Straddling the German-Austrian Border

Before landing in Argentina, we spent part of January exploring Austria. With visions of snowshoeing, sledding and cross country skiing, we made our way two hours south of Munich just over the border to Reutte. Alas, with a warm winter, very few snow sports were to be ours. Here’s what we did instead:

Rode Gondolas Up High Peaks & Marveled

Zugspitz is the highest mountain in Germany…9,718 feet above sea level. On clear days the peak is perfectly reflected in the lake that sits at its base, Lake Ebisee.

The cable car from Lake Ebisee to the peak is a wonder. It dangles thousands of feet above jagged rock cliffs while one stands pressed to its door by the 20+ other occupants, praying that the locking mechanism will not chose to malfunction in this moment.

But the payoff….rippling snowcapped peaks as far as the eye could see.

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A short lift ride down to toboggan rentals taught us humility. We spent far too much time walking down the seemingly vertical terrain while skiers passed overhead in chairlifts smiling down at our march of shame.

Trekked Up Local Mountains to Soak in Castle Ruins

Prior to visiting the much-ado-Neuschwanstein Castle, we hiked up to more modest abodes in Reutte. Four separate castle ruins dot the countryside and at the base, a wonderful interactive museum on life in medieval times.

We weighed ourselves down with suits of armor, followed the trail of merchants in the 13th century before hiking, sans the armor, up the path to the ruins of Ehrenberg and Schlosskopf castles. We were the only visitors which allowed us to stand amidst the rubble and shout “Who ruined my castle?!”

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Spent a Day with Mad King Ludwig in his Modest Home

What is a trip to Bavaria without a visit to Neuschwanstein? We joined throngs of tourists in a visit of Ludwig’s first home and father’s castle, Hohenschwangau, followed by a tour of the castle he built over 17 years but only lived in 145 days. Poor Ludwig. A bit eccentric, he was deemed unfit to rule and the next day found drowned in a lake, naked, with his psychologist. Today, he would be a celebrity.

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The castle is worth seeing….the paintings on the walls transport one to a decadent, indulgent time period. The tours go too quick…30 minutes is done in a flash. Best to reserve online in advance. Visit both castles, booking Hohenschwangau first to see hear about Ludwig’s influences as a child, then Neuschwanstein to see where his active imagination led him.

We also spent a week skiing in Zell am See, Austria. Alas, the lack of snow made it an underwhelming alps ski experience but the boys made the best of it…skiing every day until exhaustion. Julia and I skied a little and took in quirky alpine hikes.

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We left Reutte and Zell am See thirsty for what it would be like in summer…rolling green meadows set amidst steep, slate peaks under endless blue sky. I felt a little Julie Andrews coming on…so we headed to Salzburg.

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Pub Crawl through Bamberg

Bamberg, spared from war, is a gorgeous medieval town in the heart of Franconia. Franconia, a region in northern Bavaria, has close to 300 tiny breweries, and we believe Bamberg must have more, per capita, than any other city in Germany.

Of the nine breweries within town, Kyle partook in five.

Now to properly set the scene, you must understand that Kyle loves beer. I mean really loves beer. And he’s spoiled in Seattle with so many craft beers accessible in local bottle shops. Beer abroad tends to be a bit more one note, i.e. lacking diversity.

In our journeys, he’d experienced the likes of Sapporo, Asahi, Angkor Beer, BeerLao, ChangBeer…all the Budweisers of their respective countries. He stumbled across a few limited craft beers in Japan but nothing monumental. Germany, too, has a limited range of styles, so Bamberg pushed the envelope just a little.

Craft Beer Discoveries in Japan & a BeerLao Afternoon

Craft Beer Discoveries in Japan & a BeerLao Afternoon

He came home from his afternoon brewery tour with those serendipitous stories of local interactions that seem to occur more when the sun goes down and the alcohol intake goes up.

At Mahr’s Bräu, he met a bachelor party, celebrating their friend’s impending nuptials. The groom’s role was to sell shots of schnapps at each celebratory stop and Kyle purchased a few to help out…although he decidedly does not feel about schnapps the way he feels about beer.

The famous Schlenkerla, known for its smoked beer, was packed and Kyle grabbed his beer at the window, stood outside and watched the street life go by…families stood near, kids playing while the parents drank and socialized.

A Few of the Brewery Stops

A Few of the Brewery Stops

At the Fassla brewery, Kyle was invited into a circle of middle aged family men on their annual trip from Würzburg to Bamberg breweries. On their way to catch the train home, they stopped into Fassla for one more drink and chatted Kyle up. Upon learning of our rtw trip, they asked why and when Kyle answered “for my wife,” they all cheered and toasted. Upon leaving they affixed on Kyle a button signifying Franconia, which he came home wearing proudly.

New Friends

New Friends

His favorite beer? The Bochbier at Klosterbraü…a dark holiday brew with a malty toasty flavor. He found the famous Rauchbier (smoked beer) a bit too much although I had a few sips and thought it akin to drinking a beer while eating a bite of smoked salmon at the same time.

The Bamberg tourist information office (TI) offers a brewery map and tour, replete with a cute backpack and beer mug. Kyle bypassed this however it looked like a nice service. The TI also provides an audio walking tour about the history and architecture of the town, which we did do and I highly recommend.

In addition to the breweries full of happy, riotous Germans, here is what we also loved about Bamberg.

Medieval Town Untouched by War

Medieval Town Untouched by War

Buildings of Beauty & Quirk

Buildings of Beauty & Quirk

Devoteness on Every Corner

Devoteness on Every Corner

Meat Meals of Immense Sizes in Cozy Corners

Meat Meals of Immense Sizes in Cozy Corners

Happy birthday, Kyle!  Prost!

Munich’s Hidden History

Our first week in Munich, we walked happily over cobblestone streets, by impressive neoclassic buildings, through those small winding corridors that make you feel that you’re in 18th century Europe. We knew there was history around us but we didn’t know the details.

In every country we’ve visited, there are brutal war stories and stories of national regret. Of course, its well known that Germany is no different.

We spent a day with Taff Simon of Dark History Tours to learn more about Munich and its role in the building of the Third Reich. Imagine our shock when Taff took us a block from our apartment, looked up at a nondescript building and said, “Hitler lived here for nine years in his 30s.”

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It was a tired recipe that led to Hitler’s rise..a poor economy, a government in disarray, an inspiring orator, a scapegoat…and a resulting horror.

If we could see the ghosts of the Third Reich men, they would have been all around us. The Apple Store? Once the meeting room for the German Workers Party where Hitler started sharing his views. The beautiful new town hall? Its square hosted one hate filled speech after another. The beloved Hofbrauhaus where we cozied up to locals and tourists and shared a weissbier? A rallying point for the nazis. In fact, on close inspection, swaztikas can be seen on the ceiling, modified in an attempt to disguise what once was. The ghosts were everywhere.

Then and Now

Then and Now

We spent New Years Day at Dachau, the first nazi concentration camp. Formed in 1933 to house opponents of the nazi party, it became a forced labor camp for political dissidents and citizens persecuted due to their race, ethnicity, religion or sexual preference. The museum is blunt in its retelling, with a graphic film and pictures. Audio of first hand accounts from survivors and witnesses reinforce the absolute horror of what went on here. Approximately 200,000 people were housed at Dachau with a quarter dying here and others being shipped via train to that house of horrors, Auschwitz.

Dauchau Concentration Camp

Dauchau Concentration Camp

Back in Munich, a plaza called Odeonsplatz holds the memory of a 1923 coup attempt by Hitler and the location of subsequent military gatherings once Hitler became the country’s chancellor. Munich citizens were expected to perform the infamous nazi salute when passing by the marker of those who died in the coup. A quiet side street named Viscardigasse bisects the walkway to Odeonsplatz and Münchners showed their silent resistance by detouring down this side street to avoid the salute. Today the street is marked with a path of white cobblestones to honor their bravery.

A Street of Silent Protest

A Street of Silent Protest

My grandfather, Eugene Smith, was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles and fought against the nazis in the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne.

He spent nine months in an English hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds (he was one of the lucky ones…over 80,000 Americans died fighting at Bastogne). Eugene earned a Purple Heart, returned to the U.S. and met and married my grandmother, Barbara. He never talked about the war.

Eugene Smith, aka "grandpa"

Eugene Smith, aka “grandpa”

And there’s a sense of this in Munich too…a desire to leave it behind.  Memorials to the victims are hard to find and those that do exist appear to be under debate (an unlit everlasting flame?). How do you acknowledge the ghosts without placing plaques with his name all over the city?

Germany is not alone in its history…brutal human conflict exists today.  What is the best way to remember the horror of which humans are capable but that we just as strongly have the ability to walk a different path or…bravely hurl ourselves out of a plane into enemy territory in the name of humanity?

Methodical & Manic Munich

Munchner are a well ordered people. They stand in the cold, awaiting a traffic light, when no car is in sight. Similar to Japan, bicycles lean against buildings, unlocked…awaiting their rightful owners. There appears to be a proper approach to most social situations and you may be chided if you don’t comply. Julia was scolded — we’re talking a finger waving scolding — for petting a dog without asking first.

But I realize now that they can keep this calm, obedient air all year because they become manic on New Years Eve.

We had read to watch the fireworks from Marienplatz or from the bridges of the parliament building. What I didn’t realize is that there is no official show in this part of town. Instead, hundreds of individuals put on their own show from a large stockpile of TNT hazards.

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Kyle and I ventured to the bridge in front of the Parliament building. We were surrounded by people carrying two primary party supplies: 1) bottles of champagne and 2) fireworks. Dangerous combination.

German Grandpa, who earlier in the day waited patiently at the light while scowling at you for speaking too loudly, was now taking a swig of champagne before launching a rocket dangerously close to your face. Prost!

At one point, a thick fog overtook the street…oh wait, that was smoke. A couple of ambulances and police cars crawled across the bridge from time to time, darting firework volleys.

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I’d heard that Munich streets glitter on New Years Day with the broken glass from smashed champagne bottles. I’m happy to report that this wasn’t my experience…in fact, I saw a few independent gentlemen making the rounds, picking up solid glass bottles, presumably to make a tidy sum from deposits. Ahh, the methodical Munchner is back, and the manic Munchner secreted away for another 364 days.

We loved the people of Munich and feel grateful to have welcomed in the new year with them. There is just so much to appreciate about this city.

The Architecture!

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The Art!

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A River Runs Through It!

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After an exuberant evening, we spent our New Years Day with a sobering visit to the Dachau concentration camp. More on that and the dark history of Munich in the next post.

A Very Munich Christmas

We flew from Bangkok to Munich just in time to stroll through Christmas markets, drink mulled wine, savor brats and marvel at the lights. A box of winter clothes, packed back in August, awaited our arrival and we were gleeful at the sight of old jeans and our woolie hats.

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After months of the sultry heat, vibrant color and the chaos of SE Asia, the calm order of Munich with its soft blue sky and rows of decorative pastel buildings felt meditative. The Christmas markets were just beautiful…gingerbread, ornaments, orange-cinnamon potpourri, mulled wine, spiced nuts…it was a delicious meander. The gothic “new” Town Hall stands proud above the Marienplatz awakening the historian in me.

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Imagine the surprise our first day when we stumbled upon Bavarians in wetsuits surfing the Isar River, steps from our apartment. Or the modern-museum-quality street art. Or the angels looking over me from tall buildings everywhere we went.

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Christmas was low key perfection. We found a tree slightly larger than Charlie Brown’s. Decorated it with ornaments found at the Christmas markets and strings of popcorn and hard sought cranberries. Kyle made the traditional German Christmas Eve dinner of sausages and potatoes. We were joined by a sweet rtw family from Florida who rounded out our meal with a beautiful Christmas salad, and we swapped stories about our adventures.  Of course, we had a German stollen for dessert…which looked dangerously close to a fruitcake but was actually quite delicious.

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Church bells rang throughout the day, reminding us that we hadn’t just downsized to a NYC apartment but were actually in Europe.

It took quite an effort to make our standard Christmas cookies…we painstakingly but eventually found most of our ingredients, not all. A mid-aisle discussion with locals led us to believe that Germans don’t use baking soda.  When getting ready to roll the cookie dough, I realized there was no rolling pin in our apartment. At long last, years of reality TV paid off…I used a cold bottle of white wine instead…thank you, Top Chef!

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On Christmas Day, we quickly worked through the meager presents and moved onto a breakfast of French toast and Starbucks Christmas Blend. We stumbled onto the streets of Munich for a Christmas walk in sunny blue sky weather with many other Munchner.  A walk through the English Gardens brought us to an open Christmas market and we drank mulled wine and munched on spiced nuts.

Julia turned and asked me “Why don’t we live here?”

It’s funny how some of our destinations have required a month of hard effort to enjoy while others slip on like a comfortable skin.

Happy New Year, everyone!  Thank you for following along with us in our adventure!  Wishing you adventure and serendipity in 2014.

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