A safety first German holiday via a VTL: Avoiding crowds by hiking and staying in a forest cabin
From skipping the crowd at a fairytale castle to enjoying Black Forest cakes and getting seduced by old wooden cuckoo clocks, CNA's David Bottomley recalls his recent German adventure.
I had been yearning for a moment like this for many, many months. It was very early morning, and I had stepped outside the cosy Black Forest cabin in which I was staying to check the weather.
The air was freezing cold, but the clear sky, with the first pink blushes of dawn streaking the inky dark blue of night, pointed to a beautiful day ahead.
The tempting smells of the sausage and egg breakfast that was being prepared combined with the autumnal aromas of fallen leaves and spruce trees to create a perfect blend.
What would the day bring? It was full of possibilities. There were trails to be hiked, cakes to taste and beers to be drunk.
I have always loved travelling, and this moment on my first overseas trip in 20 months since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was a vivid reminder of what so many people have missed – the chance to experience something new and different away from home and the daily work routine.
THE GAMEPLAN FOR MUNICH AND BEYOND
While leisure travel is firmly back on the agenda with vaccinated travel lanes (VTL) between Singapore and an increasing number of destinations, it’s not a totally straightforward process.
When it was announced in August that a VTL would be established with Germany, my thoughts immediately turned to taking a trip to one of my favourite countries.
But my enthusiasm was tempered by multiple questions: “What if Germany goes into lockdown? How will tourists be affected?” “What if the VTL is suspended?” “What if I become infected while overseas?” And so on, and so on.
Indeed, the experience with Denmark this week, which imposed quarantine restrictions for people arriving from Singapore, shows that things can change very quickly with VTL destinations. The dynamics have also changed significantly with Germany since I returned, with the country now seeing record case numbers and officials calling for action to tackle the spread.
You really need to have your wits about you even before getting on the plane.
Still, after a lot of pondering, it seemed to me the only important question was the one about becoming infected while in Germany, which could result in being stuck there for a while with the associated inconvenience and expense.
But if I waited for all the uncertainty to disappear, I would probably not be going anywhere for at least another 20 months. So I simply decided to plan a trip that would limit my exposure to possible infection to ensure I had the best chance of getting on my VTL flight back to Singapore.
This meant staying in self-catering accommodation to avoid crowded hotel lobbies and restaurants. It also meant renting a car rather than using public transport. In situations where a mask was compulsory or advisable, I would wear an N95 version with its extra protection. And I would use alcohol wipes and hand sanitiser at every opportunity.
In terms of activities, the focus would be on the outdoors where I could avoid people, rather than visiting museums, galleries and other cultural attractions.
With this in mind, flying into Munich looked to be the best option as within a short drive are the attractions of Bavaria and also the Black Forest. A 10-day trip, with five days based in Fussen hiking in mountains and around lakes close to the Austrian border, followed by a few days near the Black Forest town of Triberg looked to be suitable for what I had in mind.
SWAPPING THE DISNEY CASTLE FOR A GONDOLA
The journey to Munich was easy enough.
The Singapore Airlines flight wasn’t very crowded, which meant that keeping a bit of distance from other passengers was possible. Entering through Munich Airport was slightly more stressful, as it was busy. But everyone was wearing a mask (mostly N95 masks or their local equivalent, which seemed to be the default choice for most Germans throughout the trip) and safe distancing was observed in the fairly lengthy immigration queue.
After getting to Fussen, the plan to avoid crowds went well for the first couple of days. There are plenty of delightful hikes around the town and the human traffic was minimal.
That wasn’t the case on a visit to nearby Neuschwanstein Castle on a Sunday.
It started well enough, with no-one on the hour-long walk through forests and over hills from Fussen to the castle. But around the network of car parks, shops and restaurants at the base of the steep road that leads up to the castle, the crowds were huge.
This probably should have come as no surprise. The castle, which is said to be Walt Disney’s inspiration for the one in Sleeping Beauty, is incredibly picturesque. And it makes for an easy day trip from Munich, bringing in even more people.
I had thought about going into the castle if the crowds weren’t too big. That turned out to be impossible as tickets were sold out for the day. So, a strategic retreat from the castle’s battlements was in order.
My fallback plan was to walk to the base of Tegelberg, the 1,900m mountain that is a short distance away, then take the gondola to the top and hike around some of its numerous trails.
That plan also went awry as the line for the gondola was very long and quite slow moving – and safe distancing didn’t seem to be carefully observed.
Even worse was the idea of being squeezed in with 29 other people for the 10 minutes or so it takes the cable car to get to the mountain top. Even though everyone had to prove they were vaccinated and masks were compulsory, it still seemed an unnecessary risk.
So another strategic retreat was in order. Instead, a walk back to Fussen, while taking in the shores of Forggensee, the huge lake north of the town, proved very enjoyable.
Besides, deciding to return the next morning turned out to be a good idea. There were only seven other people on board the first gondola out at 9am that Monday and even better was that the hiking trails around the mountain – of which there are many – were largely deserted, making the rugged peaks and forested areas even more spectacular. Without the distractions of big crowds, I could enjoy the beautiful alpine views in peace.
EATING MY WAY THROUGH THE BLACK FOREST
But in case you get the impression that all I did on my long-awaited trip was tiptoe around crowds and explore the outdoors with a healthy serving of paranoia, rest assured I thoroughly enjoyed playing tourist in Germany.
And in Bavaria, that also meant indulging in the region’s famous cakes and checking out cuckoo clocks.
One benefit of a holiday centred on reducing the COVID exposure risk by hiking around mountains and through forests – and consequently burning calories – is that I could enjoy Black Forest cakes totally guilt-free.
At least, that was how I looked at it after switching location to the Black Forest where I was determined to unlock the appeal of the cake that takes its name from the vast wooded area that stretches for thousands of square kilometres.
Every single one I’ve tried outside Germany has been a disappointment which, in theory, shouldn’t be the case. After all, chocolate, cherries and cream are a winning combination.
But as I found out, it really is quite different over there – the cake is generally much denser (almost getting into brownie texture territory in some versions), the cream is much thicker and cherries aren’t a minimal addition to search for amid all the gloop.
Of the eight or so versions I tried in the space of four days (yes, I hiked a lot), the best was from the Backhausle bakery in the town of Schonach. It had a generous layer of juicy cherries, and the quantity of kirsch liquer was perfectly judged, giving the cake a sharp tang rather than an alcoholic burn.
The runner-up came from the cafe at Mummelsee, halfway along the Black Forest High Road, the 60km stretch between Freudenstadt and Baden-Baden which offers plenty of viewpoints along the way. The Mummelsee cake had less of a cherry presence, but the cream was sweet and delicious.
As far as avoiding crowds was concerned in the second half of my trip, Mummelsee was the only place where a little bit of evasive action was needed. The Black Forest High Road is very popular, and even on a slightly rainy day in late October, the car park at Mummelsee was full as people stopped off for a break.
Otherwise, the vastness of the Black Forest makes it a good place to visit if avoiding crowds is a priority.
GOING CUCKOO OVER CLOCKS
Mummelsee also has a cuckoo clock shop – as does almost everywhere in the Black Forest. The epicentre of the trade is Triberg. If you want a cuckoo clock, this is the place to visit. Not only are there cuckoo clock shops on every street corner, the town is also home to what claims to be the world’s biggest cuckoo clock.
Yes, as part of the travel experience, I went into a lot of cuckoo clock shops throughout the Black Forest to admire the craftsmanship and complex designs.
In the case of the biggest, most complex and more expensive ones, these came with mechanical dancers, wood-chopping lumberjacks and cheeky chaps quaffing a local brew while dressed in traditional leather shorts.
While they are a charming presence in traditional German guesthouses and restaurants, I had always thought that one would be a kitschy, incongruous addition to the walls of my HDB flat.
But resistance proved to be ultimately futile – at each shop I entered, an assistant would always be keen to showcase the cuckoo call on multiple clocks.
I am now convinced that “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” is simply code for “Buy me! Buy me!”. Which is why I’m writing this in Singapore while being regularly interrupted by the cuckoo-ing of my newly-acquired Black Forest clock.
LEAVING GERMANY AND FINAL THOUGHTS
As the end of the trip got closer, so did the COVID-19 test I needed to take before boarding the VTL flight back to Singapore.
While I had built the itinerary to be as low-risk as possible, it couldn’t be completely without risk. This was particularly so in the last part of October, with Germany seeing a significant increase in daily cases.
This meant there was a certain amount of nervousness throughout the vacation, with every cough and sneeze assessed to see if it could be the start of something more significant.
And the wait for the PCR test result took me back to my A-Levels, when I had no idea how well I had done. I was hoping for the best, but fully prepared for the worst.
So, the negative result came as a huge relief.
In fact, I’m happy to report the entire VTL experience was a breeze. Although checking in at Munich airport took longer than usual, it wasn’t too much of a pain.
I had everything on hand to show the assistant working her way through the list of things she needed to see to confirm that I qualified for the flight, and the process was done in less than 10 minutes.
Back in Singapore, the PCR test on arrival at Changi Airport was even more straightforward.
The test area is a short walk away from the baggage carousels, and the entire testing process took about eight minutes. There are plenty of cheerful staff to guide tired passengers through each stage, from registration to exiting. In fact, even with the PCR test, the whole process of getting through Changi took no longer than in the pre-COVID era, which is testament to the efforts which have gone into making the experience as smooth as possible for travellers despite the safety measures in place.
The PCR test result – which was negative – came through in about four hours.
While COVID-19 remains a risk, some people will understandably decide to wait before venturing overseas for a holiday.
But the VTL scheme has opened up destinations which were previously closed, and there is now a chance for a foreign vacation without too much hassle. Risks can be reduced with careful planning.
Indeed, I’m already thinking about another overseas trip. And my cuckoo clock seems to have moved on from saying “Buy me! Buy me!” to asking “Where next? Where next?”.