotees.

Oktoberfest, a celebration of beer, is probably Germany’s biggest annual event, taking over Munich for more than two weeks late in September and most of the first week of October. On the Theresienwiese fairground organisers set up more than 30 tents with several thousand seats. Hannover stages its Oktoberfest at the same time. Stuttgart’s Cannstatter Volksfest is regarded as bigger than its spring event, starting about a week later than the Oktoberfest and running equally long.

The eve and day of Tag der Deutschen Einheit, on October 3, celebrates the 1990 reunification with ceremonies, public festivals, music and fireworks, always with special meaning in Berlin, but the focus of national celebration moves each year.

The Advent-Christmas markets known as Weihnachtsmärkte (or other regional variants such as Nuremberg's Christkindl) run from late November until Christmas in cities large and small all over Germany.

Film

Much documentary material and drama is available on DVD or television, although it is dominated by work of varying quality about World War II and the Nazi era. Some work of more specialist or historical interest has in recent years been uploaded to YouTube for free viewing. The same is true for some classics of German film, which are mentioned here. For more notes on German cinema, go to the Performing Arts section.

History on screen

For a bleak pacifist, pre-Nazi view of World War I find snippets of the German 1930 film by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Westfront 1918. This is not to be confused with the US film All Quiet on the Western Front, released the same year and based on a German book. The harrowing hospital scene is notable. Scenes on YouTube, and versions including a DVD with English subtitles, are available online.

The Austrian Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and M are considered by many classics of German Expressionism. M, starring Peter Lorre, is regarded as a prime inspiration for later film noir.

Not everyone wants to get the flavour of the Nazi era but for a taste of its public propaganda sample Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s celebration of the 1936 Berlin Olympics at www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNnDBAdF2sI. This is only part one and by no means short at almost two hours. Part two is also available.

Riefenstahl’s images in Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), her 1934 essay on the Nuremberg party congress (www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHs2coAzLJ8), made her for a time a favourite of Hitler.

The 2004 Oliver Hirschbiegel movie Downfall depicts the drama in Hitler's Berlin bunker in the final days of World War II, based largely on the account of one of his secretaries, Traudl Junge, and biographer Joachim Fest.

The rage of domestic terrorism that hit Germany in the 1970s is examined in the Uli Edel film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, based on a book by Stefan Aust.

A drama of costumed Baroque intrigue that brings together colourful personalities is the six-part TV series Sachsens Glanz und Preußens Gloria, filmed largely on location in East Germany in the 1980s. The action is based on three popular historical novels by the Polish novelist J.I. Kraszewski about Saxony in the age of August the Strong, his mistress Countess Cosel and first minister Heinrich von Brühl and the emergence of Frederick the Great’s Prussia. DVDs are available (check for English subtitles), as are subtitled online downloads.

The 20th century in documentary

The German filmmaker Guido Knopp’s production of historical documentaries for the ZDF television network covers the 20th century and most have been produced in English or subtitled versions. Several deal with the Third Reich and World War II and, despite attracting critics, are the most prominent and dedicated body of documentary work on the period. For World War II, try the two Germany’s War series, The Liberation and The Apocalypse, although these are not easy to find on DVD.

In the three-part BBC television documentary series The Lost World of Communism, Peter Molloy looks back on the days of the Iron Curtain using personal accounts, home movies and archival footage. Its first part, available on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dFdKjhgt3k, deals with the GDR. The DVD of the series is widely available.

Film of the John F. Kennedy 1963 and Ronald Reagan 1987 West Berlin speeches is easily found on YouTube and excerpts have been much used in documentaries.

Art

The BBC series Art of Germany by the British critic Andrew Graham-Dixon is a dispassionate account in three parts of trends through time, bypassing some of the icons in favour of finding markers on the cultural journey.

From the early days of television documentary comes Lord Clark’s masterly 1970s BBC series Civilisation, examining the emergence of western Europe after the fall of Rome. Two episodes, Protest and Communication (covering the Reformation) and The Pursuit of Happiness, (on the Rococo period) put the German contribution into context, though Clark was no enthusiast for Albrecht Dürer.

Berlin

The three-part 2009 BBC documentary series Berlin by the German-born international correspondent Matt Frei is as good a portrait as can be found of the capital’s curiously contrasting faces and contradictions – look no further.

To understand the energy of Berlin in the late 1920s, look for Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, a silent Expressionist documentary on the city’s pace from dawn to midnight made in 1927 by Walther Ruttmann. It can be purchased on DVD under the English title Berlin: Symphony of a great City or watched online at archive.org/details/BerlinSymphonyofaGreatCity.

Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer’s 1930 silent drama Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) is priceless for its glimpses of the Berlin lost after World War II bombing, as well as Berlin’s 1920s and early 1930s lifestyle, leisure and morality. It can be viewed online, subtitled, in reconstructed form (still not quite complete) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=2D9W2zfZPps. The film is one of Billy Wilder’s early screenplays.

For a sense of what West Berlin looked like after 1949, try the scenes of Walt Disney’s 1964 family comedy of Erich Kästner’s 1929 children’s detection novel known in English as Emil and the Detectives. Naturally this innocuous film got Disney treatment, but its fascination is in the location shooting in the still bombed-out 1960s city. The book itself is still widely available, unlike the 1931 German film version (also scripted by Wilder), although fragments of it have been uploaded to YouTube. The most recent German remake was in 2001.

Documentaries about the Berlin Wall are many. A good summary is The Wall: A world divided and After the Wall: A world united, a two-part PBS series that deals with the lives of people behind the wall and the accounts of the political figures responding to tumultuous events. It is available online at www.pbs.org/programs/the-wall.

The 2009 German ZDF documentary Busting the Berlin Wall, also in two parts, brings to life the daring schemes of the people who escaped from East to West – and the tales of some of those who tried to stop them.

History

History weighs on the Germans like few other peoples. Many historians have seen in the German story a ‘special path’ (Sonderweg) of interrupted development that bred a fear of disorder and submissive responses to authority, leading to the nation’s 20th century nightmares. Begging to differ, Steven Ozment writes: “Historical experience has instead left Germans more fearful of anarchy than of tyranny, inclining them to hedge, if hedge they must, on the side of good order. This they have done in a compelling belief that it is not freedom, once attained, but discipline, carefully maintained, that keeps a people free.’’ Most students, reviewing the German past, could come together on this view.

The perceived boundaries of the German lands changed many times, largely because there were very different foundations for the old German kingdom, the Holy Roman empire and the modern German state that came into being in 1871. At times there were hundreds of tiny territories and cities such as Prague, Strasbourg, Gdansk (Danzig) and Kaliningrad (Königsberg) became largely German-speaking. For various periods The Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria counted themselves part of the German lands. Even the German Empire of 1918 looks very different from the Germany of today and after World War II Germany was two countries. All this takes a history book to follow.

From Romans to Franks

Rome failed to penetrate fully what is now Germany but left its mark in military colonies or towns such as Cologne, Trier, Xanten, Augsburg, Regensburg and Passau. Broadly the Rhine and the Danube regions became Rome’s frontiers. German tribes are often credited with the final destruction of Rome but the German spirit took more from the imperial example than its arms and riches. Of the wandering Germanic tribes the group that became known as the Franks emerged among the strongest – in Gaul, where Roman authority made a strong impression.

By war the Frankish king Clovis I united the tribes of what is now France and, on accepting baptism in 496, helped give the Catholic confession a firm foothold against paganism and the claims of Arian Christianity. He also established Frankish power east of the Rhine. But he refused to enforce the conversion of his people and the legacy of his Merovingian successors was a return to divided rule.

Charlemagne & empire

Charlemagne, as he has become known, was determined to unite and expand a Christian kingdom. Between his accession to the Frankish throne in 768 and his death in 814, he re-established the notion of central power that had vanished with the fall of Rome and created a court based in Aachen that returned law and scholarship to the forefront. His coronation as emperor in 800 is regarded as the rebirth of Western civilisation, although the expansion of his power to Rome and protectorate over the papacy created the questions for the power struggles of the late Middle Ages – was emperor or pope pre-eminent, would German-speaking rulers retain control of the eastern lands, and who would control Italy?

The concept of elected kingship – superseded only by force – predated hereditary royalty among Germanic tribes but Charlemagne was one ruler who anticipated heredity by anointing his son in his lifetime. Charlemagne and his Carolingian successors spread Frankish power north, south and east. But in the continued absence of unified hereditary succession – the Frankish inheritance principle divided everything equally among children – family internal struggles began to draw the borders of modern Europe, weakening the imperial concept.

In western Frankish areas regional officials or counts had been in place since Roman times and the Franks adapted this machinery. The district or Gau came to be administered by the count (Graf), taking over from the earlier tribal assemblies. As Frankish rule spread east under the Carolingians in the eighth and ninth centuries, counts there operated as governors over the old Saxon, Swabian and Bavarian tribes. But the hundreds, local traditional units made up of free men, survived many changes in medieval royal organisation and retained their regional names and character. Imperial assemblies or diets were informal arrangements.

The need to defend Europe against new invaders, the Vikings and the Magyars, brought another layer of authority in the so-called tribal duchies, with dukes as military leaders of regions on a war footing. One of these dukes, from Franconia, was elected king as Conrad I when the eastern Carolingian line died out in 911. Then the Saxon dukes were installed with the choice of Henry the Fowler (Heinrich I) as German king in 918. This period is identified with the birth of a German state, in which church institutions were put to work enforcing secular authority, while becoming independent of the king’s administration – but not the king himself. A unified Germany was still centuries away.

For almost 40 years the imperial title was in abeyance, but in 962 Heinrich’s son Otto I inaugurated what became known as the Holy Roman empire, being crowned by the pope in Rome as an echo of the coronation of Charlemagne. This was a revival of the Carolingian spirit in which the elective German kingship and imperial title coincided, with the Saxon line dominating both. The church remained a vital support to this authority.

The Salian dynasty of Franconia came to power with Conrad II and worked to establish central royal authority and administration, appointing all officials including bishops and standing on the principle that kings were God's anointed instruments. Hereditary power was about to be challenged by new trends in elective principles.

Crown versus church

The empire, which included Burgundy and much of modern Italy, was distinct from Germany as it was then understood. The differing demands of the two entities presented important challenges for successive emperor-kings. Complicating the conflict was the fact that bishops were in many cases also temporal lords. And, if the church anointed kings, who enjoyed higher favour with God?

The period of the so-called investiture contest began as a battle of wills between the pope Gregory VII and the Salian emperor Heinrich IV. German kings enjoyed rights in appointing senior church officials, but the pope sought to assert the authority of God in these appointments. He was also prepared to enlist the German aristocracy against the throne to drive through his reforms and excommunicate Heinrich. Trying to consolidate most of the gains of the crown, Heinrich took the guise of a penitent in 1077 and met the pope at Canossa in Italy, receiving absolution. But this was not to be the end of the crisis.

Heinrich managed to retain the backing of most of the German church but the appointment by the aristocracy of alternative kings and a long period of civil wars did critical damage to imperial authority. By the start of the 12th century lesser princes were binding local magnates and the free population to their authority and the simple structures of power were differentiating into a complex feudal web.

The surge of feudalism

The 1122 Concordat of Worms formally resolved the investiture contest in favour of the kings but the chaos already in train had begun to divide the German lands and weaken influences that might have encouraged institutional and economic development. The kings damaged themselves further by reapportioning lands and privileges among great feudal lords to win back support and counter the papacy, while the feudal lords where they could played papacy and crown off against each other to increase their personal power. It was a critical period for German history, leading to the proliferation of aristocratic castles – from which their owners increasingly took their names. They began ruling the local lands from these strongholds, doing grave damage to the notion of the state. Germany was becoming a land of castles.

As the Salian line failed the great princes seized control of the process of succession to the imperial throne. Out of self-interest their choices began to fall on weak candidates who did not command the authority of extensive strategic landholdings. The dukes who had been the military leaders and the counts who had been the king’s officers were meanwhile being absorbed into a network of more than 1000 territorial units and the feudal ties that went with it. By the mid-12th century real power was shifting to the aristocracy, which included churchmen ruling territories of their own. The Crusades were now under way, another force starting to shape aristocratic loyalties.

Expansion: the Hohenstaufen & the Teutonic Knights

The Hohenstaufen dynasty of Swabia asserted itself through Friedrich I, best known as Frederick Barbarossa, who was elected king in 1152 and emperor a few years later. Frederick restored the imperial image vis-a-vis the papacy and turned south to reassert imperial authority in Italy, relying on force and Classical notions of law. His policy of using feudal relations to consolidate royal control irked the powerful Henry the Lion, Welf duke of Saxony, who stinted in his support for Frederick’s Italian campaigns, but Frederick triumphed in a compelling struggle of personalities and seized and redistributed Henry’s lands.

Frederick’s pragmatic politics left German law and power in a better condition than he found them but he drowned in 1190 on his way to the Third Crusade. Italy was more fascinating to his Hohenstaufen successors, none of whom had Frederick’s charisma or commitment to the German lands. They continued on a much weakened throne until the 1250s. The time of the duchies was also ending and they began to disintegrate into smaller units. As the number of castles multiplied, the high medieval poetic tradition of Minnesang was reaching its height. The troubadours (Minnesänger) moved from castle to castle to satisfy aristocratic and royal patrons and their courts.

In the 12th century German settlers looked east, some encouraged by German princes, some being sponsored by Slav princes in a bid to harness the land more productively. Baltic ports also began to host German traders and a Germanisation east of the river Oder took place – out of all proportion to the actual numbers of German settlers. But at the western frontiers of the empire France was making inroads, seeking to establish a new frontier on the Rhine and advance its aspirations to the imperial throne.

Crusades were not confined to the Holy Land. The knights of the Teutonic Order (Deutscher Orden), who owed their origins to the shortlived Christian presence in Acre, pushed east in the 1230s to Christianise the Baltic lands of what was then called Prussia. There they established a state and built mighty castles. After almost a century the order was driven out by Polish-Lithuanian armies, but the name of Prussia would return to the German story.

The Black Death did as much damage in German lands as anywhere in Europe, killing anything up to half the population, although estimates vary widely. In many places Jews were blamed and, half a century after the so-called Rintfleisch pogroms in Franconia, many of the scenes of slaughter were repeated.

In 1356 the emperor Charles IV’s so-called Golden Bull formalised the election process for the imperial title, resting with seven great princes – three of them archbishops – who became known as electors (Kurfürsten). The Golden Bull weakened forever the pope's hand in determining the emperor but in elevating the electors' rights it also devalued the crown. This eventually fell by custom to the Austrian Habsburg line, in whose hands Germany became a field for distributing land and wealth to political ends. Dynastic lands meant more than states and German disintegration continued.

The rise of towns

As former feudal vassals became comfortable in effective ownership of their lands and levying of taxes, their neglect of towns encouraged the rise of the estates – groups concerned to ensure the taxes were being properly used. The estates, which came to comprise towns, knightly classes and clergy, began to develop their own notion of rights and sometimes showed outright resistance to their lords. The towns, as providers of revenue, and the knights, the rural administrators, used their positions to apply pressure.

Some towns, the free imperial cities (Reichsstädte), enjoyed a direct relationship with the emperor unencumbered by duties to other lords and the income they contributed was significant. In the different social environment of the town artisans and a commercial middle class could flourish. The Minnesänger were to give way to the Meistersinger — middle-class poets with an urban audience.

The division of German lands was not conducive to broader economic development, but in the 13th century the merchants of Lübeck had begun to leverage their dominance of the ancient trading routes of the Baltic Sea, bringing the compelling logic that wealth followed order. They adopted an independent attitude toward the aristocracy, convinced that the future lay in self-government and settling their own disputes.

The laws of the city of Lübeck were adopted or adapted by many towns of northern Germany and beyond, which formed a trading league known as the Hanse. Where the sword had failed gold triumphed and the ports of the Baltic coasts were increasingly speaking German. The wealth continued to flow for three centuries and the red-brick northern cities of today are the legacy of Hanseatic power.

The Reformation & the Thirty Years War

In 1489 an imperial assembly (Reichstag) first sat in two colleges – the electors and the other princes and dukes. Eventually the representatives of free imperial cities arrived as another group.

Martin Luther’s doctrinal break with the Catholic church had varying effects. In the age of printing Luther’s German bible found wide appeal, shaking ecclesiastical authority while he sided with temporal princes on grounds of order. Reformers had come and gone for centuries – the wars caused by the revolt of Jan Hus had damaged German lands a century before – but Luther’s ideas received many princes' support. Luther refused to support a 1524 peasant uprising but reformist ideas – especially those of John Calvin – spread beyond the German lands, which at this time were losing touch with the independent-minded Swiss. Territories lined up as Protestant or Catholic supporters, the former mainly in the north while the south (and the empire) stayed with Catholicism as the prince-bishops maintained a strong electoral hand. Yet Luther's work laid the foundations of a standard German language in a land of many dialects and his grievances with the church of Rome struck chords of German nationalism.

Greater European powers led the political game against the background of this struggle of faiths and in the 17th century Germany became their battlefield. The Thirty Years War, with its main antagonists Austria, Spain, Bohemia, France, Sweden and Denmark and their German allies, killed one-third of the German population, wrecking lives and towns and halting commercial activity. The free imperial cities, lacking protection by a local magnate, generally were hit hardest. For centuries Germans would remember this war and its consequences with terror.

The 1648 Peace of Westphalia continued the disintegration of the German lands by breaking them into small, independent, landlocked units, handling portions to other nations and diverting the benefits of northern trade elsewhere. It became an article of faith among Europe’s diplomats for 200 years afterwards that a divided Germany was a guarantee of a healthy balance of power. The Reformation and the decline in towns had allowed princes to reassert their authority over the estates and a drift toward absolutism was clear. Further, Westphalia drove the tendency for the German states to regard themselves as sovereign and separate, pursuing only their own interests. These states were weak and, after Westphalia, dominated by France. But one state, Brandenburg-Prussia, emerged and in 1701 became a kingdom.

The Enlightenment & Prussia

The battles of the War of the Grand Alliance and the War of the Spanish Succession brought home Germans' fears of France. But courtly fashion also arrived from Versailles and it was from France and England that the Enlightenment was to arrive in the 18th century. When it did, it took up residence in the new kingdom of Prussia, in its rising capital Berlin, and the Potsdam court of the Hohenzollern king Friedrich II, better known as Frederick the Great.

Frederick’s enigma was that of an absolute monarch espousing ideals of individual liberty, an artistic intellectual who planned daring wars for political ends. He challenged Austria to win Silesia and risked all during the Seven Years War, emerging but narrowly in triumph. The political pattern right up to the late 19th century was set as Prussia became the counterpoint to Austria, the two representing the Catholic and Protestant faiths. Under French influence Frederick (an amateur composer) led a musical court, like his enemies the Wettin Saxon elector-dukes, who however displayed more Italian tastes. A flowering of German Baroque was under way, from Telemann to Handel and J.S. Bach and his family, leading to the door of the Classical period.

Prussia’s growth and military prowess was a threat to all, especially the weaker Saxony, which was focused on maintaining the delicate power balance necessary to the Wettin dynasty’s grip on the Polish throne. Prussia’s military elite managed to harness its rural peasantry in an almost feudal thraldom, establishing a martial-bureaucratic state. It seemed that the Enlightenment – outside the salons of Berlin and the universities – was faltering and, constitutionally, having little effect on German lands.

It was left to the words of Goethe and Schiller and the music of Beethoven to champion a new brand of Classicism. The emergence of Immanuel Kant and the later Idealism of Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel took German thinking in bold but nonetheless inward directions and if anything were to encourage an attitude of submissiveness. The universities, which were revolutionising themselves under the influence of Pietism, created new structures that were to pioneer Western discovery and learning, but not new social orders. Thought was the real realm of freedom, ideas were the business of academicians and politics was left to a few.

Under Napoleon

In the wake of revolution, France marched against Austria and Prussia and subjugated Rhineland areas. Soon the ancient political landscape had been shaken up, bishops losing their lands and independent cities and small provinces being taken over by large states. So the consolidation of Germany began.

Napoleon marched east in 1805, bringing the western German lands under his control, defeating Austria, secularising the remaining prince-bishoprics and in 1806 putting an end to the doddering institutions of the Holy Roman empire. Briefly he occupied Berlin. Under the protectorate of Napoleon, the western and southern German states came together in the Confederation of the Rhine, covering much of the modern Germany and greatly reducing the number of tiny states. Only Prussia and Austria were excluded.

But the spirit of reform was at work in Prussia as leading figures set about creating a modern state. Napoleon's dominance stirred nationalist sentiment in many parts of the German lands and Napoleon's societal agenda, which included the work of standardising weights and measures, anticipated notions of German unity.

After Napoleon’s 1812 retreat from Russia a resurgent Prussia fought back and Russia and Prussia joined to defeat the French at Leipzig in 1813. The next year Napoleon abdicated but after a brief exile returned in 1815 to make a stand near Brussels. A British army under Wellington and a Prussian army under Blücher forced Napoleon’s surrender at Waterloo.

The Congress of Vienna soon before the battle, dominated by the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich, repeated the pattern of holding the German states in check as part of the balance of power. The new German Confederation after the departure of France was confronted with the Prussia-Austria rivalry. But a key deal in the settlement was that Prussia acquired more territory, including western areas around the lower Rhine and western Poland.

The new nationalism was being expressed by Neoclassical architecture in both Berlin (led by Karl Friedrich Schinkel) and Bavaria (Leo von Klenze) under state patronage. But Romanticism was in full flower in literary taste and the music of Beethoven had begun moving in this direction, a development to be fully realised in the work of Wagner.

Bismarck & the new empire

The European revolutions of 1848 found echoes in German states, and uprisings were widespread. In Prussia middle-class liberals demanded a new constitution and in Frankfurt a parliament met in an attempt to unite the states and bring in a German constitution. The reform effort failed and the Prussian throne reasserted itself, backing other German states in a conservative reaction. But in the restoration it was Austria that gained the presidency of the confederation. Part of the reason for the liberal failure was the still largely agrarian economic and population base. The German states were late to industrialise, so there was no large urban proletariat and a small capital class, while craftsmen and small, conservative bureaucracies were still dominant.

The conservatism of the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck proved another stumbling block to the middle class but ultimately he became the figure who united Germany. His husbandry of Prussia’s military might and ruthless statesmanship could exploit nationalist sentiments and in the 1860s Prussia defeated both Denmark and Austria on the battlefield before turning against France. Victory allowed Prussia to cement its leadership over the German-speaking lands, absorbing Bavaria, and Germany was unified in a new empire in 1871.

The industrialisation that was so long delayed arrived with a rush in the 30 years before World War I. Coal and steel were the new economic drivers, Berlin, Munich and the Ruhr areas led the growth in urbanisation and the port of Hamburg rose to global importance. The Social Democratic Party grew in popularity with the new urban working class in the face of Bismarck's efforts to maintain a conservative grip. Germany became preeminent on the Continent and a new rivalry with Britain began as Germany began developing naval strength to match its new colonial ambitions.

World War I & the Weimar Republic

War has been blamed on the web of European alliances, including German support for Austria, and a clash of interests among stagnating empires. Germany, which clearly preferred meeting an underprepared Russia, defeated its eastern enemy but was fought to a standstill on the Western Front and late in 1918 the Prussian-led empire began to collapse under the strain. German society was becoming militarised and left-wing forces rose against the government when the expectation of armistice was replaced by the dictates of the Versailles Treaty (which was in turn opposed by the right). The emperor had sought exile and Germany was being forced to disarm and pay heavy war reparations.

The political battle went to the streets and, although a centre-left government under Friedrich Ebert came to power in a new republican state forged in Weimar, it maintained close ties with the military. Right-wing elements remained mobilised, often under their wartime commanders, in opposition to the radical left.

Coup attempts in the early 1920s, one led by Adolf Hitler, failed but found sympathisers among judges, generals and rightist politicians. A period of steepling inflation around 1923 wreaked havoc in the economy. By 1930 the Nazis were a significant electoral force, buoyed by unease over post-war political, social and artistic freedoms and anger over the outcome of the war. Amid political manoeuvres in which military figures pulled many of the strings, Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933.

Hitler & World War II

Within weeks the president and former army chief Paul von Hindenburg suspended civil liberties in response to a fire at the Reichstag and soon Hitler’s government was handed legislative powers. Then Hitler, whose party storm troopers had free rein from the Prussian police, persuaded the Reichstag to hand over even wider powers. The following year, at the death of Hindenburg, Hitler made himself head of state. Democracy had failed.

The Nazi system came to pervade every aspect of German life. Agreements for demilitarisation of the Rhine regions neighbouring France were violated in 1936. Meanwhile internal opponents and Jews were being dealt with by murder and imprisonment. Others, including intellectuals, fled. In 1938 a Nazi coup in Austria led to union with Germany.

Hitler’s goal was rearmament for eventual war in eastern Europe but his political opportunism secured him territorial concessions in Czechoslovakia, the prelude to a march into the rest of the country. Calls for the reunification of Danzig with Germany (another a revocation of Versailles provisions) were resisted by Britain and the crisis built around Poland as 1939 proceeded. In August Germany signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and the next month invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war but, as neither was ready for combat, there was little fighting.

Hitler invaded the Low Countries and France in May 1940, sweeping all before him and isolating Britain. He threatened to invade but his air force could not suppress the British fighter force, so in 1941 he turned on his Soviet ally, initially with success. But opening a second front backfired as Germany also became entangled in north Africa just as the eastern campaign bogged down. The US entered the European war in 1942 and by 1943 German armies were facing disaster in both Africa and Russia.

By the time of the D-Day invasion of France in June 1944 the main industrial cities of Germany were being pounded from the air and levels of strategic materials were running low, despite high industrial production. A last German fling on the Belgian front in the depths of winter failed as Soviet forces swept towards Berlin. Hitler committed suicide in April 1945 and days later a ruined Germany surrendered, to be divided into occupation zones by the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Germany lost further territory in the east, which went to Czechoslovakia and a reshaped Poland, and was again divided from Austria.

Cold War & division

Three of the four occupying powers had agreements that involved a division of Europe into eastern and western spheres. Germany – and independently Berlin – was to be split into four zones. Ideological strains between capitalist and communist were clear but the mutual distrust became open in 1947 when the Soviets rejected the US-driven Marshall Plan for funding economic recovery.

In 1948 the extension of a western zone currency reform to Berlin irked the Soviets, who blockaded the western sectors of the city for almost a year: the western powers responded with a mammoth airlift to supply them. Months after the blockade was lifted the US, Britain and France set up the Federal Republic of Germany, with its capital in Bonn, and the Soviet Union responded by declaring a client state, the German Democratic Republic, with a one-party constitution establishing the communist SED as its ruling force. The creation of what Winston Churchill called the Iron Curtain – a north-south divide between Western capitalism and the communist East, was complete. Saarland did not become part of the FRG (West Germany) until 1957.

As well as maintaining a strong military presence, the western powers planned further support for the West German economy, sourcing much equipment for the Korean War from its rebuilt heavy industry and starting what became known as West Germany’s economic miracle. Economic constraints in East Germany and raised national work quotas in June 1953 led to a workers’ uprising, which was bloodily suppressed. Plans for nationalised industry and agricultural collectivisation of East Germany proceeded, while West Germany emerged among the world’s mightiest industrial economies.

In 1961 came a further flashpoint when the East German government decided to stop the westward leak of population and built a barrier between the halves of the city, along which the Berlin Wall began to appear. The wall did not prevent escapes but succeeded in stabilising the population and to some extent the East German economy for more than 20 years. Yet that economy could not provide modern goods to meet the demands of its people and the perception of two classes – the ruling SED and the people – grew.

While West Germany dreamed of a united nation, it pressed on with economic integration projects with former enemy France and a growing group of European countries in forums aimed at building a single market that increasingly took on political significance. There was also social disillusionment in West Germany, expressed most forcefully by student protests and an extremist terrorist network dubbed the Red Army Faction. But West German organised labour by and large co-operated with employers and the political base of discontent did not widen.

Reunification

The work of the Solidarity democracy movement in Poland in the 1980s led a wave of reformist sentiment in eastern and central Europe. From 1985 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced economic and social liberalisation. Poland itself introduced reforms in 1987. In 1989 Hungary carried out electoral changes and opened its border with Austria. Poland held free elections that brought a Solidarity government to power.

Demonstrations demanding East German reform, notably in Leipzig, were growing. In October Erich Honecker resigned as SED leader. On November 8, under pressure, the whole SED leadership resigned and next day a statement was issued announcing the intention to open the Berlin border crossings long closed to East German citizens. Crowds swarmed through, mounted the Berlin Wall and began dismantling it. West German chancellor Helmut Kohl soon announced a program to begin co-operation aimed at unification. The first free East German elections were held in March 1990, leading to talks for a unification treaty. Formal reunification took place, with Berlin as capital, on October 3.

The strains of change and political and economic integration of the former western and eastern communities soon showed and in 1992 a riot against refugees erupted in Rostock. Redevelopment of unified Berlin has repeatedly caused controversy. But Germany shaped as the dominant force in the new Europe, confirmed by the start of full European monetary union in 1999.

A woman politician from the former East Germany, Christian Democratic Union leader Angela Merkel, became chancellor in 2005. German economic strength became critical in Europe's response to the 2008 global financial crisis and, in the estimation of political commentators, Merkel had become the leading political figure in the European Union.

Landscapes & outdoors

It is possible to generalise about the German landscape. In their travels visitors will find the north is flat, the middle and much of the south is rolling country. The southern border areas comprise the Alps, their glacial forelands and their foothills. The exceptions to this pattern are few, such as the Harz of Sachsen-Anhalt, the Eifel south of Cologne and the Erzgebirge on the Czech border near Dresden – all low mountains.

Activities

Three natural features have impressed themselves on German life: the mountains, the forests and the rivers.

The rivers travel north-west (the Rhine, Neckar and Moselle), north (the Weser, the Elbe and, on the east frontier, the Oder) and south-east (the Danube). Long before the arrival of railways the rivers were vital to trade and portage. The larger rivers today are perfect for cruising – the Rhine and Moselle, the Elbe through Saxony, the Main and the Danube around Passau. Their valleys have also become popular routes for cyclists to travel. The Alps early established their Europe-wide attraction for climbers and skiers and now hundreds of thousands come to Germany each year. The forests are magnets for hikers – notably the Black Forest (Schwarzwald), the Böhmerwald and the Thüringer Wald.

Inspiration

But these joys are a small part of the impression left on the German imagination. The fairy tales (Märchen) of the Grimms and the poetry and fiction works of the Romantics are about the mystery, fear and magic of the forests. Folk beliefs and witch legends have been inspired by the weird rocks of the Harz. The 18th and 19th century literature and music so close to the German soul came from a longing for the landscape. There was a reaction against urban circumstances and the industrialisation that came so late to Germany – but when it came, it came fast, a rude shock to a country still forming and used to being divided into small principalities.

Much of the Richard Wagner’s later work was inspired by the slopes of the Alps (including time spent in Switzerland). This passion he shared with his patron the Bavarian king Ludwig II and it found expression in the plots and sets of his musical dramas, notably the Ring cycle and Tannhäuser. It was the same in Leni Riefenstahl’s first film – as an actor – Der heilige Berg, in which mystical depictions on the peak were key images in director Arnold Fanck’s cinematography. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain makes it clear the mountain is a separate world from the lowlands where different rules apply.

The forest world of the Romantics – and the fairy tales – is also a different sphere of enchantment and horror, influenced by folklore and a necessary test to be braved by heroes and heroines. The themes go back past the medieval period and are as old as human myth, but the Romantics refreshed themselves at the well of medievalism and continued questing for the forest that still lay at the boundaries of their known environment.

Water’s elemental power was also a source of enchantment and cleansing. The Lorelei legend of the Rhine and the water-sprite heroine of Friedrich de la Motte Fouque's Undine depict beings who spend much of their time in a different world. For Wagner, the theme of the Nibelung legend behind the Ring des Nibelungen came from the treasure that was hurled back into the Rhine and so could not belong to any man.

Outdoors organisations

The websites of the German national associations for hiking, mountaineering and cycling have no English options and do not translate well in browsers. It will be better to try pursuing links through home organisations. There are more than 100 German national parks and the Naturparke Deutschland site www.naturparke.de translates quite usefully with lists of parks, maps and background information.

The Deutscher Alpenverein site www.alpenverein.de will be of some use when translated in the browser, providing some useful tips on alpine hiking, trail difficulty, maps, climbing, huts and chalets. Memberships for the more than 350 locally based sections cost between €45 and €90 a year and include benefits for accommodation in DAV huts and chalets.

For sailing and windsurfing interests some useful information can be gleaned from the Deutscher Segler-Verband site www.dsv.org.

Cycling

The national cycling federation Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club has regional branches that can be excellent centres for travel information and offer bicycle hire. The ADFC main website www.adfc.de does not translate well (brief notes plus a policy statement are available in English). But there are listings of regional ADFC centres and a guide to more than 400 local information centres (click the ‘ADFC vor Ort’ link under the Über Uns menu).

The Bett+Bike scheme – basically a directory of ADFC-accredited bicycle-friendly accommodation including hotels, B&Bs and campsites – has a useful site (www.bettundbike.de) with an English version and a link to the ADFC touring portal with sponsored tours and other information. This link translates tolerably well in Google Chrome. The listings are available as an app at the website.

The bicycle routes are many, the most popular being the 420km Donauradweg or Ulm-Regensburg-Passau ride, which also extends about 30km into Austria. A list of 50 major cycle routes with descriptions is available through the interactive map at the Destination Germany site at www.germany.travel/en/leisure-and-recreation/cycling/cycling.html. To use the detailed route planners in English offered by the states Nordrhein-Westfalen, Bavaria, Rheinland-Pfalz, Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein, go to the International Cyclist site www.international-cyclist.com. Interactive maps are included.

The European Cycling Federation site www.ecf.com has a list of useful links and social media channels.

Performing arts

German cultural life has always been considered vital to the nation and cultural information centres are common in big cities, the best starting place for information about, and booking for, a variety of local events. In many cases the local tourist information office (often attached) can also assist and is most likely to have information in English.

Because of the strong German interest in culture, sites associated with the greatest figures – houses, birth houses, summer houses and other places associated with them – are celebrated and have a high priority for preservation, taking on the status of museums. This provides visitors with the opportunity for insights into the lives of the famous. In some cases their libraries are on show (if not actually accessible) and their art collections.

Music

The German love of music is famously intense and this is reflected in the number of orchestras, concert houses and educational institutions devoted to its performance and study. German influence over Western music – in the form of an overwhelming contribution by German-speaking Classical, Romantic and Modern composers and conductors – has been enormous, but its place in contemporary music is also imposing.

Germany did not invent electronic music but, with the doors opened by the experimental studio work of Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk and the avant garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a movement in electronic and synthesiser music developed, reaching prominence in the 1970s in various streams from symphonic music to techno rock. For articles on developments in all forms of German music, go to the Goethe-Institut music pages at www.goethe.de/kue/mus/enindex.htm.

Due largely to Berlin’s 40 years as a divided city, its music lovers now have six orchestras to choose from: the Berlin Philharmonic (Berliner Philharmoniker, resident at the Philharmonie, consistently ranked in the world’s top five orchestras), the Konzerthausorchester Berlin (performing at the Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt), the Berliner Symphoniker, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (or DSO-Berlin, performing at the Philharmonie and other venues), the Staatskapelle Berlin (the oldest, linked with the Berliner Staatsoper and performing at the Schiller Theater and other venues while the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden is renovated), and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (performing at the Philharmonie, the Konzerthaus and on tour).

There is also the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, several choral ensembles and countless smaller ensembles.

Online booking is available in English for all large orchestras, many of which offer concerts in churches, children’s or family afternoon concerts at reduced seat prices. Concert tickets booked online for performances at the Berliner Philharmonie range from €7 (for standing room) to €220, depending on position and the category of concert. But basic tickets for chamber concerts or modern music at other venues, such as Komische Oper, can be booked for as little as €10. Top seats for symphony concerts at Dresden’s Semperoper can be had for €53 online.

Voted among the world’s top 20 orchestras are the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, the Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig and the Bavarian Radio Symphony (Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks). Tickets to a grand concert at the Gewandhaus are in the range €16-52. The BR-Klassik website www.br.de/radio/br-klassik-english/index.html offers tickets for the SBR (€25-78 for concert hall performances but tickets to studio performances of Wagner can be had between €18 and €26). Other concert tickets go on sale at €10.

Munich has more than 20 resident orchestras and large ensembles, including the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Münchner Philharmoniker, Münchner Rundfunkorchester and Münchner Symphoniker, performing at a range of venues.

Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, one of the most advanced concert venues in the world, has just opened after an extended construction period and is the hottest ticket in music in 2017.

For details in English on music, opera and dance performances throughout Europe, consult bachtrack.com.

It is often possible to tour famous concert halls or book performances with lectures – naturally almost all in German. For further interest and study, travellers will find music museums and houses connected with the lives of famous musicians are a staple of German cultural preservation.

Extensive collections of musical instruments form part of the Deutsches Museum in Munich (1800 pieces) and the Deutsches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg (500 pieces). A further collection is at the Kulturforum in Berlin, with about 800 pieces on permanent exhibition. A website listing more than 40 museums connected with prominent musicians, giving locations, opening times, information and links to further resources can be viewed in English at www.musikermuseen.de.

Opera

Opera tickets in Germany can be booked online, in English, from the program and seating plan. Opera (Oper) company links are among the stage listings at www.theaterparadies-deutschland.de.

Bookings online for tickets at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper cost between €162 and €17, depending on the seat. Tickets can be printed out on the spot or collected at the box office. The Berliner Staatsoper stages its performances temporarily at the Schiller Theater. Berlin’s Komische Oper is famous for a lighter, more modern popular tradition and offers its tickets in the €10-149 range. In Dresden, tickets for the Sächsische Staatsoper’s Semperoper performances vary from €7 to €140. A guided tour of the house before the performance can also be booked. To see Wagner in Leipzig, the ticket range can be €15-60. Opera houses are also maintained in cities such as Cologne, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Hannover and Mannheim. The common booking fee is €2-3.

To take in Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival in late July or August it is possible to queue for some tickets at the door on the day of the performance but advance requests for recent festivals outnumbered the available tickets six to one. Even the online ordering process involves the post and orders must be placed by the previous October. Visit www.bayreuther-festspiele.de for details. It is hard to get in first time – joining a Wagner society such as the Gesellschaft der Freunde von Bayreuth is said to help but the joining fee is €260 and annual subscription more than €200. Visit www.freunde-bayreuth.org for details.

The Munich Opera Festival takes place in June and July at the Bayerische Staatsoper.

Dance

For a guide to the contemporary dance scene in Germany, go to the Goethe-Institut site, where there are hundreds of articles at www.goethe.de/kue/tut/enindex.htm. The site covering the German dance scene, www.tanznetz.de, has reviews in English on performance in Germany.

Ballet ticket prices vary widely. Seat prices at traditional venues are based on the opera house price scales, graded by event. Bayerisches Staatsballett’s top ticket prices for mid-range ballet events at the ornate Munich Nationaltheater can vary from €45 to €63 but there are eight price categories down to €6.

At Hamburg’s Staatsoper tickets for the Hamburg Ballett 2014-15 season of Giselle varied from €11 to €87. The Leipziger Ballett’s tickets for Ein Liebestraum were in the range €15-60. The Stuttgarter Ballett’s tickets for 2014 opera house performances ranged from €9 to €91. Staatsballett Berlin seats for The Nutcracker at the Deutsche Oper cost €29-90 depending on position.

Bookings are usually possible (and advisable) online, but a proportion of tickets are often kept for box office sales. Box offices generally open about an hour before the performance.

Bookings for Munich Ballet Week in April start in mid-January (for postal bookings) or mid-February (online and box office). Visit www.bayerischestaatsoper.de for details.

Contemporary dance by Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer at Theater am Halleschen Ufer – which has traditions of experimental theatre – costs €11-25 (concession €7-9). At Düsseldorf’s Tanzhaus NRW the avant garde plays for as little as €14. To see The Forsythe Company at the Frankfurt Lab costs €22 (€11 concession).

Among the prominent German dance festivals are TANZtheater International in Hannover late in August and early in September, Tanz Bremen in March or April every two years (including 2016) and Berlin’s Tanz in August.

Theatre

German theatre has a history of revered classics based around Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Kleist and others, plus a tradition of experimental theatre going back to the early 20th century innovations of Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht. Advanced speakers of German are in for a treat on several hundred stages throughout the country. For discussions of all aspects of German theatre visit www.goethe.de/en/kul/tut.html.

Theatre in English can be found in big cities. The English Theatre of Hamburg offers work from the contemporary to Oscar Wilde six nights a week at €24-27, with discounts for online booking. The English Theatre Frankfurt stages popular and contemporary theatre at seat prices at €15-50. The English Theatre Berlin offers full tickets at about €20 (concession €11).

Musical theatre, especially in Hamburg, has featured record-breaking runs of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals but the libretti are German versions.

The theatre directory www.theaterverzeichnis.de provides a booking option for almost anything on a German stage at prices ranging from €10 up, occasionally over €80 for top seats at special events. Depending on the show, there could be discounts for purchasers of city tourist cards. To look at tickets for a wide variety of live shows visit www.germanticketoffice.com. For links to stage companies all over Germany go to www.theaterparadies-deutschland.de.

The performance of German classics in Berlin is led by the Deutsches Theater, which has proud traditions going back to the 19th century including the directorship of Max Reinhardt. The Theater am Schiffbauerdamm became the home of Brecht's Berliner Ensemble during the Cold War and continues his legacy today. The Theater des Westens of west Berlin, now part of the Stage Entertainment group, mixes musicals with blockbuster seasons ­– in German.

Deutsches Theatermuseum Munich (admission €4/3) assembles much of Germany’s theatre history, including opera, especially exhibits from Bavaria. Theatermuseum Düsseldorf (admission €3/1.50) displays actual performances and the work behind the scenes as well as exhibits.

Cinema

When attending a German cinema to see international feature films in English, don’t expect easy-to-watch English action with German subtitles. It is normal to dub movies into German (for exceptions look for ‘Englisch mit Untertiteln’ or sometimes ‘OmU’ or 'OmdU' where originals are in English). But all-English versions can be found – there are listings of current and classic movies in English in major cities at The Local’s lifestyle listings at www.thelocal.de. Minimum ages are given for each. Expect ticket prices of €7-8 for adults, €5-7 for students with identification, children under 12 about €5. There can be discounts for family movies before 7pm. Films in 3D will cost extra.

Cinema in Germany has a proud history, apart from late in World War I, the Nazi period and the early GDR productions, when cinema was tightly controlled or used as an instrument of the state. In the interwar Weimar period, Expressionist cinema was prominent, as was the Potsdam-based UFA studios, which launched the careers of Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich and others. Many German-speaking Jewish actors, writers, composers and directors such as Lang escaped Hitler, mostly to the US, crafting prominent careers in Hollywood or parts of Europe and becoming recognised as innovators.

German cinema had to regenerate itself in the 1960s and remerged early in the 1980s with the internationally successful Das Boot. State support, film schools and a healthy experimental cinema are features of the industry. For articles and news on German cinema go to the Goethe-Institut film page at www.goethe.de/kue/flm/enindex.htm.

The Berlin International Film Festival or Berlinale each February is one of the world’s best regarded. Tickets go on sale early in February at www.berlinale.de/en.

Television

German television screening programs in English will generally dub speech into German. English entertainment programs are easy to find in hotel pay channels.

Shopping

Consumerism is as powerful in Germany as anywhere in Europe but the fun has not gone from shopping. The assurance comes in the fact that the country retains the traditional values of community markets and still takes bookshops seriously, even if fashion – like anywhere in the West – is king. For the German value-added tax see the Costs section in the Travel Essentials menu.

Retail hours

German shops in most states have no regular restrictions on opening hours except Sundays, although they may not stay open later than 20.00 in Bavaria and Saarland. But local differences and reluctance among some traders remain despite liberalisation.

There can be exceptions for Sunday trade in some items in designated tourist precincts (until 18.00, though not during church services), at convenience stores at large rail stations, at airports, for petrol stations, and for bakeries (usually allowed before noon). Weekend trading is varied by state laws in Sachsen-Anhalt, Thuringia, Nordrhein-Westfalen and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

The result is that shops, including department stores, often remain open until 20.00 M-Sa. In Rheinland-Pfalz and Saxony they may open until 22.00 M-Sa. Outside main cities they are more likely to close by 18.30. Some small shops close for lunch.

Most shops will also be closed on locally designated public holidays (see Public holidays in the Travel Essentials menu).

Souvenirs & gifts

There is no shortage of trinkets and tourist paraphernalia to buy – providing a reminder that the word kitsch came from German. Souvenir shops are in all the tourist areas with fridge magnets and miniature beer tankard key rings. In many cases goods available at tourist information centres will not prove to be the best-value buys for comparable items such as books or DVDs, for which it might be best to compare large bookshops or department stores. For souvenir T-shirt sizes see Clothes below.

It is possible to pay high prices for a beer tankard and then find it hard to transport safely. Saxon porcelain – principally from Meissen but also Dresden – and wooden clocks – most associated with the Schwarzwald or Black Forest – are well known but the authentic items are also expensive and difficult to transport. Nuremberg is especially associated with toys, often a luggage challenge.

Lübeck marzipan, a durable and usually inexpensive confection, is a popular gift if it survives the temptations of the journey home. Shopping at traditional Christmas markets in Nuremberg, Dresden or Cologne (to name only a few of the bigger markets) can yield some tiny treasures.

Clothes

European sizes for clothing and shoes are completely different from UK or US systems and it is important to try on items first. If buying for others, it is best to have a clear guide to what is needed.

For women’s clothing, a traditional UK size 10 (US 8) is size 36 in Europe and a UK 16 (US 14) is size 42 – the systems follow each other up in increments of two. For men’s shirts, collar sizes are in centimetres, so a US size 16 is size 41 or 42. In women’s shoes, a UK size 5 (US 7, Australia 6) is a European size 38 – move up or down one or 1½ sizes from there. In men’s shoes, a UK size 8 (US 8½) is a European size 42. For close table comparisons try www.engineeringtoolbox.com/cloth-sizing-d_221.html..

What is sometimes called national costume is known in Germany as Tracht, and actually varies regionally. Best known is traditional southern or Alpine rural working dress, for women the Dirndl and the men’s Lederhosen, which can be seen in tourist areas but in everyday contexts are little worn by today’s Germans. Authentic items are also very expensive to buy, although there are summer variants or skirt derivations of the Dirndl that are part of the less costly style known as Landhausmode.

Other types of costumes belong to regions, including variants worn in North Frisia (part of Schleswig-Holstein), where there is still a sense of separate regional identity.

The European H&M chain offers price-conscious fashions in many cities.

Emporiums

Aside from the chain department stores such as Karstadt or Galeria Kaufhof there are the classic stores, of which the best known are west Berlin’s Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe) and Munich’s Hertie or Ludwig Beck. These three, although now operated by the dominant chains, retain the prestige of their traditions. Hamburg’s Alsterhaus and Düsseldorf’s Carsch-Haus also enjoy a proud position for fashion and designer labels.

Markets

One of the pleasant aspects of an old German city is the fact that many still have traditional town square markets for fresh produce as part of daily life. Others have standing indoor markets with a bustling atmosphere. Munich's standing produce and fine foods market, the Viktualienmarkt, is impressive in variety and scale Monday to Saturday while retaining some of the atmosphere of the daily markets that were its origins. Today farmers' markets (Bauernmärkte) with regional produce are still common and regular produce markets (Wochenmärkte) are still part of the scene at the old town marketplaces.

In Hamburg the Sunday fish markets are for some a continuation of Saturday night revelry. Starting before dawn, they are in full swing – not only with fish – at first light and the busy sales atmosphere is mixed with imbibing while others seek coffee or breakfast.

Flea markets are fashionable, even chic, in Berlin and Munich, and Berlin's twice-weekly Turkish markets attract youth and self-catering travellers on a budget.

Christmas markets are run all over the country with Nuremberg, Dresden, Cologne, Frankfurt and Munich (all with medieval origins) among the best known, selling ornaments, traditional Christmas fare, beverages and gifts. But the markets have become a travel industry in themselves and many are recent creations. It would be wise when shopping at these to check the provenance of so-called handmade items, many of which are imported. But the markets open long into the evening, and some of the locations have plenty of atmosphere as well as mulled wine and other treats.

Prices

Costs for many items will not faze UK or antipodean citizens but might surprise those from parts of the US or India. Prices for goods overall in Germany are unremarkable for western Europe (excepting the few in economic trouble), but US travellers should be prepared to pay 20-25% more than at home where comparisons are possible. Prices for food and accommodation will not necessarily follow. See the Costs section of the Travel Essentials menu.

German prices are expressed with a comma where most English-speaking countries use the decimal point.

Social Life

No special rules obtain in German social situations and much of the formality often associated with German social interaction is in the past. Western practice is generally a reasonable guide. Most young and middle-aged people – with probable exception of some in eastern states – will speak some English and younger people will almost always have a facility for English conversation.

Bars & clubs

Travellers seeking information about live music venues can always start at the tourist information office, bulletin boards at hostel receptions and cafes. The internet is a good resource for tips on live action and notes might be posted on tourist office sites. Clubs almost always run their own sites, as do some bars – Dresden’s Groove Station runs a forward calendar of live acts and even carries an audio sample of the act playing on each date.

Overall, music clubs in Germany conform to acknowledged Western practice but the German scene is notably strong in alternative rock and jazz. Hamburg has an especially lively pub rock scene, while Berlin is strong in bars with a range of jazz styles. At what could be classed as live pubs there is sometimes a head charge for performances, though this can vary even at the same venue. For some performers a venue might levy €10 at the door but admit free for other acts. There are plenty of dance clubs in big cities, but trance clubs seem fewer, although big rave and trance events take place periodically. Clubs will usually close around breakfast time, but bars tend to close by 1.00 or 2.00.

Expect to pay €6-12 at the door – exclusive nightclubs charge higher – and drinks could be at a premium. A €2 beer could be as much as 100% dearer at a club, but even higher prices are not unusual. Early admission (before 22.00 or 23.00) can be cheaper at some clubs.

Admission policies, queues and altercations with door staff are also part of nightlife in Germany – in Berlin famously so. Web forums are often helpful in chasing up the scenes travellers are looking for and there is plenty of chat going on in English. The best advice is to check the club’s website for dress codes and any other restrictions. Some clubs will not allow photos to be taken, which has led to confrontations with staff.

The term Kneipe is conventionally applied to pubs, tavern or saloons – places associated with beer – but the term can also be used by music venues or other bars. British or Irish-style pubs have appeared in numbers in the past 20 years. The German tradition of the Kneipe is especially associated with Berlin, where smoking was normal, though it’s best not to light up unless the word 'Raucher' appears at the door (the term ‘Nichtraucher’ means prohibition). The Bierstube, Wirtshaus, Lokal and Weinstube are similar to the Kneipe, although exclusive definitions seem impossible. What is certainly common is alcohol and conversation.

There is a vibrant gay and lesbian club scene, especially in Berlin, where some of the goings-on are reputedly outrageous. Some clubs will focus on gay events some nights and not others. Otherwise, there is a fondness for 80s nights in some quarters, along with over-30s patronage.

Cafes

Outside busy rail stations and shopping centres, these are for daytime socialising, usually being open before noon (many serve light or full breakfasts) and until late afternoon or early evening. Cake or pastry is common fare (light meals or sandwiches are often also available) but for the full experience of German sweet baking the sign to look for is ‘Konditorei’. For a fully European icecream experience seek out an Eiscafe.

Tips are appreciated, especially after the second cup of coffee.

Internet

If the aim is discussion in English – and usually discussion about issues and practical experience in Germany – try www.toytowngermany.com/forum. This site is not intended for chat for interaction’s sake.

For chat or singles interaction, type ‘chat sites Germany’ or similar keywords into the search engine. The usual warnings about disclosing personal information online of course apply.

Visual Arts

Art is vital to Germany and always has been. Its history as a land more divided than united delivered its artists the vital role of defining and asserting Germanness when there was no Germany. In no other great nation has hope alternated so starkly with despair. Germany is “not so much a nation as a process” explains the British art historian and critic Andrew Graham-Dixon. “That is why art has always been at its core.”

There can be no better place to examine humanity in its contrasts, contradictions and extremes. Fortunately there is a significant public commitment to art and a city’s collections are a matter of local pride. For articles on German visual arts go to the visual arts page at www.goethe.de/kue/bku/enindex.htm, where there is also a calendar of events.

Art museums & galleries

The museums of Germany are essentials for art lovers and the main cities are replete with galleries. Art museums can be expected to open about 10.00, to be closed Mondays or Tuesdays, to be open to about 20.00 on Wednesdays or Thursdays and to be closed many public holidays.

Admission prices for leading metropolitan museums generally vary between €7 and €12 for adults, but concession rates can be much lower. Exhibition rates can apply in some and special rates such as those offered one day a month are usually for locals. It will be possible in some cities to view several museums at an umbrella price, or visit them using a city tourist card.

On Berlin’s Museumsinsel ('museum island') most periods are represented. The Altes Museum and the Pergamonmuseum (at present part-closed) house the classical glories of the state antiquities collection. The Neues Museum’s prehistory and Egyptian collections (including the bust of Nefertiti) cover the early period and the Bode-Museum has sculpture and Byzantine art – to be sure the produce of the archaeological industries of an acquisitive age. The Alte Nationalgalerie has the 19th century and Impressionist works. The Bauhaus-Archiv has been established in the Tiergarten to document the influential work of the former Dessau design school.

Among converted buildings, the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche was turned into a museum of 19th century German sculpture and the old Hamburger Bahnhof has become a museum for contemporary works.

The departure of the Deutsche Guggenheim in 2013 was made good by the establishment of a new gallery. There is also the Berlinische Galerie for a variety of media. Many major Berlin art museums are open until 20.00 Thursdays. The three-day Berlin WelcomeCard (€26.50) covers entry to all Museumsinsel museums and discounts to others.

In Munich, where in the 19th century an elite of practitioners established a clear lead over the rest of Germany, the magnets are the Kunstareal trio of the Alte Pinakothek (for old masters and some of the finest early German works), the Neue Pinakothek (for late 18th century works and the movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries) and the Pinakothek der Moderne. Additionally there is the Sammlung Schack (19th century works) and Museum Brandhorst (contemporary, including Andy Warhol). Admission prices for these vary from €4 to €10 but any can be visited for only €1 on Sundays or art lovers who can manage all in a day can do so for €12 (special exhibitions included). The Staatliche Graphische Sammlung is most notable for its Dürer collection.

In Dresden the main museums are grouped under the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. The Zwinger complex includes the state porcelain collection and the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, the Albertinum an assembly of Classical sculpture and the 19th and 20th century art of the Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister. The so-called Grünes Gewölbe collections are part of the electors’ palace. The SKD day ticket for all this and more costs €12. The Städtische Galerie Dresden alone holds more than 20,000 works and there are several other art museums besides.

In Leipzig the Museum der bildende Künste has tens of thousands of works but the most famous are its collection by Lucas Cranach. Contemporary and applied arts in Leipzig have their own museums.

Düsseldorf’s Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen offers a very different picture. The collection is based around more than 100 Paul Klee works, housed at the K20 Grabbeplatz, K21 Ständehaus and Schmela Haus museums. More conventional in form is the Museum Kunstpalast with its European gallery, 20th and 21st century paintings, sculpture and a huge archive of drawings and prints, plus exhibitions. The Düsseldorf Welcome Card (€9 for one day, €14 for two, €19 for three) provides discounts on admission to each.

In Cologne the Museum Ludwig is home to Modernism with a focus on pop and Picasso. The Wallraf-Richartz Museum looks back to the Middle Ages but there is a large collection of Dutch and Flemish masters based around Rubens and Rembrandt as well as 19th century works. History is also the stuff of the Museum Schnütgen, displayed in a church, the exhibits being religious works (especially sculpture). Applied arts and the art of east Asia form further museums. Cologne’s Käthe Kollwitz Museum houses more than 700 of the artist’s works. The Köln Welcome Card at €9 a day (€18 for two) includes 50% discounts at art museums.

Hamburg’s Kunsthalle houses Dutch and Flemish masters, French works and German works including some of the nation’s greatest names plus a collection focused on historical paintings associated with the city. Contemporary art is in a separate gallery. For variety there are museums of arts and industry and erotic art. The Deichtorhallen has photography and more contemporary art. Hamburg Card from €9.50 a day delivers discounts up to 38% on museum entry.

Frankfurt’s museums include the Städel collection, holding about 800 years of works from Europe’s finest artists, and the Schirn Kunsthalle, which hosts many thematic exhibitions from overseas. Other museums cover modern and applied art. The city’s two-day museum card costs €18 (€10 concession).

Stuttgart’s Kunstmuseum has a varied collection but prizes its collection of New Objectivity works by Otto Dix in a house once owned by the artist. The Staatsgalerie has German, Dutch and Italian works from the 14th century on and changing exhibitions.

Churches, castles & palaces

Museums and galleries are not the end of art. Much artistic talent and the riches that support it have been directed to the praise of God over more than a millennium and still reside in the cathedrals and churches, generally the least expensive venues for visitors. Sculpture, carving, painting and stained glass are liberally displayed and there is no more intense exhibition of art than the totality of concept in a Baroque or Rococo church.

The castles and palaces were the usual venues for displaying royal portraiture and examples of opulence in interior decoration and furniture. The facades and interiors of Potsdam, Dresden, Munich, Würzburg, Stuttgart, Mannheim and Bamberg all display the inspiration of Versailles as well as the sheer competitiveness of the German courts of the period.

German artists

Crediting work before the late Gothic period or Renaissance is difficult. Some of the work attributed to the 15th century sculptor and painter Bernt Notke has been destroyed but his surviving work, all over the Baltic area, puts him ahead of most artists of the period. Likewise little endures of the work of the mysterious Matthias Grünewald, all of it religious. Much more survives of the sculpture and carving of the Würzburg master Tilman Riemenschneider. Their contemporary, the Nuremberg printmaker and painter Albrecht Dürer, is the towering figure of the German Renaissance, mastering landscapes, animal studies, portraits and religious art. Yet in the German lands the Gothic remains influential and provides a tension, especially in the work of Grünewald and Dürer.

Lucas Cranach the elder brought a realistic quality to Renaissance painting and his association with the Saxon electors and Martin Luther gave him plenty of subjects. His son developed a very similar style. Hans Holbein the younger learned much from his father and namesake and became one of the sought-after portrait painters of his time, travelling throughout Europe on his commissions.

The Enlightenment and its Neoclassicism yielded no German painters of lasting world repute. The principal German figure was the archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who set about elevating regard for Hellenistic aesthetics, especially sculpture, and classifying ancient art. Johann Gottfried Schadow sculpted many of the most important works of the time, including the Quadriga of the Brandenburger Tor. His pupil, Christian Daniel Rauch, went on to shape statues of many of the greatest Prussian figures, notably Frederick the Great.

Germany, after the Sturm und Drang movement of the late 18th century, was powerful in influencing Romanticism. Caspar David Friedrich was clearly the leader among German painters of the period with his depictions of nature, most often with humans or human creations dwarfed by the landscape. Germany’s Realist reaction was then led by Adolph von Menzel.

When Impressionism arrived in Germany Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth and Max Slevogt were the foremost practitioners. But near the turn of the 20th century the arrival of the Munich and then Berlin secessions – a Modernist revolt against Wilhelmine oppression in the arts ­– again saw Liebermann in the forefront.

Expressionism began to flower in Dresden and Munich and in Berlin Käthe Kollwitz, the best known among German women artists, used her drawings, prints and sculptures to depict the suffering of workers and women under oppression and the consequences of war. Another German female artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker, was also part of this movement. Heinrich Zille was at this time depicting the industrial proletariat very differently with his comic-satirical take on a hard life.

New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) was a 1920s reaction to Expressionism through which George Grosz emerged. Where Zille depicted Berlin’s working folk with humour, Grosz caricatured Weimar period Berlin with critical savagery. This sense of horror and disgust, and left-wing sympathies, were drivers for Berlin’s Dadaist period, which Grosz and Otto Dix embraced. The Dada movement soon spread to Cologne.

Paul Klee’s first strong convictions came from his exposure to Munich Expressionism but he went on to produce elusive, abstracted works influenced by the Bauhaus movement, Cubism and Surrealism.

Of later German artists Joseph Beuys became one of the most influential, and probably the most controversial, for his performance and installation art, continuing the close connection between German 20th century art and politics.