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!

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