GERMANY

Until 1871, Germany was a surprising number of different countries, and it still feels like several countries today. At the very least, there is Bavaria and The Rest, and between 1945 and 1990 there was also East Germany and West Germany. If you want more detail than that, you need to be a bit more of an historian. Suffice it to say that at the original unification in 1871 there were four kingdoms, five grand duchies, thirteen duchies and principalities, and three Free Cities (Hamburg, Luebeck and Bremen). There are, therefore, plenty of Germanies to visit.

I share with many people a weakness for Bavaria. The climate is better; the scenery is often better; Bavarians are among the friendliest of Germans, though they say themselves that they have far too many tourists and incomers, and that they will only welcome you as long as you don't want to stay too long; there are some stunning mediaeval towns (though that applies to other parts of Germany as well); and the beer is both better, and sold in more sensible quantities. The 20 cl (7-ounce) glasses sold up north are supposed to ensure that your beer is fresh, cold and fizzy, but I'd rather have a half-litre or litre of good Bavarian beer, thanks all the same. Note that the wily Bavarians hold their Oktoberfest in late September, though.

Of course, Bavaria is not the only part worth visiting. Far from it. Even the far north can be delightful in high summer, with fine beaches, and as you might expect from the mish-mash of independent and semi-independent states that confederated in 1871, the whole country can be a delight for those with an interest in history and ancient buildings. The Rhine Valley is beautiful, if somewhat tourist-infested in places, and with the exception of some of the less riveting agricultural and industrial country in the north-west interior, there is something to see (and good roads to enjoy) in pretty much the whole of the country.

The official German website, www.germany-tourism.de, is slow, confusing, and distinctly short on useful general information: it's split between waffle about how beautiful the country is, and how to book hotels.

For maps, I have been happy for years with the Ravenstein Super Strassen atlas at 1:250 000. This is 1 cm = 2.5 km or almost exactly 4 miles to the inch -- a true 'quarter inch' map is 1:253 440. The atlas is small enough, too, to go into the tank bag: about A4.

As road maps go, it's not too bad on topographical detail. The smallest 'white' roads (described as 'other road, track') really are pretty tiny in many cases and may not even be surfaced. In the back there are 20 pages of general European maps, mostly at 1:4 000 000 or 1 cm = 40km, 1 inch = 63 miles (!) but also at 1:1 000 000 to 1:2 000 000 (1cm = 10 to 20 km, 1 inch = 15.8 to 31.5 miles). To save weight and bulk you may care to rip these out.

MOTORING AND MOTORCYCLISTS

Opinions on German motorists are polarized. Some say they are very bad; others, including me, that they are actually among the best in Europe. I think that a part of it may be to do with speed -- a lot of old maids of both sexes, especially Americans, seem to be terrified out of their limited wits by the autobahns -- but it's also undeniable that many German drivers have a somewhat inflexible attitude towards right of way. If they are in the right, and you are not, well, tough. They seem a bit more relaxed in the south and east than in the north and west, though.

It is also the case that the Germans don't go in much for minor accidents. When they have an accident, they do it properly, with hundreds of thousands of euros' worth of BMWs, Mercedes and Porsches strewn around the autobahn.

Even so, I have over the years ridden and driven many thousands of miles in Germany and I have seldom been endangered by the actions of other drivers; it really isn't a bad place to ride. Other motorcyclists range from real wild men to very respectable, very staid and very, very fast middle-aged men, riding their bikes to the limit. All seem to have a tremendous weakness for kidney belts; an interesting national obsession.

Running a big bike in Germany requires taking a graded series of tests for ever-increasing capacities, which costs a fortune, so you really have to be fairly determined if you want to ride one. Germany also has the most ferocious type approval laws that I have ever encountered: even the smallest accessories and modifications must be approved, or they are illegal.

Fortunately this does not affect visitors. Nor does the minimum riding age, which in Germany is 18. If you can ride at 17 in your home country, you can also in Germany ride.

Helmets are required. A first aid kit is a legal requirement, and you are obliged by law to render first aid at an accident, if needed: Germans have to do a first aid course before they can take a driving test. Also compulsory are daylight riding lights, but carrying a set of spare bulbs is not compulsory. Nationality plates are however obligatory.

Do not sound your horn in urban areas except in a real emergency: it's an offence.

Under German law, the concept of 'pure accident' does not seem to exist: everything is someone's fault. For this reason, many Germans take out personal liability insurance to cover them for non-motoring accidents. Most travel insurance offers similar cover, which is another strong argument for having it.

ROADS AND RIDING

The autobahns are famous, but they are not all they are cracked up to be. On the older two-lane autobahns, discipline was rigid: you pulled out (fast!), overtook, and pulled back in again. As soon as three- four- and five-lane autobahns came in, people started avoiding the slowest lane and driving in the next-to-fastest lane, just as they do in Britain (though you rarely find the lane-hoggers who block the fast lane, at least not for long).

Many autobahns (no matter how many lanes) are very crowded, especially during the rush hours; and when no-one on a five-lane autobahn is doing under 100 mph (160 km/h) except in the slowest lane, it gives a whole new meaning to 'rush hour'.

Other roads generally vary from good to excellent, though from time to time you will inevitably come across the occasional country road that is overdue for resurfacing. In the older towns there are some fine mediaeval cobbles and setts in the Zentrum (town centre) and in the east you may even find main roads in and out of town that are paved with granite setts. A few of the older autobahns are in less than perfect order, but whenever I have been in Germany, there has always been a few kilometres of counter-flow where they are resurfacing the autobahn: the overall standard is slowly but steadily rising.

Priority is (as usual) to the right, but it is unusual to come across a junction where priority is not clearly marked. Trams have invariable right of way, even over pedestrians on pedestrian crossings; buses have right of way when they are pulling away from stops; traffic on a roundabout always has right of way; and so of course do emergency vehicles. Remember that when a German has right of way, he will take it. If you drive into him, that is your problem.

Watch out for complex sequences of traffic lights that follow no discernible logic: I was once hit with an on-the-spot fine for going through what I thought was a green light, a few yards ahead of me. It was green: but it wasn't a repeater for the red light at which I was waiting (and which I could barely see) as I thought it was.

The speed limit in built-up areas is 50 km/h (31 mph) though there are a few areas (always marked) where it is as low as 20 km/h (12 mph). On the open road, it is 100 km/h (62 mph). The autobahns are not, as is popularly believed, universally without speed limits: actual mandatory limits are often posted, usually 130 km/h (81 mph) but sometimes lower, and advisory limits (on a blue background) are also common. There is also a minimum speed limit on the autobahn of 60 km/h (37 mph).

In poor visibility, 50 metres (call it 55 yards) or less, there is a blanket speed limit of 50 km/h, 31 mph.

The Germans are a lot better at observing speed limits than they used to be, owing to a great rise in the number of speed cameras. According to a German rider of our acquaintance, the only speed cameras that routinely catch motorcyclists are in towns, where tripod-mounted speed cameras are accompanied by someone who writes down the number of the retreating motorcycle as it passes.

Even so, Germans observe speed limits only if they think there is a reasonable likelihood of being caught, and when the limits are off on the autobahn, they really wind it on. You can be cruising at over 180 km/h -- 115 mph, say -- in the middle lane (if there's room) and someone will pass you at 220 or even 250 km/h: that's 135mph or even 155 mph.

Overtaking is always on the left, except for trams; in one-way streets; or where there is no room on the right. It is obviously illegal to overtake when there are signs prohibiting overtaking, and it is illegal to stay in the overtaking lane on a dual carriageway or autobahn for any longer than necessary. The police can and will impose on the spot fines for transgressions, but normally do so only if you are actually driving dangerously or if they got out of bed the wrong side that morning.

If a tram is disgorging people into the roadway, you can't pass: you have to stop -- until its doors are closed.

Parking on the sidewalk is legal, as long as you don't cause an obstruction. Everyone does it. As usual, 'obstruction' is fairly generously interpreted: if you leave enough room for a fat person carrying two shopping bags, or a mother holding a child's hand, you should be OK. There is a long list of other rules which look very like common sense: don't park on main roads, or those carrying fast-moving traffic, or on or near tram lines. Don't park on the road within 15 metres (49 feet) of a bus or tram stop. One that is perfectly sensible, but I have to admit had never occurred to me, is that you shouldn't park on manhole covers.

WHEN TO GO

The north-south variation in climate across Germany is less than might be expected, because the mountains and high plateaus are in the south and the low-lying plains are in the north. There is more variation from east to west, with the east colder; but the variation still isn't all that great.

Variation from year to year and day to day can be very large. Germany, after all, gave the world the phrase 'goldener Oktober', and you do get them: some years we have had glorious weather at that time of year, though other years at the same time we have had miserable pissing rain for days on end.

Summers are pleasant rather than warm. Average daily maxima climb above 21 degrees C, 70 degrees F, only in June, July and August, and not even in June on the Baltic coast. Summer is probably the best time for the whole country, closely followed by autumn, when you can get some spectacular autumn colours in the trees. Late October is about as late as I would want to go, though. Spring -- April, or better still May -- can also be delightful, though March would be pushing your luck.

Winters are cold throughout the country: average minimum night-time temperatures start to fall below freezing around the end of November and do not climb above freezing again until March. Winters in the south tend to be colder and snowier, and rather more picturesque (though hardly suitable for motorcycling); up north, especially on the Baltic coast, they tend more towards the grey and miserable.

PUBLIC HOLIDAYS

These are determined on a state basis, and many of them are Christian. Here are the fixed ones:

Christian festivals without a fixed date are observed as public holidays as follows:

PRACTICALITIES AND PAPERS
Germany is a member of the Schengen Group. When entering from other EU countries, you barely slow down; from non-EU countries, expect no more than a quick glance at the passport, and a quick visual verification that you probably are the person in the passport picture. The main exceptions will be if you are a citizen of a country that the authorities regard as a possible source of refugees or asylum seekers. Then, you can expect a few questions as well.

Visitors from EU countries with identity cards may be able to do without a passport but others need them, and it's a good idea to carry one anyway. Citizens of most countries do not need a visa for up to a 90-day visit.

An EU photocard driving licence is entirely acceptable. In theory, other licences should be accompanied by a German translation but no-one ever seems to insist on this. Even so, for non EU licence holders an IDP (International Driving Permit) is probably desirable, if not essential. You also need the usual registration document, plus a letter of permission if the 'bike is borrowed, proof of third party insurance and (preferably) a constat a l'aimable.

There are no special health requirements or precautions for entering the country. There are the usual reciprocal health agreements with other EU countries; British citizens should carry an E111.

When entering from other EU countries, the usual customs rules apply: anything legal for personal use, though not drugs, firearms or pornography. From outside the EU, again there are the standard allowances, though there are unusual restrictions on coffee (500g, or 200g of extracts) and tea (100g, or 49g of extracts).

SHOPPING AND TIPPING

Currency is the Euro. Credit cards are becoming more and more widely accepted in Germany -- all petrol stations seem to accept them nowadays, though there may be exceptions I have not encountered, and so do most of the expensive hotels and restaurants -- but they have been far slower to catch on in Germany than in most of Europe and there are still plenty of places where it's cash or nothing. Do not rely on being able to put either a meal or a night's accommodation on your plastic.

Shopping hours are still among the most regulated in Europe, though since April 2003 shops have been allowed to open from 0600 to 2000, Monday to Saturday. Many small shops still keep old-fashioned hours and close at 1800, and even at the old 1600 (or earlier) on Saturdays. Sunday opening is pretty much unknown though the mini-shops at petrol stations (tankstellenshop) do a roaring trade on the Sabbath. Banks generally open at 0900, but after that, there are wide variations: they may close at anything from 1300 to 1630 (1730 on Thursdays), and they may or may not close for lunch. With the rise of the hole in the wall (autoteller), now well established in Germany, this is of ever less importance anyway.

Tipping is normally just a matter of rounding up, or adding a euro or two, though it is by no means unusual to give 10 per cent.

FUEL, OIL AND REPAIRS

Petrol is at the high end of the European average, though seldom at the top. All grades of lead-free (bleifrei) are widely available, along with lead replacement petrol. There are many petrol stations, as noted: there may still be a few that don't take credit cards, but I've not seen one for years.

You can be fined for running out of petrol on the autobahn, which is adding insult to injury.

As far as I recall, oil is significantly cheaper in supermarkets than at gas stations, but I have to admit that I've not needed to buy any oil in Germany for years.

Repairs are generally of the highest class, but they may take longer and cost more than you expect: Germans have a somewhat formal attitude towards work, keeping precise hours, and labour costs are very high. Or you may get lucky and find a back-street garage.

MOTORCYCLE HIRE

There are several motorcycle hire companies in Germany; one of the best-known is Bosenburg, www.bosenberg.com. They are particularly useful if you want to tour in neighbouring countries as well.

POLICE, ACCIDENTS AND EMERGENCIES

From my very limited dealings with the German police, they are polite, helpful and very correct: they do not adopt the approach that is all too often found in Britain of treating you like a naughty child, called in front of the teacher's desk for a ritual humiliation. Surprisingly many speak English, and a lot of them are motorcyclists, which means that they can tell if you were being silly. If you were not, they are on your side. Otherwise, watch out.

If you start getting awkward with them, they very rapidly start to get awkward with you too, as witness their behaviour at political demonstrations; so stay polite. They can impose fines for abusive language and derogatory signs, not just to them but to anyone else. Tapping your helmet to suggest that someone is a few pfennigs short of a Deutschmark is actually a criminal offence!

They must be called to an accident if anyone is hurt, or if there is any more than minor damage: it is up to you and the other guy to decide what is 'minor'. It's probably a good idea to call them anyway to make sure you aren't inadvertently breaking any German laws. Most German drivers apparently carry a stick of 'Traffic Chalk' for marking the positions of vehicles on the road.

Emergency numbers are:

For breakdowns, call either the ADAC or the AvD, or one of the other German clubs. The addresses of the ADAC and AVD are:

ADAC, Am Westpark 8, D-81373 Muenchen, +49 (0) 89 76 76 0 www,adac.de.

AvD, Lyoner Strasse 16, D-60528 Frankfurt am Main, +49 (0) 69 6606 0 www.avd.de.

As far as I could determine, anything more than the briefest attention from a passing patrolman must be paid for, though before you leave home you may care to ask your own motoring club if there are any reciprocal agreements.

FOOD

The very best German food -- especially the game -- is delicious. Venison with sour cherries, for example, is one of my favourite dishes. I'm also very fond of a good schweinhaxe, tender-cooked pork knuckle, or of an assortment of meat served on sauerkraut: smoked rib, two kinds of sausage, a pork chop, that sort of thing. They understand mixed grills pretty well, too.

German breakfasts are among the finest in the world: German bread is superb, and it is quite common to find cereal, yogurt, fruit, four or five kinds of bread, several kinds of cold meat, cheese, various spreads and jams, and eggs. Eggs are usually just boiled, though the better hotels may offer more variety and the best have an egg-chef whose sole job it is to prepare eggs according to your wish. You may also find fresh-squeezed orange juice, sekt (German sparkling wine) and such delicacies as gravadlax. Only quite rarely do they blink when I order beer with breakfast, and usually, I am not charged for it: as they said the first time I queried this, "But you did not drink the coffee!"

Then there are the regional and seasonal dishes. In early autumn, for example, you can get federweiss (literally 'featherwhite', actually fermenting grape juice on its way to being wine) which is delicious with onion flan (zweibeltorte)

That's the good news. The bad news is that an awful lot of German food is fairly dull, and some of it is downright unpleasant. Boiled or steamed, with very little in the way of seasoning except salt and (sometimes) pepper, it really is not a reason for going to Germany. All German food is inclined to be salty, and sometimes it is almost inedibly so. For example, cauliflower steamed with ham is a good combination, but the ham is salty to start with and drowning the cauliflower in salt adds nothing desirable.

I once ordered gehackte schweinfleisch (literally, hacked swineflesh) and by God, that's what I got: minced pork, cooked in a generous amount of lard, with lots and lots of salt, a fair amount of pepper, and not much else. In case that was too exotic and spicy, it was accompanied by mashed potato. It's as well I was hungry. But with the help of half a litre of weissbier, renewed as necessary, I can get almost anything down.

The moral, therefore, is either to eat at a good restaurant, and be resigned to paying rather more than you might expect, or to go for a picnic -- which can be very good, with that excellent bread, cold meat or charcuterie (the Germans are pretty good at that), and beer. Or try an ethnic restaurant: Greek, Turkish, Italian and Balkan are all well represented, and most are not expensive (though the Italian places are sometimes overpriced, even when they're not expensive).

If you're not very fussy about food, you can eat fairly cheaply, almost anywhere. Try a department store cafeteria; or a schnellimbiss or imbissstube (and yes, there are three essses in the middle). They mean 'quick-snack' and 'snack-room'.

DRINK

Germany is famous for its beer, and justly so, though I have already moaned about the tiny glasses they use up north. The theory is that the beer-waiters circulate and replace your glass with a full one as soon as it is empty, marking your beer-mat to show how many you have had. This may be the theory, but once, I had to leave half my schweinhaxe because I couldn't get the beer fast enough to counteract the salt. Several Germans have told me that this couldn't be so, but it was.

Outside Bavaria, I generally drink weissbier, literally 'white beer' which is made with wheat and comes in half-litre bottles. You can get it clear or with a yeast sediment (Hefe). The latter is more traditional and I prefer it.

German wines have a bad name in many countries because of the indifferent, sweet whites that are so widely sold (quite cheaply, it must be said) but the best German whites are superb. They are also so expensive that I almost never drink them. The few German reds I have had are entirely drinkable, but unremarkable.

The coffee ranges from good to excellent, and tap water is drinkable throughout the country. Watch out for the mineral waters, though. Some are extremely salty -- so much so that I can't keep them down, though I must be unusually sensitive. Always read the sodium content (Natrium in German).

Beers in bars cost a lot more than bierstuben; English-style (or more usually, Irish-style) pubs are somewhere in between. The price of beer in a bar is similar to English prices (high) but in an unpretentious bierstube it's not too bad -- though nothing like as cheap as in the neighbouring Czech republic.

The blood alcohol limit has now dropped from 0.08 to 0.05 per cent, as is increasingly often the case throughout Europe.

ACCOMMODATION

Accommodation, especially in rural Germany, can be surprisingly cheap -- or it can be equally surprisingly expensive. It can also be quite thin on the ground. We have paid anything from 40 euros to 65 euros for substantially indistinguishable rooms, depending on how desperate we are.

In the cities, too, there can be quite wide variations in price for no apparent reason. Bland 'business' hotels, the sort that you find in every country in the world, can be disproportionately expensive when compared with a longer-established business a few doors down the same street. Rooms tend to be cheaper in the east and south, the former for historical reasons, the latter simply because they get more tourists. If you can live without a private bath/WC, rooms can be very cheap, but such rooms are becoming harder and harder to find. A double room is a Doppelzimmer; a single room, an Einzelzimmer. Prices are invariably, in our experience, quoted per room, not per person, at least for hotels -- though some private rooms ('Zimmer Frei') may quote per person.

Bath-tubs are more common in most of Germany than in many countries, which can be extremely welcome when you are saddle-sore, cold and weary, and breakfast (fruehstuck) is normally included (inclusiert) in the price of the room; bear this in mind if the room seems expensive. Then again, we have often found that if a mid-range hotel seems over-priced, it will probably have a disappointing breakfast as well.

The cheapest rooms are normally in private houses ('Zimmer Frei' -- rooms free) followed by Pensions, Gasthofs and then Hotels. Note that a Gasthaus (guest-house) or Gaststube (guest-cellar) is only a restaurant and will not have rooms. We still get caught on this when we're tired and whizzing past: we turn round, go back, and find that it's only a Gasthaus after all.

As already noted, do not assume that they will take credit cards.

There is an excellent network of youth hostels because the Germans practically invented the idea: they have always been strong on Healthy Outdoor Pursuits. Some are in romantic settings, too: how about a castle? Check the German Youth Hostel Association www.jugendherberge.de for details: there's an English-language option. In late 2003 they reckoned that the average night's lodging in a dormitory was 13.30 euros, call it US $15 or just under a tenner. This included breakfast and (as far as I could see) linen hire.

In Bavaria there is an age limit of 26 but this may not apply to families travelling with at least one minor child: I'm not totally sure about this. But then, a cheap hotel would probably cost the same anyway.

There are hundreds of official camp sites all through the country -- a couple of thousand or more -- and 'wild' camping is legal if you have the permission of the land-owner or (for public land) the police. Neglect to get permission and you can rely on being hassled if anyone sees you.

LANGUAGE

Given that German is one of the most useful languages in Europe, it makes sense to learn as much of it as you can: you can use it in several German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein) and in most of Central Europe as well (especially Poland and the Czech Republic).

It's not that hard. The most difficult thing for many is that it is an agglutinative language; that is, several short words can be nailed together to make long ones, sometimes very long ones. But if you learn to saw the words up, it can suddenly become surprisingly easy: transparent, even. For example, a bra is a Bustenhalter, literally a halter (holder) for the busten.

All nouns are capitalized, so a house is a Haus and a ship is a Schiff.

A 'ch' is something between a 'ck' sound (in English) and the sound of someone clearing their throat.

The umlaut -- two dots over a vowel -- can be substituted by putting an 'e' after the vowel: this also gives a very good idea of the pronunciation. Think of the Swiss city of Zurich, which should have an umlaut over the 'u' -- Zue-rick. This also illustrates the throat-clearing sound, though Zuerchers often pronounce the name of their city 'Zue-ree'.

The strange thing that looks like a big B is a double 's'.

The German for 'drive' is 'fahren' and a journey is a 'fahrt'. Hence the wonderful German for 'Bon Voyage' -- 'Gute Fahrt', pronounced goo-tah fart.

ROAD SIGNS

A sign that looks a bit like a coffin lying on its side suggests an alternative route, usually for a specified class of vehicle such as trucks over 3 tonnes.

A blue sign of children playing in the road means that it's a 'traffic calming zone'. Expect to find children playing and pedestrians wandering around. They have right of way, and remember what I said earlier about Germans with right of way -- even five-year-olds. You must ride as slowly as possible, or indeed, slower than possible, if you are trying to keep a DBD34 Goldie alight.

A picture of an eagle inside a green triangle means that you are inside a wildlife reserve, and may park only in marked bays.

CAPSULE VOCABULARY

DISCLAIMER

This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.

last updated: 08/12/03

© 2003 Roger W. Hicks