Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Days 540 to 544: A Long Weekend With Two Wonders In Germany

As I stood in Glasgow airport, searching the screens with a sense of increasing desperation for the absent 18.05 flight to Munich, I realised: this had not begun well.

One of the advantages of my new job is that it gives me what is essentially a long weekend each week. I work three 12-hour night shifts, Monday to Wednesday, 7pm to 7am. Come seven o'clock on Thursday morning, I am free for a further 108 hours. Last week, I decided to use most of these hours in Germany, visiting my two Wonders there. They are:


That's Neuschwanstein Castle and Cologne Cathedral, and it's fair to say I was looking forward to seeing them.

I almost didn't see them at all. After getting a few hours rest, I woke and got ready in plenty of time. My taxi arrived and took me to the airport in plenty of time. My flight was after 6pm so I had plenty of time - plenty! - to sit and have a beer or two in departures. But where was my flight? I stood, flight details in hand, unable to find Munich at 18.05. How odd. I could see it written down on the printout before me, 18.05, Easyjet, Edinburgh to Mu... Ah.

A lot of people make the classic mistake of confusing Glasgow Airport with Glasgow Prestwick Airport. I had made the less classic mistake of confusing it with Edinburgh, an entirely different city. This was, hmm, not great news. Before I had time to ponder the potential consequences, I 9.58-seconded it into a taxi. "I am," I explained, "a little pushed for time."

For the next hour, as my driver regaled tales of being attacked by assailants and chronic problems with his meter, and thought to myself "How the hell have I managed to do this?" It's not as if I'm a novice at taking flights. For work and for leisure, I've flown around the world. I've coordinated my travels through unfamiliar cities and airports across the globe, often at highly anti-social hours. This time I was in my home country, getting a flight in the comfort of late afternoon. Yet I'd found myself in a taxi at the wrong side of Glasgow, as rush hour began, stress levels rising as the toss of the coin as to whether I'd catch my flight on time looked increasingly like it might land on the wrong side.

The consequences of missing the flight didn't bear thinking about. My schedule in Germany was tight and went like this:

Day 1: Arrive late in Munich. Sleep.
Day 2: Go to Fussen in the morning, see Neuschwanstein Castle for the rest of the day.
Day 3: See Neuschwanstein in the morning, catch noon train to Cologne (a 6-hour journey of three trains and three pre-booked tickets)
Day 4: Cologne day.
Day 5: Morning flight home.

There was not much room for manoeuvre. But the cock-up wouldn't affect just me, it would screw up my travel partner. As readers of this blog may know, one of my rules about visiting a prospective World Wonder is At least one of my visits to a Wonder must be accompanied by a “control”, i.e. I need someone to see the sights with me. Burness and Danielle have been the classic controls over the last few years, visiting scores of Wonders across the continents. But for Germany, making his debut as a control, was a regular to this blog: Piltup.

For some years now, Piltup has made regular appearances on my comment section. Often he agrees with what I've said, occasionally he gently disagrees, frequently he will add to what I've written with further information. He is a sublime commenter, sharing my own interests of architecture and history. Danielle and I met with him last year, during the European leg of our travels. He lives in Marseille, so for a few afternoons and evenings we had some drinks and visited a few local spots. We had agreed back then that if I was to be visiting any further Wonders in Europe and needed a "control", he'd happily volunteer. And so here he was, taking some days as part of a holiday, ready to visit Neuschwanstein Castle and Cologne Cathedral with me. As I sat, stressed, in my taxi, he was wandering around Munich. Missing my flight wouldn't just screw up my plans, it would scupper his too.

("Piltup", it goes without saying, is not his real name. His real name's Ian. But there are already two other Ians who have visited Wonders with me, (Iain) Burness and my brother, so I'm going to call him Piltup for clarity. Also, to be quite honest, I can't get used to calling him Ian. Piltup kind of suits him.)

I'm happy to say that I made it. Just. My taxi driver was on the case. He cut in, he went fast, he gambled on routes, he avoided the worst of the traffic. I could quite believe he fought off two armed assailants some years ago, outside a deserted car park at night. I ran into Edinburgh airport, confirmed my flight was on the screens - it was! - and then ground to a halt in a huge queue for security. And then I ran - ran! - to get my flight, flashing red for last boarding (the name on the screen, that is, not me). I made it by minutes or less. Phew. I had two beers on the flight to celebrate. I was safely on my first flight since September - the longest period, I worked out by way of incidentalness, I've gone without flying since 2005.

To Munich then, where I checked in and met Piltup for a few beers. Over the next few days, Piltup raved on about Munich. They'd done a terrific job, he said, rebuilding it after the war. The city - or the city centre at least - was the perfect blend of charm, beauty, and efficiency. The people were friendly, the streets were clean. Alas, I saw little of that, as by the time I'd checked in, it was eleven at night. The next morning we had a train at nine o'clock.

The train was to Fussen, a small town that serves as the base for most people visiting Neuschwanstein Castle, whether for a few days or as a mere day-trip. We almost didn't make it. Although I'd checked with two different people in Munich train station (one guy, in fairness, was a train's cleaner, who had to check his phone and the German train website to confirm), it turned out the train we were on was not a direct one. We were, in fact, heading to a city called Kempten. The conductor even came round, checked our tickets, and said nothing in the way to indicate to us that our tickets weren't quite right. It was Piltup who got suspicious.

"Is this definitely the right train to Fussen?" he asked me.

"Yes. I asked two people!"

"What time does it arrive?"

"About 11 I think."

"I might ask the conductor, just to be sure."

"Nah, I wouldn't bother. I'm sure we're fine."

Thank God Piltup didn't listen to me. He asked the conductor who told us that we needed to change trains. We should really have got off at the last stop, but the next one would do. About two minutes later, the next stop appeared, and we duly bounced off and bounced into the train for Fussen. If not for that, we'd have ended up in Kempten, an-hour-and-forty-five minutes away by bus. Two days, and two travel near-misses. "I'm usually pretty organised with these things," I tried to assure Piltup.

We were staying overnight in Fussen, so dumped our bags in our hotel and spent the rest of the day visiting its famous nearby castle.

And this castle too.

And this all will be covered in my upcoming review, so there's no point going over it here. Needless to say, it was delightful day. It was also a hot one and featured a lot of walking, so by the evening we were knackered. How better to recover than some hearty food and some delicious German beers? Bavaria is an excellent part of the world for hearty food and delicious German beer, I'm happy to report. By day, Fussen teems with tourists, but by the evening most have returned to Munich. Fussen becomes peaceful, and we sat outside a restaurant in the warm evening, and discussed architecture and history to our heart's content.

Neuschwanstein Castle was famously built by the mad king of Bavaria, Ludwig II. When young, he once wrote to his governess in a letter: "And now the enchanting Cologne! The wonderfully beautiful cathedral with its spires reaching towards the heavens must inspire a feeling of piety in every soul." And after a morning visit to Ludwig's castle one last time, we were bound to Cologne and its heavenly spires. But first, this:

Nesselwang! For logisitical reason, it made sense to catch the train from Nesselwang, a small town about 20 minutes from Fussen. When I'd chosen this route several weeks earlier, I'd exclaimed in excitement to Danielle.


"So what?" Danielle replied, a mixture of unimpressed and uncomprehending.

"Nesselwang! The name!"

"What about it?"

"It's... funny..?"


But Piltup understood.

We saw little more of Nesselwang than it's long-boarded up train station, though it seemed a charming little town. Just as I'm sure this nearby town would be likewise.

The train from Nesselwang was our first of three for the day. Oh... it was agonising. It was running a little late, just a handful of minutes. We had a six-minute connection in Kempten, for the next train, to Ulm. As our train rolled in, we could see our train across the platform from us. As our doors opened, I could see the other train's doors still open. We'd made it! I ran across the platform... and moments before I reached it, the train began rolling off. We'd missed it! Literally by seconds.

"Is this to be the theme of this holiday in Germany?" I maligned to Piltup. "Constant travel stress? I'm organised usually!"

But we turned it to our advantage. Our next train was only an hour away, so in Kempten we had some much-needed food and drink. And once in Ulm, we decided to take the opportunity to visit something special.

This is Ulm Minster, and it is the tallest - yes, tallest bar none - church in the world. Tallest, if I'm not mistaken, religious structure in the world too. It's 161.5 metres tall, and was the tallest building in the world from 1890 to 1901 (building, not structure: the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 but it's not technically a building). It was 500 years in the making - the foundation stone was laid in 1377. It's pretty damn impressive.

Had we caught our trains on time, we'd never have managed a visit, but we converted our mishap to full glory. It was a fantastic bonus visit for our trip. The soaring single tower is a joy, a surprisingly-light Gothic lattice construction. It's possible to climb it, but we simply didn't have the time. Inside too is gorgeous.

There's even got a Lego model of itself!

We made it to Cologne by 8pm, only a couple of hours later than planned. It was Piltup's first time in Cologne, and just as everybody does upon leaving the station, his jaw dropped when he saw its gigantic cathedral right next door.

But we'll come to that in good time. We dumped our bags in our very nearby hotel and realised, all of a sudden, that the Champions League Final was starting. With perfect serendipity, the very first restaurant we came to was perfect - there were seats, it served food and beer, and it had a big TV with the sound on. The game was a minute in. We sat and ate and drank and watched with great contentment, and followed up a great game of football with several more beers.

The next day was Cathedral Day. And this will be covered in my review. Piltup didn't join me for High Mass - he preferred to do anything else instead - but he joined me for the tour, the tower visit and the treasury visit. This was liberally interspersed with beers, and plenty of discussion of architecture and history. The cathedral dominated by day in Cologne, but the rest of the city centre - despite being devastated during the Second World War - is lovely. Not tourist-panderingly lovely, but an understated, slightly gritty, yet still often quaint kind of loveliness.

The weather was beautiful, with a brisk breeze that blew away the sweaty heat of Munich. At the end of the day, with Cologne Cathedral comprehensively visited, and with Neuschwanstein too safely behind us, we reflected upon a successful series of days over some delicious beers by the river. Danielle happened to phone. She said I sounded quite tipsy.

And that was Germany. Two terrific Wonders which I don't spoil anything by saying are going to score pretty on my list. Germany was such a pleasure that I now kind of wish I'd more Wonders to visit there. The final morning I flew home, this time choosing the correct city to fly from (it was Dusseldorf, as it happens, not Cologne, but I was very careful to double check this).

I was quite tired by the end of my nightshift the following morning...


  1. Great write-up mate. Looking forward to seeing where these two come on your list.

    What did you make of Hohenschwangau Castle? It's one of a number of beautiful hilltop castles in Germany and Austria (Hohenzollern, Hohensalzburg and Hohenwerfen all spring to mind) that seem to get a bit ignored because of Neuschwanstein. I do think that Neuschwanstein is the stand-out though because, although it may lack in age, it more than makes up for it in terms of pure beauty/fairy tale-ness.

    By the way, if you've not seen it already, I can highly recommend the Dan Cruickshank documentary, 'The Fairytale Castles of King Ludwig II' which has been on BBC4.

    1. Hohenschwangau was great - very close to Neuschwanstein, and the two complement each other really well. It's only around 60 years older - like Neuschwanstein, it was built as part of a trend to romanticise the past. The whole area seems full of great castles, both 19th Century and ruined - I'd love to spend a lot longer there. Hohenzollern especially - I've just Googled it and it looks amazing.

      I watched the Cruickshank documentary just days before the visit as part of my preparation!

  2. I reckon that if the Ulm visit had been planned from the outset we would have ended up on a train bound for the Danish border or something!

    By the way I did end up buying a cuckoo clock (in Geneva).

    1. Geneva seems an appropriate place for cuckoo clock purchase. I hope it makes a splendid addition to your home.

      You probably know this by now, but it would seem that the Turkish dance party at the side of Cologne Cathedral was because of Turkish elections that happened that night.


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