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Germany Diary, Part 2

Four weeks in Germany seeing the best!

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • World's best airship museum
  • Dornier aerospace museum
  • The extraordinary Deutsches museums of cars and technology
  • Walking into Switzerland
  • One of the most horrific places you can go
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Diary Extract 3

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As I write this, it is Christmas morning in Friedrichshafen. With our body clocks still not quite adjusted to European time, we’re up each morning very early – and commensurately early to bed. Our nine-year-old son Alexander is with us, so today was always going to be an early start – and so it was; unwrapping of Christmas presents started at 5am!

This is our third day in Friedrichshafen, on the southern border of Germany. We’ve come to Friedrichshafen for three main reasons: to visit the Zeppelin and Dornier museums, and to admire Lake Constance – and the view across it to the Swiss mountains. We’ve set the schedule so that we will spend four nights here, accommodating the Christmas break when most attractions are closed.

In terms of accommodation, this is our extravagant part of the trip. Typically, we’re staying in hotels that are costing AUD$140 a night – pretty similar to Australian prices, although with smaller rooms. But for these four nights, we’ve hired an apartment at AUD$260 a night. It’s within easy walking distance of the waterfront and compared with the hotel rooms, is spacious and modern.

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Yesterday we took the catamaran ferry to Constance, still in Germany but at the other end of the lake. Lake Constance – at least on the day we were on it – is very still with zero waves or chop, so the ferry ride was comfortable. We spent a few hours walking around Constance – the city centre is largely pedestrianised with lots of small and interesting shops.

Within the town centre, we found a map that showed that Switzerland was startlingly close… within walking distance, in fact! So we ventured in that direction, expecting to see the border demarcated with at least a barrier and passport control… but there was no such thing! So we strolled into Switzerland – just to say we’d been there.

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Constance, being so close to Switzerland, was not bombed during WWII and so retains a lot of its ‘olde world’ character. Friedrichshafen, on the other hand, was heavily bombed and so the rebuilt city centre is modern and spacious.

Both towns look wealthy – high order goods in the shops and plenty of expensively dressed shoppers.

Compared with our trip to the UK a year ago, the food here is excellent – there are bakeries everywhere with lovely bread rolls, and most also have meat and salad rolls that are tasty and cheap. If bought at the right place (eg Aldi!), the wine is also good and again, very cheap.

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Tomorrow we are going to the Zeppelin and Dornier museums – having been on Lake Constance, the development by Ferdinand von Zeppelin of the floating airship hanger, and the Dornier development of flying boats, makes compete sense… it’s the flattest, most open area around!

Diary Extract 4

For people into technical stuff, the two attractions of Friedrichshafen are the Dornier and Zeppelin museums. Today we went to both.

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The Dornier museum is an interesting mix of the very beginnings in aviation – Claude Dornier was a pioneer, especially in flying boats – and quite recent technology, especially in avionics. The museum is at the airport and is easily reached by local train from Friedrichshafen.

The museum has a deceptive depth – initially, it looks like an hour will be plenty but when you start looking more closely, there’s lots to see. All interpretive signs are in both German and English.

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About a dozen aircraft are on display but for me the museum’s highlight was an aircraft that no longer exists - it was tragically destroyed by Allied bombing while in storage during WWII. And the plane? - the Dornier Do X.

This huge flying boat, built in the 1920s, boasted no less than twelve propellers and three decks. Many thought it would never fly but in fact it proved capable of crossing the Atlantic!

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Reflecting its competition with contemporary airships, the huge aircraft was lavishly equipped in passenger areas – a museum re-creation of some the passenger lounge brings this to life. There are also plenty of photos, some salvaged artefacts and even a short film.

I knew of the existence of this aircraft but, perhaps because of the ethnocentricity of my English and American references, had always assumed that it had been largely a flop – but not so!

The museum also hosts exhibitions on other topics, and on the day we went there was an excellent model railway (about HO in scale, but with the engine appearing to pick up power from pads located between the rails), and a display on carbon fibre and its engineering applications. The latter was very good – quite small but with every exhibit of high quality.

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From there it was time for lunch then off to the Zeppelin Museum. Located in the old railway station building in Friedrichshafen itself, this is one of the very few (only?) museums in the world devoted to airships. Now if you’re thinking: well, what could they show? – they won’t get an airship in a building, and, anyway, all the big ones are long gone… I did share some of your scepticism. But within the confines of a single building, they did a brilliant job.

Highlights for me were many.

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The savaged bits and pieces from the Hindenburg were extraordinary – the singed and burnt uniform jacket of the radio operator, part of the airship frame itself with the aluminium melted away, a burnt remnant of the landing flag – all quite incredible stuff.

Then there were displays that showed parts of the frames of different airships, from the first airship through to effectively the last built pre WWII. These showed fascinating development in the way the frames were formed.

(When thinking about this engineering, you need to remember that airships were then easily the strongest structures in the world for their size and weight.)

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The first airship frames comprised simple extruded aluminium sections riveted together. As the engineering development progressed, the extrusions got thinner and thinner, then went to members rolled from thin sheet. The cross-sections of the rolled members in turn got more and more complex until the last used cross-sections shaped like the letter omega (Ω). A hands-on display allowed you to compare the torsional stiffness of the omega-shaped member with a member having a simpler shape, and boy, was the complex cross-section ever torsionally stiff!

There was also a fully built-up airship lattice girder about a metre long and about 30cm deep that you could handle. I thought it amazingly light and, when I put my full body weight on the middle of the ~1 metre length, there was no visible deflection at all. Yet the gauge of the aluminium was so thin that I could easily compress one of the Ω-shaped sections with my fingers. (But why not simply used tubes rather than an open section? That had to have been a very good reason…)

Another thing that surprised me was that some of the airship aluminium structure appeared to be electrically welded. I thought that electric welding of aluminium was developed only after WWII, and prior to that, welding of aluminium was gas-based brazing. But on what appeared to be an original frame member from the nose of the airship, there was what looked all the world like MIG welding!

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And I’ve left the best until last. In the museum there was the full-size re-creation of one of the Hindenburg’s passenger lounges. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of the well-furnished lounges, complete with windows angled to allow a great view of the passing countryside, but actually being inside one was something else. I think if I could travel back in time, a trip on the Hindenburg (no, not its last trip!) would be essential.

My only criticism of the museum, and for me it’s a significant one, is that many of the signs were in only German. But if you are interested in airships, or even just do a quick read on their history, development and construction before attending the museum, a visit is well worth it.

Today is probably the coldest day we’ve had in Germany – top temp of around 2 degrees C and with some light snow. Having said that, we’ve come with so much good gear to wear – merino long-sleeved t-shirts, down-filled jackets, thick woollen socks and waterproof boots – that on most days we’ve had to be careful not to be too hot… and today was no exception.

Tomorrow we’re off to Munich, about a 2½ hours by train. We’re there for three nights and have a bunch of transport and technical museums lined up, plus the BMW museum and, on what I expect to be a sobering visit, Dachau.

Diary Extract 5

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Yesterday we went to the transport section of the Deutsches museum. The Deutsches museum is spread across three different branches – transport, science & technology, and air. (Well, the official names are not those but these tags give a better description.)

The transport (Verkehrszentrum) museum was outstanding, especially in regards to cars.

Here were three cars that I have longed to see.

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All were cars of the 1920s and 1930s – the superbly aerodynamic Rumpler Tropfenwagen of 1921 (Cd = 0.28!)…

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…the Tatra V8 of the late 1930s (155 km/h on just 53kW – and it was a big car)…

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…and the mid-engine, Porsche-designed Auto Union race car of 1936 that changed Grand Prix racing car design forever.

This museum is clearly very well curated, with informative signs in both English and German, and a range of cars that reflects important automotive advances – obviously with a German ‘bent’, but not an over-the-top bias like we saw at the Porsche museum. For example, it was good to see a Toyota Prius, Citroen Traction Avant and other non-German - but significant - cars on display.

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Other German cars in the museum? The NSU Spider (the first series production car with a rotary engine – and a very pretty little car it is too); the BMW 507 (displayed with an oddly high ride height courtesy of over-long axle stands); and a range of post WWII ‘bubble’ cars…

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… including a Heinkel Kabinenroller and a Messerschmitt. I love these tiny cars that – with the exception of the Smart car – are missing from today’s roads.

From there it was time for lunch – and we headed back to the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) to get some good food.

One real negative of walking around city areas in Germany is the amazing number of smokers – it’s as if a third of the over-16 population smokes… and smokes at a furious pace, too. In busy city areas, the passive inhalation of smoke is a continuous downside. Another oddity to us – but perhaps not to residents of big cities – is how people push past you, stand in front of you when you’re reading signs, and generally appear to pretend that you don’t exist…

After lunch, we took the train to the main Deutsches museum – still in the city area but a few kilometres from the central station.

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I don’t know why it’s simply called the ‘Deutsches Museum’ – it should be called the ‘Deutsches Museum of Science and Technology’ or some such. Because for those interested in technical subjects, this must surely rank among the very best museums in the world. I have never seen anything like it – and I thought the Science Museum in London was outstanding.

The Deutsches museum is like literally ten or twenty full size museums in one. Each area it covers – whether that’s space, aviation, printing, electricity, photography, glass, metals, mining, musical instruments, shipping, technical toys and so on – could be a museum on its own.

Every collection is just breathtaking – Georgina stumbled on a display of locks and we could easily have spent an hour on that alone. Locks in steel, brass, wood; locks with keys as long as your arm; modern locks, ancient locks, locks like you’ve never seen before – just wonderfully selected, described and displayed.

I think – and this is no exaggeration at all – that I could easily have spent a full week in this museum. I mean, what do you say when Germany’s first submarine, the 1906 U1, is displayed in its entirety – nicely cut away so that you can see right inside?

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Or a genuine Wright Flyer of 1909 is suspended from the roof?

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Or an ME262 WWII German jet aircraft? (And a V1 and a [pictured] Natter VTOL manned missile.)

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Or stationary steam machinery of such size and elegance that I was just thunderstruck – no not one, but probably ten different machines?

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Or a display on the technology of metal casting where about 20 Mercedes Benz V12 raw block castings made an exotic alloy pile to ogle?

I can’t imagine how much money has gone into this museum, but I honestly can’t see how it would have cost less than literally billions of dollars over the museum’s long lifetime. Put it this way: if we lived in Munich, we’d have an annual pass and attend probably half a dozen times a year forever. As it was, we were able to go both yesterday and today – and properly absorbed perhaps one-fiftieth of it.

Here in Munich we’re in our smallest hotel room yet. Still costing AUD$150 a night, it’s a room with sleeping for three people, a bathroom – and that’s it… all packed into 24 square metres – smaller than many people’s Australian lounge rooms. We’re near the centre of Munich - and the honking of horns, singing by drunk people, and wailing of sirens, goes all night, every night. However, breakfast is included, and as with every hotel breakfast we’ve had in Germany, is excellent. In fact, the coffee is so strong it makes my fingertips tingle!

And I needed a strong drink this morning, because what we went to see straight after breakfast was immeasurably disturbing… quite horrible in fact.

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We went to Dachau concentration camp, located in a small town of the same name only kilometres from the centre of Munich.

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The Dachau concentration camp wasn’t an extermination camp as such (those camps were primarily located outside of Germany) but was still a place where tens of thousands of people died through mistreatment, insufficient food, ghastly medical experiments or outright execution.

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So we saw the spartan and massively overcrowded prisoner accommodation, the gas chamber, the crematoria, and the middle avenue of poplar trees – still growing – which was the only meeting place of prisoners. We saw the camp’s large scale (much bigger than I’d expected), and the relatively lavish accommodation and recreational facilities for the SS guards and staff associated with the camp. We saw in its museum the photographs of people as they gasped in their last agony of the high altitude experiments; the punishment benches over which prisoners were stretched before being beaten with whips; the photos of emaciated, skeletal corpses piled in front of the ovens on the day the Americans liberated the camp.

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To anyone with any imagination, it was a place etched with pain and suffering, one where the (large number of) visitors walked around with graven, stony and stern faces; a place where one can see for oneself how an advanced society could allow itself to become subjugated to an abhorrent ethos where humanity no longer mattered.

For most of our visit, I felt physically sick.

I will never forget Dachau – and it, and the other places like it from the Third Reich, must forever remain a warning of what we, as humans, are capable of doing to others.




Zeppelin museum


Fascinating for anyone interested in airships, 3 hours. 8.5/10

Dornier museum


Interesting look at an aircraft manufacturer not often mentioned, 2 hours. 7/10

Deutsches transport museum


Outstanding, especially in cars. 3 hours. 9/10

Deutsches science and technology museum


Unbelievably good – probably best in the world. 2 days. 10/10

Dachau concentration camp


Horrifically sobering. 3-4 hours. 10/10

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