Germany is a far more scenic country than many people realise and is perfect for exploring by train, where fairytale castles, baroque cities, forests and mountains can be viewed at leisure.

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“DB German Rail hopes to operate direct trains from London, but you can already reach Cologne in as little as four and a half hours from St Pancras, by changing at Brussels from Eurostar to the Thalys high-speed network”

DAVE RICHARDSON, TRAVEL WRITER

Dresden

There can be few historic cities anywhere in the world which are actually more interesting to visit now than 20 years ago, but that is certainly true of Dresden. I’m standing in New Market Square, in the heart of the old city, as our guide shows photographs of what it used to look like when sheep grazed around the ruins.

Frauen Kirche, the imposing 18th century church, was one of countless historic buildings lost when Dresden, a baroque city in eastern Germany, was almost totally obliterated by Allied bombing in February 1945.

That might be regarded as a war crime if it happened now, but it did hasten the end of the World War II. A start wasn’t made on restoring Frauen Kirche until 1993, and it finally re-opened in 2005. Restoration of some buildings continues even today.

Very few buildings were spared by the bombing or the fires that raged afterwards, and comparisons are often drawn with Coventry, whose cathedral and historic centre were destroyed by German bombing in 1940. The cross atop the tower of Frauen Kirche was donated by Britain and inside is a cross made of nails from Coventry cathedral, another symbol of reconciliation.

My tour includes other highlights such as the Royal Palace, Zwinger Palace and Opera House, all carefully reconstructed, the palaces holding renowned art collections. Restoration only picked up after reunification in 1990, as Dresden was in the Communist German Democratic Republic, where funds were in short supply.

There’s much else to do in this beautifully situated city on the River Elbe, including paddle-steamer trips and a major cultural programme.

The riverside Hotel Maritim is one of several former industrial buildings to have found new uses, while across the river the former industrial area of Neustadt is now full of bars, clubs and alternative shops as the young heart of the city. Did you know? Several tours operated by Great Rail Journeys or its subsidiary Rail Discoveries spend time in Dresden, travelling via Eurostar to Brussels with an overnight stop en route.

This being Germany, a steam train can’t be far away and a short trip into the suburbs brings me to the Lossnitzgrundbahn narrow gauge railway.

Saxony

I have great fun standing on the open balcony of the train as we take a scenic trip through the woods to Moritzburg, where the castle was the summer residence of the notorious Saxon ruler Augustus the Strong (1674-1733). He allegedly fathered over 300 children. The castle is notable for its hunting trophies, art works and enormous feathered bed.

I discover more recent history on a popular day trip from Dresden to Colditz, another of Saxony’s castles. It became infamous as a prisoner of war camp for Allied officers during the war, yet many Germans have never heard of it and are unaware of its place in history. It was far from secure as the Germans claimed, and we marvel at the ingenuity of hundreds of escape attempts, 31 of which succeeded.

Berlin

My tour also includes Berlin, an easy two-hour trip on a train which starts its journey in Prague. The German capital has gone through its own major reconstruction programme, first after the war and then after the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 and the city and country were reunified. Reconstruction continues and it still looks like a divided city in parts. Highlights include the Reichstag (Parliament) and Brandenburg Gate.

I head for the new Museum of Spies to learn about espionage – not only during the Cold War when Berlin was on the frontline, but also through the ages from ancient Egypt to the present day. A Trabant car, very much a symbol of the Eastern Bloc and adapted with a secret camera, is one of the highlights.

Berlin has a thriving dining scene and I enjoy typical Tyrolean fare at the Weihenstephaner restaurant which has two claims to fame: its beers come from the world’s oldest brewery, at Weihenstephan in Bavaria, founded at a monastery in 1040, and the restaurant is in the oldest surviving building in Berlin, with a vaulted cellar dating from 1749.

Other highlights

One of Germany’s most scenic rail journeys is along the banks of the Rhine between Cologne, Bonn, Koblenz and Mainz, passing fairytale castles and Lorelei rock, home of the mythical siren. However, for the most scenic journey between Cologne and Frankfurt be sure to travel along the original route rather than along the new high-speed line.

The Black Forest Railway is also very scenic, running 150 km between Offenburg and the lakeside resort of Konstanz. Germany also has many steam-powered trains, some of which are narrow gauge.

One of the main ticket providers used by agents is Voyages-SNCF, previously known as Rail Europe. Tailor-made packages are available from Great Rail Journeys through GRJ Independent.

Where to book it

Great Rail Journeys’ Fairytale Castles and the Bavarian Alps is a 10-day tour costing from £1,645pp, including seven nights based at the resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. One night is spent in Cologne in each direction, and highlights include the Rhine Valley, the Zugspitze Railway, Munich and Oberammergau. Maritime Germany by Steam includes trips on the Molli and Racing Roland steam railways, with three nights in Hamburg, two nights in Rostock and three nights in Stralsund, on the Baltic Sea.

The Harz Mountains tour from Rail Discoveries, costing £745pp for seven days, is based in the mountain resort of Braunlage. Highlights include the steam-powered Brocken and Selketal railways, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Quedlinburg. International rail travel is to and from Hanover.

Ffestiniog Travel has a 12-day tour called Bavaria – Mountains and Castles, costing £1,470pp. It includes accommodation at five hotels and an InterRail pass giving customers flexibility on free days. Overnight stays are included in Cologne, Nuremberg, Fussen, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Prien, and highlights include Wurzburg, Rothenburg and Oberammergau.