Spontaneous Moments in Germany and Eastern Europe

I was fortunate to lead a group of some of the most wonderful students I’ve ever met through Germany, France and the Netherlands last Easter. On the trip, we were able to see places that have defined the world we live in today. We began in the Bavarian capital of Munich where after a quick intro to a few German words, we headed straight to the city center.

Our first glimpse at Germany’s diverse history was at a city gate called Isator whose central tower was built in 1337. After taking in the incredible site we strolled past the Marienplatz with its brand new Town Hall and Hofbräuhaus which was founded by the Duke of Bavaria in 1589. Among its famous visitors were Mozart and John F. Kennedy. It was also one of the beer halls used by the Nazi Party to declare policies and hold functions. Every place we visited was full of its own stories and history.

Besides its range of Hofbräu, Germany also has an amazing assortment of food. Being a bit of a foodie, it’s always a great pleasure to share my favorite eating places with new people. So next up we went to the Viktualienmarkt, an outdoor market that has 140 shops and stalls selling the best Bavarian produce and street food. Within minutes of being there, students were scarfing down massive pretzels, roast pork sandwiches and all the different varieties of Wurst. In my mind there’s no better way to instantly absorb a culture.

After lunch, we went to St Peter’s Church for two reasons. First, I showed the group the remains of St. Mundita who died in 310 AD. She has a gem-studded skeleton with a wide-eyed stare and a jewel-covered toothy grin. Gruesome? Maybe, but showing the students something they’ve never seen before was fun for them and for me. After this we climbed the 306 tiny steps to the top of the tower for the most amazing views of Munich. Awesome? Definitely.

Trips to Europe often come face-to-face with darker sides of history: after leaving Munich we went to the Dachau concentration camp. We arrived early in the morning when the site was completely empty leaving it feeling quite desolate. Opened just days after Hitler took power in 1933, it was the very first concentration camp and served as a prototype for the others that followed. There were many profound moments during this part of our tour. In order to prepare the students, we discussed the war and its impact before we arrived at Dachau.

We also visited commonwealth cemeteries in France and the Netherlands. It’s difficult to put into words the emotions felt by all as we walked through cemeteries full of young men killed in their prime, many of whom were the same age as the students traveling—some tragically younger. Students were moved by the ages of the soldiers engraved on the headstones, the small inscriptions by the families and finding brothers buried next to each other. I also read some letters written from the soldiers on the front. These moments of true reflection are something that has to be felt because books simply cannot convey the same power.

The students were very grateful that they were able to pay their respects at these sites. At one of the cemeteries a student was able to leave a wreath for a family member, it was an emotional moment for him and the entire group as he told us the background history of his relative. Later, I was able to share some letters dating from the Second World War from my grandparents that gave my family’s account of the history here.

Every tour I’ve ever held has had spontaneous moments that were created by participating and playing an active part in the group. From introducing the students to the biggest pretzels they’ve ever seen to sharing emotional stories about our past, every moment on tour becomes incredibly special. When you come, try to see as much as you can on your life-changing journey. I assure you it will be worth every second.

Readers, what was your favorite place to visit in Germany?

Check out our other Germany related blog posts here.

Flickr photo via mpatzig and ranahki.