I checked with my Dad and it turns out we did drive into Germany for a day on a family holiday during my teens. I don’t remember anything about the country though, where we were or whether I even got out of the car.
For all the years I had studied about Germany in school there was a lot I didn’t know about what it is like to live there today. I had no idea, for example, that in many German cities the cycle lanes are on the pavement. Within the first few hours of wandering around Cologne I had almost caused injury to several riders and myself.
“Fräulein! You cannot walk here,” I imagine is what the horrified rider shouted at me as I walked straight into her two-wheeled path. I cannot speak German so it was after some time and lots of hand gestures that this dawned on me. Each of the 3 cities I visited (Cologne, Münster and Hamburg) had copious and connecting cycle lanes. In Münster navigating the city on bike was part of the residents’ DNA, regardless of age.
Navigating my way between the 3 cities turned out to be much easier than I had feared. With no previous experience of InterRaling, plus the afore-mentioned lack of local language and knowledge, I approached Cologne Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) with a feeling of foreboding. Being the fastidious traveller I am I headed over to the information desk to check if there was anything I needed to do to validate my ticket. No, I was told, my flexi-pass was valid for any train, I just needed to board one. The helpful man also told me the platform and departure time of the next train to Münster and I headed in that direction, picking up two lost tourists who (for some strange reason) looked to me for help on the way.
There was one type of train my InterRail ticket wasn’t valid on though, it was the posh private locomotive I tried to stowaway in from Münster to Hamburg. Sensing the luxury retro cabin was not where I belonged I quickly found a guard and showed him my ticket. “No Miss,” he told me,” this is a private train company, you must get off now and wait for the next train.” I hopped back down onto the platform just as the whistle blew. It was worth a try, I suppose.
Luckily everyone in Germany speaks excellent English and seems to be very adept at spotting someone who is linguistically lost. On my first night in Cologne I gravitated towards a funky looking restaurant in the Belgian Quarter called Herr Pinnock. I had barely opened my mouth to admit my ignorance before the waitress offered, “Shall I translate the menu for you?” And she did. Every single item was duly listed off so that I could order with the comfort of knowing what exactly would arrive.
My mission on this 6-day jaunt through Germany was to hunt down youth hotspots and I must admit it made me a little nervous before I left. Not only did I not know the language but I was concerned I wouldn’t know what a youth hotspot looked like in Germany, or how easy it would be to track some down. In the end I found more than I could possibly write about in 3 posts. Herr Pinnock was one of the hotspots I fell upon, and there were many more cool cafes, themed bars and unique boutiques I stumbled into along the way. (Click here for a full list.)
Sometimes it was you readers who sent me in the right direction (special thanks to @anekdotique on twitter for the tip about cakes at Herr Max), often I relied on Foursquare (the places app) to see where many young people had checked into and sometimes I just used my nose. My nose led me to a laundrette/shop combo boutique and a mini coffee roastery in Cologne, a fantastic flea market in Hamburg and a beautiful bargain coat in Münster’s branch of Oxfam. Locals were always keen to help too, the shop owners in Hamburg’s Marktstrasse confirmed the flea market was worth visiting, fashion designers were happy to tell me about their favourite stockists.
But most of all, I walked. I walked everywhere I could, from Cologne’s Belgian Quarter to the Dom, around Hamburg’s Reeperbahn and Münster’s weekly market. I found the best places whilst simply walking, happily lost. It seems this is what cities like these are made for.
My experience of Germany (so far) is contained to just one corner. But if the café culture, help from locals and approach to shopping I experienced are anything to go by, I look forward to exploring the country some more.
Top of the 2014 travel wish list: Berlin!
I travelled to Germany in association with the German National Tourist Board. All the youth hotspots I discovered on the journey can be found on the Germany.travel website. All opinions are my own.
InterRail Germany passes start at £185 for a 3-day pass which will allow travel for 3 days in a one-month period. All fares are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit www.raileurope.co.uk or call 0844 848 5 848.
I flew from London to Cologne and Hamburg to London with Easyjet. Easyjet now pre-assign seats so there’s not so much of a rush to get on the plane now! For more information visit www.easyjet.co.uk.