Saturday, October 16, 2010

Days 5, 6 and 7: a hint of maple syrup on the Romantic Road

Above Rattenberg
Morning in Salzburg saw us driving through more thick fog, which would dramatically break for minutes at a time as we made our way toward Innsbruck, the first waypoint of the day.

Aside: Driving through the Alps has to be one of the highlights of my travels to date. The scale of them really beggars belief. You'll be taking in the different layers of rock and the tree line, slowly craning your neck as you approach their base, when houses and chalets perched on the mountainside -- like ornaments on a cuckoo clock -- bring their enormity back to you.

Deep gashes down through their trees mark where skiers will speckle their sides in a few short months. And then, as we drove to Garmisch near the end of the day, from the mountain pass through Seefeld and Mittenwald, the setting sun appeared between two peaks -- as if to taunt us for considering that we'd seen all the Alps' treasures -- easy to gaze upon thanks to the vale of mountain mist.

I've only ever seen the moon appear so beautifully that high on the horizon, and never in such sharp relief. Sometimes you wish you could create a photograph from your mind.

The day wasn't all about the Alps, however. It would see us start in Austria, travel through Germany on the way to Innsbruck, back to Austria, and then finish in Germany after driving over the Alps, at Mittenwald and Garmisch.

What an adventure! And nothing typifies it more than our spontaneous decision to stop in Rattenberg on the way to Innsbruck.

Rattenberg is the smallest town in Austria, and a true gem. Our first stop was a shop in the side of a mountain, with this incredible collection of witches. Tea and Nancy remembered folks dressing up in similar costumes when they were young; these witches would parade down the street, sporadically popping into the crowds, snatching terrified children from their families and putting them in cages that travelled with them. (Ah, a fine beginning for a tale, I'm sure Hans Christian would agree.)

So, yes, from that shop to one of many glass blown ornament shops, where the lady behind the counter thought nothing of leaving the pilot light of her torch running right in front of her as she pulled over a keyboard to surf the 'net, a big dog sleeping in his pillow bed at her feet.

Our next stop was Innsbruck, which looks very Olympic as you take in its ski jump from the autobahn. While the feeling dissipates as you make your way to the Zentrum -- too many 'modern' buildings -- the Old City more than makes up for it.

Full of goulash, schnitzel and Weissbier, we struck out for Mittenwald, Germany -- one of the most beautiful drives I've ever taken (as I've said). The painted houses of Mittenwald really are something to see, but it's the little things that struck me: first, there are many residential areas that discourage traffic of any sort, including tourists on foot. Yes, it's a beautiful place that draws many visitors every year, but folks really live there too.

Then there was the local hardware store that also carried spatzle makers -- Tea and Nancy snapped up one each -- and, off in one corner, a small (and, up 'til that point at least, unique) collection of beer steins. I'd been seeing lots of the same sort of steins for many days then -- undecided about my favourite -- and while I could easily have walked out with five of their twenty, I settled for one.

The sun low in the sky, we decided to enjoy some refreshments outside -- including my tastiest dunkel to date: Hacker-Pschorr Münchner Dunkel -- before heading to the Mercure Hotel Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Once there, we enjoyed a swim, and a buffet that included suckling pig; a special request from an important guest, we were told.

Day 6

The air was crisp and thick with fog as we walked through a Garmisch of dreamland the next morning. The outer door to the Gasthof Fraundorfer was slightly ajar, so we decided to try our luck. It was mostly dark inside, but a back corner was well lit, so we began to shed our layers in a booth near the door. Suddenly the formidable matron had her head out of the kitchen, "Do you SEE any dishes over there?"

Initially wondering whether we could make it to the door with our heads on our shoulders, a wave of her arm drew us to the warm breakfast nook. Before long, our grins matched those on our marked-up hard boiled eggs. I bet it would be absolutely lovely to stay there.

After a bit of shopping -- Tea finally picked up her first (of many, I'm sure) Christmas pyramid! -- we hit the road. Our first stop was Ettal, where, defying reason, it was even foggier. This did make our approach to their beautiful abbey all the better, though; we were almost on top of it before it loomed out of the mist, well above us.

Next up was Oberammergau. Another lovely stop. We ate lunch at another warm and welcoming guesthouse, where the extent of Stephen's continuing plight had us all in stitches: the problem? Getting ice with his soft drinks. Most places simply said they had none. On this occasion, when he asked (without much hope, it has to be said), the reply was, "Of course we have ice!"

Well, none they wanted to share, apparently, because the surface of his Coke was undisturbed when it arrived. (I was very happy with my beer throughout the trip, I hasten to add; there may be a lesson there.)

As the weather wasn't the best for sightseeing, we decided to press on to our hotel for the evening in Pfronten: Haus Achtal. This was certainly another gem of the trip: the couple who run it were so friendly and welcoming; it was like we were staying in their home -- with a decor right out of the 70s that I instantly fell in love with. I'd swear I played in that TV room as a kid, and the common area where meals are served is embraced by this lovely big (living!) tree; words fail me.

And then to stand outside the following morning, with cows mooing in the distance, their bells clunking... Is that Julie Andrews on the next hill? But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The consensus for supper was anything but pork, so we ended up at the Chinese restaurant, Kim Long, in nearby Nesselwang. Incredibly, broken German (from our end, mind you) was our only means of communicating with the Asian waitress. Happily, there was only one hiccup: after ordering one dish to share, we heard her mutter what sounded like "four starters" as she made her way to the kitchen. Panicking -- No, we'll be stuffed! -- we called her back, eventually realizing she'd said "Vorspeise," or appetizer. Oops!

Day 7

Despite the proprietor's best efforts to serve up a blue sky -- he assured of this many, many times -- fog again greeted us on the last day of our trip. Still, as we pulled into the parking lot, Neuschwanstein Castle was clearly visible, up on its perch. Deciding to conserve our strength, we took a horse-drawn carriage as far as we could, and before long stood at its mammoth ramparts. As impressive as all those shots were, however, make sure you also get a glimpse of the castle from Marienbrücke, or Mary's Bridge. We all wondered what it must look like, blanketed with snow.

On the way back to Munich, we stopped in Landsberg am Lech for lunch. No one was surprised to see a menu of pork and dumplings at Gasthof zum Mohren, and Nancy's attempt to deviate was met with, "... You can go to McDonald's for pomme frites." I include that, not to put folks off -- because it really wasn't (quite) as rude as it sounds -- but to make sure they're in the right frame of mind when they visit southern Germany and Austria (and the Czech Republic, as I understand it) -- vegetarians beware!

And, finally, as a counterpoint, we were standing outside a little café, getting ready to leave Landsberg am Lech, when a local approached. After a bit of friendly banter, he made reference to us being Canadian, to which we all fumbled over each other, asking variations on, "What? How did you know?"

His hands were upturned in front of him, like he was trying to decide between two watermelons at the grocery store, and the faintest of smirks tugged at the corners of his mouth.

"Oh, there was [weighing, weighing] the slightest scent of maple syrup about you."

The Picasa album for the trip is now complete. Check out all 170 pictures!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Day 4: Salzburg: mountains, Mozart... and no froggies!

What a beautiful drive to Salzburg! We plunged into pea soup from the sun of Munich, but before long chalets and churches began to poke out of the mists, nestled against the mountains. And the colours, now that autumn is upon the land, were spectacular!

Surprisingly, our rooms were ready, so now, after checking in, it's time to head to downtown Salzburg.

8:30 p.m.

What a beautiful little town! It's so easy to get around. Parking was a bit expensive, but very convenient and memorable -- the garage was inside a mountain. As luck would have it, they were just pulling a pork roast out of the oven as we walked into the Gasthaus Hinterbruhl in Salzburg Zentrum (centre), right by the stairs up to Hohensalzburg Castle.

We decided to take the funicular up, however -- now full of spatzle, potato dumplings and succulent pork -- and enjoyed incomparable views of the city below.

There was a lot of construction going on outside of Mozart's birthplace, so we continued on their 'high street', St. Blasius Church (and former hospital) drawing ever closer, then meandered down toward the River Salzach again.

The most amazing smells, heavily laden with garlic, assaulted us before long, and so we found ourselves in Sternbräu for a 'snack'. A knuckle of pork, two sausages, a potato dumpling, a bowl of goulash and a plate of chips later -- oh, and a tasty glass of unfiltered Gösser Zwickl for me -- we decided that supper might just be out of reach, and so, ordered dessert (as you do).

I really enjoyed the atmosphere there: it was like a biergarten, but toned down. Its many vaulted ceiling helped to keep each table's conversation local, such that many families and elderly couples were there, enjoying what seemed to be a regular evening out for them.

The staff were great too. Our waiter had spent a lot of time working near an American base in Turkey, and his English was excellent; so much so, that he even made fun of us for asking whether the fabulous garlic smells might mean escargot was on the menu.
"We don't serve that French [heavy disdain] food here! This is Austria! We don't have snails or froggies! Our food was on four legs, and a good size!"
Good times!

Don't forget to check out the Picasa album for more pictures from each day.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Day 3: Nymphenburg Palace and Dachau

Tea had read that breakfast at K+K is overpriced, especially considering that Café Kitchenette is just down the road. Well, it's hard to imagine how any hotel breakfast could compete with this quaint, warm, home away from home.

The owner is a gem; a fact that became apparent before drinks had been ordered, when, in response to Stephen's asking whether they served Coke Light, she emphatically replied, "No! Only good things here!" regaling us with tales of the good ol' days of something she referred to as 'afric coke'. [With the benefit of hindsight, she clearly said Afri-Cola.] Stephen switched his order to orange juice, so we never did set eyes on this elixir.

When asked for recommendations -- the menu, written in German, was a bit of a slog, even with the help of my pocket-size Getting By In German -- she speculated, "You want big breakfast? Eggs?" Satisfied with our eager nods, she said, "I'll bring out tray; then another tray."

Palace Nymphenburg

Shortly thereafter, we were presented with a three-storey centrepiece of delicious meats, including smoked salmon, prosciutto, and other cuts of ham and salami, olives, many varieties of hard and soft cheeses, melon, tart red berries we recognised but couldn't name, honey and jam, breads of all sorts, and, of course, hard-boiled eggs. By the time we packed that down, we were all getting rather full. It was at that point that she replaced our decimated tiers with a fresh one, much the same as the first, but with one of the layers replaced with dainty cups of sliced fruit topped with a ground cherry.


From there, it was on to Schloss (Castle, or, in this case, Palace) Nymphenburg. The great hall and all of King Ludwig's beauties were impressive -- the portraits of the latter struck me as photographs, such was their attention to lighting and detail -- but it was the English Garden that I enjoyed the most. And I loved how many local joggers there were who clearly felt the same way.

For the afternoon, we decided to head to the former concentration camp at Dachau [as it's closed on Mondays -- the next day -- and, at this point, we were thinking about spending one more day in Munich]. First, however, we stopped at the gasthaus of Würmtalhof pension for some lunch.

We were clearly the only tourists in the spot, but the owner's English, while limited, served her very well. We had a fantastic meal of various sorts of schnitzels, and then got back on the road to Dachau.

As we pulled into the parking lot, there was something about the young man posted at the simple wooden hut, in his stance, dress, and the way he waved us on with his cigarette, that was just so German, and, more importantly, military; it really set the tone for the visit.

We had a little over an hour before closing, which was still plenty of time to explore the museum and get a glimpse of what the camp's prisoners went through. Even without the pictures and commentary, standing in that vast pebbled square, surrounded by simple barracks, was enough to drag you down; down in ways that I might imagine as even worse than the physical restraints those poor people had to suffer.

"Never again" one of the plaques read. I hope so.

10:30 p.m.

We went out for Italian that evening -- Pizzeria Europa -- which felt like a little slice of said country to the south thanks to all its expat waiters. Ours was from Milan -- I think he was a bit offended when he learned we'd been to Rome, Florence, Pisa, Naples, Capri, the list goes on, but not there -- and while I couldn't comment on his German, I'd bet he rarely needs English -- which isn't a criticism, incidentally, but simply an observation on the EU in action.

Walking back to the hotel, I was feelin' no pain. While waiting outside for Stephen to grab a "bed-time Diet Coke" at the nearby McDonald's, a poster for a new burger distracted me -- it was called some four-digit number, and, upon deciding it couldn't be a year, I struggled to fathom its meaning.

Slowly it occurred to me that Tea was saying my name; at that point, I looked up, into the expectant face of a cyclist I can best describe as the German 'Bubbles'. Three, maybe four, seconds passed as we stared at one another; then, without uttering a word, he deliberately gave his bell a double ring, but made no other move. Still in a bit of a daze -- "The rest of the sidewalk's free, dude," hindsight says -- my body obeyed his command, stepping back, before my mind entirely grasped it. And so, off he went again, like he has a dozen of these encounters a day.

Up next: Salzburg, Austria

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Day 2: Munich!

Up very early this morning. Don't expect the houseboat residents appreciated our luggage clattering along the cobblestones at 5 a.m. Took the Heathrow Express from Paddington, then the quick flight to Munich.

Navigating the ring road in our hire car was fun, particularly when we started hitting cul-de-sacs courtesy of metal barriers that our sat-nav knew nothing of. [Aside: we later learned that one of the 'avoidances' we always leave on -- toll roads -- was unnecessarily complicating our routes; apparently most of the autobahns are marked as toll roads on our 2009 maps.] Eventually we made it to the hotel, though, and then took the U-Bahn to Marienplatz.

As we emerged from the subway, raised voices and music could be heard. Initially, we laughed off Tea's guess of protests, only to have it confirmed by a local shortly thereafter. Hundreds, if not thousands, of folks carrying and wearing "Atomkraft? Nein danke!" lined streets and pathways. [Now that I'm connected again, I'll let this Deutsche Welle story tell the tale:

A focus of the protest was the formation of a human chain, about 10 kilometers long, through the center of the city... Organizers said that some 50,000 people in all took part in the day's events, while police put the number at around 25,000.


Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel said that the turnout revealed the level of opposition to a planned extension to the operating lifespans of Germany's nuclear power plants...]
Tea successfully navigated around that excitement, bringing us to the decidedly more jovial bustle of the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl.

Well, I have to say, the Hofbräuhaus franchise in Las Vegas is excellent. Much as there, music, laughter and the general buzz of good cheer washed over us as we explored the many rooms of the former royal brewery.

A friendly British couple who are living in Munich invited us to sit at a Stammtisch or local table, where we enjoyed pork knuckle, cabbage rolls and schnitzel, as well as the house original and dunkel (or dark beer) and radlers (or shandies). [Funnily enough, the direct translation of radler is cyclist; h'm...]

The whole atmosphere of the Hofbräuhaus is fantastic. That such a tourist attraction still reserves over a hundred tables for locals, and lets them lock up their steins in the entryway between visits, just strikes me as so... right.

From there, we made our way to the beautiful Neues Rathaus, or New Town Hall, where they seemed to be setting up for a concert of sorts. We stayed in the plaza for the hourly Rathaus-Glockenspiel show, and then made our way to a local grocery store. An hour or so later, ladened with many tasty biscuits, peanut-butter 'cheezies', and a jug of Neuschwansteiner beer -- literally, and a beautiful vessel it is -- we headed back to our rooms at the K+K hotel on the crowded subway.

Up next: Schloss Nymphenburg and Dachau

[Also, don't forget that all these pictures and more are available in my Picasa album.]

Friday, October 8, 2010

München trip: Day 1: London

I forgot how mad London is.

As we left home this morning, a light breeze tugged leaves from the trees across our lane. It was peaceful, watching them spiral down toward us as we walked to the train station, mingling with the Friday morning commuters. That seemed continents away as we crammed on the Piccadilly Line this evening.

Apparently the crowds were worse than usual because they'd decided to shut down the line upon discovering an unclaimed bag. That said, as Tea quickly pointed out, colliding with any London evening commute is more excitement than any of us are used to. (I wonder if they are more alert after the recent American announcements, that, happily, warn about travel both to here and our destination of Germany.)

Aside: it's hard to believe that the newspaper is dead after taking a trip like that: well over half the commuters had their noses buried in the printed word. And, when you think about it, it makes sense: with all the jostling that goes on, I'd surely drop a hand-held device. Plus, you can fold it in all sorts of ways to improve your grip. And when you're done, in the bin with it. But maybe that's just me, only truly comfortable with my devices when I'm on the couch or at the kitchen table.

Just outside Paddington Station
Staying at the Novotel near Paddington is neat: the houseboats lining the canal right outside the station seem so European; in a way much of the rest of the city doesn't strike me. That said, however, I wouldn't cover our next stop, Covent Garden, with that broad brush: it's so vibrant; a melting pot of language and cuisine. Speaking of which, the Jamie's Italian close by didn't disappoint.

Nancy and Stephen had met us at Paddington fresh from their overnight Atlantic crossing -- which is to say, excited, but far from rested -- but thoughts of napping were quickly dispelled by those of lunch at Jamie's; they're loyal readers of this blog, and were eager to experience the subject of such fuss.

The service at this location, always an unknown variable with any chain, was excellent: our waitress answered all of Stephen's (many) questions, and even brought us samples of a few dishes -- something he probably loves even more than quizzing folks. Our old standbys made yet another appearance, but I had a special of braised lamb this time; exquisite! We ended the meal with the lemon polenta cake -- again, possibly the best dessert on the planet.

Up next: Munich! "Hoi! Hoi! Hoi!"