Neu Karin - Fürth - Munich
Deutsche Bahn - 844 km
Total distance travelled - 1199 km
The first stop on our journey south was Fürth: a Franconian town close enough to Nuremberg to be considered an extension of it (don’t let them hear you say that though). We stayed with J’s best friend and her family, sleeping in the attic of a 140 year old house which they are all but finished restoring. From the tattered ruin of a gold beater’s workshop they have conjured a warm and inviting home with creaking stairs, exposed sandstone walls, sunflowers in the garden and beehives on the balcony. The transformation was impressive, and it was a refreshing alternative to the built-to-rent apartments being assembled around the world.
The house is a stones throw from the old Jewish cemetery, a relic of what was once the second largest Jewish community in Germany. Some say it was this Jewish history that spared the area from the Allied bombers during World War Two, though this is disputed. Whatever the case, if it wasn’t for the shiny BMWs and Audis the streets would look much like they did a century ago. On my evening walk, trying to coax my youngest daughter to sleep, it felt like I was moving through a a film noir version of Coronation Street.
Aside from catching up with dear friends, we were here to fulfill a flippant promise made to our children one evening at our dinner table in Berlin: to visit the PlayMobil theme park. Not exactly how I pictured the beginning of our intrepid world tour, but when two of your travel crew are 5 and 7 years old, allowances have to be made. Crossing the draw bridge over the crocodile infested moat under the blank smiles of the crossbow wielding knights, I couldn’t help feeling a little unsettled. Almost to confirm my suspicions, the first thing we saw as we entered was a young girl screaming in pain after toppling from one of the life-size figures (was his smile wider than usual?). Looking around I noticed many highly strung parents who, like me, were wondering just what they had gotten themselves into. After handing over our daughter’s pocket knife at security (I’m not sure exactly what she had planned) we strapped our names and phone numbers around our kids’ wrists and wished them godspeed. Just as well as within five minutes we had lost them. They were soon relocated however, and the tour could begin.
With the sun unexpectedly beating down and hyper active children darting in every direction, I was resigned to plodding through the day behind a buggy piled high with excess clothing. That was until we made it to Mermaid Kingdom – oh sweet relief. Lilting music, chuckling water features, mist spraying from giant mushrooms (mer-mushrooms?), if I closed my eyes and tuned out the shrieks, I could almost imagine I was in a boutique hotel in Bali… until “Chris, where are the kids?!”
We found them feverishly sifting gold nuggets from a Wild West sand pit.
All things considered the day went pretty smoothly, with our highlights being punting around Pirate’s cove on a raft and enjoying the company of the dinosaurs at the tree house. The park is well thought out with plenty of opportunities for burnt out parents to sit and wave at their kids as they live out their sugar heightened fantasies. All in all it was not half as bad as I expected and while picking up my daughter’s contraband, we were even able to avoid the exit through the gift shop.
The next morning saw us back in the real world, fully laden and trudging through the drizzle to board another regional train to continue our route south to Munich. It was a return to old haunts for us, J having lived here for 13 years, three of them with me. As my first home in Germany, Bavaria’s rosy-cheeked capital was where I became acquainted with the peculiarities, joys and frustrations of German life. It also held a special place in our hearts as the birthplace of our oldest daughter.
We soon realized that our to-do list for Munich was much too long and as the days progressed ever more things were struck from it. This was partly due to the weather, which was fairly horrid. Our plans of picnicking at the Viktualienmarkt Biergarten and strolling along the Isar came to naught. Although we did see the surfers riding the Eisbach, as well as spend a lovely evening with a couple of J’s good friends. Listening to their wistful reminiscences of past New Zealand trips was comforting for me. After fretting about the isolation, ridiculous house prices and high cost of living which awaited us, not to mention the lack of public transport, cheap beer and Kindergeld (yes they pay you to raise kids in Germany), it was nice to be reminded that despite all that, Aotearoa is a pretty special place and we are lucky to call it our second home.
Uplifted (if a little hungover) the next morning, after briefly catching up for a coffee with a good friend and his daughter who I had not yet met, it was back to the Hauptbahnhof to finally get our trip underway. Locating our train, our carriage and then our seats we settled in for the approximately 7 hour ride to Budapest. We were in the “family area”, which was fortunate as our kids were in a particularly raucous mood. There was that familiar mix of relief and concern when the train finally pulled away: we were on board and accounted for yet bound to have left something behind – it turned out to be our daughter’s favourite hoody. In a sense, we were leaving much more behind than that, though the excitement of beginning our journey in earnest – as well as the infant screaming vigorously in my ear – drowned out any trepidation I had at that moment.
If I had the chance, I may have reflected on the tying of the bow which leaving from Munich represented. I had arrived to this city a bedraggled backpacker in a brown woolen jumper and tramping boots, unsure about what the future had in store. A decade later, after guiding thousands of visitors around the streets, monuments and memorials of this country, I was leaving a little wiser, a lot greyer and with three German kids in tow. I wonder what my younger self would have said had we passed on the platform. Knowing me, probably not a lot.
So, that’s Deutschland done and dusted for now (wir sehen uns wieder). From Munich we are travelling with a high speed Austrain train: skimming past the Alps via Salzburg then Vienna to Budapest – the shabbily glorious Hungarian capital, scarred by war and dictatorships on the shores of the mighty Danube. Our first step on what has the makings to be a once in a lifetime family adventure – even if it does include the odd detour to Mermaid Kingdom.