Germany, situated at the heart of western Europe is not the first country that comes to mind when contemplating an eco-vacation in Europe. Germany's image in the world at large is one of an industrialized nation, densely populated, with motorways running north, south, east and west - where is the nature, you might ask? It is true - with 80 million people milling around there are few spots you'll have all to yourself. However, an astounding percentage of these people really dig the outdoors and love all kinds of outdoor pursuits. And that is what makes Germany actually a fine and easy country to explore in a low impact mode of travel. Germany offers many great examples of low impact tourism. In fact, a large percentage of domestic tourism is just that - agritourism, also known as 'farm holidays' have been an extremely popular option for many years, especially among families with children. Farm stays are available in all beautiful rural areas at surprisingly reasonable rates.
One of the most popular low impact modes of travel are bicycling tours. Germany has a fantastic network of cycling routes that criss-cross the country, many of which follow major waterways like the Danube, the Rhine, the Elbe, and numerous other rivers. Following rivers means the course of the route is usually fairly flat, especially when you follow the river downstream. Some of these routes are extremely popular, like the one around Lake Constance or along the Weser, so pick your travel time in shoulder season to avoid the crowds. But, popularity also has its advantages: because the routes are popular, they are also well serviced by the local tourist infra-structure. Locally owned small hotels and Bed and Breakfasts can be found all along these routes (make sure to book in advance if you travel during holiday seasons) and are cyclist friendly.
Some towns have special garages for bikes, where you can lock up your steed safely while you explore the town. There are lots of pleasant little cafés and 'ausflugslokale' a special breed of restaurants native to germany, that occur in scenic 'outing' destinations, often sporting spacious, shaded beer gardens and serving simple meals as well as coffee and cake, of course. These little restaurants are almost ubiquitous, inexpensive and scrumptious. Just what you need after having peddled a few hours. The major cycling routes are also well serviced by bicycle repair shops - which is a definite plus and worth a consideration whenever you are planning a bike trip somewhere. (Though for a longish tour it is advisable to galvanize the tires to make them 'unflattable').
Astounding as it may sound, Germans of all ages are also crazy about hiking. Hiking trails abound in every region of the country. There are short trails as well as major long distance routes that intersect with more trails in every direction at every junction on the way. This can be a little confusing. Although, as one would expect, Germans have gone about marking trails up and down the country, the system employed can be quite confusing as it is not uniformly implemented in each county. Instead, every county, and sometimes every municipality uses its own system. Some trails have ancient markings, others are regularly maintained. Consequently it is sometimes hard to follow a particular route. However, for those apt at map reading this somewhat chaotic system offers endless choices. A good map and map reading skills are essential though. Or, use a hiking GPS system, if you really want to really play it safe.
There is no shortage of beautiful countryside to explore, though even the remotest parts would hardly classify as 'wilderness'. Some form of civilization is rarely more than a few miles away and National Parks are not totally off limits to development. There are some specially protected areas that are completely off limits though, creating entirely undisturbed habitats for wildlife.
A large part of Germany is covered by rolling hills and forested, medium sized mountains (up to 1500m / 4500ft.), which make for fairly easy hikes that can be enjoyed by young and old. 'Real mountains', above 1500m are only encountered in the Bavarian Alps, in the far south of the country. Although the majority of the Alps proper fall into Austrian, Swiss, Italian and French territory, Germany has claim to some beautiful chunks of them, nevertheless.
Accessing trails, whether in the Alps, the Black Forest or anywhere else is blissfully easy and in one does not even need a car. There a buses and small trains that service just about every part of the country. In the major hiking areas there are even special bus routes that service trailheads and stop at car parks at various points along the route so you can do point to point hikes, rather than always having to find circular routes that will get you back to where you started. Local tourist information offices publish all the information you will need to get out onto the trails.
Germans are really big on what they call 'wellness' retreats. By 'wellness' they mean the concept of pampering yourself, usually at some kind of Spa. Germany has an abundance of spas, and even natural hot springs which have been harnessed into 'wellness' oasis since Roman times. The nice thing about these baths/spas is that they are not exclusive, but affordable enough that anybody can enjoy them. If you are planninga hiking or cycling trip in Germany be sure to include some of these bath towns along the way for a bit of a treat and to soothe your aching muscles.
As far as 'green' options for accommodations are concerned, Germany lags a little bit behind the signs of the times. While Germans are big on travel and do pay attention to environmental concerns abroad, for some odd reason the concept of certified eco-hotels or tour operators has not filtered through to hoteliers back home. There is a German Eco-label for hotels called 'viabono' as well as a 'Pan-European Eco-Label', but don't expect your travel agent or even the local tourist information bureau ever to have heard of them or to be able to identify any hotels or operators that hold the label. Germany's 'federal feudalism' means that each county does 'its own thing' rather than having a unified system.
Generally speaking, Eco-labels are not very widely used in Europe and for some reason German operators seem particularly reluctant to adopt them. This may partially be due to the fact that German environmental standards are among the highest in Europe. It is normal everyday household practice to recycle everything. Organic and locally produced foods are the pride of every bioregion, which does not mean every hotel and restaurant offers them, but they are frequently encountered options. Many holiday regions levy a 'kurtax', a kind of tourist tax, of approximately a dollar per day which supports the local community. In exchange, visitors get a special ticket which gives them free or reduced fares on the local transport system and sometimes reduced entrance fees to some of the local attractions for the duration of their stay. Many hotels also offer bicycles to their clients, either free of charge or at a low rate. Other common practices are e.g. measures to reduce the daily washing load by asking guests to indicate whether they wish to reuse their towel or whether they want it exchanged (throw it on the floor and it will be replaced. Hang it up, and it is assumed that you will use it again), which is a common practice even at hotels that don't consider themselves particularly green. In southern Germany, which receives more sunshine than the north, solar panels on the roofs of hotels (as well as on private and public properties) are a common sight, and everybody, hotels and private entities can choose their energy source as all energy providers offer 'green energy' packages, which directly support their investments in sustainable sources of energy such as wind, solar or water derived power. So, no matter where you stay in Germany chances are a multitude of environmental measures to reduce the carbon footprint are in fact in place - it's just that they don't make such a big deal out of it.
Germany is a great option for independent travelers, as it is easy to get around, on foot, by bike, on public transport or by rental car. It is particularly recommended for people who enjoy blending nature and culture on their travels and those who enjoy soft adventure options that get them out and about into the countryside. It is also an excellent option for families with children as there are many family friendly low-cost, low impact options and plenty of interesting choices for the whole family.
A word about East and West Germany...
Although it has ben 20 years since the wall came down, there are still many significant differences between the two halves of the country. Millions of Euros have poured into developing the infrastructure of Eastern Germany and in some places, especially the 'crown jewel' towns like Dresden or Leibzig, it shows. Elsewhere in the Ex-GDR backwaters time may as well have stood still and not much has happened in these past 20 years. Other places in the former East are still suffering from a sense of deep depression as whatever supported their livlihoods during the times of the GDR has been closed down or moved somewhere else. Consequently there are areas where there is a strong sense of disappointment and deprivation, which is manipulated by the extreme right. Xenophobia is rife and attacks on foreigners have happened.
Attacks on foreigners have also happened in areas of former West Germany. In Germany it is not against the law to drink alcohol in public places, which occasionally leads to unpleasant scenes. However, in general Germany is a very safe country with a low crime rate, and very low incidents of violent crime. But be aware of pick-pockets, especially in prime tourist spots or crowded public transport systems.
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