Thursday, July 1, 2010

Europe 2010 - Days 12-13

NOTE: It’s about 9:45 p.m. in Innsbruck, Austria, as I write this. Even with the window open and a breeze flowing in, our hotel room is still quite hot. So I may skimp on the historical notes and hyperlinks pertaining to places we visited on Wednesday and Thursday.

Wednesday, June 30 - Day 12

Wednesday morning we checked out of Gutshof zum Schluxen quite early and made the approximately 45-minute drive to the only one of King Ludwig’s three castles in which he actually lived: Linderhof. Ludwig lived in Linderhof for seven years, but his time spent there was that of a hermit. The only other people on the grounds most of the time were his servants, and he ate dinner every day alone—even having a special dining room table installed that allowed the servants to set the table from the floor below and then crank the table up through the floor so that he could dine all alone without seeing or talking to anyone.

Another odd aspect to Linderhof is the “Venus Grotto.” Ludwig had a portion of the grounds a few hundred yards away from the castle excavated, and in the resulting pit, he had a fake concrete cave constructed. It was made to look like a real cave. It even has a working waterfall and a lake inside. His inspiration behind this place was (surprise, surprise) another one of Richard Wagner’s operas.

Of all Ludwig’s castles, the grounds at Linderhof were the most magnificent. We got a lot of great photos there. He also had a Moorish hut built on the grounds. He used it for drinking tea and smoking opium.

When we left Linderhof, we also said goodbye to Germany and drove to Innsbruck, Austria (the capital of the Alps). The drive was less than two hours, much of it on the highway (my top speed during this trip was about 148 km per hour, but many cars were going MUCH faster than that).

Upon arriving in Salzburg, we checked into Hotel Mozart. Had I known that we wouldn’t need our rental car at all during our time here, I would have tried to turn it in a day early rather than wait until Thursday.

One reason we didn’t need the car was because we purchased two “Innsbruck Cards.” For a total cost of 68 Euros, the cards granted us admission to all of the city’s main attractions as well as complimentary access to all buses and the cable car that runs up the mountain that hulks over the north side of the city.

We had dinner outdoors in the middle of the old town at a place called Wiener Wald. It’s worth noting that in German-speaking countries, Ws are pronounced as Vs. Veal is one of my favorite meats, so of course I had the wiener schnitzel. It was excellent. There aren’t a whole lot of places left back home where you can get good veal.

We actually turned in early Wednesday. We got back to the hotel before 8 p.m. and went right to bed.

Thursday, July 1 – Day 13

On Thursday, we got the full value out of our Innsbruck Cards.

After breakfast at Hotel Mozart, we walked to the Hofburg, which is where the royal Tyrolean family lived for centuries. We went from there straight to the Golden Dachl (Golden Roof) Museum. The Golden Dachl was the domain of Emperor Maximilian. That museum wasn’t all that impressive, but the next one was.

Our favorite sight in Innsbruck was the Hofkirche. It was a “court church” built by Emperor Maximilian. The beautiful sanctuary houses his empty tomb—apparently the most impressive tomb in all of Europe—and more than a dozen lifesize bronze statues of his relatives and ancestors (and some people he “sort of” considered to be his ancestors, like King Richard of England).

From there, we had a quick lunch at a small cafe. Brooke got a sandwich, but I opted for apple strudel with ice cream and whipped cream. You’ve got to have some local strudel, right?

Then we went to the world headquarters of Swarovski Crystal, about a 20-minute shuttle ride outside of Innsbruck. The company has a mind-blowing museum of sorts there called Swarovski Kristallwelten (Crystal World). It’s a subterranean exhibit of crystallized sights and artwork. It houses both the largest and smallest hand-cut crystals in the world. The Crystal Dome and Crystal Forest were a couple of the cooler exhibits. It was actually a pretty amazing place.

Of course, what awaits at the end? Yup, a giant Swarovski store. I had already bought a pair of black crystal cuff links last week in Switzerland, so I was done with Swarovski. Brooke apparently had not finished up in Switzerland...

After the shuttle back to Innsbruck city center, we bused to the hotel, grabbed the car and then dropped it off at the airport. Following an easy bus ride back into the old town, we had another great dinner (Austrian ravioli for Brooke, more wiener schnitzel for me).

As we were walking back to the hotel to call it a night, we were lucky to see a procession of a traditional Tyrolean folk band, which was making its way toward the Golden Dachl for a free public concert featuring traditional singing and dancing.

Our plan now is to catch the 7:54 a.m. train to Zurich, where we’ll finish up our trip before flying out of the Zurich airport Saturday morning. It will be a long day, as we take off at 9:50 a.m. (3:50 a.m. ET). This may be my last vacation blog entry. I hope everyone who followed along enjoyed it. If you ever make the (great) decision to travel to any of the places we’ve been, I’d be glad to provide some tips and suggestions.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tuesday, June 29 - Day 11

Today was Bavaria day for us here along the Germany-Austria border. The majority of our day was near Fussen, Germany, where we toured two of “The King’s Castles.”

“The King,” being referenced is (Mad) King Ludwig II. You ask, of what was he the king? He was the King of Bavaria, which was its own kingdom centuries ago, similar to Prussia.

Ludwig grew up in his father’s castle, Hohenschwangau (pronounced: HO-in-SCHVON-gow). That castle, beautifully decorated in classic romantic themes, was quite impressive, and the tour through it was very interesting.

Ludwig—whose brother, Otto, was declared insane at the age of 24 and was sent to live in a castle in Munich—became King of Bavaria in his mid-20s. He loved Hohenschwangau, but he had ambitions of building his own fantasy castle.

He began construction of Neuschwanstein (pronounced: NOISH-von-stine) and watched its progress carefully from his quarters in Hohenschwangau. The telescope he used to view the construction is still there, pointed out the same window (by the way, now is good time to mention that photography and filming is prohibited inside both castles).

Ludwig oversaw Neuschwanstein’s construction for 17 years. Well before its completion, he was declared mentally unfit to rule at the age of 40 in 1886. He was found dead in a lake in Munich less than a week later. The circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery.

Ludwig’s quarters in his dream castle were completed, but he only lived in the structure for 172 days. It’s pretty sad, really. Brooke and I were most impressed with his throne room. The mosaic floor was made of more than 1 million pieces of tile. The walls and ceiling must have taken thousands of hours to paint. The 96-candle chandelier was made of gilded brass and weighed more than 2000 pounds. But the room has never contained an actual throne on the lofted structure where it was designed to rest. The room was one of many that were never totally finished.

The famous view of Neuschwanstein from St. Mary’s Bridge was worth the short and easy hike.

After leaving the castles, we each had a bratwurst for lunch before driving just a few minutes north to Tegelberg, Germany. There, we rode a luge down fun and twisty course. My goal was to never use my brake the entire time; mission accomplished. I took a video with my flipcam for the entire ride. I’ll post it on my YouTube page when I get the chance.

In 1328, the Holy Roman Emperor was traveling through Bavaria and he established a monastery in the village of Ettal, Germany. Many monks still live there, and the monastery sanctuary is incredibly beautiful. When we walked in, there was a service going on and all the monks were singing (that stereotypical monk-like chanting). We sat in the back pew for a while and just looked around at all the Baroque sculpture and art work. It was tremendously impressive.

Next we drove to Oberammagau, Germany. That is the Bavarian city that hosts the world famous “Passion Play” every 10 years in the summer. Passion 2010 is going on now. The city (tiny village, really) is flooded with Christian tourists from all over the world who come to watch the huge production in which almost every resident in the city take part.

We weren’t that impressed with Oberammagau.

We had dinner at the restaurant below the Aldstadt Hotel in Fussen. Brooke had a vegetarian dish that looked like some kind of macaroni and cheese. I had venison and dumplings. I ordered lemonade to drink and was given what tasted like Sprite or 7-up. What’s up with that?

Tomorrow we plan to start the day with a tour of Linderhof. It’s the one castle that King Ludwig did live to see completed. It features fabulous gardens and the interior is decorated in the theme of Richard romantic Wagner’s operas (Ludwig and Wagner were very close friends).

From there, it’s on to Innsbruck, where we drop off our tiny Mercedes-Benz rental car (which I think I mistakenly identified as a VW in an earlier blog; sorry, I’m not a car guy).


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Monday, June 28 - Day 10

Best day ever. The day of days. No way I can do it justice without writing volumes.

Funny then, that it started out somber--because we had to say goodbye to Hotel Cortisen in Saint Wolfgang. Since we had to meet our paragliding pilots at 9 a.m. about an hour away from Saint Wolfgang in Obertraun, the alarm came early, we ate a quick breakfast and were on the road by 8 a.m.

We found out that the Cortisen is managed by a company called Epoque Hotels that has 130 properties in 70 countries worldwide (only about six are in America--all in either New York, Los Angeles or Miami). There is a book that highlights all of their properties, and we saw so many amazing places we'd love to go someday. One of my favorites was in Namibia, where you could watch zebras and gazelles roam from the back sundeck of the hotel.

I won't have enough vacations in my life to visit half the amazing properties they have.

Back to our day. We arrived at the cable car lift at the base of a mountain called Dachstein and met our paragliding pilots. Mikhael, a native of Austria, was Brooke's pilot. Jorg (pronounced: YORG), a German industrial engineer who gave up his profession 11 years ago due to his addiction to paragliding, was my pilot. Jorg has worked the past few years in South Africa but came to Austria this summer to be partners with Mikhael and to escape the hectic festivities surrounding the World Cup. Both of the guys were cool as hell, but it was also clear that they were experts and took the safety part of their job seriously.

I opted to wear an HD helmet cam to film the duration of my flight. I can't wait to get the footage. I want to see it so badly. I took one short video in-flight, about a minute or two after takeoff, but it really doesn't do justice to the whole experience.

Takeoff, by the way, was pretty awesome. The mountain peak just to the left of us had the Dachstein glacier on it. It was totally covered with ice. But at about the same elevation (2,150 meters), our takeoff point on the Grid Krippenstein summit plateau actually had a bit of a grassy field with some bushy vegetation. Jorg and I did a mock run-through of what we were going to do on takeoff, then we went for it.

He told me what he wanted my path to be, then he just yelled, "Run! Run! Run!" I ran as hard as I could--there was a lot of drag once the chute caught air, and he was only about a foot and a half behind me, clipped onto my harness with carabineers. After about 15 yards, we lifted up, then we touched down again for about three or four steps after sailing about 10 yards, then we were off the cliff for good.

The thermal updrafts running up the mountains immediately caught our chute and sent us upward. There is no way I can describe the next 30-40 minutes. Jorg said over and over again that there was no way the conditions could have been any better, and he had to be telling the truth. The views were amazing.

There was one point early on when Jorg asked if I was comfortable with doing some in-air maneuvers. I said sure and he swung the chutes quickly from side to side. At one point I thought we might flip.

Then as we were over the landing field, he said that I seemed very comfortable and asked if I wanted to do some spirals. He said it pulls a lot of "G's" and makes us descend very fast.

You know my response.

Suddenly we were spiraling super fast straight down. It probably only lasted for about 6-7 seconds, but it was awesome.

After we landed, Brooke said, "When I saw what you were doing. I thought I was going to throw up."

Mikhael asked her if she wanted to do what Jorg and I had just done, but she declined. She did, however, really enjoy the experience and said she would do it again. I HAVE to do it again.

After saying goodbye to Mikhael and Jorg, we started the one-hour drive to Berchtesgaden. Ever since I first saw the "Band of Brothers" mini-series, which I still believe is the finest thing ever put on film, I've wanted to visit the Eagle's Nest.

More than the fact it was the Third Reich's 50th birthday present to Hitler, the main draw for me was the fact that Major Dick Winters had once been there (while active with Easy Company in the 101st Airborne). He is the epitome of a bad-ass. I've read his autobiography as well as books written by at least four other men who served under him in Europe during World War II. Everyone who went to battle with that man speaks of him with such esteem that you just have to respect him. He was with the 101st when it captured the Eagle's Nest--officially known as the Kehlsteinhaus.

One thing I didn't know before visiting the Obersalzberg region was the fact that the Third Reich took over the whole area in the 1930s. The Nazis removed families who had for centuries called the place home. Obersalzberg became the party's second main base of operations (behind Berlin).

Really, the most impressive parts of the Kehlsteinhaus structure itself are the road leading up to it and the solid brass elevator that takes you from inside the mountain to the building. Somewhere along the way, someone decided to make the Kehlsteinhaus--which is a small building to begin with--a touristy restaurant. A full-service restaurant kitchen takes up a lot of space, so much so that there really isn't much left to tour. There is just the main circular tea room, with its large windows and huge fireplace. There are photos of Hitler, foreign diplomatic guests and high-ranking members of the Nazi Party dining in that room.

There's also a photo of Eisenhower smoking a cigarette in that room with a big grin on his face after the capture of Berchtesgaden. I asked one of the employees which window exactly the photo was taken near, and I stood in the same place with the same pose and had Brooke take my picture.

Really, the coolest part of the whole compound was the audio tour of the Nazi Documentation Center. It starts in a two-level building and leads underground into the four miles of bunker tunnels that Jewish and Polish slaves were forced to build all over the mountain.

On Google Earth, you can see where hikers have explored the surrounding forests and mountains and have found bunker exits and old doors. It would be awesome to hike around that area sometime.

I couldn't help but wonder, as I walked through the tunnels and looked at the exhibits in the Documentation Center, what do the German tourists think of all this? Until the late 1990s, it was kind of taboo for Germans to come to this area or any other Nazi-related sites as vacations. But in the past decade, it's become a huge attraction for Germans. There were tons of German vacationers visiting along with us today.

If I was a German, I would be thinking to myself, "How did almost our entire great nation follow this psycho and align itself with Nazi beliefs?"

It's remarkable to think that Hitler could gain such influence--in the past, now, ever. It's a pretty sad commentary on mankind.

So after leaving our second incredible experience of the day, we started the three-hour drive to Pinswang, Germany (during which we crossed the Germany-Austria border numerous times). Again, the drive offered gorgeous scenery.

Around 9 p.m., we arrived here at Gutshof zum Schluxen in Unterpinswang. We'll be here for two nights. Tomorrow we'll visit King Ludwig's Castles, one of which was the inspiration for the famous Disney World Castle.

Hike or bike. That's our initial plan on how we'll get to the castles tomorrow morning. If the bikes look like ass-busters, we'll be hoofing it.

That's all for now.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Europe 2010 - Day 9

Day 9 - Sunday, June 27

Sunday was great. The breakfast spread at the Cortisen was the most impressive we've seen yet. I was especially impressed with the dozen or so varieties of fresh jellies that were available. Brooke, on the other hand, had one of the girls show her how to operate the espresso machine. Something tells me our kitchen is going to have one of those before long.

After breakfast, I did some research on paragliding, as I've seen that it is a possiblity here in the Salzkammergut region. That research included about four trips down to the reception area to get clarification on how to use the phone here in Europe.

While I was doing that, Brooke was sunbathing in a lounge chair at the edge of the lake on the hotel's sundeck. I went out and joined her for a few minutes once I had a paragliding trip booked for Monday morning (we'll run off a cliff in Obertraun, Austria, before making our way to Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden, Germany).

Then we strolled through the village, checking out the various shops. There have been salt mines in this area for centuries, and we found one store that had a variety of local salt (salz) products. They had cooking salts, bathing salts, lotions, everything you can think of all made with pure local mineral-laden local salt.

For lunch, we stopped at a cafe just a few doors up the street from the Cortisen. I really wanted to try a ham and (Swiss) cheese omelette. So I did. Brooke and I also split a pizza with cheese, ham, tomatoes and mushrooms. The waitress was under the impression that the omelette was my entree--not my appetizer--and that Brooke was having the pizza all to herself. So as we paid the bill, Brooke felt compelled to explain to the waitress that I helped with the pizza.

We went back to our room and threw on our bathing suits before making our way to a riverfront dock area that rented electric motor boats and paddleboats (you know, the ones you pedal like a bike) by the hour. We took a paddleboat out to the middle of the lake and jumped in the water. It was freezing for the first few minutes--Brooke couldn't catch her breath at first--but then you got used to it. I was just swimming around in the middle of the lake (Wolfgangsee) with a 360-degree panorama of beautiful mountains surrounding me. It was one of those moments where you stop and say to yourself, "I can't believe I'm doing this right now. I can't believe I'm in a lake in Austria, surrounded by all of this."

I'll remember that lake experience for the rest of my life.

We decided to relax a little after returning the boat. We had dinner reservations at the Cortisen's restaurant for 8 p.m., so we showered up and changed into some nicer attire before heading down to eat.

It was one of those dinners where they bring you a couple "greetings from the kitchen," and they keep swapping out your silverware based on what you order and you have to try to remember the proper dining etiquette of when to use which fork and knife. I ordered salmon with an orange glaze and Brooke had trout from the lake. This meal probably topped all that we've had during vacation so far.

Sadly, we both realize that when we check out tomorrow morning, our last few days of vacation will probably fail to match the time we've had here in Saint Wolfgang. I can promise we will be back here again.

That brings up a point about the travelers you see here. In Switzerland, you see many, many Chinese, Japanese and Indian tourists (Indians go there to escape their own monsoon season). But of course, you also notice a decent amount of American travelers as well. Here in Saint Wolfgang, most everyone is European. It is a popular German resort town--great skiing in the winter. I was signing the book at Saint Wolfgang Parish Church this afternoon as we were taking a more in-depth walk through the place, and I had to turn back almost 15-20 pages to mid-June to find the last time someone had scrawled a message in English. I guess Saint Wolfgang is a place that is left out of most popular American travel and guide books (I found back it in May while scanning lakefront properties using Google Earth).

Well, I need to figure out where we have to drive to tomorrow morning for our paragliding adventure. And from there it's on to a few days in Germany where we'll visit the "King's Castles."


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Europe 2010 - Day 8

Saturday, June 26

Well, we are most definitely "tourists" now.

After a light breakfast at Institute Saint Sebastian in Salzburg, we checked out of our room. The kind woman working the desk allowed us to leave our bags in a locked closet in her work area, however, so we took advantage of that.

Our plan was to walk a few blocks down to where a couple of the local tour groups' booking stations were located to inquire about jumping on a morning "Sound of Music Tour."

I know what most of you guys are thinking...

But anyway, we were able to get two seats on that morning's four-hour bus tour. And it was actually cooler than I thought it would be. Riding around Salzburg in a tour bus filled with people singing "The Hills are Alive," "Edelweiss," "Doe-Ray-Me," and "I Must Have Done Something Good" had me feeling a little skeptical. But our tour guide, a witty Brit named Trudy who wore a traditional Austrian dress, made it quite enjoyable.

We visited numerous places around town that were used during filming, such as the two castles that served as the von Trapp family home (they used one facade for the front of the house and another building all together for scenes shot in the back), the famous gazebo and the church were the captain and Maria were married.

That church, located in Mondsee, actually had a wedding ceremony going on at the very time we went inside. We stayed in the back taking pictures (if it was my wedding; I would have been kind of upset). But really, the church was so large--and there was music playing at the time--that I don't think anyone noticed.

We did get a lot of great pictures during the tour. And it was something that Brooke really wanted to do (I get the impression that women get a LOT of enjoyment out of this particular tour) so it was well worth it. And like I said, I had more fun than I expected.

After the tour, we walked back to retrieve our bags and we then headed for the car park. I owe John Painter big-time for agreeing to temporarily swap my Magellan for his Garmin GPS device, as his works in Europe. It made our drive to Saint Wolfgang, Austria so easy. All told, it took us less than an hour to arrive at our hotel: Hotel Cortisen am see.

At the age of 30, I am willing to say that this is the coolest place I will ever stay at in my life. Leading up to this vacation, this is the hotel I was most excited about. We had a particular suite reserved (you could view panoramas of the rooms on the hotel Web site), and it is a "no kids" establishment right on the lake.

You have some laundry you want done? Bring it down, we'll do it for free. You want to use our sauna and steam room on the third floor? Let us know, we'll just turn it on for you. You want to ride a bike or mountain bike around the village for the day? Just let us know, no charge for the bikes. You want to take our rowboat out on the lake? No charge.

They also offer a Harley, but there is a fee to rent that.

If you ever consider coming to Austria, you really ought to give this place a look.

After checking in, we explored the property a little bit, checking out the cigar room, the library (with free books, DVDs and CDs to use), the bar, the lakeside sun deck... everything clearly laid out and designed by a top-notch decorator.

Then we decided to stroll through the village and explore while at the same time looking at restaurant menus. One lakefront hotel, Hotel-Peter, had a terrace restaurant out back, and the menu looked great, so we gave it a try.

Now, I love Switzerland like I can't even begin to explain. But it's very expensive. At Hotel-Peter, our total order included two Cokes (you don't get free refills of ANYTHING in Europe), a beer, a bowl of soup, an entree of fresh fish caught in the lake and each prepared a different way(intended for two people to share) and two homemade desserts. All of that, and our bill was 51,70 Euros!!! I was pleasantly shocked--though I should have been a bit prepared for that when our lunch in Mondsee that afternoon during our tour came to 11,00 Euros (two drinks and a pizza).

So that's another great aspect about Austria. And the scenery is just as nice as it is in Switzerland.

After dinner, Brooke made use of the jacuzzi tub in our suite while I opened the door to our balcony and updated my Europe journal/blog. Then we watched the damn USA-Ghana World Cup match.

Germany plays England Sunday. That is a really big deal here since we're just a couple miles from Germany. In fact, I'm quite certain that some of the mountains that surround us are on Germany's side of the border.

Quick shout-out to Allix Bullock for everything she's doing for us while we're gone. We know the house and Crockett are both in good hands.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Europe 2010 - Days 6-7

Day 6 - Thursday, June 25

The first thing we did following breakfast (at the hotel) Thursday in Luzern was visit the Post headquarters to inquire about the cost and ease of shipping some items back home. We had already bought some items, and there were some others we were considering purchasing if we knew we wouldn't have to add them to our baggage and cart them around for the remainder of the trip.

Feeling as though it would be both simple and affordable to make an "economy" (11-14 days) shipment home, we finished up shopping. I returned to a store that sold a lot of World Cup merchandise from numerous countries--the most common in stores here are Switzerland, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, Italy and USA--and I purchased a child-sized red Switzerland jersey for Crockett. He's going to love showing it off to folks back home, proudly touting his ancestry.

After we made all our final purchases, we proceeded back to the Post headquarters and shipped a box full of goods home.

It was about that time that we were ready for lunch, so we grabbed an outdoor table at Restaurant Fritschi (in that photo, you'll see the umbrella-covered tables where we sat) and each ordered a salad. Brooke got the Fritschi salad--the house special--and I felt brave and went for the sausage and cheese salad. It didn't disappoint, though it was different than most any other salad I've tried before.

Since we were close to the lakefront, we looked into the various Lake Luzern cruises that were offered that day. Our Swiss passes give us free access to all buses, boats and lifts in Switzerland (with about 4-5 exceptions), and we were just looking for something quick to take in the midday views from the middle of the lake. So we waited about 45 minutes next to the lake before boarding a boat named "Rutli" for a nice, one-hour cruise.

For dinner, we decided to wait for a table to open up at the, which sits near the famous "Chapel Bridge" on the riverfront in the old town. I ordered fried perch filets, and they were exceptional. It was yet another great setting for a waterfront sunset dinner. Check out my video of our view.

Knowing our time in Luzern was essentially over, we went to bed looking forward to Friday morning's train ride to Salzburg, Austria.

Day 7 - Friday, June 26

Since we had no more days remaining on our Swiss passes, I had purchased our point-to-point tickets from Luzern to Salzburg (with a train change in Zurich) prior to our departure from home.

The first "reserved" portion of the trip was an 8:45 train in Zurich, so we had to make sure to be in Zurich by that time--preferably at least 10 minutes early so we could find the right track.

That meant skipping breakfast at Jailhotel and catching an early (7:40) train to Zurich. That got us there in time to find our train to Salzburg with about five minutes to spare.

We had seats 95 and 97 reserved; and that is where we were sitting. But at one particular small-town stop, a group of about 6-8 (German?) teenage boys boarded the train and tried telling us we were in their seats. They were polite about it, but I showed them our reservation certificate showing our seat numbers.

"I think you are on the wrong coach," one of them said.

He pointed to a section on the ticket that had the number 252 on it. He then showed us how to tell which coach we were on... and it was 354. So I told them "I'm sorry" in German (I was proud they understood me) and we waited in an area in-between coaches until the next stop, at which point we exited the train, walked up about 15 cars and then re-entered. That was a lot easier than trying to walk through about 15 coaches with all our luggage, because all the coaches were quite full at that point.

We got to Salzburg--one of the greatest Baroque cities north of the Alps--at about 2:15 p.m., and luckily our rental-car pickup point was only about two blocks from the train station. We picked up our tiny, navy blue VW sedan and drove to a "car park" that is basically a parking garage cut into a mountain beneath the Salzburg fortress.

I didn't have a hotel booked for our lone night in Salzburg, so this was the first day of the trip I planned on winging it in terms of lodging. The first place we inquired at was booked up, as there was a music festival going on in the portion of town I had planned on staying in.

The second place we planned on trying was called "Institute St. Sebastian." It's actually a historic old church building that has been converted into a girls' dorm for students at various college in Salzburg. During the school year, it rents about 20 single rooms. But when the girls are gone, all the rooms are available, including some doubles.

We were in luck, as they had a double for only 71 Euros for the night (it had a private bathroom, and the price included breakfast).

With lodging secured, we embarked on a walk around the historic old town (south of the river) and new town (north of the river). We saw Mozart's birthplace, the residence in which he lived as a young man when he wasn't touring Europe's major cities and many sites (such as Mirabell Gardens) where they filmed outdoor scenes in "The Sound of Music."

But Brooke and I both thought the most impressive part of Salzburg was the Salzburg Cathedral. There were many, many bishops entombed both in the sanctuary as well as in the crypt below the altar (which was open to those willing to venture in; we did). The interior was more beautiful than my words, or even my pictures and videos, can do justice. It features five organs, and Mozart himself was the main organist there for two years. Speaking of Mozart, the font in which he was baptized is there in the cathedral. It dates to 1320.

I could go on and on about how impressive that place was, but like I said, I can't do the place the justice. It just has that "feel" to it, and it's the kind of man-made structure that has a way of humbling you. I couldn't leave without dipping my fingers in the Holy water and making the sign of the cross.

We also visited the Abbey Church of St. Peter, in which St. Rupert is entombed. I left a donation and lit a candle for my Aunt Boots.

For dinner, we ventured off the touristy streets and opted to eat at, which is a favorite spot for the locals to go for sausage. We both ordered the bratwurst with kraut. Hey, what else?

Finally it was back to our "dorm room" at Institute St. Sebastian, where we slept soundly in our third-floor room with the window open all night.

PS: Traveler Tip: If you ever visit Salzburg, don't plan on sleeping in. There are so many churches; the bells will have you up and at 'em quite early.

PPS: I've uploaded quite a few photos to Facebook and hope to get some others posted as well.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Europe 2010 – Days 3-5

Sorry for the absence of our Monday (June 21) update. We milked our day for all it worth. In fact, we cut it as close as possible and could easily have been stranded away from our hotel for the night. But I’ll get to that later.

The forecast in the Berner Oberland region called for fog and rain again Monday, thus wiping out our chances of paragliding there. I’m quite bummed about that, but there’s always next time (I’m already working on Brooke, trying to talk her into a return to Switzerland in the summer of 2012).

So rather than hope the clouds would clear long enough to catch some good glimpses of the peaks of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, I called an audible and we set off for Lake Geneva. Originally I hadn’t planned on visiting the French-speaking part of Switzerland this time around—we spent a couple days in Montreux in 2006—but Lausanne (loh-zahn) seemed like an interesting destination. The city is built along a steep hillside overlooking Lake Geneva. It boasts a nice lakefront district (Ouchy) as well as an “Old Town” area. And had it not been for the easy-to-use metro train that whisks back and forth from the waterfront to the top of the town where its cathedral resides, we would have had some sore legs.

My only complaint about Lausanne was the noise, and that wasn’t even the locals’ fault. Portugal played a World Cup game Monday, and I don’t have a clue why, but I think every fan of Portugal soccer who was not in South Africa Monday was in Lausanne—and they all had those damn vuvuzelas! Portugal ended up beating whoever it was they played, and these fanatics paraded through town, blowing the vuvvuzelas, blowing air horns, honking their car horns, singing and waving flags out their car windows or wearing the flag as a cape—or best of all: wearing the flag as a cape while hanging out the window of a moving car and simultaneously blowing a vuvuzela.

We had a nice lunch in a small eatery on a cobblestone side street, but the woman who took our order at the counter had little patience for those who couldn’t speak French. We didn’t care much for her. That kind of experience seems to be common in the French-influenced region of Switzerland. The German areas seem to be much more warm and welcoming. It’s interesting picking up on those sorts of things as you travel from place to place.

We decided we’d have dinner at a particular restaurant in Interlaken that has received many good reviews. But on the way from Lausanne to Interlaken, we stopped in Bern again to visit some of the shops that were closed when we visited there on Sunday.

I found a great paisley blue pocket square that was on sale in one of the men’s clothing stores on the main street, and Brooke found a pair of earrings in the Swarovski crystal store. So… that cleared the way for me to get the clearance on some black crystal Swarovski cuff links that I look forward to rockin’ during the 2010-11 season!

We finally got to Interlaken and had a solid meal of cordon bleu (me) and rosti with fried egg (Brooke) at Restaurant Baren. We also had apple pie and ice cream with fresh strawberries, respectively, for dessert.

Things did clear up enough by the evening that we saw a very colorful sunset over the mountaintops from the window at our booth in the restaurant. We had kind of lost track of time. It was already dark when we boarded the train at the Interlaken Ost (East) station en route to Lauterbrunnen. When we finally got to Lauterbrunnen, we had to wait nearly an hour for the last bus of the night that headed to the cable car station.

Remember, you can’t drive up to Gimmelwald; you must take the cable car. If you miss the last one, you are out of luck and I guess you would have to basically beg the driver to take you back to Lauterbrunnen and then hope to find a hotel room there.
So our 11:28 bus finally arrives at the stop, and we make it to the Schilthornbahn station just in time for the 11:45 cable car up to Gimmelwald (last of the night). The station attendant literally turned off all the lights and locked up the station right before we started the ascent.

When we got to Gimmelwald, there was some poor guy who must have been out drinking or doing something in Murren, and he tried to get on the cable car as we were getting off. But there was absolutely no way they were going to take that one passenger back down after they had already closed up the station for the night. Heck, when Brooke and I rode up on the last car, we were two of only six people on board—and that includes the operator!

As that poor guy and the operator tried to talk back and forth, Brooke and I headed for our room at Pension Gimmelwald (only about a 100-yard walk from the station). I would really love to know what that guy ended up doing. I’ll bet anything he had a car at the Schiltohornbahn station lot and he was trying to get back to it. Who knows what the guy did. If he tried hiking down, he’s probably still walking (or dead from falling off the ledge in the pitch black night).

Day 4 – Tuesday, June 22, 2010

We decided to skip breakfast at the Pension today and hit the road early. I checked out and said goodbye to David and the crew at the Pension. I hope to be back there again for a third stay at some point.

I’m writing this from Murten, which was today’s ultimate destination. We arrived here in town just after noon and checked right in at Hotel Murtenhof & Krone. What a great hotel in a great city! This place has a great vibe and a lot of history to it.

Unbeknownst to me, our arrival in Murten coincided perfectly with an annual celebration. June 22 is comparable to the Fourth of July in the states.
On July 22, 1476, Mighty Charles the Bold and his well-armed 20,000 Burgundian forces, who had been laying siege to Murten for 10 days, were surprise attacked by a makeshift Swiss army of about 10,000. They compare the Swiss surprise attack, which took place when Charles’ forces were hungover from a Midsummer Night’s Eve celebration, to George Washington’s attack on the British when the Brits were celebrating Christmas. All 20,000 Burgundians were slaughtered; many of them were driven into the lake in their armor, where they naturally drowned. French bones washed ashore here for centuries (Charles escaped on horseback, bloody hell!).

So today the main streets were closed to traffic and there was celebrating in the streets all day long. All the children get out of school and come to town dressed in white. It was really something cool to be a part of as we walked along the cobble stone streets and took in all the excitement.

Popular American travel writer Rick Steves touted Hotel Murtenhof & Krone’s lakeside terrace restaurant as the best in town. He also exclaimed, “sipping a glass of local white wine, with the right travel partner, while gazing across the lake at hillside vineyards as the sun sets, is one of Europe’s fine moments.”

So, we reserved a table for 8:30 p.m.—after being told the sun would set at 9 p.m.—and the experience was outstanding. It was certainly among my top three or four dining experiences ever. We both got perch (known here as “egli filets” and a local favorite) with different sides. Brooke got a red wine from across the lake since she had a white wine the previous night in Interlaken. We got some great photos of the sun setting over the lake. It was the kind of dinner that defines a top-notch vacation.

But… there was one other experience today that rivaled our dinner. Right after checking into the hotel, we went to the local co-op grocery and bought items for a picnic. We then walked back to the Bahnhof (train station) and rented bikes. I had planned to make the approximately 9 km bike ride to Avenches for a picnic at the Roman ruins there.

Avenches was once known as Aventicum, and it was the Roman capital of Helvetia. It was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire and in recent years has often won the title of “most livable place to retire.” I can definitely see why. Its population now is very small, and not a lot of tourists know about the place. So you can be sitting on some old Roman ruins from the days of Emperor Marcus Aurelius all by yourself, enjoying the world’s coolest picnic.

We biked around and saw the old Roman amphitheater, the remains of an ancient sanctuary and some smaller theater ruins. The lone standing tower of the original 73 towers that lined the city walls in ancient times now houses a museum with some really interesting artifacts that have been dug up over the centuries. The coolest item is a gold bust of Marcus Aurelius (circa 80 A.D.) that was found in an Avenches sewer in 1939! The French woman attending the small museum in the tower offered a book explaining the contents of each exhibit in English, and our Swiss Passes granted us free admission. We spent the better part of an hour in there and I saw a lot of really awesome stuff that is certainly priceless—much of it in great shape given its age.

Biking through some peaceful fields and past numerous small farms was really, really enjoyable. I found myself thinking, “I can’t believe this. I’m biking along the Swiss countryside right now.” We’re really fortunate to be able to experience things like that.

Brooke is out cold right now, and our bedside clock is displaying 23:13 (that’s 11:13 p.m. ET for the folks back home), so I better wrap it up.

Tomorrow we’ll walk around a bit more here in Murten in the morning and then make our way to Luzern for a couple days.

We really miss Crockett. We’ve seen some great-looking Bernese Mountain Dogs here and wish Crockett was with us to meet them. They may be distant relatives

Day 5 – Wednesday, June 23

We woke up and showered before heading to the complimentary breakfast spread at Hotel Murtenhof & Krone. I explained how fantastic dinner was Tuesday night at their terrace restaurant; well the views from their breakfast sun room were just as gorgeous. The morning view overlooking Lake Murten made for a great setting in which to enjoy an impressive spread that included fresh breads, meats, cheeses, yogurt, granola and fresh fruit.

After breakfast we walked around the cobblestone streets of the town in the area known as the “ramparts.” Brooke had wanted to visit a few stores that were closed when we passed through on Tuesday.

We then made our way back to the hotel to pack our bags for the 11 a.m. checkout. Then we were off to the train station, ready to make our way to Luzern.

We arrived in Luzern right at 1 p.m. It’s the first city we visited during our honeymoon trip in August of 2006. I don’t know what it is about this place exactly, but it’s definitely one of my favorite places I’ve ever been to. It just has that great European feel to it (a video I shot).

We returned to a familiar hotel, Jailhotel Lowengraben, which is actually a former jail (our room door is a wooden jail door and our room window has bars running from top to bottom when you open the glass panes.

Brooke isn’t the biggest fan of Jailhotel, mainly because it has a disco on street level (we’re just one level above) that stays open to very early in the morning—I think it’s 5 a.m. on the weekends and I’m not sure about weeknights.

But there’s no place like it. Folks who stayed in the room previously have written messages on the cinder blocks in the wall such as “Nothing like this in Australia! Thanks for making this the most memorable stay of our European holiday. – Mary & Paul, Queensland”

Yes, I added to the "graffiti."

We had a nice dinner at a cozy side-street restaurant called Fondue House. I’ll let you guess what we had. Fondue meals are priced per person and are usually among the most expensive things you find on most menus. It was for that reason that we decided to pass on a fondue experience during our honeymoon. But this time we gave in, thinking that we really couldn’t make two trips to Switzerland without having said we tried it. I couldn’t eat like that often, but it was very good and a nice change.

We continued to wander around town, taking in the sights. Of course, you can’t do Luzern without walking across Chapel Bridge. I also wandered over to the huge and ornately designed Post headquarters to check their hours. We may make some purchases tomorrow if it’s not too terribly expensive to ship them home—we’re not interested in doubling the amount of baggage we have to haul with us with more than a week remaining here in Europe.

Speaking of purchases, I thought the $4,000 Swiss watches I saw earlier in the week were impressive. Well today I saw some designer Swiss watches priced at $40,000, $32,500 and $28,000. Who buys this stuff?

Then we ducked into a dimly lit pub called “Bar Konige” to get a couple drinks while watching the Germany-Ghana World Cup match with a bar full of rabid Deutschland fans. Soccer fans don’t mess around over here. Luckily for all involved, Germany emerged with a 1-0 victory. It was interesting that our bartender was a Brit. She seemed more interested in the Australia-Serbia match. Am I crazy or didn’t Australia start out as an “island prison” used for deported Brits? I could totally be making that up. I don’t know.

During our walk back to Jailhotel, the streets were alive with honking car horns, proud chanting soccer fans and, of course, a chorus of vuvuzelas.

Oh! Prior to Bar Konige, we had made a rest stop in our hotel room before walking over to the Post headquarters. It was around that time that the Germany-Ghana game was just getting started. We heard a lot of commotion going on right outside our window. So I climbed up on the bed and peered out to see about 50 people looking right at me. Apparently the landing outside or room was being used for a World Cup viewing party sponsored by some European energy drink, and they were using the exterior wall of our room as a projector screen for the game!

Educational nugget of the day: I learned today how to say cuff links in German. Phonetically, it’s man-CHET-in kuh-NOP-fay (I’ve said that over and over to myself all day long. Try it. It’s fun to say). One place sold cuff links that were roulette wheels, and there was even a little ball inside that could land on the numbers. If anybody needs a pair like that, they were only CHF 25 (close to $25). Let me know.

I’m now about to hit the sack for the first of two nights in Luzern. Then we’ll be off to explore new territory along the Germany-Austria border. I hope that all is well back in the states.


PS: I'm posting this from Salzburg, Austria, on Friday night (June 25). I'm two days behind but will try to get caught up. Some highlights from the past two days: Cruise on Lake Lucerne, Mozart's birthplace and the Salzburg Cathedral (no photos or videos can do that place justice).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Europe 2010 - Day Two

We got off to an early start today and took advantage of a full day's worth of activities. Breakfast at the Pension began at 8 a.m., and as soon as it was ready, Brooke and I were dressed, showered and ready to get things started.

David didn't disappoint with the breakfast spread. Bread with fruit spread and butter, yogurt with granola-type cereal, dried meats and cheeses as well as apple and banana slices--it was all as fresh as it could possibly be. I'd love to know how recently the milk that made the butter and yogurt was sloshing around in the belly of a cow on some nearby hillside.

After breakfast, we took the cable car down to the Schilthornbahn station, caught a Post bus to Lauterbrunnen and boarded the train once again headed to Bern.

The national capital, Bern is a fantastic city that boasts a lot of great personality. I could definitely spend more time there. It was especially meaningful to Brooke and I due to the fact that Bern is where our boy Crockett can trace his ancestry (Bernese Mountain Dog)!

During our stroll through town we saw most of the city's famous 11 fountains (each topped with a character based on biblical or Swiss folklore (such as Samson and a child-eating Ogre), we explored a beautiful 15th-century Cathedral, saw the riverfront brown bear dwellings where four brown bears--the symbol of Bern, as depicted on the canton's official seal--go about their business while locals and tourists alike observe.

Another great part of our stroll through Bern was visiting the apartment where Albert Einstein lived from 1902-05 and where he worked out his famous theory of relativity. It is now a museum dedicated to Einstein, and although our Swiss Passes would have allowed us free admission for the 20-minute audio tour, we settled for a few pictures out front and headed to one of the bustling squares for lunch.

The trademark Swiss dish Rosti, which I explained in Saturday's blog post, originiated in Bern. So naturally that's what we both got at a place called le Mazot. I got the "rosti sportsman," which is basically hash browns topped with a slice of ham, covered in melted swiss cheese and topped with a sunny-side-up egg.

Cooked eggs here look different than they do in the states. Our egg yokes have a yellow look in comparison to the bright "Florida Gator" orange that they take on here. I'm no expert on the matter, but my guess is that it may have to do with the chickens here lacking some of the steroids and other chemicals that we feed to or inject into the chickens back home.

We did a bit of shopping in Bern. I bought a great water- and wind-proof jacket that will surely serve me well on future hiking trips. It is made by a really cool brand I had never heard of before: Sherpa Adventure Gear. Brooke looked at dozens of nice, Swiss-manufactured watches but couldn't settle on one. Many of the nicer watches sold for up to CHF 4000 (close to $4,000).

On our way back to Gimmelwald in the afternoon, we got off the train at the Interlaken West station and walked through that city all the way to the East station. Brooke made a good find at one of the shops, purchasing a red Swiss World Cup team jersey that I must admit is pretty cool. The Swiss play tomorrow at 4 p.m. and we'd like to find a nice little pub or restaurant with a good scene in which to watch the game, but we'll see how the day progresses.

I'm still holding up hope that the clouds will clear out of the area and make a paragliding trip a possibility for tomorrow.

Dinner this evening was at the restaurant in Hotel Alpina, which is up in Murren. Brooke and I each had the Raclette, which is another trademark Swiss dish of melted cheese with boiled potatoes and cucumbers and onions. Like all our other meals thus far, it was stellar.

Well, walking all around Bern and Interlaken really wore us out, so are ready to call it a night. We hope everyone back home is doing well. Aside from missing Crockett terribly already, we are having an extraordinary time here.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Europe: Summer 2010

Nearing 11 months since my last post. Apparently I don't have as much time (or perhaps desire) for blogging as I initially thought...

Brooke and I arrived in Switzerland this morning (Saturday, June 19). For the next two weeks we'll be rolling six hours ahead of our friends in the Eastern Time Zone. Our first flight from Knoxville to Atlanta was simple enough--a quick 30 minutes. I then passed the time during our brief layover in the Peach State by downing some low-quality Panda Express as we waited to board the nine-hour flight to Zurich.

Invictus and The Time Traveler's Wife were two of the three movies that were shown during the flight (I didn't recognize the other one). I watched The Time Traveler's Wife while Brooke slept. I'd seen it before, but it's a great one.

Brooke definitely made the wrong choice on the in-flight dinner entree. My manicotti was quite good and certainly had to have been better than the "chicken" product she selected. Breakfast was awful: a banana and an "egg muffin." I told Brooke afterward that the egg seemed more like a folded up chunk of yoga mat.

As proof of Swiss efficiency, we got our passports stamped and had our checked baggage in hand no more than 5-6 minutes after walking off the jetway. We caught a quick train from the airport to the Zurich main station, where I got our Swiss Passes validated before we started off toward Gimmelwald.

To begin, we rode from Zurich to Interlaken with a quick train change in Bern (did you know Craig Pinkerton can trace his family heritage back to a particular house in Bern?). From Interlaken, we took one more train to Lauterbrunnen than caught a Post Bus to the Schilthornbahn station near Stechelberg.

The tiny mountain village of Gimmelwald--elevation 4485 feet--is accessible via a five-minute cable car ride from the Schilthornbahn station. It was GREAT to arrive back in Gimmelwald after we fell in love with the place during our honeymoon in August 2006. Once again, we are staying at Pension Gimmelwald, but the Edelweiss Room, which we stayed in previously, was not available this time so we are in simply "Room 1."

The Pension is now under new ownership as well. A friendly Englishman named David Waterhouse now owns the place; we literally just spent about an hour hanging out down at the bar and he visited with us a bit He has two vintage Jack Daniels signs hanging behind the bar. There were quite a few folks from the Mountain Hostel next door who came over to the Pension's restaurant and bar for some good food and drink, so it was a good scene down there, with David blaring some great blues music (which I can hear from our room as I type this; no complaints).

After we checked in, we took about a three-hour nap before getting cleaned up and taking the cable car up one village to Murren. There, we ate a fabulous, fresh dinner at Restaurant Eiger Stubli. Brooke had lamb with scalloped potatos and a beer, while I had veal cutlets with fresh vegetables, a local specialty called rosti (similar to hash browns) and Ramseier apple juice (carbonated; it's awesome). I can't begin to describe how good it all was, and aside from one other German-speaking couple, we had the place all to ourselves.

It has been raining all day here in the Berner Oberland region, so it's as if you are walking around above the clouds as it's quite foggy. When the cable car descends from Gimmelwald back down the mountain, it quickly disappears from sight all together after less than 100 yards.

One downside is that if this weather doesn't clear up before we move to Murten in a few days, we may not be able to go paragliding. It will be too dangerous and there won't be enough of an updraft through the valley.

On a more positive note, I'm doing pretty good with my attempt to begin conversations in German. Tip for American travelers: at least show people that you are willing to make an EFFORT to speak the local language when you are visiting somewhere. I think folks appreciate that. Some of the Americans we cross paths with embarrass me with how they act and how loud they are.

Well, a trip back to Piz Gloria may be in order tomorrow (look it up online, especially if you're a James Bond fan). Dinner on top of the world, perhaps?


PS: One more link. We've never been to Murren during the time of year when this occurs, but it looks pretty interesting.