Friday, February 3, 2017

Grüß dich! Why You Need to Visit Bavaria

View from the Zugspietz


I can honestly say that the amazing little spot of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the Gasthof Fraundorfer in the south of Germany was a huge highlight of my entire trip to central Europe and possibly anywhere! If you ever get the chance to visit this part of the world I can guarantee that you won't be disappointed with this wonderful, authentic Bavarian Guesthouse. The Guesthouse is a family run
Gasthof Fraundorfer
establishment owned by Maria, the matriarch, and her daughter, Barbara, and is a popular spot amongst both locals and tourists. I spent two nights here while I explored the amazing surrounding countryside and hiking around the local mountains. 



After traipsing around several countries and cities for many days I decided I needed a little down time away from the crowds of the cities of this part of Europe so instead of stopping in Munich I transferred trains, after travelling from Salzburg, and headed to Garmisch-Partenkirchen (I still can't actually pronounce this). I met a woman and her son who had lived on an American military base in the area for the past five years or so and were getting ready to return to the states. Shockingly they knew very little about the area and admitted that they spent most of their time stationed here on the base and socializing with other military families!

Since this is a rather small town/city I was forced to take a taxi to the Guesthouse and once again felt the sting of this rather unscrupulous method of transport.
My angst was quickly dispelled though when I arrived at the Guesthouse and took in the amazing surroundings. Everywhere I walked I saw wonderful buildings like those you only imagine in stories such as Hansel and Gretel with a backdrop of the most stunning snowcapped peaks. After depositing my bags in my room (which reminded me of high end cottages up in ski country) I headed out to the patio to partake in that great Bavarian (and Canadian) beverage, a beer!



Bavaria

Bavaria is a German state in the south of Germany rich in culture and history. Bavarians pride themselves on their traditions which shows in their unique dialogue, food, and clothing. The town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen is a mecca for avid hikers and ski aficionados as it is surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the Alps offering some of the most amazing panoramic views I've ever witnessed. 



Hiking

After finishing my beer I couldn't wait to traipse through the town and was thrilled when a few turns took me to the start of some mountain trails. I spent a couple of hours hiking upwards and admiring the amazing scenery before wandering through the town again. I seriously felt like I was in the middle of a movie set as I walked past houses decorated with bright colours and adorned with window boxes full of flowers. 

I headed back to my Guesthouse and settled down on the outdoor patio for a delicious dinner of schnitzel and a beer (when in Rome)!
I struck up a conversation with a woman from Finland who had lost her mother a few months previously. She told me that she and her mother had been travelling around Europe visiting castles as this was a particular passion. This was her first trip on her own and she had driven all the way to Bavaria as the area offers some extraordinary castle experiences. I'm not a huge castle fan but I love hearing about the passions that motivate other travellers. As we were talking, a band of Bavarian musicians and three boys, all dressed in traditional clothing, came out and entertained us with some music and dance. 


Best View I've Ever Seen

The next morning I was determined
to find my way to the Zugspietz.  At nearly 3000 metres above sea level, the Zugspitze is the highest mountain in Germany and boasts three glaciers. At the top the visitor is treated to extensive views of over 400 mountain peaks in four countries. Even after extensive research I was still a bit uncertain about how to reach my destination so I was very happy to meet up with my dinner companion of the night before at breakfast who then offered to drive my to Eibsee at the base of the mountain. Upon my arrival I joined a very small queue and opted to purchase the Garmisch-Classic ticket which was a bit pricey but would mean I could take an aerial cable car to the summit, a rack and pinion railway down and then travel on a cogwheel train to the base of the Alpspitze where I could take another cable car to the top. Luckily, it was a beautiful day and I was absolutely stunned by
the views from both peaks. While taking a ridiculous number of pictures at the Zugspietz I noticed a couple trying to take a selfie with the amazing backdrop and asked if they would like me to take their picture. Later, I again met up with the same couple as we shared a car for the forty minute ride down. This newlywed couple were from the middle east and were celebrating the completion of the wife's nursing program. Dressed in a niqab she seemed a bit reluctant to speak to me at first but eventually became more relaxed and I had a wonderful conversation about his work as an engineer and her work as a nurse. Once again, on this trip, I felt like the best way to become less afraid of our fellow occupants on this great planet is to just get out there and meet people!






I really thought my day couldn't get any better but when I reached the top of the Alpspitze I realized it could! I stopped for a little lunch at the restaurant and then noticed a couple of fellows getting ready to wind surf off the mountain so I sat down with a group of visitors to watch them take off. I then decided to start hiking down the mountain instead of using the cable car. I figured since this was going to be downhill it would be a lot
Best Strudel ever!
easier then the Inca Trail and I was right. The scenery was stunning and I was very excited when, after a couple of hours, I came to a wonderful chalet restaurant (Adolf Zoeppritz Haus)
 and decided to indulge a little in an authentic piece of Streusel (I figured I deserved this after all the hiking I had done that day). This piece of food heaven is probably the best thing I have ever eaten, and as I write this I am salivating!

Ein Prosit!

I did eventually make it back to my Guesthouse by taking a handy bus that showed up right at the base. I showed the driver my map and pointed where I needed to go and when he nodded, I figured all was good. I headed up to my room for a well deserved rest.


video



When I headed back down to the restaurant I was surprised to see it jammed - apparently this is a hotspot for the day tourist bus trips from Munich! Maria sat me down at a table with a group of older local gentlemen, all dressed in Bavarian traditional clothing, who were friends of her late husbands and continued to meet weekly.
The next five hours or so were a blur of Bavarian music, beer, and numerous shots of god knows what as my dinner companions decided they were going to show the Canadian visitor that Bavarians are the most hospitable people around! I do know that no one would let me buy a drink and the fact that none of these fellows could speak English (and I can't speak Bavarian) the conversation never lagged! After the crowds had dispersed, and the doors were locked, the hostesses of the guesthouse both joined us for a few more bevvies.

At some point, after complaining that my sinuses seemed to be quite stuffy after my ascent to the clouds earlier in the day, one of the old fellows surreptitiously took a little tin can from his pocket and carefully poured a line of brown looking powder along the back of my hand and indicated that I should breathe it into my nostrils. I was assured by my hostesses that the substance was not some nefarious contraband but was indeed snuff (finally ground tobacco)...I'm not sure how this was meant to alleviate my sinuses....

Obviously, I was not feeling particularly spritely the next morning and was relieved that one of the group from the previous evening, an American ex-patriot, ex-military fellow met me at breakfast and offered a ride to the train station...I was more than happy to accept!


Fun Fact: Garmisch-Partenkirchen was the site of the 1936 Winter Olympics infamously known as the Nazi Olympics.

Fun Fact: The Zugspietz peak is a boarder between Germany and Austria and at one time you had to show your passport to wander around the summit.




Just a few of the great people who I met!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Mozart and Maria or Visiting Salzburg

Salzburg



Mozart Museum
The good people of Salzburg would prefer that this small city be visited for the music of Mozart, the castle fortress and the panoramic gardens rather than one of the most famous Hollywood movies ever made.  So much so, that not one spot in the city is recognized by a sign or plaque - in fact, there is no mention at all of the connection to the multiple Oscar winning, blockbuster, timeless, iconic film! But Sound of Music fans (and non fans) flock to the city to have a chance to relive some of the moments...I admit, this was my main motivation!  It's a very touristy thing to do to get all excited about running around the fountain where Julie Andrews belted out Do Re Mi, but heck, I am a tourist!

I arrived in Salzburg in mid afternoon and took a very short bus ride from the train station to Miraplatz Gardens where I had booked a room at the Miraplatz Hotel.  I chose this locale since it was conveniently located right next to the park where I was hoping to be in time for a 4:30 Fraulien Maria bike tour.  Apparently, the hotel, which I had carefully researched, had overbooked and randomly chose some other abode to which to send me.  The Hotel Mozart was a few blocks in the wrong direction and being rather hot and tired, I was none too gracious about this change of plans! They did give me a Salzburg card worth about 23 Euro which was good for all public transit and entrance to many attractions but that didn't make me feel better as I headed down the street to find my new hotel.  I was greeted at the desk by a very friendly gentleman who probably realized I was pretty cranky so he offered me a drink and quickly got me checked in.  I basically had to drop my bag and head back the way I came if I was going to join the Bike Tour.
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I made it with time to spare! The group was small, which is always nice, and consisted of seven Americans, myself and Leo, our guide. Leo was a great laugh, even though he looked like he had spent the previous evening partying and had just barely managed to roll out of bed!  We spent the next three hours or so riding around Salzburg and the outlying area while Leo entertained us with his singing, stories and comments about the world famous movie.


Fountain from SOM
Apparently, the city fathers weren't impressed when the production company hung Nazi flags without informing officials and the whole project was nearly ended.  Rumour had it that Christopher Plummer, a Shakespearean trained actor (and a fellow Canadian), wasn't too thrilled with this movie and spent his time between filming, imbibing in various alcoholic beverages and playing piano at his hotel. The glassy eyed look when he sings Edelweiss in the final scenes was probably due more to the effects of vodka rather than acting skill!  Leo told us that to keep the actress who played Gretal happy, she was fed chocolate pretzels to such an extent that she put on a few pounds over the course of filming, so much so that the gallant Mr. Plummer refused to carry the chunky monkey in the final scene climbing across the Alps.  A slimmer 
Pegasus fountain.
stunt double was used!  Poor Gretal (or whatever her name is) was also the victim of a near drowning during the lake boating scene.  Julie Andrews had been told that the little girl couldn't swim and so when the boat tipped she needed to grab the pint sized actress and carry her to safety (so much for child labour laws in the sixties!)  Apparently this worked for the first four times the scene was filmed but on the fifth shot, Julie accidentally fell backwards and was unable to rescue Gretal.  If you watch the scene again, you can see the chunky monkey go headfirst into the water with just her legs sticking out.  She was pulled out by one of the older children but had swallowed enough water to cause her to vomit...could have been all the chocolate pretzels!



Locale of the outdoor house filming of Sound of Music

We spent the day listening to SOM tunes as we rode through Salzburg visiting various locales including the abbey, the graveyard, the fountain and stairs at Miraplatz, the house used for
Gate in front of the house used for filming SOM.
filming, the house used for outdoor scenes, the famous gazebo and other scenic areas. Apparently, some fanatical fans (yes, there are fanatical fans of SOM) are disillusioned to find out that almost all indoor scenes were filmed in Holywood.  In fact, even the famous gazebo was recreated in Holywood in larger form to accommodate the famous I Am Sixteen dance!  Really people, this was a movie very loosely based on real events...not reality!  There are many tours for SOM in Salzburg but I think the bike tour is great if you want to take a very pleasant ride through the city and outlying park areas and only want to spend a few hours doing so.



Great bike tour!



The iconic Gazebo of SOM.


Graveyard in which escape scenes of SOM were filmed.

Leo, who looked like a man that enjoyed a night out, recommended a beer garden called Die Wiesse which was conveniently located near my hotel.  This establishment was quite a distance from the whole touristy area near the fortress and seemed to be very popular amongst locals.  At a beer garden you will likely be sitting with others and I had the company of a local couple who, although having limited English, tried their best to speak with me and keep me company.  The gentleman told me I must have a minimum of two beers which I obliged while wolfing down a plate of Klacken, a traditional Austrian/Bavarian dish which I think of as Mac and Cheese of steroids.


Klacken

The next day was spent using my Salzburg card to visit the sites that are recommended by the locals - the Fortress and a Mozart museum.  I also managed to wander into the middle of some crazy Bavarian parade with hundreds of people dressed in traditional clothing.  A final stroll through the gardens where you can enjoy orchestras filling the space with tunes from the favourite son, Mozart.  All in all, a pleasant morning but I must be honest - my favourite part of Salzburg was the whole Sound of Music thing!  I felt like a kid riding my bike through paths and parks with Do Re Mi playing away...all I was missing was my green floral dress made from drapes and Fraulien Maria guiding the way - but I did have Leo!


Miraplatz Gardens

View of Salzburg from the Castle

Castle


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Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Budapest

                                   
   
        
  
   

So Budapest has been both the best part of my trip so far and the worst!

Reasons I Loved Budapest

1.  Great company on my overnight train from Kraków. I shared a beer and some great chat with Christis and her boyfriend Adam from Manchester and Nura from India. I was kept awake a bit by six skowser lads in the cabin next to us who were drinking and singing until the wee hours. But they actually were really good singers and their renditions of American Pie, Eleanor Rigby and other favourites kept me waiting for more. Important rule: if you are going to drink and keep everyone up on an overnight train, you better at least be able to carry a tune!

2.  Excellent free walking tour with Norbert!  We visited all of the highlights of the Pest and Buda districts all while given an excellent and entertaining narrative by our guide. He even escorted a few of us back to a cafeteria where he said the tour guides and workers in the area eat and the food was authentic Hungarian.  I am sure this is actually a place owned by the tour company or they at least get a kickback but I did really enjoy the food. Being basic cafeteria style, you are able to see everything and just point...it was all so tempting that I ended up ordering two dishes...stuffed cabbage and a Hungarian mushroom goulash with dumplings. Yummy!   

Side Note: dumplings is the go to word in so many countries but means totally different things in different languages. In China, it is a large doughy bread ball stuffed with all sorts of tasty things; in Poland it is Pierogies; in Hungary it is little drops of dough which seem to have been boiled. I am interested to explore the wide world of dumplings even more!

       
                                                               Laura and Kieran
    

3.  I met Kieran and Laura who were both studying law at Western in London, Ontario and doing internships with the WHO in Geneva.  Well Laura was but I'm not sure what Kieran was up to exactly but something lawish I believe! They are in Europe for three months and are taking the opportunity to do as many weekend getaways as possible. We met on the walking tour and spent the day together discussing the state of world politics, best European places to travel and where to drink in Budapest! I spent the afternoon at  Széchenyi Medicinal Bath with these two and had a great laugh. They invited me to join them that evening for a few shots at some of Budapest's famous Ruin Bars (yep, bars located in the ruins of buildings leftover from some of Hungary's struggles). Unfortunately, I was too tuckered from shopping for a camera to meet them!  My beat memory of Budapest will be when Kieran broke the metro ticket machine with a load of people standing behind us. Kieran hit the help button but the voice at the other end wasn't exactly helpful and we were stuck there apologizing to a growing group of would be metro travellers!

        
                                                                
                                   
                                                  Why Isn't Thhis Giving Me. Ticket!
  

4.  Excellent, inexpensive and easy to navigate Metro system. I bought a twenty four hour pass for roughly $8 Can (1600 HUF, I think) and I made very good use of that bad boy!  Fun Fact: Budapest is home to the oldest underground metro line in Continental Europe.

5.  Széchenyi Medicinal Bath  - This hot spring baths is a fantastic place to unwind, rest and relax after several days of walking and touring. The building itself is quite old and boasts endless rooms of hot spas, saunas and massage rooms while the centre is a huge pool area with three different large pools, a restaurant, stalls to purchase beer and other drinks, and a large space with very comfortable loungers. The pools and spas are fed from the natural hot springs which apparently lie beneath Budapest and are thought to have healing qualities. This is a hugely popular spot for locals as well as tourists and can be quite crowded, and even a little smelly, but it is definitely a must visit! (Cost 4700 HUF or $22 Can)

                         
    
      
6.  Beautiful scenery, old buildings and architecture!

       
                                                              Charles Bridge
 


Reasons I Hated Budapest

1.  I learned that my LifeProof iPhone case wasn't really lifeproof when I forgot I had it tucked in my bathing suit and took a full dip in the naturally warmed waters of the Schenyi baths. This one is totally my fault and isn't at all a reflection on Budapest but unfortunately the loss of my phone and all of the photos taken on my trip thus far did put a damper on the day (pun intended!)

2.  When Hungary finally gained autonomy from Russia in 1990, Budapest became the go to place for young, hip travellers but also western investors. Twenty five years later it is a magnate for the those seeking a place to party and drink, so by as early as 9pm the streets of the Old Town and other popular sectors are jammed with scantily dressed twenty something girls and very loud young men.

3.  In a few short years Budapest has become a major tourist destination with the overpriced restaurants, tacky souvenirs and crowds that come with that honour. As usual, if the traveller seeks a more "authentic" Hungarian experience it would need to be somewhere other than Budapest!

                                    
                          St. Stephen's Church (his right hand is a holy relic on display here)


                                    
  
    

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Salt Mines of Wieliczka - Don't Bother!

I honestly do not understand why so many travel blogs recommend a visit to the Wielliczka Salt Mines.

I made it back to Kraków from Auschwitz by 3 pm so I figured I would have enough time to fit in a visit to the World Unesco Heritage site. I understand that they are quite large and were first used in the 13th century, and I do concede that the underground church is quite nice but let's be honest here...

The whole atmosphere is quite Disneyfied and rather disappointing. The guides wear strict looking uniforms which must be strangling vital body parts causing enough discomfort to result in rather severe and unwelcoming attitudes.  The fellow  I had, did not crack a smile once and recited a memorized script in a completely monotone voice. I swear he was more robot than man and I was tempted to see if he had one of those windy controls coming out of his back. The tour consisted of his uninspired description of the history of the mine and a series of tacky models which he would animate briefly for a few seconds as we walked by. To top it off they saddled this one guide with a group of at least fifty.

After two hours of this torture we made it to a restaurant/tacky souvenir sort of area and were told that we could carry on to the museum or get an elevator to the top. Well I for one couldn't wait to get out of there but the guide disappeared, and a few of us tried to navigate our way to the elevator. We kept getting stopped by guards (disguised as guides) who would yell at us in Polish as they herded us to join a group with a guide that seemed to be speaking Russian! We tried to explain that we were with the English group but our little wind up man had somehow deserted us. It didn't seem to matter...he just kept yelling at us to follow this new group. Finally we made it to a tiny little elevator and managed to get out of there!

This tour was absolutely not worth the 89PLN they had the nerve to charge.  They even insist on an additional 10PLN for the privilege of taking photos! 

There are so many better, and more inexpensive things to do in Kraków that I think I would have given it a miss even if it were free!









Why You Should Visit Auschwitz


         
                      Sign Above the Entrance Gate at Auschwitz - Work Will Set You Free

My main destination for this trip was to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. Many people asked me why I would want to visit the location of such a sad and tragic event - the murder of over one million people, most of whom were Jewish. I think it is important to remind ourselves of these horrific deeds that have been carried out in the name of religion, xenophobia or misguided national pride. Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of holocausts that have occuried even since the unthinkable events that took place at Auschwitz form 1941 - 1945. I am of the opinion that the current political climate of the world, unfortunately, seems to be repeating the mindset of politicians in the era leading up to WW II and the holocaust. When I listen to men such as Donald Trump, I feel that I am being transported back to 1933 listening to a fascist rally. Indeed, if you replace the word Muslim or refugee for Jewish in many of his speeches and you watch and listen to the reactions of his supporters, you could be listening to any speech given by Hitler in 1933 Germany.













Many people have questioned how such a wide scale, systematic near annihilation of a group of people could happen. The hatred and vitriol which led to this event was spread by fear and ignorance. The targeted group is accused of actions which somehow are hurting the "real" sons and daughters of the nation either through taking jobs, undermining the "true" culture, speaking a different language or committing horrendous crimes. It doesn't seem to matter if any of these claims are true or valid but only that they are repeated often and loudly so that the voting public has a cause to unite  behind someone who will fight against the enemy. Incendiary rhetoric which has become the norm in the polarized political climate of 2016 is creating a culture of fear and hatred which, I would argue, could quite possibly lead to tragedies such as the holocaust. 

Visiting places such as Auschwitz might help us to remember that awful things happen when we forget that real people - men, women, children - become the victims when we forget that we are all members of the human race despite differences in religion, skin colour or nationality. 

OK, lecture over....

Getting to Auszhwitz Museum

Although many opt for tours to the museum of Auschwitz, it is possible (and very inexpensive) to do it yourself. Make your way to the bus station in Kraków, located behind the train station. Go to the ticket booth and ask for the next bus to Auszhwitz Museum ( Oswiecin in Polish). The trip took about one hour and 15 minutes. I paid 12 Zloty ($4 Canadian) for a one way ticket and was dropped at the back entrance from which it is a short 100 metre walk to the main entrance. 

The museum is free but during the peak season individuals must join a group tour between the hours of 10 am and 3:30 pm and there is a cost. So if you want to avoid this you will need to time your arrival accordingly. I left Kraków on the 7:50 am train and made it to the entrance by 9:30 am. You still need to go to the white trailer booth and get a ticket but then you just go to the entrance where you will pass through a security check and walk right in.
















The barracks are aligned in neat rows and as you walk along it is difficult to imagine that this was the scene of so much suffering. The buildings, however, have been converted into the repositories of the reminders that real people were housed, starved, beaten and killed within this compound. Since I arrived early I was able to walk through the buildings alone viewing photographs of victims, canisters of Zylon B poison, mounds of suitcases, glasses, brushes, shoes and most jarring, hair. 

A free shuttle bus will take you to nearby Birkenau or Auschwitz II where you will really feel the scope and horror of the events. The rail lines where transports were brought to the camp runs up the middle. Prisoners were sorted into groups with those to the left being taken directly to the chambers for immediate gassing - this included about 80% of the those who passed the gates. The remains of row upon row of barracks remain at this site as a jarring visual reminder of man's inhumanity to man.

To return to Kraków you need to take the free shuttle back to Auschwitz I and then go to the stand next to the snack hut. There is a schedule posted and busses depart every 45 minutes for a cost of 14 Zloty. My bus driver seemed to take the slow route and stop about every 5 minutes so this portion of the trip took about two hours.



       
                                                                      Birkenau