x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Germany is great as a stopover or a destination of its own

A growing number of partnerships between UAE and German airlines has made an already popular destination even more tempting this summer.

Elmau Meadow and Schloss Elmau in Germany. Courtesy The Leading Hotels of the World
Elmau Meadow and Schloss Elmau in Germany. Courtesy The Leading Hotels of the World

Many travellers from the UAE will be heading for Germany this summer, both as a destination in its own right, and, increasingly, as a stopover. When flying into its big cities - Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich and Düsseldorf - why not take a short break in the countryside?

Via Berlin

Germany's capital is a huge attraction for international visitors. So much so, that it can be hard to meet a true Berliner. And although historically important, with great museums and performance arts, most visitors to Berlin have no idea quite how close they are to a completely different landscape - a peaceful watery mosaic of channels, meadows, fields and forests fed by the river Spree, which is also the homeland of Germany's oldest ethnic minority, the Sorbs. This is the Spreewald, now designated as a Unesco biosphere reserve, and it lies just 75km south-east of Berlin.

There are estimated to be about 60,000 Slavonic-origin Sorbs living in the region, with their own media, schools, literature and traditions, so the combination of their unique culture and the bucolic landscape in which they live makes Spreewald a very attractive short-break destination. Understandably, some fine hotels have sprung up to make the most of the combination, among them the Zur Bleiche Resort & Spa (www.hotel-zur-bleiche.de), by the village of Burg im Spreewald, close to Lübbenau.

This is the heart of the waterways, in a quiet countryside laced by veins of blue, and the hotel has its own little harbour and fleet of flat-bottomed boats on which you can have breakfast while gliding over weed beds through canyons of willows. The Zur Bleiche's thermal spa is both lavish and rustic, includes a ladies-only section and an open fire by the indoor pool in winter with a generous outdoor pool for summer.

From here, there are plenty of opportunities to explore some of the Spreewald's 40 lakes and 400 kilometres of waterways under your own steam, either by boat, bike or in one of the hotel's fleet of canoes. The rivers and canals run through woodlands of alder and pine, busy with storks, cranes and sea eagles, and carpeted with marsh marigolds and buttercups. This environment is a big contributor to Sorb culture, with elements such as the Bird Wedding, when children put out plates overnight that miraculously fill up with sweetmeats in the form of birds.

Via Frankfurt

Germany's financial capital is good for shopping and gleaming towers, but if you want to step away to get an insight into traditional Germany, then there's a lovely hotel in a delightful town just 100km north of the city, where the towers are as wonky as witches' hats.

Frankenberg on the Eder (not to be confused with another Frankenberg over in the east of the country) is a charming little medieval place perched on a hill in the heart of the state of Hesse. It dates back to the 13th century and is still stuffed with half-timbered houses. Among them is a particularly fine selection on the cobbled market square, fetchingly pretty, immaculately kept, wonkily gabled and sagging a little at the knees, on either side of a medieval town hall. This is the location of the hotel Die Sonne Frankenberg (www.sonne-frankenberg.de), a very chic and refined spa hotel established by a wealthy industrialist, which attracts the top end of German society. It even has its own airport, not far away.

The hotel's main building, with 60 rooms and five restaurants, is essentially several old houses knocked together and, from the outside, it is hard to spot that they belong together. Moreover, the luxurious Morrocan-themed spa, with its sun terrace, is actually reached via a tunnel that goes under the square.

Apart from the hotel, there are a couple of very good reasons for coming here. Just to the north is Edersee, in a forested national park famous for boating, hiking and biking. More than 50 hills are covered in a sea of beech trees, recognised as a site of World Heritage by Unesco, and some of the oaks here are up to a thousand years old.

Meanwhile, to the south of Frankenberg is the city of Marburg, an ancient university town perched on a hilltop, a place of steep lanes and yawning gables, with the leisurely Lahn River flowing sedately around its base. The town is filled with students, resulting in lots of impromptu music performances and surreal little moments of street theatre.

Via Munich

The Bavarian capital is a handsome and deeply cultural place, well provided with palaces and gardens, fine gastronomy and great concerts. It is artistically rich - but it can be tiring. There is another place, not so far away, that combines the elements of palace/garden/gastronomy/culture all in one place - and throws in a spa for good measure. Set in the most glorious of meadows just at the foot of the Alps, for anyone who feels the need to be rejuvenated by green, Schloss Elmau (www.schloss-elmau.de) is a five-star cultural hideaway 5km east of the resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which itself is about 75km south of Munich. It is set at the foot of forested slopes in its own giant grassland carpeted with wildflowers, where it has a concert hall, a spa with a big outdoor infinity pool, a yoga section, a selection of Michelin-starred restaurants, a couple of libraries and a choice of tea lounge, winter garden lounge or jazz lounge. It even has a rustic hut farther up in the mountains, rewarding walkers who make it up to 1,203-metre mark with refreshments.

Apart from its location, the hotel's biggest draw is its musical programme, with four or five concerts a week that are free to hotel guests. Films and literary events take place here, too.

In the end, there's little reason to go anywhere, but if you do, Garmisch is an attractive resort: a skiing place in winter, a hiking and festival resort in summer. Also in the neighbourhood are a couple of the most remarkable architectural creations of King Ludwig II, or Mad King Ludwig, whose most famous castle, Neuschwanstein, was the model for Disney's Sleeping Beauty castle. Ludwig's Linderhof Palace, north-west of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, has far more fabulous interiors than Neuschwanstein, but the really special place to go is the King's House on Schachen, a mountain that looms over the hotel. From Schloss Elmau it is a straightforward uphill walk that takes three or four hours and those who make it all the way up will be rewarded by the most bizarre and lavishly colourful Morrocan-style interiors. Not what you'd expect on a mountainside.

Via Düsseldorf

Media and fashion are the big industries of the modern metropolis of Düsseldorf - a place that hums with the latest trends and hosts a whole calendar of big trade events. In recent years, the area around the historically-protected old port has become an über-trendy place to eat and drink, but you're not going to get much of a sense of Germany's more traditional side here.

For that, head east about 180km to Bad Driburg, home to the Gräflicher Park Hotel & Spa (www.graeflicher-park.de), which is still owned and managed by Count Marcus and Countess Annabelle of Oeynhausen-Sierstorpff in the tradition that was started seven generations ago by Caspar Heinrich von Sierstorpff. The latter saw the health-giving value in Bad Driburg's natural mineral water springs and he started the process of transforming the family schloss into the elegant resort of today.

The Gräflicher Park is set in 64 hectares of immaculately manicured gardens and parklands, which include rose gardens, a maze and lily meadows. As you might imagine with a facility of this size and tradition, the Garden Spa, Beauty Farm, Medical Spa and Therapy Centre offer all manner of beauty therapies, and there are stress-busting formulas, gourmet breaks and golf packages galore.

If all this relaxation gets to be too much, then it's time to explore beyond the estate's gates - and the Gräflicher can arrange a classic car in which to do so. One interesting possibility for motor enthusiasts is the freshly opened Bilster Berg, a self-styled "drive resort" in the Teutoburg Forest, with a challenging 4km test track and pit stops. It is unique in Europe and the Gräflicher is Bilster Berg's partner hotel.

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