Straying from the beaten track of the major tourist sites of Europe fascinated and rewarded one of my repeat groups. In April, we started a month long tour in the Netherlands (It was tulip time at De Keukenhof), then on to Delft, Harlem, Amsterdam, Groningen and Bourtrange. The latter, a fortress shaped like intertwined stars, consists of several bastions built on a sandy ridge in the swamps near the present Dutch-German border. William the Silent ordered its construction in 1580 at the onset of the Eighty Years War against Spain.
Once in Germany we stopped at Papenburg, famous for its shipyards, in Lübeck, Hamburg and Lüneburg with its crooked buildings. Later on, as we were in the Harz mountains, we took a picturesque narrow gauge train to its highest summit, the Brocken. We were there on the afternoon of Walpurgis Night leaving promptly to avoid the witches’ coven. In Wolfsburg, we visited the Volkswagen factory where in 1937 Albert Speer chose the architect Peter Koller to design the master plan of this new town built to welcome 90,000 workers and their families. In Bremen we remembered the tale of the town musicians who scared away robbers, because “the donkey brayed, the dog barked, the cat meowed and the cock crowed”. A 10-m (33 ft) high statue of Roland, Charlemagne’s most famous Paladin, stands beside the town hall. Visiting Hamelin was easy: we just followed the Pied Piper (Then, like a musical adept/ To blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled/ And green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled/ Like a candle-flame where salt is sprinkled).
Further on we visited the secularised Benedictine Abbey of Corvey, founded in 9th century by Louis the Pious. In the 12th century, the Imperial Diet often met there. Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, the author of Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, is buried next to his wife in the cemetery. Our itinerary included parts of the Fairy Tales’ Route (Deutsche Märchenstraβe) followed by enthusiasts of Brothers Grimm; In Trendelburg we took pictures of Rapunzel’s hair cascading down the tower; in Sababurg we saw the castle of Little Briar-Rose (Dornröschen) better known in contemporary English as Sleeping Beauty from the earlier version by Charles Perrault (La Belle au bois dormant, 1697).
In Leipzig, we visited the Stasi Museum, housed in the building in which the district administration of the sinister East German State Security Service (Staatssicherheitsdienst) was located. In Dresden, we toured the Transparent Factory where Volkswagen makes its model called Phaeton. Besides Italianate cities, Saxony also has beautiful natural landscapes where the sandstone mountains dominate the Elbe valley. At the Bastei Heights, we saw spectacular pillars of rock; on the Bohemian side we went to the equally impressive Prebischtor a 30m(98ft) long, 21m(69ft) high natural stone bridge. Amidst this scenery atop a rocky promontory 240m (787ft) over the Elbe, is the Königstein Fortress where in 1849 Michael Bakunin, the anarchist leader, was imprisoned for his part in the Dresden Uprising.
Further south, in the Erzgebirge (“Ore” Mountains), we visited the little town of Seiffen, a big name for children, as its main activity is toy making since the 18th century. The shops are full of Schwibbogen (candle arches) and the particular local speciality, nutcrackers in the shape of a bearded king created by Wilhelm Füchtner in about 1870.
Over the Bohemian border, we stayed in a little gem, the small hilltop town of Loket (Elbogan); the name comes from its location in a sharp bend of the river Ohře: loket means elbow; picturesque lanes and half-timbered houses surround the 14th century castle. The German-speaking population were expelled from here and elsewhere in the Sudetenland, their ancestral home of many centuries, with terrible humanitarian cost in 1945. After visits to Karlovy Vary, Česky Krumlov, Prague and Kutna Hora we stopped at Třebič to visit the 13th century Basilica of St Procopius; we went on and strolled about the hilltop town of Znojmo (Znaim) with its cathedral of St Nicholas boasting a celebrated Baroque pulpit. In Mikulov (Nikolsburg) we admired the baroque palace, which once belonged to the House of Liechtenstein, before becoming a seat of the Prince Bishops of Olomuc (Olmütz).
We then passed from Moravia into Slovakia. After a sightseeing tour of Bratislava, which included the Art Nouveau Blue Church, we went to Devín, at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers; its imposing ruined castle overlooks a monument to the victims killed while trying to cross the Slovak-Austrian border under communism: Queen Elizabeth II unveiled it in October 2008. In Hungary, another memorial to the Iron Curtain stands near Sopron where a breach was opened during the Pan-European Picnic on 19th August 1989, allowing about 600 East Germans who holidayed at Lake Balaton to flee to the West. Sopron (Ödenburg) was originally a Celtic settlement; it then became Roman and was known as Scarabantia. In 1532, Miklos Juricis, commander of the Christian troops stopped a Turkish army there; as a result Sopron was the only Hungarian town not to be under Turkish domination. Aged 9, Franz Liszt gave his first concert there in 1820.
After a boat trip on the shallow Neusiedler Lake, we drank Ausbruch at the most famous wine centre of Burgenland, Rust. Our tour was brought to a grand finale in Vienna.