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Germany Diary, Part 5

Four weeks in Germany seeing the best!

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • World's most impressive model railway
  • The Volkswagen Autostadt - and then the real Volkswagen place to visit
  • Nazi Germany’s underground weapons factory
  • Overview of whole trip
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Diary extract 11

It was when I saw a puppy on the examination table that I decided we’d come to the wrong place.

With Georgina still sick after four days, and not getting any better, here in Hamburg we decided she’d better visit a doctor. Reception at the hotel had given us directions (“two doctors only two minutes away”) and we’d followed the directions… to a veterinary clinic.

The vet was happy to direct us to a doctor – a doctor for humans, as she put it – but even with her directions, I still couldn’t find the darn place. A chain-smoking, partially shaved-head 18 year-old bloke finally led us to the right location – a doctor’s surgery that looked exactly like all the other narrow, multi-story offices and residences on this street, sans any indication at all of being a medical practise.

The medico spoke perfect English, made an examination, wrote two prescriptions, then charged us about AUD$30. The two prescriptions were rather more expensive at about AUD$100; then the patient retired to bed. We added another night to our stay in this (unfortunately) very expensive hotel, giving Georgina two full days of rest… then sat back to wait for the medicine to work.

With the antibiotics doing their mysterious things to Georgina, 9-year-old Alexander and I took a taxi to the Miniature Wonderland.

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Billed as the World’s Largest Model Railway, a visit had always been high on Alexander’s list. I very much like modelling too, but I must admit that – despite seeing a promotional video – I had some doubts. After all, the fact that it has 13 kilometres of track, 14,000 pieces of rolling stock, over 300,000 lights and covers 1300 square metres – well, stats alone don’t mean it will be good.

But it was truly fantastic. Every single square metre of the (HO scale?) layout was worth dwelling on for many minutes: the quality of the modelling, the details, and the often quirky scenarios being shown made it an absolute delight.

It’s hard to know where to start when describing it. Think the best model railway layout you have ever seen (say at a national model railways exhibition) – and then multiply it by one thousand.

From the smoothness with which the trains ran (and at realistic scale speeds); to the detail in the modelling (the weathering of buildings, the way the rivers were realistically portrayed); to the fact that many items were animated (even more so by pressing strategically placed buttons); to the humour embodied in the layout (I especially liked the cyclist who had fallen off the edge of the layout and was trying to climb back on) – it was masterful.

At one stage you could see some of the human controllers operating the systems – there were over 40 display screens being manned by seven or eight people….it looked more like a TV studio control room than that for a model layout!

And not only did the trains move – many areas of the layout also had trucks and buses moving down the highways (I assume battery operated and following buried wires). The airport alone was a masterpiece, with planes taxi-ing and then ‘taking off’ through flexible panels in the walls. The harbour – complete with 20,000 litres of real water and boats moving around - was worth the admission price alone.

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Every 15 minutes the room lights gradually dimmed until it was ‘night’ and the thousands of lights of the layout could be better seen. Cars with head- and tail-lights, cars turning and so having flashing indicators, cars broken down and so flashing their hazards. Even inside the road tunnels, the modelling was complete: you could peer into the tunnels and see cars all apparently driving along, their lights on! The fairgrounds at night were just stunning, with the tiny LEDs (some visible though fibre-optics?) being computer-pulsed to replicate the moving patterns of lights that would be seen in real life. A single fairground ride might have had 200 lights!

My only criticism is that I thought some of the mountains were overly repetitive in their ‘ground finish’ – there weren’t the differences you would see in real life with north and south aspects, differing vegetation communities and so on.

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But honestly, I’d rate this attraction as 9.5 out of 10. Note that the Miniature Wonderland is a huge tourist attraction – on our Friday in winter, the facility was not crowded…. but I hate to think how busy it is on a weekend in summer. If you like modelling in any form, this is an extraordinary place to visit.

Diary extract 12

We spent today in Wolfsburg. It’s a town built by Hitler in 1938 for the production specifically of the "KdF-Wagen" (that became the VW Beetle), and still the centre of all that is Volkswagen. We had only a day to spend here and we focused on two VW things – the Autostadt, and the Volkswagen museum.

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Well, what a contrast between the two!

Rather like the BMW Welt in Munich, and the Mercedes facility at Brooklands in the UK, I have some difficulties in getting my head around the Autostadt. (One piece of Volkswagen literature describes the Autostadt as a ‘car city’ theme park.)

But after some considerable thought, I have decided that a simple analysis is possible: these are just places for wankers.

For our Australian readers, let me put the Volkswagen Autostadt in a local context. Imagine if Holden (perhaps prior to their announcement of stopping manufacturing in Australia!) said this:

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We are going to build a Holden theme park at Elizabeth in South Australia.

You can take delivery of your Holden here: we will build tall, cylindrical glass towers that will store your new car, with a special lift that will take them vertically up and down the towers. (Put the cars in a bitumen carpark? Why would we do that if we could expensively stack them vertically?)

We will build these car storage towers within a system of randomly contrived artificial lakes and moats; we will also put in an outdoor roller skating rink (ice skating at the Autostadt); and we will employ Very Important architects to build individual car display pavilions for each of our brands. Yes, one pavilion for Daewoo; one for Opel and one for Chevrolet.

What will happen in these pavilions? Oh, well we’ll put a few cars on display that you can look at and sit in, and we’ll have a salesman nearby to offer help. These will be large and often rather absurdly contrived buildings with almost nothing in them - but we hope you won’t notice that.

When we really, really want to spin the bullshit, we will show only one car within an entire pavilion, and we will attach that car half way up a big wall on a turntable, plastered sideways into position. We will then let in only a small number of people at a time to the building, dim the lights, put the people behind bars and play weird music so that they just know they are seeing a reeeely special car….

In Australia, people’s views of such an ‘attraction’ would be unprintable. Yet, apart from here, I have never read any negative words about the Autostadt. The only – only – positives we could see after forking out 36 Euros (around fifty Australian bucks!) for entering the place was the car museum.

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And I have to admit that the Autostadt museum is a really classy car museum. It is thoughtful, polished and eclectic, with a relatively small number of very well picked cars. There was a mid-engine Auto Union race car of the 1930s, a, Bugatti, a Citroen 2CV, even a Honda S800. Add to that an Oldsmobile Toronado and an E-type Jaguar…. I don’t think that I’d quibble on the choice of a single car in the whole place!

But given the rest of the Autostadt was such a dead loss, I don’t think it was worth the admission charge – at least entry to the BMW Welt is free….

And from the glamorous Autostadt we walked 15 minutes through grungy back streets of Wolfsburg to an utterly different world.

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In a dingy, warehouse-like building, almost completely bereft of customers, is the ‘old’ Volkswagen museum. There’s no avant-garde architecture, no eatery, barely a shop. In fact, such is the financial hardship apparently being endured, this official VW museum couldn’t even have the interior lights running on this darkening winter afternoon.

The flash Autostadt apparently cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build; it doesn’t look like even one million has been spent on this other museum in decades. It cost us around twenty Australian dollars to enter – and what a museum it was! It was all about Volkswagen cars – and while the signs were primarily in German, often the cars spoke for themselves.

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A 1949(!) Volkswagen Type 2 – what went on to become the famous Kombi. If I interpreted the German correctly, the blue machine was THE prototype for one of the most famous cars the world has ever seen. I just stared and stared at it.

Volkswagen Beetles? – yes, year after year of models shown, in one glorious line. And also: WWII Beetles, amphibious Beetles, 4WD Beetles. Beetles that have been stars of movies (Herbie, come on down!); Beetles that have been stretched into limousines.

And, more seriously, also priceless factory prototypes on display, indicative of the times when VW was struggling to conceptualise a replacement for the Beetle – prototypes of the car that (much later) became the Golf.

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In-house prototype predecessors to the Passat – and looking at these aborted ideas, you realise how utterly elegant the first Passat was.

Volkswagen concept cars, prototypes and race cars I’d never heard of – cheek by jowl with cars that are literally among the best-known in the world.

A recent Dakar race machine – and what a car! – near the about-to-be-produced XL1 Volkswagen – a vehicle wresting back fuel economy (and so world automotive technology) leadership from the Japanese… and, incidentally, a car I’d like to own more than any other in the world.

For a student of cars, this museum is packed with cars that have not only changed history, but are so clearly the results of history – starting with that most extraordinary Third Reich period of 20th century politics…

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I read an online review that said something along the lines of: skip the old museum; go straight to the Autostadt. Yeah, well only if you are an automotive ignoramus who sees cars more as social fashion accessories than artefacts of contemporaneous political, economic, social and technical culture….

Tomorrow we have a huge day, where we take the train to the location, visit it, then take a train out to a distant city for accommodation that night.

The destination? Mittelbau-Dora, where at terrible cost, slaves built Nazi V1 and V2 rockets in underground factories they’d been forced to hack out of the insides of a mountain.

Diary extract 13

The holiday is nearly over. This is our second-last day in Germany prior to our boarding the aircraft for Australia. We’ve all got our ‘home goggles’ on: it’s time to go back to Dalton.

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This is our second day (back) in Frankfurt. Yesterday we went to the Senckenberg Natural History Museum. Billed as one of the biggest in Germany, it is indeed a very good museum with lots of fossils (including a sectioned trunk of fossilised wood which is the best I’ve ever seen – a thing of absolute beauty), plenty of stuffed animals and birds and a good (although fairly small) display of rocks and minerals.

However I was rather stunned by the admission charge – around AUD$50 for the three of us. I think that’s at least five times the rate it should be.

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In the afternoon we went for a walk around the shopping areas and then this morning, went to the Museum for Communication.

The biggest downfall of this museum is the lack of signage in English: the quality of the radio, TV, telephone and telegraph gear is excellent. Certainly worth a few hours and priced well.

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The day before yesterday, we went to Dora-Mittelbau – the terrible slave factory in the mountains where the Nazis built rockets and jet engines. Apart from the crematorium of the concentration camp, few buildings are left.

However, there is an excellent museum (that shows how the place originally appeared) and, incredibly, you can access part of the underground tunnels via a newly-built tunnel. (The original tunnel entrances were blown-up by the Soviets just after the war.)

The underground tunnels are stunningly horrible: when they were being built, the average length of life of a slave worker was two weeks. Two weeks.

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After the war, the Americans took the parts for more than 200 V2 rockets from inside the tunnels, then the British got their turn to clear them out, and then finally it was all turned over to the Soviets. The fact that any parts of rockets remain there at all is surprisingly, but when it was opened-up again in the 1990s, there were plenty of parts still present.

Only perhaps 2 per cent of the tunnels are open to visitors on guided tours, but the tunnels’ immensity – and the V1 and V2 parts lying around – make it an awesome place.

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I didn’t find it as distressing as Dachau, but Dora-Mitrtelbau is still - for anyone with an imagination – truly awful.

So as our holiday draws to a close, what did we think of it overall? Germany is an idiosyncratic place.

The seats are hard and uncomfortable – universally. It doesn’t matter if the seat is in a doctor’s waiting room, a train, or a hotel room – they are all hard.

The lifts are tiny – typically, carrying a maximum of five persons. The first time we got into one – at a rather bodgy hotel – we thought it was a one-off….that they couldn’t afford a real lift. But they’re all like that. In one major hotel, more than six people got into the lift and an alarm sounded – the lift was being overloaded!

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People smoke outside everywhere. It’s not hard to walk down a busy street and see every single person within eyesight smoking. Cigarettes are cheap, are on full display in shops, and are widely advertised. Perhaps Australia is indeed doing something right with our restrictions.

Dogs enjoy a good life in Germany. Dogs on leads can freely enter shops, can be taken on the trains (you can buy a special dog ticket), and are generally seen everywhere.

Not to the degree that we saw in the UK, but Germany cities are dirty places. There doesn’t seem to be the stigma associated with littering that there is in Australia: the authorities do a good job of cleaning up but in areas they’ve missed, there’s a lot of rubbish. Oddly enough, this is the case everywhere except in fast food restaurants, where customers are punctilious about putting their rubbish in bins and putting their trays back in the rack.

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And what of the approach that we took to our holiday? It worked very well. I am extremely glad that we mapped out the detailed range of attractions that we wanted to visit before we left Australia, then built our schedule around seeing those attractions. I say this because I haven’t heard of anyone doing it quite like we have: having absolute specific things to see and then visiting a place (eg a city) only because of those attractions. As soon as we’d seen the stuff we wanted to see (eg here in Frankfurt) we got bored really quickly – semi-aimless wandering around tourist sites isn’t much our cup of tea.

(It might seem with our approach that we got to see only museums and stuff like that, but the very fact that you walk through a foreign city, and train through a foreign country, means that you see so much more than the attractions alone. The attractions become the icing on the cake!)

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Using trains as our sole means of transport (apart from walking, we took only two bus trips and three taxi trips) worked brilliantly. I found the inter-city train trips restful, relaxing and providing of exceptionally interesting landscapes to view. All major cities have efficient, multiple train systems – eg underground suburban, surface suburban, regional and inter-city) and add to those trains trams and buses and, well, why’d you bother with a car?

However, if you decide to do a similar thing – a word of warning. My wife Georgina did all the navigation and logistics for, and during, the trip. So on a day-to-day basis she organised around 80 train trips, all the accommodation, all the museum entries – and so on. She loves doing this sort of stuff, and she is brilliant at it. (When she was sick, everything fell apart. That’s why Alexander and I took taxis that day!)

I can say with absolute certainty that (a) I would not have been able to do what she did, and (b) I would have been a nervous wreck even trying to do it.

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Carrying back-packs had no downsides. They allowed us full use of our hands (not the case if carting suitcases) and all hotels allowed us to either check in early, or use their luggage facilities if an early check-in wasn’t possible. This meant that for the vast majority of the time, we were not carrying the packs - unless one was being used as day pack. The backpacks also allowed longer walks if required – although I think the longest “fully loaded” walk we did was only about 7km spread across a full day. We also chose to post home two 5kg boxes of goods (mostly books) that we bought along the way – not cheap, but it allowed us to buy stuff without having to then carry it.

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Even though we’d thought things through very carefully before we went, we still took too much stuff. For example, I didn’t need an extra rechargeable battery powerpack for our phones; and we also didn’t need some of the clothing we took (although had the weather got colder, we would have needed it).

Unlike the UK, we had constant difficulties with our phones - they were using Woolworths international sim cards that in Germany worked through Vodaphone. The two iPhones would lose connections, need to be reset, drop out of 3G, refuse to engage the web, and so on. Luckily, most hotels had excellent wi-fi.

In summary? I can say that the things we saw are life-changing: while I immensely enjoyed the cars and planes and technology, the historical sites associated with Nazi Germany – the Nuremberg Party Rally Grounds, Dachau and Dora-Mittelbau – are the ones that really made me think…. and will stay with me forever.

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My nine-year-old son Alexander nominates as highlights the Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg and three cars: the 1930s Mercedes race car transporter, the 1930s T80 aborted land speed record car, and the 1970 Blue Flame land speed record holder. (And he also rather liked Herbie!)

Georgina suggests the Dora-Mittelbau underground factory and concentration camp, the way the physical and human landscapes visually changed between the old East and West Germanys, and the incredible efficiency of the German rail network.

A fantastic trip.

Trip Summary

Summary of main visited attractions, in order of visitation. Note that we also attended some attractions that I haven’t included here eg the Legoland Discovery Centre in Berlin, the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, roughly a million shops, and so on.




Sinsheim Technic museum


One of the world’s best technical museums with an emphasis on cars. Spend a full day. 9/10

Porsche factory museum


Self-indulgent airbrushing of history – but some good cars. Spend a few hours. 6/10

Mercedes factory museum


Absolutely fantastic car museum. Spend a full day. 9/10

State Museum of Natural History


Spread across two locations. Worth a few hours. 7/10

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

BMW factory museum


Self-indulgent and lacking social and technical context. Some good cars. Spend a few hours. 6.5/10

Deutsches museum – aviation branch


Disappointingly shallow. 4/10

Nazi party rally grounds


Amazing atmosphere – spend two hours and expect to walk a lot. 8/10

Courtroom 600


Where the Nazi leaders were tried. 1 hour. 8/10

Deutsche Bahn railway museum


Little rolling stock but some good displays of railway paraphernalia. Spend an hour. 6/10

Museum of Communication


Lots of hands-on activities and some significant displays. Spend an hour. 8/10

Nazi Congress Hall museum


Excellent museum if you want to quickly get your head around Nazi Germany. Two hours. 7.5/10

Deutsche Technikmuseum


Outstanding museum in all things technical. Spend a full day. 9/10

Rocket museum


Superbly curated museum at the birthplace of modern rocketry. Spend half a day – or a full day if you have a car and want to explore more of the site. 9/10

Miniature Wonderland


Mind-blowing model railway. Spend half a day. 9.5/10



Expensive wank – but car museum is good. Spend an hour. 4/10

Volkswagen car museum


Exceptional range of Volkswagen products. Spend 2 hours. 8/10

Museum for Communication


Good range of electronics communication technology. Spend an hour. 7/10

Senckenberg Natural History Museum


Very expensive but good exhibits. Spend 3 hours. 5/10

Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp and underground factory


Extraordinary place, spend half a day. 9/10

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