Part I: Switzerland
Oct 9 – Oct 13, 2008
Jess stopped by to drive us to the airport, finding me sick as a dog with some sort of sinus thing (and pretty unhappy about it)! We managed to pack ourselves, our luggage, and Jess back into her Mini Cooper for the trip to Logan Airport. We made good time to Terminal E and walked straight up to the Swiss Air counter for a no-wait/no-line check in. Sweet! Once inside the terminal, we had an hour and a half to kill, so we ended up at Houlihan’s for our last American meal. After dinner we got me some hot tea and extra Kleenex for the flight. The plane was a little bit loud/bumpy on the take-off roll, panicking me a bit (given my recent experiences flying from Florida and Buffalo), but it smoothed out once we were airborne. We had in-seat entertainment with video games and movies. I exercised restraint even though there was MahJong to play, and both of us managed to get a couple of hours sleep. We touched down in Zurich (around 9 am on October 10th) to some cloudy weather, but thankfully no rain. While going through customs Kevin asked for a stamp in his passport, at which point the border patrol officer (jokingly) told him it would be $5. I wanted to ask for my own stamp, but Kevin beat me to it — quickly showing off his fluency in German.
After clearing customs, getting our bags and walking across the street to the train station, Kevin started fumbling with his GPS looking for a subway. Of course, he wouldn’t ask for directions, but rather tried to figure it out. After what felt like hours of putzing, he got tickets for a train to the Zurich main station, then ran off to the nearest set of tracks. Whether it was horse sense or dumb luck, we got on the right train. The short trip cost us 12 Swiss Francs, but we didn’t care given how tired we were. Once back outside, Kevin again stood there waiting for the GPS to acquire a satellite lock. After a few moments, it indicated the direction to go and we started off walking, suitcases in tow, through downtown Zurich to Hotel du Theatre. Since we arrived there around lunch time, we were able to check in and go straight up to the room. It was very modern, but also very warm.
We immediately closed the shutters to block out daylight and proceeded to take a much needed, 2 hour nap. Still a bit groggy, we got up and went looking for an ATM and food. We asked at the front desk where the nearest ATM was, and as with most directions we got in Switzerland, they were kind of vague. (Not intentionally, but just a slightly different way of conveying information.) The directions were “go down that-a-way for 300 meters and you’ll see it on your left”. We started walking and saw lots of interesting stuff, just no ATM. We saw a cabaret establishment, an adult entertainment store, and various restaurants, but no ATM. Finally, at my prompting, Kevin went into another hotel and asked where the nearest ATM was. They gave him a dumb look and told him to look across the street outside. Of course, we had walked right past it when we were coming from the train station. We got enough Swiss Francs to last us for several days, and then went to grab lunch. We ended up at a traditional restaurant for our first authentic Swiss food of the trip. Kevin ordered a Schnitzel (pork cutlet) with Spaetzle (egg dumplings), while I (being cautious) had a big salad and some bites of Kevin’s meal. During the meal, a couple at a nearby table told our waiter about some men outside who pushed a few tables together; they were promptly given a “talking to” about doing that without asking. After this amusing spectacle, we decided to walk around Zurich and see what there was to see.
We ended up crossing the river Limmat to walk around the Lindenhof, and explore the old part of town. We stopped at what looked like a nice sidewalk cafe, but on closer inspection, it was just a Starbucks. Oh well, a hot chai-tea latte and we were on our way again to check out the awesome pastries in the bakery window across the street. After more exploration, we headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up for dinner. We had dinner at the Hotel Adler (Eagle). I had pumpkin soup (complete with floating pumpkin seeds) and Kevin had a pork chop stuffed with apricots. Very tasty dinner, but pricey, so we opted not to have dessert and decided to head back to the hotel. On the way back, we thought about looking for a nice cafe to have a cup of coffee or dessert, but every time we saw something set up that might be nice, it ended up being another Starbucks! Ugh! We skipped that and headed back to the hotel to crash and hopefully get over some of our jet lag.
We woke up at a reasonable hour, got ready, and went down to the 2nd floor for our first continental breakfast. The hotel had a cool cappuccino maker so I got that, and we had similar options to what Pam and I had in Greece last year: assortments of cheese and various lunch meats. But they also had really amazing breads and soft boiled eggs, which Kevin taught me how to open. As we were eating, we noticed that several people were riding the red tram (PolyBahn) that ran outside the breakfast cafe window. We watched as people went up…but never came back down! We got curious about the monster on the other side who ate people, and decided that on our last day in Zurich we would take our fates into our hands and see for ourselves.
After breakfast, we hopped on the train to Bern, the capital of Switzerland. The 45-minute train ride was nice, and we were in the top-level car. When we arrived in Bern, we decided to make our way to the tourist information center to ask what we should see and do. We had heard or read somewhere that there was a chocolate or cheese factory, and as tired as we were, that sounded like fun. At the tourist information center, I was telling Kevin all the things he needed to ask (forgetting that at such an office, they probably spoke English just fine). After waiting in line and getting up to the counter, Kevin turned to me and said “go ahead”. Not being ready, I was a bit annoyed but started to ask in English anyway. The guy behind the counter was without a doubt the rudest, most condescending kid one could ever expect working in such an office. In the end all he did was give us a map and circle some things we might want to see. No factories of any food product were in the plan, and Kevin and I narrowly escaped a jet lag induced argument.
Since we were feeling frustrated and tired, we completely ignored the map and just started wandering around the old part of town. The streets were all cobblestone and there were tons of little shops on each side. What we really wanted was some place to eat, but sadly anything “sit down” was $20 at minimum. The only other option was to buy something from a street vendor for much cheaper, but have no where to eat it. As part of looking for food, we ended up in the middle of a cheese fair, complete with alpine horn blowers and huge piles of cheese. There was even a massive fondue pot. After being indecisive for awhile, we settled on a crepe for lunch. Kevin’s was filled with cinnamon and apple sauce, mine with (too much) cheese, marinara sauce and herbs. We ended up briefly chatting with a couple from Ohio, who were struggling to find the English menu, then we found a seat on a bench to enjoy our lunch. Nearby, two men were playing chess on a board that was the size of a small dance floor. The pieces were so large you had to pick them up with both hands and move them. The match was near the end, and the players had a good, lively crowd cheering them on.
After eating we felt a bit better, so we walked over to the federal palace to see the remains of a farmers market being torn down. We decided to take a walk along the river Aare (which of course got Kevin joking about the song that calls for putting your hands in the ayer). The water was so clear, and at one point we saw that someone had lost their bicycle in the river! There was also a cool painting on one of the buildings that showed people chatting on two sides of a window. As we got more near housing and small stores, we noticed that the sidewalks leading up toward them were little bridges over a trench of water. It was interesting to think that the water flowed so much through the city and that at some point that is where people got their water from. Instead of walking around and back to the old part of town, we decided to take this shortcut–a monstrous staircase. (Now, I’m all one for exercise, but with the jet lag, we had to stop a few times before making it to the top.) Then we walked down the Kramgasse–a street with tons of fountains and the famous Zytglogge. We skipped paying to go up in it and stopped for some machiatto ice cream and Starbucks instead. (One will see that although we don’t drink Starbucks when in the states, it became a staple for us while in Europe. Every time we wanted to get a warm drink to go, or use a bathroom, or just sit down in a nice cafe kind of thing, all we could find that met our requirements was freakin’ Starbucks!)
To take a load off, we joined some other folks who were sitting in the sun in front of the Federal Palace. It was nice to sit there, jacket-less in October, watching people’s kids try to avoid getting wet from the 20 or so jets that were spraying water up from the pavement. After resting for awhile and playing with taking some pictures, we decided to check out two churches. The St. Peter and Paul church was really weird inside, in that at the back, there were several TVs, each playing videos of water fountains (rather than there being a real fountain).
We were tired again, and quite frankly, not all that impressed with Bern, when we decided to go to the public garden behind the Muenster of Bern and have a little trail mix snack. The garden was built beginning in 1334 and took almost 300 years to fill in enough land to make a big flat garden at the top of the hill. It had lots of benches and shrubbery to take advantage of. We ended up sitting in front of a little playground area for kids. There was a sandbox, a little rocking horse, some other cylinder things that spun, and a papason (i.e. disc-like) chair. Kevin remarked that they would never have such things in the states, since these looked like they were partially rusty or had parts a child could get themselves caught in. As we were sitting there, several parents brought their kids over, put them in the papason chair, and spun them around. Didn’t seem like anything dangerous to me. Then a father came over with his (approximately 4 year old) son, and placed him in the chair. The look on the kid’s face was already priceless: along the lines of “what the @!$*!” is this thing you’re putting me in?!” The father proceeded to spin the kid, who never quite lost that look. Then it happened: just as the father absentmindedly gave the kid a good push, the kid started to roll onto his stomach. This was bad timing for sure, because it had the effect of launching the kid into the air like a rag doll. After a short airborne journey, the kid landed about 2 feet away from where we were sitting. There was a pause of silence, then the kid burst into tears. The father picked him up and walked away, trying to console him.
Why am I telling this story? Because it so happened that in our jet-lagged state, this was…SO…funny. As some of you know, when I’m tired, I get incredibly giggly, often going off into a spiral of giggles for a half hour or so, complete with tears and stomach pains. As this happened, I was sitting on the bench putting my teeth into my tongue, because I thought that laughing at such an incident would hardly be appropriate, and might even get me into serious trouble. After the unfortunate pair left, I was still holding it in. That is, until Kevin said, “That’s how you learn about centrifugal force!” I LOST IT. Forget the laughter, I went straight to the tears and cried laughing for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Kevin had fun teasing me by telling me how horrible I was…then admitted that he also found the situation very funny. I guess it’s one of those “you had to be there” stories, but it’s what we will always remember about Bern.
Because of this incident, we missed going up in the Muenster church tower by about 30 minutes. We were kind of already done with Bern, but decided to stay for dinner. We had seen this place called Ali Baba while walking up one of the streets earlier in the day, and decided to do that for dinner–how could you NOT go to a place with that name?? We had some trouble re-finding it (Kevin zigged when he should have zagged), so we ended up walking the wrong way for awhile. When we got there, we found out that the kitchen didn’t open for another hour, so we sat talking and drinking until we could order. The food turned out to be the best I’d had so far: a great salad and then ground beef in a nice tomato-y sauce with green peppers and french fries. And oh yeah, the beef was served to me on a sword! Kevin’s meal came on skewers that were almost as impressive. At the end of the dinner, the bill came in a little wooden box, complete with a latch. Kevin asked the waitress whether or not they took credit cards, and when she said “no”, he pulled out some Swiss Francs and just handed them and the box to her. She gasped and seemed pretty offended that he did not hide the money inside the little box. (Kevin will also say he doubly offended her by tipping…since that’s not expected in Switzerland.)
After dinner we walked back to the train station, and really had to use the bathroom. We ended up paying 3 Francs to use the McClean “pisseur”: I guess you pay extra for a seat, since it was 1 for him and 2 for me. (Another place women get ripped off, I guess!) Oddly enough, it was worth the price. It was probably the nicest, cleanest, public restroom I’d seen. I fell asleep on the train back to Zurich. When we got there, we had a hankering for some dessert, so we decided to walk back to this dessert place we’d seen yesterday. Unfortunately, they were closed. The other “cafe” like things were more bars than dessert places, so we returned to our hotel room to feast on a chocolate chip muffin we’d brought with us, and to watch some CNN International and The Daily Show. It was interesting to watch the U.S. stock market tank, especially with the time differences. It had been a long day, so we fell asleep easily that night, hoping that our day trip to Lucerne tomorrow would be an improvement over our day in Bern.
The next morning I was able to tell the waitress at the breakfast cafe which room we were in and ask for my own coffee (in German). While we were enjoying breakfast and watching the PolyBahn run empty most of the time, we were reminded why people in other countries might have bad impressions of Americans. Our breakfasts were mostly quiet, polite affairs, with the occasional delicate clanking of flatware against china. Today, a woman at a nearby table–who made no attempt to speak the language–was sighing, snorting, clanking, and just overall making a spectacle of herself. I hoped that with Kevin’s background (though maybe not-so-European sense of style) we looked less like this American and more like natives.
After making our way to the train station and our track, two shirtless young men who were drinking what appeared to be beer and dancing to techno music (screaming from their boom box) entertained us. (It was pretty cold out, so this made it more amusing.) Old and young people alike looked over, laughed a bit, then went about their business. The train ride was about an hour, and we had a little fog but otherwise it was lovely.
When we arrived at the tourist office in Lucerne, it was completely different from what happened in Bern. The women behind the counter were really helpful, informing Kevin that we could take a boat with our Eurail pass, and recommended we go to Weggis, since there were palm trees there. While Kevin was finding this out, I was going through a very helpful map of the city and seeing what there was to do. It was nearly noon, and I happened to turn the page to StadtKeller–a place I could only describe as something like Medieval Times–and they had a lunch “show” at 12:15. I knew it was ridiculous but Kevin was easily convinced that we should go see this show, so we made our way directly there, taking a few pictures of the beautiful scenery along the way.
When we arrived at the StadtKeller, we followed our host up a few stairs to a seat in the back. We were initially a little disappointed in the view, but it actually turned out to be perfect. We were up a little so we could see, and didn’t end up in the crowded mess around the stage. The food was okay (Kevin had his first beer here), but the show…well, it was almost what we expected. For at least an hour we were entertained by people (including various “volunteers from the audience, who luckily didn’t happen to be either of us) playing alpine horns, brooms, and cow bells, twirling the Swiss flag, playing the “singing saw”, and yodeling (to name a few). I think the ultimate in ridiculousness came when two people in a cow suit came barreling out of a door and promptly slammed into a chair. After recovering, this cow ran around to nearly all the tables and proceeded to “lick” people. (Of course some crazy music was playing while this was happening.) I can’t lie, we were hysterical.
After this experience we were ready to get outside and enjoy some of the sights. We walked on the old town walls, and ended up inside some of the tall watch towers. It was very high, but I made it pretty far. After climbing up some crazy wooden stairs and seeing another at the landing, I decided to let Kevin go on and stay there for a bit. But, the boards were shaking beneath my feet and I was getting a little scared, so I ended up going all the way back down. Once we were both at the bottom, we sat on a bench for a snack and watched the bulls (one of which seemed to have his head stuck in a fence).
Next we walked over one of the bridges that crossed the river Reuss (not the famous Chapel Bridge) and attempted to take some pictures of ourselves. These pretty much all look like we’re in front of a green screen and the background is put in as an afterthought! Because I was cold, and we saw some women walking around with the dreaded Starbucks cups, we decided to try to find where they were getting them. We saw several very pretty swans in the water as we made our way to some of the shops to get pastries and drinks. And shortly after we had our loot, the boat to Weggis was boarding.
Since we were some of the first people to board the boat, we went up top and out front and got prime a “king of the world” seat on a bench, right in front of the Swiss flag. The sun was beating down and we ended up quite warm (the chai tea latte from Starbucks didn’t hurt). The ride to Weggis was quite possibly the most beautiful boat ride ever (and this is public transit, don’t forget)! The pictures we took don’t really do it justice. It was a beautiful sunny day, the trees were all different fall colors, and the grass was so green you couldn’t believe it.
When we arrived 45 minutes later, Weggis was pretty quiet. (It was Sunday.) After nearly knocking me over by stepping without looking, Kevin took some photos of me by a palm tree in front of Lake Lucerne, complete with snow capped mountains in the back. We walked all around the town, taking photos of the gorgeous houses and even more beautiful flower gardens, which were made possible by the warm climate there. After 45 minutes of walking, we had to make the decision of whether or not to catch the boat back to Lucerne, or stay for another 45. We decided on the former, but had to run like mad to catch the early boat back.
When we got back to Lucerne, we were distracted by the little fair that we saw going on earlier. Kevin stopped to look at the fun house, and I was mesmerized by the Twister (one of my favorite rides “growing up”). Since Kevin’s “200 lbs of goof” was probably too big for the fun house, we decided to get on the Twister before heading off to find dinner. Thank goodness we did! So, remember the idea that the kiddie playground in Bern would never have gotten “approved” here in the U.S.? Well, as soon as we got on the Twister, we realized that the speed allowed in Switzerland was just a smidge higher than what we knew. We were being flung around like mad (thankfully I was crushing him and not the other way around, though his ribs were sore for days)…and during this, he whipped out his camera and tried to take photos! I was so worried that the camera was going to get damaged or dropped that after a bit of my hollering he put it away. And just as we thought we were done (having gone in one direction and then the other), the ride operator / DJ screams out “ARE YOU READY FOR THE MAXIMUM!?!?!?” We looked at each other incredulously and then prepared for another few minutes of stomach-churning.
I’ve never been sick on one of those rides in my life, but I definitely wasn’t right after getting off. Luckily we had to walk a bit to find a place for dinner. We were thinking Greek, and so used our map and the GPS to locate a Greek restaurant…which was closed. After some more walking and increasing levels of hunger, we decided to try to find a Thai place we’d also seen in the tourist guide. Soon we were walking down a small alley, and saw a door that seemed to fling open at our presence. It was the Thai place, and we were greeted by several women in authentic Thai attire who led us down a large spiral, marble staircase in near pitch darkness (i.e. only candlelight) to a table.
After looking over the menu and recalling lunch, we realized that our budget for the day was already completely sacked and we were starving, so we decided to “go with the flow” and enjoy this experience. (Speaking of going with the flow, our table was right in front of a wall with cascading water falls.) We ordered dishes and drank our water, taking in some of the ambiance of the place (like the authentic rickshaw in the corner). While waiting for our meal, we noticed that the place settings consisted of gold-plated (almost gong-like) dishes, with a little napkin placed on them. When the waitress brought our food, Kevin went and removed the napkin and was ready to put the food on his gold dish. Gasp! The waitress freaked, put the napkin back down, and set the real plate on top. I suppose it was probably obvious, but we had been out and about all day and were hungry! I thought back to the little wooden box incident at Ali Baba and wondered whether we’d ever stop making fools of ourselves at ethnic restaurants! 🙂 We were actually a little sad to return to Zurich that night, given that we had such a wonderful day in Lucerne. This turned out to be our favorite place in Switzerland.
On our last day in Zurich we headed downstairs to breakfast as part of our routine, and ended up sitting in a little alcove because it was very crowded (hey, it was Monday). The best stuff (which I neglected to mention previously) was this chocolatey cereal that was shaped like little scoops, and wasn’t too sweet. After breakfast, we got a little more packing done and decided to head out and check out the PolyBahn first hand. As we turned around the corner, there was a line out the door and down the stairs! Turns out it was shortly before class was about to start, so we were surrounded by students. Putting that temporarily on hold, we decided to head back over and check out the cool bakery we had seen the other day. We figured it would be a 15 minute walk, but it turns out that 15 minutes was the time it would take to meander over there–walking straight there took under 10 minutes. We picked out a hollow, S-shaped chocolate Meringue-like cookie that was drizzled in chocolate. We also picked up a rolled waffle with chocolate mousse filling that looked kind of like a cannoli. On our way back we found no line at the PolyBahn and bought 2 tickets for the ride to the top. It took less than a minute and at the top of the hill, there wasn’t much else other than the school…so we turned around and rode it back down.
It was still quite early and our train to Salzburg didn’t leave until 1:40 pm, so we decided to walk around and explore a bit. We headed down one of the streets we had not been down before and after walking uphill for about 5 minutes realized that there wasn’t much of interest, so we cut down a set of stairs to go over a couple of streets for the walk back. As we were walking down the stairs, we came across a sign that advertised Salsa lessons in what seemed like an Italian restaurant. We walked back towards the hotel and found a little sushi restaurant that was just getting ready to open at 11. We asked to see a menu (since it didn’t appear that one was posted) and the proprietor obliged by bringing us a glossy paperboard menu that was a single sheet folded in half. It showed a picture of the buffet, but there was nothing on the buffet yet and the pictures in the menu didn’t sell us on the price (SFr -25), especially since it felt like we had just eaten breakfast. Oh well, it was a bit early for lunch anyway, so we walked back towards the hotel, not sure what to do with 2 more hours.
At this point, we felt trapped in Zurich without a plan. Luckily it was pretty nice out and we found a bench in the middle of the “Central” S-Bahn station. (Basically a wide spot in the street where several S-Bahn lines converged). We sat there for several minutes and tried to figure out what to do, since our adventures that were supposed to take most of the morning had only chewed up about 45 minutes. Finally, we decided to go back to the hotel and check out. We locked up the luggage downstairs and as we were walking out the front door of the hotel, it looked like rain. The hotel had huge umbrellas, so we borrowed one and went over to the train station to see what we could find for lunch, thinking that the food court would give us the most options. At this point, we were trying to use up the last of our Swiss Francs since we couldn’t convert the coins back to Euros easily. We looked, but couldn’t find anything for under SFr -15 (which is about what we had left). Finally, we found a little cafe that took credit cards and decided that we would spend a little more on lunch and use the remaining SFr to grocery shop. I had a NY Club Sandwich which had Egg, Bacon, Tomatoes and Chicken on toast. Kevin had a salami panini with cheese, which he described as the worlds most expensive Hot Pocket(TM). Once we finished lunch, we headed back to the hotel, stopping at the “CO-OP” supermarket to spend our last change. We picked up a small salad, a grapefruit soda, bottled water and some soft pretzels for the train.
With our travel provisions in hand, we picked up our luggage and headed back over to the train station (sans rain). Of course, you might be asking yourself, “why all the walking around?” Well, while we were sitting on the bench earlier, we rationalized that it would be easier to eat lunch and shop without luggage in tow. (And as it turns out, it was.) We found the train to Salzburg on the big board and headed over to the track. We quickly found our assigned seats: two singles facing each other. But, given that the car was practically empty, we claimed two double seats facing each other right across the aisle and spread out. Kevin had an outlet next to his seat and was able to plug in the chargers for his electronic gadgets (useful for the 6 hour train ride). As we left Zurich, we enjoyed the scenic countryside with the occasional, “cows!” refrain. The train ride itself was uneventful and almost peaceful, after all the walking we had done. I was able to make a good dent in a good book, so I was happy. As we got closer to Salzburg, we started getting hungry, so Kevin went to the dining car to procure a menu. When he returned, we decided that a couple of frankfurters with a roll and mustard would go well with the rest of the provisions that we had. A short while later (and after some haggling) Kevin returned with the sausages and silverware. (Apparently they didn’t really want to let the silverware out of the dining car–not sure if they thought we were going to steal it or try to hijack the train.) We had our picnic of the salad, bread, frankfurters, kiwi and our desserts from the bakery earlier in the day.
Part II: Austria
Oct 13 – Oct 15, 2008
About an hour later, we arrived at the train station in Salzburg, and I noticed the only phrase I remembered from high school German classes, printed on a sign: “Um die ecke”, meaning “around the corner”. The GPS was working, but Kevin learned from his previous experience and asked for directions to the hotel. Although it was dark, it was quite warm outside and the 10 minute walk to the hotel was almost enjoyable. We must have passed about 7 bakeries on the way. (Thank goodness they were all closed, since Kevin eyed every single one.) Soon after checking in to Austrotel and getting to our high ceiling-ed room (what a change from the ceiling height in the Zurich hotel!), we toyed with the idea of switching rooms because we were on a smoking floor. But they didn’t have any other rooms until tomorrow, so we decided it wasn’t that bad. We checked email and Facebook and then decided to go out for a walk and a drink.
We came across a this great little place called Capp&ccino. Of course, we kept walking just to see what else there was. After about 15 minutes, we realized that Capp&ccino was the best option and headed back. Once we got there I had the best White Russian EVER, and Kevin tried a Cosmo and a Pina Colada (which were both very good). Since it had been several hours since we had eaten, we decided to get some Bruschetta, which also turned out to be excellent. Once we finished, we headed back to the hotel and crashed in what turned out to be the most comfortable bed of the trip.
We were up early the next morning to check out the breakfast buffet. The dining room was much larger and Americanized than the one in Zurich, and although it didn’t have any windows that provided a view, it still had pretty much everything you could think of (including people). The funniest thing about breakfast was the music they played.”Never gonna dance again” by George Michael comes to mind as part of the experience!
After we finished breakfast, we walked to the train station. Our plan for the day was to take a day trip to Bertschesgaden, Germany right over the Austrian border. It turns out that the train to Bertschesgaden was actually an S-Bahn, so it made plenty of stops as it went up into the mountains. It took a little over an hour to get to the main train station in Bertschesgaden which was also the end of the line. Kevin had been to Bertschesgaden when he was growing up (cha-ching)* and had gone to the salt mines there. He kept telling stories of sliding down into the mines on big wooden slides. Of course I was worried about the height of these slides, but it still sounded like an interesting thing to say you have done. Kevin was pretty sure the mines were within walking distance of the train station (and he had brought the GPS), but he learned his lesson in Zurich and asked inside the train station anyway. They said that it would be about a 10 minute walk. So, we stopped in the little bakery in the train station and picked up a little snack and something to drink to tide us over until we got to the salt mine. We walked toward the mines in the most beautiful weather–it was very warm (too warm for a jean jacket!). We passed by a lot of local flair, wood carvings, etc., but the walking path surrounded by trees with leaves changing colors that lead to the entrance of the salt mine was very serene and beautiful.
We were able to go right in the main entrance of the salt mine and buy tickets. We rented a locker and stashed the backpack and my purse. Then we donned the black and white coveralls to wear down in the mine, waited a brief moment, then got on the little train to get our picture taken…very touristy. After that, we were whisked into the small, cold tunnel. “Keep your hands and feet in at all times” were the instructions from the guide. We were close enough to the walls that you could have lost an arm or leg easily (and Kevin might have lost his head if he didn’t duck!). Every so often, you passed a set of lights that let you see the tunnel you were traveling in, but for the most part it was dark and surreal. And it got colder as you went along. Once we got to the end of the line, the guide told us “Gluck Auf” which loosely translates to “Luck Up” (e.g. make it back out safely).
We walked for a while through the mine until we came upon a small grotto that had a chandelier made from translucent salt pieces of various colors. (It had kind of a stained glass look.) The guide was speaking only in German and Kevin was doing his best to translate. Soon he was translating for an American family of four as well. We continued further into the mine, to a giant cavern that had been eroded by water. The quickest way to get down to the floor of the cavern was to take the giant wooden slides. I was still a bit apprehensive, but after latching onto Kevin and another couple, we slid down quickly (and it warmed your butt quite nicely!). At the floor of the cavern there was a hole covered with a clear glass plate that you could look down. There were strobe lights that went straight down the shaft (over 400 feet deep). After some additional walking past various mining exhibits we reached a room with interactive computer displays that had a metal grate on the floor. Under the metal grate was basically nothing but rock salt. A short walk later, we arrived at the edge of an underground lake. It was the most peaceful experience ever, looking at this lake underground, with the ceiling reflecting in the water. After everyone climbed aboard a large wooden boat, we started floating along. About halfway across, the lights went out and a laser/light show started (complete with loud music!). It was all very Disneyesque and kind of pissed us off. The lake and rock formations were beautiful by themselves and hardly needed “jazzing up.”
After the lights came back on, we made it to the far side where the guide offered us a taste of the lake water. He assured us that it was so salty (27%) that nothing could grow in there, so we tasted it it certainly was salty! A quick walk down the corridor and a ride up an inclined elevator brought us back to the little train. We re-boarded the train and each got a tiny container of salt as a souvenir before heading back out. As we were riding along there was a “Warning – Entering a Blast Area” sign…hmmm whatever could we expect next? A couple of seconds later, we heard a loud “Kaboom!” and saw a giant flash of light. Then we were back at the changing room to get out of the coveralls and exit through the gift shop. Of course, we already had our little souvenir, so we didn’t feel the need to buy any more salt or salt related trinkets.
After all that mining we were hungry, so we stopped for lunch across the street at a restaurant there. Kevin had a currywurst and I had the bratwurst. I also got to taste his drink, Radler (half beer and half Sprite). We decided to take a different route back to the center of town, which turned out to be a mistake, since we ended up walking on the side of a busy road with no sidewalk. Calling ourselves “stupid tourists” we made it back without incident (though the walk clearly wasn’t as pleasant as the walk to the mine!) We wanted to to look around the shops, but there weren’t really anything compelling, so we decided to take the 3:02 train back to Salzburg.
During a short respite back at the hotel, we tried to figure out what to do for dinner. We had seen advertisements for a local restaurant chain “Indigo” that looked pretty interesting. We walked in to see self-serve sushi that was individually wrapped, as well as some interesting oriental dishes/soups. We got a variety of sushi, Kevin had the beef curry with basmati rice, and I had some Thai soup that was very good as well. The weather was still so nice that we chose to eat outside. The sushi was odd though…Kevin said he didn’t think the layers of fat you usually see in the sake (salmon) for example, were there. This sounds healthier, but degraded the taste (IMHO). After dinner we decided to go back to the Capp&Ccino for some delicious tiramisu and a couple of cocktails. We had cosmos too, but mine was almost too strong. Soon after, I was more than ready to crash for the night!
Kevin woke up earlier than me, so he went out to the bakery and to see if two full day city bus passes were worth buying. Since he ended up passing a few of the sights during his short excursion, we opted to walk. So after another tasty breakfast buffet, we finished packing, checked out and left our luggage locked up at the hotel while we went out to explore Salzburg. We walked across the river to the old part of Salzburg. Along the way, Kevin noted that there were several women with their makeup “set to whore”. (I couldn’t stop laughing!)
Just as we started walking around the old town, we noticed a bunch of horse drawn carriages. Since we were on vacation and I always wanted to do that, we decided to splurge but opted for the shorter, 30-minute tour (which was a good thing since the tour guide didn’t speak any English). Kevin tried to translate, but the tour guide was hard to hear, plus he was facing forward paying attention to all the traffic. All in all, it was worth it, but more from the standpoint of being able to see most of the old town quickly and decide which sights warranted a visit on foot.
After the carriage ride, we walked up to the base of the fortress and caught the tram to the top. There were some great views of the city and some scary stairs that led up into the fortress proper. We walked around the interior of the fortress, went through the museum, and took pictures of torture implements and restraints (including a chastity belt!). We also ended up in a marionette area, where Kevin got to play with one of the puppets. 🙂 After looking around, it seemed like there weren’t any good options for eating lunch, so we headed back down. We instantly became tourists and went into a gift shop to buy some “Mozart” chocolate liqueur. With that mission accomplished, we headed to a fish market we had read about in a guide book for lunch. We were able to get a very tasty and reasonably priced lunch (probably the first of its kind!), and ate outside along the river since the day was so nice. The number of bicycles that passed us was really impressive, as were the riders’ ability to talk on cell phones while navigating sidewalk traffic.
After lunch we went back into the old town to catch up on some of the sights we had seen briefly during the carriage ride. Every gift shop we passed had these elaborate displays of everything “Mozart”: liqueur, perfume, chocolate, etc. The most pervasive were these big red and gold displays for “Mozart Balls”–basically balls of chocolate with nougat filling. Turns out these big gaudy red and gold displays were the knock-offs, since the original confectioner does not own the rights to the trademark. We managed to locate the original confectioner (who is still in business) and were able to purchase some of the hand made originals. After sampling the original “Mozart Balls”, we headed back to Mozart’s birth house. We then circled back around towards the base of the fortress and window shopped. We ran into one little boutique and I found a nice scarf. Kevin bought a kiwi from a fruit stand vendor and was looking for a large salted pretzel. Unfortunately, given the time of day, all of the salted pretzels were sold out. (Apparently salted pretzels absorb the humidity from the air and get soggy much quicker than other pretzels.) He ended up getting a large poppy-seed pastry which made a good mid-afternoon snack.
Having exhausted most of the sights and shops in the old town, we went back to the hotel to pick up our luggage, hastily pack our new treasures, and head to the train station to catch the train to Munich. At the train station, Kevin went down to Burger King (of all places) to get some plastic utensils to cut up the kiwi. Once on the train, we got settled and left Salzburg as the sun was starting to set. The train ride to Munich was about two hours, and pretty much uneventful. In the Munich main train station Kevin had a general idea of where we were headed and we had a quick walk to the hotel with suitcases in tow. On the way, we passed Vivadi, a small Italian restaurant. We got settled in our room and then went there to grab dinner. Kevin ordered another Radler to drink and a hand tossed pizza. I had pasta with shrimp and we had Tiramisu for dessert. The interesting thing about being in this Italian restaurant in Germany was the abundance of languages! The French people next to us ordered in Italian. I remembered how to say “I understand a little Italian” but couldn’t for the life of me remember how to say “please”! (It drove me crazy for about a week afterwards.) After dinner we chilled out in the hotel room and watched the stock market tank on CNN. We also decided to take a trip out to the Dachau concentration camp in the morning.
Part III: Germany
Oct 16 – Oct 18, 2008
Today was the first day of bad weather on our trip, which seemed fitting given the excursion we were about to take. After another buffet breakfast and a scan of the USA today, we went to the main train station and purchased an XXL partner card, which allowed us to travel on all of the subways, streetcars and buses within the greater Munich area. We hopped onto the streetcar to begin our trip out to Dachau. At the end of the line, we transferred to a bus for a short ride out to the concentration camp. It felt a bit weird getting off at the “concentration camp” bus stop, but then again, so did the idea that there are condos built very near the area. Anyway…once we got off, there wasn’t a whole lot of anything. Initially, we started off in the wrong direction! But after a moment of looking at the map, we figured out that we needed to head back across the street. (The new visitor center was still under construction, so we didn’t notice the temporary buildings at first.)
We went in and left an ID behind as collateral for a hand-held audio tour. After checking out some stations, we headed towards the front gate, which displayed the famous Arbeit Macht Frei slogan. Once inside, we went over to what used to be the main administrative building, kitchen and showers. Inside there was a lot of memorabilia and a chronological history of the camp. We spent a good amount of time here reading and just absorbing the vibe. On occasion, we had to dodge some school groups of kids that came through, completely oblivious to where they were, and not seeming to care.
Once we finished reading as much as we could, we exited the administration building and headed into the solitary confinement cell-block (the “bunker”). This place was just surreal…one half was totally closed off, but was visible through the bars at the end of the hall. For almost as far as you could see, cells stretched off into the distance on either side of the hallway. The building did not have any heat, so the cold and dampness just added to the unsettling feeling we had while walking through. The other half was open such that you could see individual cells in more detail, including cells that had been subdivided into such small compartments that it was not even possible for prisoners to lay down. It was weird that it felt good to get back outside into the cold rain.
Next, we made our way down past the foundations of all of the regular prisoner barracks. There were only two buildings still standing, but you could get the idea of how massive the camp was. At the back corner, past the barracks, were both the old and new crematoriums along with the de-lousing and gas chambers. Words cannot describe the feeling you got standing there. At one point, Kevin and I were alone in the gas chamber, and also in the new crematorium. That, by far, was the eeriest part of the trip. Cold, wet, and somewhat stupefied and depressed, we headed back out of the camp and back to the bus stop. After a short wait, we got onto the bus, and headed back into downtown Munich.
We thought we should eat (and yes, I was hungry), so we headed directly to the Hofbräuhaus for a late lunch. Even though the Hofbräuhaus has become a tourist trap, we had to stop there. We found a table and sat down, managing to chase off three different groups of people (for unknown reasons). Kevin thought it was the waiter; I thought it was Kevin. At any rate, I had a good salad and a beef and cheese dish that was faintly reminiscent of Hamburger Helper, but much much better.
After lunch, we headed back out to the main train station to buy our tickets for the next day’s Castle Tour. Kevin showed off (and annoyed two women at once 🙂 by speaking German to the girl behind the counter even though she said was trying to practice her English. We stopped back by the room to dry out and rest for a bit, then headed back out into the rain to try to see the three churches (and some of the other sights) on our list. We made it to two of them, and saw some good German road rage and a traffic jam on the way. One of the churches was shrouded in scaffolding (as is always the case when I go somewhere!). As it was starting to get dark, we headed back towards the hotel and stopped at a Greek restaurant in the mall. Surprisingly good food, but we made the classic mistake of ordering two full entrees when one would have sufficed. After dinner, we headed downstairs to a grocery store to pick up candy for Kevin and edible souvenirs for everyone. Back at the room, we tried to plan out Saturday and got a late check-out lined up. We tried some of the Mozart Black Chocolate Liqueur and went to bed, since we had to be up really early the next day to get the bus. I fell asleep wondering why Germans still haven’t figured out how to do something better with potatoes than boil the hell out of them….
We were up bright and early at 6:00 a.m. to get ready, eat breakfast, gather provisions for the day, and get to the main train station to hop the 8:10 a.m. Gray Line bus for the Castle Tour. As we stood in line in the drizzle waiting to board, it quickly became apparent that we were surrounded by America’s finest. Not that we’re saints by any stretch, but this was painful. For example, once we sat down on the top half of a nice double-decker bus the first thing we heard was a story of how this gentleman traded in his “single-wide” for a “double-wide”. Another: as we’re riding along through the beautiful alpine scenery, we hear a voice in the background: “Hmmm, reminds me of Colorado….” After hours with these people, we both wanted off the damn bus!!
We arrived (not soon enough) at the Schloss Linderhof and took a quick, chilly five minute walk up to the castle from the parking lot, moving quickly to try to avoid as many of our fellow tourists as possible. We arrived in front of the castle with time to spare before our assigned admission time. We took some photographs and walked around back to take some additional pictures. True to form, four more annoying women tourists from the bus jumped right in the middle of every shot we tried to take! Arrrgh…. Once inside, photography was prohibited, but the interior was very cool. After the tour, we made our way back to the parking lot / gift shop area. I bought a 1000 piece puzzle (of the castle we hadn’t been to yet) as a small memento. Hey–we had been meaning to do a puzzle.
Back on the bus, we had a quick ride over to Oberammergau. When we arrived, we pulled up in front of the biggest gift shop in town. (We think the tour guide was getting a kick-back.) The tour guide reminded everyone that “the thing on your wrist is not jewelry!” and that everyone should be back on the bus at the designated time. (Of course, we thought this was funny.) Directly in front of us, we immediately overheard three ladies discussing what time it was NOW. Lady #1, “My watch says 10:59”, Lady #2, “My watch says 11:03”, to which Lady #1 replies “11:03???”. Lady #2 then retorts with this bombshell, “Remember, my watch is 4 minutes fast, so lets use mine so that we make sure that we’re back on time….” This set off another round of face-palm reactions from us.
As soon as we exited the bus, Kevin went charging off to try to get as far away from the touristas as possible. He didn’t really explain the plan and kind of forgot me in the process, so I was left running to keep up and ended up getting quite peeved. After stopping to let me catch up and explaining again how he “grew up here”*, he turned a corner and we went into a local butcher shop where he ordered some Land Jaeger as a snack for us. We then proceeded–at a normal walking pace–to walk around town. Finally, we headed back to the bus and got ready for more face-palm moments. “How many cuckoo clocks did you buy?” “None, I still have one from my previous marriage that’s in the attic somewhere, but I got a great deal on [insert animal of choice carved into wood here]….” “Oh, well I bought three as presents and I talked the guy down…and he’s shipping them directly to me….” Sounds like they made out like bandits–the gift shop owners that is. 🙂
We then rode over to Schwangau, the site of Neuschwanstein, where we got to hear the two ladies sitting behind us discussing how they should trade digital cameras so that they could get pictures from both sides of the bus. Once off the bus, we headed into the restaurant at the base of the hill that was recommended by the tour guide. We weren’t sure whether it was another kick-back, but they had tables waiting for us and the food seemed good. We knew exactly what to order (we split a nice salad and Käsespätzle–it’s like REALLY incredible macaroni and cheese), and were back out in the fresh air in record time.
The tour guide had given us three options to get to the base of the castle. 1) Horse drawn carriage with no walking 2) The castle bus, with a little bit of walking 3) Walking all the way up. If you couldn’t guess, we chose option #3 in an attempt to avoid any further association with the rest of the people on our bus.
After a few minutes of walking, we made it past the idiot in the car who had managed to park sideways in the narrow mountain road, blocking one castle bus coming down, and another waiting at the bottom to load up with people. Then we pretty much the trail to ourselves. After a steep hike–so steep that we probably didn’t need to hit a gym for a week or so–the trail emerged at a switchback with a great view of the town below. A few short minutes later and we were at the upper castle bus stop and back in the land of tourists. We made our way over to the bridge above the castle to get a nice view and pictures. Unfortunately, the side of the castle facing us was mostly covered in scaffolding (!) and was not quite as nice. The bridge itself was a bit scary and it didn’t help that kids were running around either. I made it across–yeah, quickly, and without hardly stopping, but it counts!
It was really cold out, so we headed over to the castle keep to wait for our admission time. We wandered around a bit inside the keep and took some pictures but mostly tried to stay warm in the sun. Once inside the castle, we were again surrounded by the bus people. We saw the guy who had remarked earlier about the scenery reminding him of Colorado, so in one of the very ornate rooms of the castle, Kevin leaned over and whispered in my ear: “Reminds me of Buffalo [NY]”. I just about lost it laughing! Our tour guide looked terribly anorexic, but he managed to keep us entertained as we tromped up and down all of the stairs in the castle. Of course, he kept mentioning, there are so-and-so many steps up to the next floor. The problem is that they were “castle” floors, (not regular floors) and “castle” steps (not regular steps). Needless to say, we got another pretty good workout. Once we were done with the tour, we had a leisurely walk back down the hill, stopping for some gluhwein to warm up. Back on the bus, we settled in for the ride back to Munich and more touristy fun. (As we were getting off the bus, our most vocal companions were discussing where to eat dinner and counting the number of packages they had in German.)
Once we got settled back at the hotel, we went back out to Vivadi, as we figured that we couldn’t go wrong. Kevin had another Radler and an excellent calzone, while I had calamari and some delicious ministrone soup. We finished off with some gelato for dessert…mmmm!
We got up early on our last day in Munich, and since it was sunny out, we decided to head out to the Japanese Tea house. After a ride on the subway and a walk through the freezing park (I didn’t say it was WARM!), we found that the Japanese Tea house was boarded up and not serving any tea. 🙁 With frostbite looming, we started walking back towards the MarienPlatz. We noticed two women with Starbucks cups…a-ha! Warmth and bathrooms! So we stopped at Starbucks and warmed up for a bit before continuing on. We had a few minutes to kill before the 11:00 a.m. chimes of the Rathaus-Glockenspiel at the New Town Hall, so we ducked into a department store where I found a pair of gloves, a hat and a scarf that I liked (and which were becoming increasingly necessary). There were a lot of people who stopped in the street to watch the Glockenspiel, and the show was worth it. (Although it didn’t move for quite a few minutes; and I initially wondered if it was broken!)
After the show, we headed back towards the hotel, in search of a place to get lunch. Unfortunately, we didn’t find anything that sounded good to us. So, about a block from the hotel, we split up. I headed back to the hotel to pack and Kevin ran to the grocery store to get some snacks for the plane. A short while later, we caught the S-Bahn out to the Munich airport. Once through THREE security checks, we were finally able to sit down in the terminal and wait for our flight. Since we hadn’t eaten lunch, we decided that we should find a place in the airport. Unfortunately, there was not much of a selection in the international terminal. After a few luke-warm sausages and a sub-par panini we went back to sit and wait. I ran to buy a bottled water at the duty free store, but silly me, I forgot my passport and boarding pass. Yep…you needed a passport and boarding pass to buy bottled water at the duty free store! Finally, they called our flight to board and we settled in for our eight hour trip back to Boston (which thankfully turned out to be uneventful). Once we landed and cleared customs, it was a short ride back home (thanks Sam!) to where we could finally relax after our whirlwind tour of Europe.
*(A funny aside: Since Kevin grew up in Germany, he was very eager to get things in pastry shops, etc. and share things with me. But every time he would mention something, he would say: “When I was growing up…”. He got to saying this so many times–in the exact same way–that once we left Switzerland, I started charging him a Euro for every time he said it. At one point, he just handed me his whole wallet. 🙂