During the past two weeks my husband, Frank, and I have been in Europe, this time visiting Germany and Holland. I can’t cite actual statistics but I would guess that a more typical destination for a vacation in Europe might be Italy, France, Spain, or Greece. We love those countries and have been fortunate to visit each of them. Our family has been going to Europe for more than thirty years. In addition to just wanting to see iconic places in person that we see in books and on TV, with regard to Italy, we eagerly go back about every 3 years to visit family living in Lecce in southern Italy and to fit in side trips to places like the Amalfi Coast, Matera, Sicily, and Otranto. But I get the sense that countries like Germany and Holland are viewed as sort of second tier when planning European vacations. Indeed in the months that led up to this trip we were asked more than once why Germany? Why Holland? Regarding Germany, Frank lived and worked in Germany for about 8 months in 2005 and 2006, and I visited often. He is currently semi-retired from the company he’s worked for since 2005 and goes back periodically for business, or in this case, to see friends and colleagues. I have to admit that Holland actually is a country that we might have overlooked were it not for family that lives there. This was my fifth or sixth time in Germany and my third trip to Holland. But as always because of family or friends, we’ve grown somewhat familiar with these countries and particularly love venturing off the usual tourist path and seeing how the real people live.
This trip, our first stop was Munich, a beautiful medieval city to which we had never been previously. Astonishing to realize that the very vibrant city in which we stood was heavily damaged in World War II and then rebuilt over the last 50 years. My husband is an avid history buff, and one of his major interests is Germany in the 1920’s and ’30’s and circumstances that led to the rise of the Third Reich. In fact, a mini-theme of this trip became the sites that played major roles during the Second World War. Munich was the birth place of Nazism. We took a walking tour of the city – entitled Hitler’s Munich – with a guide discussing the important facts and seeing the sites that were emblematic of this dark chapter that ended with this beautiful city in ruins.
Night after night and day after day we spent a lot of time in the beautiful Marienplatz, the plaza where in 1923 Hitler tried to launch a failed coup. We people watched, took in the impromptu concerts that sprout up, drank beer, ate wienerschnitzel, but never seemed to be there when the glockenspiel did its thing – the twice daily chimes and dances of the statues.
Next we visited Dachau, a forced labor camp that was the first concentration camp set up by Hitler’s regime. Hitler became the Chancellor of the German Reich in January 1933 and less than two months later, the concentration camp near Dachau was opened. It turned out to be the prototype and the beginning of a system of camps that spread into many other parts of Europe over the next 12 years. The list of the atrocities committed during that time is sobering indeed. By the time that Dachau was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945, Dachau had housed an estimated 188,000 political prisoners.
It’s sobering that a monster who failed at everything else in his life was able to generate a movement so persuasive as to coalesce people to follow his vision for his adopted country. His one gift – that of screaming oratory and striking the right message for a desparate country – was sufficient to rally enough people to follow him to the gates of hell. He didn’t invent hatred or anti-Semitism. But his mad genius was his ability to transform a kernel of what a segment of people were already feeling into a national mandate so powerful that at the end of his rage 6,000,000 Jews were left massacred. And because of a war that was started when Hitler invaded Poland, 52 million people in Europe alone died. It’s not that there wasn’t resistence but the resistance was never enough to forestall his siege. I think it’s important that places like Dachau and Auschwitz are seen so that we never forget what happened there, that we always stay vigilent in this world so that monstrous acts like these are not repeated.
Our guide at Dachau was a German woman who was born soon after the war ended. It wasn’t until her early teens that she started asking her parents questions about what had happened during the war and what they had known at the time. For years her parents deflected her questions without adequate answers. In 1978, a made-for-TV movie produced in the United States about the Holocaust showed on German TV. It was after this showing that our guide became relentless in her queries of her parents and others who lived through that time in Germany. Eventually she was essentially told that people didn’t really know much but also often didn’t make waves for fear of reprisals to their own families. It was an emotional, stirring and touching end to our tour of this hallowed place where a documented 32,000 people were ultimately put to death, and thousands more, died.
It’s always been powerfully moving to talk with the German people – many of whom were not even born during that time – about the national guilt that overtook them for many decades following the war or to read their public declarations of their ownership of their responsibiity of the horrors of that time.
On the last of our four days in the Munich area we went to the Neuschwanstein Castle, built by King Ludwig II. It is the prototype for the castle that tinkerbell flies over in the iconic symbol of Disney World. It’s nestled in mountains in Bavaria across the border from the Austrian Alps. In addition it’s surrounded by a lovely little village whose obvious primary industry is tourism. It was a 2-hour bus trip to go there and another 2 hours back to Munich, but we were so glad we did it.
The next day, we drove the six hours from Munich to Dortmund, Germany, in the the Ruhrgebiet, the heart of the industrial part of Germany and the site of the company’s manufacturing plant where Frank worked and twelve years ago. We had a fantastic time having dinners catching up with friends and colleagues that I have also come to know over the years. During this part of the trip Frank and I also drove to Munster,
a university town known for its 13th century cathedral St. Paulus Dom. Here in the cathedral we finally saw their glockenspiel “performance” and well worth the wait.
We spent three days in and around Dortmund. Time to move on to Holland.
My Frank’s aunt and uncle live in Alblasserdam, Holland, about 10 miles from Rotterdam. Alblasserdam is a small village with idyllic scenes of windmills, cows and canals, just what we expect the Netherlands to look like.
With my Frank’s cousins we visited Amsterdam, a city we had last visited about twelve years ago. Back then, we had taken a canal ride, went to the Hague, visited beach towns, Delft, and, yes, saw the notorious Red Light district. Amsterdam is one of those cities – same is true for places like New Orleans and San Francisco – where when you arrive you know you’re there immediately. A city with its own style. Amersterdam is a beautiful city of canals, bicycles, Dutch homes with their unique designs and levers on which to hoist furniture and other heavy objects to the upper floors, a car-parking system that can make Chicago look cheap by comparison, and incredible museums. As Rick Steves says, “From houseboats to sex, from marijuana to the Old Masters, you can find a museum to suit your interests.”
My one disappointment was that I wanted to take a tour of the Ann Frank House, the attic in which she and her family hid from the Nazis for two years prior to being captured. This is probably the most popular of the tourist sites in Amsterdam and, unbeknownst to me until it was too late, tourists are advised to reserve tickets at least two months prior to the visit so my request in early May for an early June slot was too late. We did visit the Vermeers and Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum which was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
Continuing our focus around the Second World War, we visited the area around Arnhem, in the town of Oosterbeek, where the monumental Hartenstein Villa was the headquarters of the British Airborne Divison during the famous Battle of Arnhem in 1944, and the subject of the film “A Bridge Too Far.” The Villa is now the home of the Airbourne Museum. It was incredible to see.
On the recommendtion of family, we also visited Breda, with its wonderful outdoor restaurants and its amazing Grote Kerk, the amazing church that broke ground in 1410 and opened in 1547 as Roman Catholic and is now a Protestant with a spire that sails 97 meters (about 100 yards) into the sky.
We spent a lovely Sunday in the town of Utrecht: watched the end of a 10K race, shopped, ate along the canal and just generally kicked back.
We finished the day back in Alblassardam at the home of Frank’s aunt and uncle with a wonderful family dinner and a magnificent dessert.
It doesn’t get better than this.
With all the traveling we do, you’d maybe expect that my husband and I would be better trip planners. We just aren’t – we generally have an idea of our “must-sees” but much of the time we wing it. I don’t have the patience for intense research and my husband often doesn’t have the time. With this trip, we had the advantage of friends in Dortmund and family in Holland who led us to places that often people wouldn’t know about, even with a guidebook. Sometimes it takes a local to get you to the hidden gems.
Ultimately, we realized that this trip more than any of our others showed us incredible beauty: the ancient churches and castles, the canals, the amazing people, the Alps; and reminders of unspeakable horror, as we traveled Hitler’s path in Munich, traced back to the carnage at Arnhem, silently and reverently bowed our heads at Dachau.
Thanks for taking this tour with us…..