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Making the trip from Hamburg to Hamburg

You’ve seen them advertised, those glorious 10-day “circle of Europe” vacations boasting an incredible list of destinations in one trip. I would see the ads and dreamily imagine the amazing Old World sites I would encounter, the castle walls where I might lay my hand to the same craggy spot touched by another soul thousands of years ago.

On one such occasion, I decided to go for it, signing up for a tour that would circle Germany for 11 days, beginning and ending in Frankfurt and leaving from that city on the 12th day. My husband, Karl, and I were among a group that would stay in nine hotels, lodging for two consecutive nights in only two cities, Berlin and Munich.

A chief attraction of this tour was that it was booked through a local pub. The idea that traveling with a group of people (46 of us) from Hamburg, N.Y., to Hamburg, Germany (and points beyond) was attractive because I was bound to know a few people in the group and an organized tour could help to resolve the language barrier. In fact, an organized tour also provides seamless hotel check-ins and brief waits to enter museums and time on your own to explore. A personable tour director who spoke at least five languages and skilled bus driver simplified travel.

Before planning such a vacation consider priorities: Is this for rest or adventure? A fast-paced vacation such as this will take you to many places; some will be more compelling than others. You’ll have the opportunity to see more than you would on a typical vacation and might choose to return some day to locations that you really like. On the other hand, you might sacrifice the option of nightlife as wake-up calls start at 6 a.m. with early departures on a large, comfortable bus.

As history buffs, Karl and I looked forward to learning about each place we visited, particularly Berlin, as the city prepared to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In our 10 active travel days we experienced 13 locations, including Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Bavaria and the Black Forest. Sandwiched in between were colorful locales such as Cologne, Lubeck, Nuremberg and the impressive Neuschwanstein Castle, template for Walt Disney’s fairy tale castles.

Breakfasts were included, along with some dinners. Lunch was on the fly. Days began on the bus with our guide Buddy giving us the lowdown on the day’s travel plan, history and background. Most days would cover about 200 miles, with rest stops on the Autobahn or tourist destinations. Two days covered more than 300 miles.

Besides the basic tour, travelers could choose to purchase five optional excursions or go on their own. These were group dinners in Berlin and Munich and two World War II excursions, including Dachau, the notorious concentration camp. We opted for the dinners, finding the historical sites that were part of the package to be adequate.

A Rhine River cruise was relaxing as we sipped German beer, surrounded by sloping, vertical vineyards, castles and greenery. Traveling north from Frankfurt toward Hamburg, stops along the way included a visit to the mighty Cologne cathedral constructed from 1248 to 1880.

Situated on the Elbe River, Hamburg is one of Germany’s greatest maritime cities – the nation’s second-largest city after Berlin – and has a population of 1.8 million. It has a thriving downtown and busy harbor, where we enjoy a dinner on our own but were curiously served “American dressing” on our salads. It tasted suspiciously like Russian dressing to us.

Berlin is a vibrant city as evidenced by its vehicle and bicycle traffic. We were warned to avoid standing in the bike lanes on the sidewalk near the curb. Bicyclists are seen traveling at great speeds, nearly taking down oblivious tourists. The local guide told us of Berlin’s history and place within Germany, particularly after its division in the aftermath of World War II – especially poignant three weeks prior to the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Points of interest include a section of the Wall maintained for historical value, the American Sector’s Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate. The Wall was not a straight line dividing East and West, the guide explained. Rather, it zigged and zagged, dividing not just neighborhoods, but also families.

We arrived in Bavaria’s Nuremberg in time for a brief history lesson and directions from Buddy; then we scattered in search of dinner. There was enough time left to explore the medieval charm of the Old Town section dominated by the Imperial Castle, which dates to the Middle Ages. I turned the gold ring on the Schoner Brunnen (Beautiful Fountain) in Hauptmarkt (Market Square), hoping the legend that I will return would be true.

Between Nuremberg and Munich, we found the beautiful medieval Rothenburg by the Tauber River and left laden with holiday treasures. With Rothenburg in the rearview mirror, we headed southwest on the Romantic Road, to the Bavarian capital of Munich. Two days in one hotel and a reprieve from daily unpacking and repacking also is appealing. The optional meal at the Rathskellar in downtown Munich consisted of an appetizer of bread, cheese and large soft pretzels (tasty) along with shredded radishes in a small cup – a Munich touch. That was followed by a plate of sauerbraten with gravy, red cabbage and spaetzle noodles. The evening bus ride through Munich, admiring the mammoth buildings aglow in city lights was a bonus.

The next day Karl and I ventured off on our own to tour the Residenz Museum, a former palace of the kings of Bavaria. Heavily bombed in World War II, two-thirds of the palace had to be reconstructed, but the opulent treasures were safe, having been stored below the city streets in the salt mines.

The next day, Neuschwanstein Castle appeared mystical in the distance, perched on a mountaintop in the breathtaking Bavarian Alps. Neuschwanstein Castle is a 19th century, neo-romantic castle built by King Ludwig II. Ludwig is said to be one of Bavaria’s most handsome kings, but he is also commonly called the “crazy king.” He drowned in a lake near his castle, along with his state-ordered psychiatrist. Conspiracy theorists point out that along with his idiosyncrasies Ludwig was breaking the country’s bank with his construction projects, including the castle which he lived in for two weeks before his death.

After our last stop in a big college town, Heidelberg, we arrived in Frankfurt for our final night in Germany. In the absence of an organized group dinner, many of us went to a nearby biergarten recommended by Buddy for our last German dinner and lingered appreciatively over apple strudel.