I took a train from Erfurt to Mering and was nervous and excited as the train pulled up to the tiny station platform. I got off and not many people were waiting on the platform, so it was easy to spot my two great-uncles! I’d contacted them before my trip to Europe, wondering if they still lived in the addresses my dad gave me, and miraculously they responded, saying they’d love to meet me and show me around.
This is where my German skills really came into play. Most of my German relatives are older and don’t speak any English! I knew this might be the case and I’d always wanted to learn German because of my heritage, so about a year before my Europe trip, I made a Duolingo account, bought a few books, and began learning German on my own. It was easier than I thought it was and I loved feeling closer to my roots. I used DW Learn German, too. They have a website and videos as well as a sort of interactive game that makes learning easy and fun.
My great uncles, Matthais and Alfred, greeted me as I exited the train. They were excited to see me and helped me with my backpack as we went to the car. They took me to the hotel they booked for me and let me get settled a bit before we went out again.
We went into the city of Augsburg and went to some museums and historical sites, such as the town hall which has a massive ballroom and gold ceiling, and the Fuggerei, which is the world’s oldest social housing complex and also functioned as a bomb shelter in WWII . The city was gorgeous and peaceful and it was fun just getting to know my relatives as we walked around. I also went to a bookstore and got some books in German to fuel my language journey!
We went back to Matthais’ house for dinner and he and his wife made sure I was fed as they showed me pictures of my relatives. His mother was my grandmother’s sister, and it was so cool seeing pictures of their huge family and the house my great-grandfather built. Then I went back to the hotel and got a good night’s rest.
Before visiting, I’d emailed my relatives to let them know what sorts of things I’d like to do when in Bavaria, including visiting Dachau, one of the first concentration camps. Matthais picked me up from my hotel the next morning and we had breakfast before his son drove us to the site. They were curious why I wanted to visit Dachau, and understood when I told them it was mostly for education and learning more about the history of the WWII era.
We walked around Dachau solemnly as we learned the tragedies that occurred there. I saw the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free) sign on the iron gates – the ones I’d learned about in history class in school. Now, I was actually here, able to read the sign with my new Germany language skills.
Then, we went to a Biergarten with Matthais’ son, who spoke English and worked with beer suppliers. He knew a lot of the restaurant workers and it was fun being treated like a local. I had schnitzel and Spezi, my favorite combination!
Then we went into Munich and they asked if I’d like to do a bus tour to see the sights, since they couldn’t take me to each place individually with our limited time. I enthusiastically said yes, and within minutes I was on a bus tour with an English audio guide and it was great learning the history and culture of Bavaria and Munich. I’d love to go back to Munich, because from what I saw just from that 2-hour bus tour was amazing!
After that, we went back to Mering and I relaxed in the hotel after a busy day. But the next day was the busiest of all! We all had to be up at the crack of dawn because it was castle day! Thankfully, I’d preordered my tickets, but the pickup time was set in stone, and Germans are prompt, so we had to be there on time for me to pick them up.
Yes, we were on our way to Neuschwanstein Castle, also known as the Disney Castle because Disney modeled Cinderella’s castle after it. It was designed and built by Ludwig II, but he died before they even finished most of the construction, and it was left half-complete. Now, it’s a popular tourist destination and tours are run in multiple languages all day so people can see the rooms that were complete and how extravagant they are.
The castle is very close to the Swiss Alps, close to the Germany-Switzerland border, and the area surrounding it is beautiful and breathtaking. The car ride there was about two hours but it didn’t seem long because just looking out the window was a fun experience in itself, although I was really sleepy! Thankfully, since I already had a code to pick up my tickets, we walked up to the ticket booth and there was no line! I just went up and grabbed my tickets and that was that. Well, there was a line, but that was the massive line to buy tickets, for those who hadn’t made plans in advanced. I was so happy we’d made arrangements, because that line could have meant standing for two or three hours waiting!
We got some hot cocoa and waited for my ticket time. I had to wait for my English tour to start, so we had some time to kill. I thankfully got some wi-fi and was able to talk to my husband for a little bit, and we took pictures with the horses and buggies that carried tourists willing to shell out the dough for a ride up the mountain.
Astonishingly, my two great-uncles both decided to climb up to the castle with me. It was a steep climb, about 30-minutes, and even I had trouble that early in the morning. We got to the top and took pictures of the stunning mountain view and then they left me to do my tour. They waited at the bottom for me as I walked around the inside of the castle, looking at all the extravagant furniture King Ludwig II had chosen.
After the castle tour, we got back in the car and went to lunch at a nearby restaurant that overlooked a huge lake. or, it would have, if the lake wasn’t dried up at the time! Still, the scenery was beautiful and we had a great lunch. Next, we drove to a beautiful Rococo style church, the Wieskirche.
There were cows with charming bells on their necks and even two horses in a pasture who came up to me and let me rub on them. My great-uncle asked me how old I thought the horses were, since he knew my family owned horses back in the U.S., so I looked at their teeth and guessed they were about 8 years old.
The inside of the church was white with gold trim and there were beautiful paintings everywhere. A lot of the ceiling was also painted a soft pink, and the whole atmosphere of the church was romantic and elegant.
We got back in the car and I thought we’d be heading back home, since we’d gotten up so early and done so much already that day, but never fear the impenetrable German spirit! No, we were on our way to yet another beautiful place – Hohenpeißenberg, where there’s a small church on the top of a hill that looks out for miles. The lookout was great, and we were near another lake (this one actually had water in it) and we made a pit stop at a cute little outdoor cafe. We got apfelstrudel and ice cream and I was stuffed after that.
I kept telling them I was sleepy after all the driving and getting up early, etc. but they laughed at me and said, “But we have more to see! It’s so beautiful here!” and I was amazed at their energy. Eventually, we did make it back home and I crashed in my hotel room, exhausted.
The next day was a family reunion! We visited the house my great-grandfather built, the one my grandmother was born and raised in! I met lots of my relatives – cousins and aunts and the like – and they showed me pictures from back before the house was even built. They also had pictures of when my parents visited the house in the 80s, when my dad was stationed in Germany in the army. None of my grandmother’s siblings are alive today, but it was still so cool sitting in the house she grew up in, learning about my family history. I was so grateful I’d studied German and was able to communicate with them.
Sadly, it was time to leave and the next day, I had to take the train to Munich and then a six-hour bus to Switzerland! I’m so glad I got to meet my German relatives after hearing about them my whole life – and I’m proud of myself for learning German and taking the trip to see them. It was a really rewarding experience and I hope I can visit again. Bavaria was so beautiful, the people were so nice, and the food was amazing. Even if your roots aren’t in Bayern, you should definitely make the trip!