Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Monday, June 28 - Day 10
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.