Inside a cylindrical glass tower 20 stories high, my husband, Peter, and I twirled in a modern merry-go-round. But instead of prancing ponies and graceful swans, 400 colorful, new Volkswagens, fresh from the Wolfsburg factory, surrounded the glass elevator that spun us in circles. This state-of-the-art automated storage tower, which offers rides for a nominal charge, was packed with colorful Cabriolets and Jettas, waiting for a robotic device to slide under their chassis and bring them down—one every 45 seconds—to the car distribution center, where proud owners awaited. Your average new car showroom this was not.
Our visit to Germany last summer was full of surprises just like the car towers in Volkswagen’s successful tourist attraction, Autostadt, about an hour west of Berlin. And like the dizzying ride Peter and I took up and down the tower, our whirlwind tour of Wolfsburg and Berlin left us breathless, but clamoring for more. In fact these two hip, forward-thinking cities offer visitors an ideal look at why Germany has taken the lead in the 21st century as a center of innovative thinking, artistic expression, and cutting-edge technology.
While Wolfsburg (population 123,000) doesn’t have the stature and history that the German capital does, it’s rapidly becoming a hub of commerce, industry, and culture. Volkswagen’s factory, built in the 1930s, employs 48,000 workers and produces 4000 cars a day. “It’s as big as Gibraltar,” said Maria George, the guide who showed us around Autostadt one glittering summer afternoon.
Created by the Volkswagen Group, Autostadt, which opened in 2000, serves myriad purposes. Combination theme park and car delivery center, this attraction draws nearly 20 million visitors a year. Not as well known in the U.S.—car delivery to North American customers isn’t currently offered—Autostadt is making a name for itself among Europeans, especially VW fanciers. Many new owners pick up their VWs at Autostadt, stay the night at the adjacent Ritz-Carlton, and explore the museums, restaurants, and exhibits spread throughout the campus. Building brand recognition is what it’s all about.
In fact, Autostadt gears some of its appeal to tomorrow’s VW drivers. The driving school for children is among its most popular attractions. Peter and I watched joyful kids in tiny Volkswagens, following the speed limit and carefully stopping at traffic lights. Adults can test their skills on an off-road course in 4WD Touaregs. There’s even a course on driving economically.
Car aficionados will lose themselves in the ZeitHaus, where five floors of iconic car models repose for your edification—from sassy Beetles to the mammoth 1922 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Don’t miss the dazzling, mirror-finish Bugatti housed in its own pavilion. Jay Leno owns one, too, our guide shared. Unfortunately, this Bugatti can’t be driven outside since sunlight bouncing off its surface would blind everyone on the road!
A new Autostadt exhibit called Level Green focuses on sustainability and lets visitors determine the size of their ecological footprint after answering a few lifestyle questions. I’m embarrassed to admit that mine was 11 football fields whereas Grit, my German friend from Bremen who’d joined Peter and me on the tour, had a footprint of just 2.4 football fields. We also learned that it takes 150 liters of water to grow one orange, 8000 to create a pair of jeans, and 16,000 to produce a kilo of beef. I got thirsty just thinking about it.
Allow at least a day to explore Autostadt—it’s well worth it. If you have time, tour the nearby VW factory, the most highly automated car factory in the world with six robots working on one unit at a time. Our schedule didn’t allow for a factory tour, but we did fit in a stay at the Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg, a unique luxury hotel, which features an earthy, unpretentious vibe.
“It’s shaped like a hug,” said Hendrik Malinowski, director of sales, describing the hotel’s open circle architecture. Inside few right angles and corners interrupt the flow of the building. Instead undulating walls in shades of cream and taupe enfold visitors as they walk along gently bending hallways. Peter and I stayed in a suite with gorgeous views of both the Autostadt and KraftWerk, the old power station whose four giant brick chimneys symbolize the city.
The Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg is also home to Aqua, the only three-star Michelin restaurant in Northern Germany. Our amazing dinner that evening seemed to mirror the cutting-edge, yet earthy themes that Autostadt expresses. Chef Sven Elverfeld, 40, combines textures and flavors in extraordinarily creative ways. He’s received many accolades, but is most proud of Aqua’s three Michelin stars. Peter and I chose to try the tasting menu, called the “surprise menu” in Germany, and for nearly three hours swooned over the eclectic dishes Chef Sven and his talented team of cooks created in the kitchen.
Each item served by the friendly staff was a party in my mouth. Here are just a few of the two dozen dishes we tasted: tuna tartare with truffle foam; salmon with cauliflower pureé; ray with watermelon, fennel, and caviar; cod with a smoky chorizo pureé; venison with chantrelles and walnuts; and an astonishing dessert plate including a luscious blueberry soup. Halfway through our meal the staff brought hot towels, which helped awaken us from the food-induced coma we were falling into. Not that we were getting full—portions are for the most part bite-sized—but the intensity of the flavors demands stamina and lots and lots of time.
Aqua’s affable sommelier, Jürgen Gissel, selected wines to accompany the tasting menu: good thing, too, because the wine list was four inches thick. We sampled a German Mosel with a touch of sweetness; a creamy Grenache from France’s Loire Valley; a smooth South African viognier; a peppery California cab from the vineyards of Philip Togni (my favorite)—all expertly paired with each course.
After dinner we joined a throng of people outside for the summer’s hottest event: the water and light show called “St. Tropez Moments.” This pyrotechnic display combines fountains that propel water 200 feet in the air with torches spewing hot flames toward the black sky. Add to this spectacle film clips played on sheets of water cascading like a flat movie screen and hot dance music: it’s a chorographer’s dream display of perfectly timed effects designed to delight the audience. This nightly event, held every August, is free, so arrive early for a good view. But watch out: if you stand too close, you might get doused with spray from the fountains.
Before leaving Wolfsburg the next day to rendezvous in Berlin with my nephew, Rikard, we spent the morning exploring another local attraction, the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. This visionary museum opened in 1994 as a forum for contemporary and modern art. The stunning building composed of glass and steel offers flexible space for the myriad exhibitions the museum showcases—110 since its opening. Peter and I caught an exhibit called “Ease and Eagerness:Modernism Today,” which emphasized the disconnect between humanity and technology.
Showing through April 2010 is a monumental light installation called The Wolfsburg Project by James Turrell, a renowned California-born artist. The Ganzfield Piece, the exhibit’s primary work, covers a floor area of 7500 square feet with two interconnecting rooms: the Viewing Space and the Sensing Space. These areas are completely empty but remain flooded with subtly changing colored light. James Turrell says being immersed in pure light is “feeling with your eyes.”
An efficient high-speed train connects Wolfsburg with Berlin in about an hour, making it convenient to visit these cities back to back. After disembarking at Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz train station, we walked across the street into the opulent lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, Berlin. Unlike its sister property in Wolfsburg, this hotel emanates an Old-World ambiance, as evidenced by the regal marble stairway that winds its way to the upper level. A tea lounge in the lobby offers sumptuous tea service in a classical setting with fine upholstered antique furniture.
Our room mirrored this same classical European décor, yet the overall effect wasn’t stuffy. Indeed Art-Deco inspired accents throughout the property’s interior design suggest that even an icon like the Ritz-Carlton has a playful side. The architect actually conceived of the hotel’s interior as a contemporary interpretation of a European city with streets, blocks, and squares. You’ll understand the concept when you enter the signature restaurant, Brasserie Desbrosses, where you’ll feel as if you’ve been magically transported to France.
In fact, many facets of the restaurant’s interior were moved from an actual French brasserie, including bistro-style chairs, mirrors, dark wood paneling, Art-Deco lighting, and flower-patterned stonework. A busy open kitchen adds authenticity, as does the wait staff’s traditional black-and-white garb.
We dined that evening in the outdoor terrace of Desbrosses, accompanied by Antje Pfahl, public relations coordinator for the hotel. Our meal was exquisite.
Peter ordered steak tartare of beef fillet as an appetizer, which the server prepared tableside, customizing the dish to Peter’s preferences. The result? A heavenly mixture of beef, capers, and spices, which Peter thankfully shared with Antje and me. We also tasted the terrine of gooseliver, a decadent dish served with brioche.
After his carnivorous appetizer, Peter opted to order a vegetarian entreé: the potato-leek gratin. I, on the other hand, craved more protein and ordered the tender-as-butter beef fillet. Antje proved to be wonderful company and shared stories of what it was like growing up in Berlin. Though she was only a child when the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago, Antje recalled how everything changed nearly overnight in the city.
EPICENTER OF ART & DESIGN
The next day Peter and I got an overview of how Berlin has evolved during the last two decades. My nephew, Rikard, who’s spending the summer as an intern with a design firm, showed us around. This was both Peter’s and my first visit to Berlin, and we knew right away we should have budgeted much more time.
This world capital sizzles with excitement thanks to its youthful population, attracted by the city’s rep as an epicenter of art and design. More hip than London, Amsterdam, or Paris, Berlin is the hottest address in Europe these days, and during our brief foray into the city, we began to see why.
Grit, my friend from Bremen, said, “You get the feeling of the new Europe there.” She then explained that Berlin has become a symbolic meeting point of Eastern and Western Europe, embodying the past and the future of Europe.
Following an amazing buffet breakfast at Desbrosses, Peter and I rented bikes and joined Rikard for a tour of Berlin. Since we only had a day, we were less interested in seeing museums and instead wanted to get a feel for the city. We biked in a lush city park, past monuments, along canals, and through cozy, tree-lined neighborhoods, where we paused for lunch and a cold beer at an outdoor terrace.
After stopping to admire the Brandenburg Gate, we rode our bikes a few blocks to Checkpoint Charlie, where crossing from East into West Berlin was once forbidden to all but a fortunate few. We found a lively crowd at a beer festival and stopped for oompah music, another cold beer (this is Germany, remember), and curry sausage, a local specialty. Here and there, throughout the day, we passed remnants of the Berlin Wall, now covered with graffiti and chewing gum, popular spots for tourists who posed for photos in front of these iconic emblems of the Cold War.
Another must-see attraction in Berlin is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a city-block field of 2,711 concrete blocks of varying heights in a tidy grid pattern. Visitors can get lost among the large stone monoliths, but unlike a traditional maze, you always know which way is out because you can see down the long aisles leading to the city streets surrounding the memorial. I watched children run gleefully among the blocks and reflected on the irony of creating a memorial with such a playful vibe.
The design also inspires introspection, evidenced by people marching through the blocks deep in thought. I kept bumping into the same person numerous times and felt oddly disturbed by the intimacy I experienced face to face with a stranger wedged among these giant blocks. It occurred to me that the holocaust was similar in this regard: strangers experiencing horrific circumstances who found themselves in intimate situations. Underneath the memorial an underground visitor’s center provides more food for thought. Opened in 2005, this sobering attraction deserves a visit.
After returning our bikes and saying goodbye to Rikard, Peter and I enjoyed a quick stop at the Ritz-Carlton to rest before catching a night train to my brother’s home in Sweden. Fabian, the concierge of the club level, smiled and said, “Welcome home” as we entered the relaxing club lounge. A glass of wine and a bite to eat fortified us for our journey, and as Peter and I left Berlin that night, we talked about Germany’s ability to blend old and new seamlessly to create vibrant modern cities. In both Wolfsburg and Berlin, echoes of the past mingle with the buzzing excitement of the future.
• A Eurail Pass provides an excellent, stress-free option for traveling through Europe. Peter and I traveled around using a three-week Eurail Pass and loved how easy it was to get from place to place. A Eurail Drivepass is another option. A popular version features 4 train days and two drive days. Visit www.eurailtravel.com for more information.
• Berlin offers excellent public transportation including a metro system and buses. Consider renting a bike to get around. Visit www.berlinandbike.de.
Where To Stay:
• The Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg and the Ritz-Carlton, Berlin are stellar properties. Each hotel is uniquely appealing, and both share the Ritz-Carlton’s commitment to top-quality service. Visit www.ritzcarlton.com for more information.
• Best Western Hotels are well represented throughout Germany and all of Europe. Look into purchasing a Best Western Unit Travel Card, available at travel agencies. You buy units at $33 each and then, using a directory, choose hotels based on how many units they charge. Many hotels have specials in the summer and charge just 3 units per night for a double room, making these properties a really good bargain.
For more information: