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Five ways to make the most of Germany this winter

The sparkling lights of the Christmas markets may be behind us, but for those still chasing an escape, Germany still has plenty to offer. Here are five ideas for a cosy getaway this winter.

Schloss Neuschwanstein in the snow.
Schloss Neuschwanstein in the snow. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Hiking trails, wine tours, dipping in crystalline lakes… summer in Germany can be a truly magical time. But when the weather turns cooler, there’s no need to go chasing the sun elsewhere.

In fact, we’re convinced that after a weekend surrounded by jaw-dropping peaks or medieval castles dusted in snow, even the hardiest summer fans will embrace the romance of Germany in winter.

Need some more convincing? Then here are a few ideas to get you started. 

Get an adrenaline rush in the mountains 

This may seem like an obvious one, but no list of seasonal holidays in Germany would be complete without mentioning winter sports. Several of the country’s high-altitude regions get reliable snowfall and dazzling blue skies in the colder months, making it a paradise for skiing, snowboarding and tobogganing. 

If you’re the competitive type, you can’t beat a trip to the unmissable Zugspitze in Bavaria. Germany’s highest mountain is home to the country’s only glacier skiing area, not to mention 20km of pristine slopes from which you can enjoy panoramic views across the alps. With its consistently good weather conditions, it also offers the longest ski season in the country that runs from November to May each year.

The charming resort town of Garmisch-Patenkirchen, which nestles below it, is an ideal place to stay in order to get an early start on the slopes each day. 

All of that said, bigger doesn’t necessarily have to meant better. Less well-known to internationals – but no less charming – are the smaller-scale resorts in Saxony and the Harz Mountains.

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Saxony’s most famous winter sports destination is its highest mountain, Fichtelberg, which is a favourite for residents of Berlin and other eastern German states for its relaxed, unpretentious vibe.

Not too far away, the Harz region offers another budget-friendly alternative for casual skiers and snowboarders in the winter months. Just be sure to check ahead to make sure the conditions are right, as snow can be a little less reliable than it is on the highest peak.  

The ski lift rises up from Oberwiesenthal towards the peak of Fichtelberg

The ski lift rises up from Oberwiesenthal towards the peak of Fichtelberg, Saxony’s highest mountain. Photo: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb | Wolfgang_Thieme

Unwind in a thermal spa 

After months of bracing against the cold on grey and stormy days, many of us are in need of some pure relaxation. If that sounds like you, why not organise a short pampering break at a thermal spa with a friend or someone you love? This type of spa often uses extremes of heat and cold to pummel the senses and leave you feeling exhilarated and aglow. You’ll experience underground caverns with steam rooms and ice fountains, palatial halls with hot tubs and spa treatments, and everything in between. 

With saunas occupying such a prominent place in Germany culture, you’re bound to find some incredible thermal spas whereever you are, but here are a few options. 

If you’re in western Germany, the Claudius Therme thermal bath in Cologne is delightfully opulent with a dazzling view of the starry night sky as you soak in the bubbling waters. Or head to nearby Aachen where you can bathe like a Roman Emperor in classically themed surroundings at Carolus Thermen

READ ALSO: The one way to beat the January blues in each German state

If windswept vistas and sprawling seas are more your thing, then book a winter wellness break on one of the East Frisian Islands in the far north of Germany. Though known more as summer and spring destinations, a stroll along the coastline of a tiny island on a frosty morning can be an utterly unforgettable experience.

And with the pleasure-seekers giving way to the wellness crowd in winter, it could be the ideal place to rejuvenate both the body and mind while keeping your eyes peeled for glimpses of the northern lights. 

Marvel at snow-capped castles

OK, we know it’s something of a cliche, but there’s a reason that Germany is associated so strongly with its fairytale castles. Just take a trip to the famous Mosel Valley, near the Luxembourg border, and you’ll see endless soaring turrets dotted along the river, often erected by medieval kings hoping to take a cut of the travelling merchants’ profits.

One of the most breathtaking of these is Reichsburg Cochem, a stunning medieval castle that towers above the quaint villages and vineyards surrounding it. Though you will have to huff and puff your way up a steep hill to get there, intrepid visitors are easily rewarded by panoramic views of the valley and delicious local food and wine at the restaurant. If you want to be truly transported back in time, turn up on a Friday or Saturday for the ‘Knight’s Feast’, where you’ll enjoy a tour of the castle followed by a hearty banquet, minstrels, maidens and even some medieval punishments. 

View from Schloss Neuschwanstein over Forggensee and Schwangau

View from Schloss Neuschwanstein over Forggensee and Schwangau. Photo: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb | Karl-Josef_Hildenbrand

Of course, no mention of German castles would be complete without paying lip-service to the rightfully renowned Schloss Neuschwanstein. As many people know, Ludwig II’s masterpiece of romantic architecture was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s logo – and if you see it surrounded in snow, it truly is a fairytale experience.

For the best access to the castle, there are several cosy guesthouses in the village of Schwangau below, nestled along the banks of the Forggensee. And if Neuschwanstein isn’t quite enough, you can also see its smaller (but no less charming) cousin – Hohenschwangau Castle – which Ludwig II used as his summer residence. Both are a mere stone’s throw from Schwangau. 

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Wander in a winter wonderland 

While you may associate hiking with the height of summer, there are some absolutely enchanting destinations for winter treks in Germany. One of the most famous of these is the Hochschwarzwald, or High Black Forest, which offers countless trails along frozen lakes and through snow-dusted pine forests. Families with children will enjoy the easy-peasy Roßbergrundweg, which circles the Roßberg mountain near Breitnau. Lasting just under an hour, hikers will rewarded with some breathtaking alpine views before settling down with a hot chocolate and some hearty Black Forest fare. 

Other adventurous types might enjoy a guided walk, such as the fun-filled “Bi-athalon” tour, which culminates in shooting training at the Nordic Sports Centre in Notschrei, or the atmospheric hike by moonlight from Todtnauberg. 

Explore Germany’s cultural heritage

While Germany is a prime destination for anyone who loves braving the elements and the great outdoors, winter can also be a wonderful time for gentler city trips that offer a chance to delve into the country’s rich cultural and historic heritage.

If you want to hit the proverbial cultural jackpot, you can’t do any better than organising a weekend trip to Weimar in Thuringia. As the centre of the Wiemar Republic and the birthplace of classical humanism, walking through this charming city feels like ticking off a who’s-who of all the most prominent literary and cultural figures in German history. 

Goethe and Schiller monument

Goethe and Schiller break social distancing regulations in Wiemar, Thuringia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Soeren Stache

Literature lovers in particular will adore a visit to one of Goethe’s former residences, which is now home the National Goethe Museum. But it doesn’t stop there: Goethe’s compatriot Friedrich von Schiller was also a resident here, and you can find a museum dedicated to him as well as a famous monument of both of them together in the centre of the town, along with the Goethe and Schiller archives.

Beyond literature, you’ll also find the Bauhaus Museum and a museum dedicated to composer Franz Lizst, who lived and taught in Weimar for a time. 

If historic, chocolate-box cities are more your thing, then look no further than the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Heidelberg or Lübeck. From its prestigious university to the famous Philosopher’s Way, Heidelberg has inspired countless poets and thinkers, from Hegel to Mark Twain. Meanwhile, the heart of the former Hanseatic Empire, Lübeck, is a true gem of the north that’s believed to be the birthplace of marzipan. Walking through its quaint cobbled streets, you may stumble across the Buddenbrookhaus which, as the name suggests, was once the residence of Thomas Mann. 

READ ALSO: 10 German books you have to read before you die

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CULTURE

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

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‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.

Stückl

Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page

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