A Travellerspoint blog

December 2016

Great cities of Central Europe: Salzburg

The Grossglockner High Alpine Road is one of those legendary drives in Europe. The 48 km road with 36 hairpin turns winding through the Alpine peaks seems as though it was made for a sports car commercial, despite having been built before the existence of sports cars or commercials. The problem that quickly became apparent to us on the slow drive southeast was that the sky was heavily overcast with a constant drizzle. It was very possible that once we ascended into the cloud line, we wouldn't be able to see anything whatsoever. We debated whether to abandon the plan and head straight to Salzburg, but ultimately decided we should just go for it since it could be years before we were in this area again, if ever. Fortunately the rain eventually stopped although the fog never lifted completely. We were denied the expansive, beautiful views of the Hohe Tauern National Park that one can find on the web but we still got to enjoy the drive and experience the majesty of some of the most famous peaks of the Austrian Alps.

About halfway through the drive we started to become aware of a faint burning rubber smell and at one point we pulled over to confirm that it was coming from inside the car and not outside. I looked at the tires but there was nothing amiss there. As we approached the end of the Alpine road in the town of Heiligenblut we saw a thin tendril of smoke escaping from the hood of the car and the burning smell grew stronger. Fortunately, we were just about there so we gritted our teeth and rolled into the tiny village and found a parking spot close by a cozy restaurant. Heiligenblut was the quintessential Alpine village dominated by a rustic church with a tall spire.

Once inside the restaurant, we reviewed our options. It was going to be dark very soon and there was certainly no auto service station in the town itself that would have anyone available to look at the car. I favored abandoning our plan to drive to Salzburg that night and finding a hotel to bed down where we were. In the morning we could call the rental company and hopefully someone could either pick us up or deliver a new vehicle. Mei Ling didn't seem as worried about the smell and the smoke, thinking it might have something to do with the cooler air and fog at the higher altitude. In the end, we decided to proceed to Salzburg. The evening air was cool but not cold, and if the car ended up conking out on the road we wouldn't freeze to death overnight. I just hoped we wouldn't catch on fire. The one caveat I insisted on was that we not return the way we came on the Alpine Road, even though it would take us an hour longer to drive further south to the next intersection with a major highway. I knew if anything bad went down in the peaks, we weren't going to see another human being until morning. After dinner we set off for Salzburg, and as usual Mei Ling's intuition was right. There was no trace of a smell or smoke for the rest of the trip. We didn't arrive in Salzburg until eleven, but fortunately it was a lockbox entry and no one had to wait up for us.

Our itinerary unfortunately forced us to miss the Thursday weekly market in Salzburg, and on Friday morning we couldn't find a decent daily market. Instead, we spent the morning and early afternoon exploring the Mirabell Gardens north of the River Salzach and then the Residenzplatz and busy pedestrian lanes south of the river. Hovering above us always was the clifftop fortress Festung Hohensalzburg, which we chose to forgo a visit to. The best views of Salzburg from ground level came from the bridges and the walking path north of the river.

On the way back to the car, we found a park with a playground for the kids. Cleo discovered a grid of musical tiles set into the ground.

Anyone with a warped sense of humor knows about Fucking, Austria and mine is as warped as anyone's. While the name of the town might seem shocking to English speakers, it has no particular meaning in German. The town is apparently named for someone named Focko who founded the village 1500 years ago. However, over the years since the town became internet famous, local authorities have had to deal with a deluge of British tourists asking annoying questions and even worse, stealing the town signs. Apparently it becomes wearisome informing tourists time and time again that no, there are no Fucking postcards. We didn't have vandalism on our minds, but I still felt a little sheepish as we drove into the little village looking for the road signs. I half expected to have to wait in line for our photo ops, but there was no sign of life in the area whatsoever. The one or two cars that passed refrained from chucking beer bottles at us as we snapped our photos.

On the way back from Fucking we bypassed Salzburg and went to the picturesque town of Hallein, slightly to the south, for dinner. Much of the center of town was torn up for some renovations of the cobblestones, but we still got to enjoy an impromptu concert of classical music from across a street barricaded with plastic netting. It only took about 15 minutes to walk through the entire old town.

We proceeded to the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor which had a beautiful courtyard setting. I confirmed with the manager that there wouldn't be any problem accommodating the kids, and he gave me a sideways look. "As long as you understand this isn't fast food," he said. I was a little nonplussed since it was hard to imagine how anyone could have mistaken his restaurant for a fast food joint, but we sat down in the courtyard. As it turned out, the manager hadn't exaggerated. It was over an hour before the first bite of food appeared on the table and two hours before the last dish arrived, despite the fact that only three other tables were occupied. I couldn't really complain - he'd warned us. It would have been easier to deal with the painfully long wait if the food had been good, but it was universally mediocre to awful. The worst was a sushi dish that consisted of three slivers of salmon atop damp balls of undercooked rice, garnished by withered bean sprouts. The only saving grace was a dessert of delicious fruit crepes. We concluded that the restaurant was worth a visit, but only after dinner elsewhere, just to enjoy the crepes in the courtyard.

On Saturday morning we took a final stab at finding a produce market, but there was only a flea market open for business. Instead we went to the Baroque palace Schloss Hellbrunn, where Archbishop of Salzburg Markus Sittikus installed numerous trick fountains designed to playfully soak his guests. We just missed a tour of the fountains when we arrived, so we spent a half hour exploring the grounds.

Once the tour got started, we were part of a large group composed largely of a Taiwanese high school class. The fountains were beautiful and the kids had a lot of fun with the surprise soakings in the summer heat, so I was glad we'd made the visit even though we were getting a late start on the road to Vienna.

We had one more stop before Vienna, which was the Ars Electronica Center in Linz. This miniature science museum had a lot of great interactive exhibits for the kids, including programmable electronic insects and a conductive disk which turned the entire body of anyone gripping it into a musical instrument.

We walked across the bridge for a quick peek at Linz's old town, but soon decided we'd rather get to Vienna in time for a pleasant dinner than explore a whole new city.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:57 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

Great cities of Central Europe: Innsbruck and the Tyrol

Innsbruck is one of those cities whose name is emblematic of Austria. The name conjures up images of snowy Alps, Olympic skiers, and funiculars. But would there be anything for a family with small children in the height of summer? I was optimistic enough to schedule two nights there, thinking that if we ran out of things to do there would surely be other interesting towns in the area. Thanks to our unscheduled hike at Ehrenberg Castle, we arrived in town late and had to rush to the old town to get dinner before the restaurants closed. It was raining fairly hard but we were determined to eat in a real restaurant on our first night in Austria, so we threw on our ponchos and the stroller covers and braved the elements. When we arrived at our chosen restaurant they were full, and I started to thumb through TripAdvisor again when a middle aged man came over to us. "You don't want to eat here," he said. "It's a gay bar." I found this a little hard to believe but he was already giving Mei Ling directions to another restaurant. I was rather dubious but when we arrived I found it was another top choice on TripAdvisor. We ended up having an excellent meat-and-potatoes type meal that gave us everything we needed for a good night's sleep.

I needn't have worried that we were spending too much time in Innsbruck. We bought fruit in the Markthalle, the main covered market, and had a satisfying lunch of Weisswurst and Käsekrainer. The latter is a long, skinny pork sausage made with chunks of cheese that is a local specialty.

Over the next two hours we explored the old town of Innsbruck. One of the highlights was the landmark Goldenes Daschl, a gold-colored copper-roofed balcony that projects from the front of a building at the end of the main street Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse. Many of the buildings in the center had beautiful, ornate facades that looked like they had been built yesterday. On the other side of the River Inn we could see rows of brightly-painted houses. Every direction we looked, the formidable Tyrolean Alps loomed at the outskirts of the city.

We retrieved the SUV to visit Schloss Ambras, a Renaissance era castle in the hills just south of the city. We didn't feel any need to tour the interior, but had a pleasant walk around the grounds. There was an ice cream truck for the kids as well.

I was thinking of Mei Ling when I put our next stop on our itinerary. Swarovski Crystal Worlds is like the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory of lead glass jewelry. The museum itself is a little tawdry but the grounds are quite pleasant, especially the hillside troll waterfall and the crystal rain clouds over the pond.

Dinner was one of our classic European Odysseys. Our first attempt was located somewhere up in the steep hills north of the River Inn. We struck out with the SUV's built-in GPS, and I eventually located the place with Google Maps. It was all for nought, however, as the place was closed up with a sign on the door apologizing for their summer vacation. There didn't seem to be anywhere else close by, so we drove another half hour to the hills south of the city where we found our target to be open and very popular with the locals. We ended up with a good meal and even better views of the valley beneath us.

The next morning we got on the road quickly and made our first stop in the neighboring town of Hall in Tirol. The small city had an old town that was even larger than Innsbruck's, yet the narrow lanes were largely free of tourists. As in Innsbruck, the building facades all appeared freshly painted and were festooned with bouquets of flowers. Overlooking it all was the majestic tower of the Parish Church of St. Nicolas.

Our last stop in the Tyrol was Kufstein, best known for its Fortress sitting atop a rocky perch 300 feet above the town. The pedestrian area around the fortress was very colorful with elevated passageways connecting buildings on opposite sides of the streets, We took the funicular to the fortress and walked the ramparts for a while.

From Kufstein it would only have taken an hour and a half to get to Salzburg, but I was determined to see the Grossglockner High Alpine Road so instead of east we drove south into the mountainous heart of Austria.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:41 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

Great cities of Central Europe: Southern Bavaria

Linderhof and Neuschwanstein

Munich had been a huge success, and the food was much better than I'd remembered from my last visit to Germany, Nevertheless, we were eager to get on the open road and begin our discovery of Central Europe. There were so many legendary cities ahead of us. I had structured our itinerary to take us to some of the greatest castles of Europe, with the most famous of all being Neuschwanstein. Apparently the tickets to see the interior of the castle had to be bought hours in advance, so we decided we'd save that one for the following morning.

Soon after leaving Munich, we found ourselves winding through the beautiful Bavarian countryside. Our first stop on the road trip was the 18th century rococo style Wieskirche, which has been a destination for pilgrims since tears were seen on the face of a wooden figure of Jesus in 1738. The church was surrounded by green pastures with patches of forest and the Ammergau Alps visible in the distance.

After a snack at Wieskirche, it was still relatively early so we decided to squeeze in Linderhof Palace that afternoon. We spent quite a long time at this Versailles-inspired estate, between the extensive grounds and the main palace building. There was even an artificial grotto with a lake and a swan boat.

We decided to have dinner in nearby Oberammergau, famous for the fresco-covered houses called Lüftlmalerei. Some of the houses had been painted so that the flat walls looked to be festooned with Greek columns and elaborate balconies. After walking around the town we had an excellent dinner at a hotel restaurant we found on TripAdvisor.

Our Airbnb hotel was over the Austrian border in Heiterwang. We still had to gas up the car and buy a highway vignette sticker for Austria, so it was very late by the time we finally bedded down. The hotel and setting reminded me a lot of our overnight stay in Andorra a few months earlier. The next morning we took a few minutes to gaze at the mountainous surroundings before heading to Neuschwanstein.

As usual when we most anticipate something on our travels, the destination can't live up to expectations. Neuschwanstein Castle looks amazing in pictures, but those are taken from helicopters or drones and never show the throngs of tourists that clog every path. We quickly ruled out the tour of the interior of the castle after we learned that there was a four hour wait before the next available space. The line for the horse carriage to the top of the hill seemed short, but a carriage only showed up every half hour. Once we reached the top, we found that the Marienbrücke which affords the best view of the castle was closed so we had to settle for pictures partially obstructed by trees and crowds of people. Despite these drawbacks, the sheer size and classical beauty of the castle made the visit more than worthwhile.

After lunch we set off for Innsbruck. Back in Austria, I saw a ruined castle atop a tall hill from the highway. Something resembling a wire ran from the castle to the top of another tall hill on the other side of the highway. As we drew closer, I realized the wire was actually a suspension bridge running hundreds of feet above us. I could see tiny figures moving back and forth across the bridge. I knew this could be an amazing experience if it was possible for us to take the kids up there, so I pulled over and did some quick research on my phone. I learned that the bridge was called the Highline 179 and it had only been open for less than two years. We still had some time before the bridge closed for the day so we got our tickets and began the long hike to the top of the hill. Mei Ling vetoed my plan to backpack both the younger kids and Ian did much better than I expected with the hike. We eventually made it to the ruins, which were a lot of fun to explore and had great views. Mei Ling couldn't stand to be on the suspension bridge for more than a few seconds, so I took the kids halfway across. The sight of the parking lot 350 feet below us didn't seem to bother them one bit.

We hurried back down the hill to the parking lot. We were going to be late for dinner in Innsbruck.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:10 Archived in Germany Tagged neuschwanstein linderhof oberammergau highline_179 heiterwang Comments (0)

Great cities of Central Europe: Munich

My first experience with Munich was back in 1994. I'd met a number of German medical students during a brief neurology externship in London, and decided to visit a few of them on a three week rail tour of Germany. I stayed in my friend's apartment in Munich's Olympic Village and we rode bikes to the Englischer Garten where we did a tour of the beer gardens, consuming a one liter mass bier in each and hopping back on our bikes. After the third or fourth I became separated from my friend and found myself unable to keep the bike straight on the path. I wobbled along at a snail's pace and ultimately fell over completely to the side. I staggered to a bench and put my head down in my hands until it stopped swimming. When I finally raised my head and opened my eyes, all the people near me were naked. I'd never hallucinated after excessive beer consumption before, so I soon realized that I'd stumbled into a nudist area. It was the culmination of a very disorienting morning, and essentially my only solid memory of Munich. More than twenty years later, I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with the city in a more sophisticated way.

After our usual overnight flight to Europe, we started out by picking up our rental car and our local SIM. I had thought I was renting another minivan, and got a shock when our car turned out to be a two row SUV. There were two flip up seats in the trunk but that wouldn't leave enough space for the bags. I was getting ready to go ballistic when I realized that the rear seat was probably wide enough to accommodate all three car seats. We set them all up and amazingly they fit. We had plenty of room in the trunk for our bags as well, especially since we'd brought two individual strollers instead of the gondola. After the stress of navigating the giant Iceberg around France in the spring, the SUV was a welcome change. The only drawback was that now the kids were close enough to touch and annoy each other.

We had a pleasant surprise with the Vodafone SIM as well. Whereas just a few months ago I'd had to buy separate SIMs in each European country, there was now a data plan that covered pretty much the whole EU. That would save me a lot of time and hassle considering that we would be crossing six countries during the trip. Next stop was our Airbnb, which was perfectly adequate except for being a fourth floor walk-up. I find those staircases a lot less objectionable when I'm making a reservation than when I actually have to climb them.

Since we only had three days in Munich and we wanted to get aligned with the time change, we proceeded directly to our highest priority destination, the Viktualienmarkt. This is the most central market in Munich, with a reputation for offering the best quality produce and gourmet specialties. We also quickly found that it was quite expensive, and there were clearly more tourists around than Münchners. We bought a good amount of fruit for the apartment and ate in the small beer garden, where the entertainment was provided by the waiters angrily shooing away people who tried to sit at their tables with food purchased from other vendors.

We spent another couple of hours walking around the central Marienplatz area, home to the impressive Gothic Neues Rathaus (new town hall) and the formidable Frauenkirche.

We toughed it out as long as we could but by seven we could barely keep our eyes open and headed back to the apartment. On the way back, we were overtaken by a seemly endless series of police cars and ambulances with lights and sirens flashing but I barely gave it any thought except to wonder if there had been some kind of major auto accident. We ate some of the fruit we had bought and crashed.

I woke in the middle of the night and reached for my phone to check the time. It was three in the morning. I opened Facebook to see if Mei Ling had posted any pictures and saw that she had, and then a lot of messages under her pictures asking her if she was safe. What? Next stop was CNN, where I learned that multiple people had been killed in what appeared to be a terrorist attack in Munich and that more terrorists were reportedly roaming the streets. Everyone in the city was being advised to shelter indoors. I processed this for a few minutes and realized that there was nothing we could do that night to make ourselves any safer. If there was still some kind of active terrorist situation going on in the morning, I'd have to consider packing everybody up and driving to another city. I made a quick post to let everyone know we were OK and went back to sleep.

By the morning it was already apparent that what had taken place was actually an American-style mass murder by a disgruntled teenager rather than a terrorist attack, and there was no longer any active threat. No less horrific for the families of the children who had been killed and injured, but a relief for Munich and for us. We proceeded with our planned walking tour of Munich as though nothing had happened. Our first stop was the Elisabethmarkt in the bohemian neighborhood of Schwabing, north of the center. This was a quieter market than Viktualienmarkt with a more local vibe, but still with an excellent selection of produce and numerous small artisanal food shops.

Lunch next to the market was the classic combination of weisswurst, currywurst, and draft beer. From there we walked down Leopoldstrasse, the main drag of Schwabing, to the center. We encountered what appeared to be some kind of street festival in the process of being either set up or disassembled. I asked some of the folks involved if there would be a festival that weekend and they shook their heads. We learned that the previous night's events had resulted in the abrupt cancellation of all ongoing festivals in the city for the weekend. I felt somewhat guilty about being disappointed by this, considering several children had lost their lives. After walking around the cluster of palaces and museums in the center known as the Residenz, we walked through the beautiful green Hofgarten to the southern entrance of the Englischgarten. We watched the surfers try to tame the waves at the famous Eisbachwelle for a while, and then headed north. We soon encountered the nudist section of the park, much to Mei Ling's amusement. I suggested the whole family strip down and pose for a photograph from behind, but Mei Ling vetoed that idea.

We stopped at the Chinese tower beer garden for more beer and sausages, along with delicious grilled vegetables. It was good to see that there were hundreds of people enjoying the weekend in the beer garden despite the previous night's tragedy.

On our last full day in Munich, we walked around the gardens of the Nymphenburg Palace for a couple of hours. The grounds of the 17th century Baroque palace are very expansive and contain a complicated network of canals and beautiful lakes.

We spent the rest of the day at the nearby Hirschgarten, which had the best beer garden yet and tons of stuff for the kids to do. There was a splash park, playgrounds, a deer feeding station, and a small fair with plenty of rides. The highlight of the beer garden was Steckerlfisch, delicious and savory mackerel that were barbecued on a spit. We ate lunch, entertained the kids for a few hours, and then ate dinner at the same spot before heading home for another early night.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:14 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

The great cities of Central Europe road trip

After our epic road trip around the Adriatic in 2014, I started daydreaming about other routes that would take us through every part of Europe I'd ever wanted to visit. I settled on a time frame of four to five weeks, since it would be long enough to make the hassle and expense of flying and renting the car worthwhile yet not long enough to make us weary of traveling and managing the kids. This summer we were able to knock out two of my highest priority routes. I've already blogged about our Catalunya and Southern France trip, and this is the story of our month-long round trip that began and ended in Munich and took us to most of the great cities of Central Europe. Originally I had planned an eight country trip which would have begun in Frankfurt and included Zurich and Liechtenstein, but we would have needed at least another week to avoid skimping on the rest of the itinerary and we didn't want Cleo to miss her first week of Pre-K. I sliced the westernmost part of our circle away and moved our anchor point to Munich. We'll see the Rhine and Lake Constance on another road trip. That left us with Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and Czech for this trip which ended up feeling slightly rushed but overall a great experience.

Of course, every trip we take seems to spawn two or three new itineraries in my mind so we're no closer to completing our mission of seeing everything we ever wanted to in Europe. My highest priority trip at the moment will begin in Milan and take us through Tuscany, Corsica and Sardinia before concluding in Rome. I hope to get that one done in 2018 (in odd years we go to Asia). I have at least one other trip planned for Italy as well: Rome through Naples and the Amalfi coast to Calabria and Sicily and then back to Rome. Some other ideas in the pipeline are Barcelona to Bordeaux to Galicia to Northern Portugal and back to Barcelona; an Amsterdam round trip that would take us through Belgium to Luxembourg, Alsace, Switzerland and Western Germany; Berlin to Riga and back via Poland and Lithuania; and a couple of extensive trips through the Balkans and Greece and through Scandinavia that I haven't yet given much thought to. By the time we're done with Europe, the only European country I don't expect to have visited is Moldova. But then again, I never planned to go to Poland and now I can't wait to go back.

I think I'll experiment with being a little more succinct on this blog. I wrote up the first two European trips in exhaustive detail with a lot of pictures because I approached the blog as a living photo album that we could go back to to relive the memories of our trip. I like the idea of the kids reading it when they're older, having no real memories of the trip, and seeing their younger selves having fun in those forgotten places. Perhaps it will keep the fires of travel stoked in them when they've gone off to school and moved on from us. I went through a long travel drought in college and medical school simply because I had no idea how much fun it could be to travel on my own or with friends, then rediscovered it in my mid 20's. I've always regretted not taking a semester away in college. However, the downside of the long format is that it is very time-consuming to write, and it's not really accessible to someone who finds the blog because they're looking for a quick overview of an interesting part of the world. We've gone on a lot of trips before and since the Adriatic road trip that I didn't blog simply because I couldn't face the time commitment. I'll see if I can write this trip up in about half the pages and about half the time and decide if I like it as much as the other blogs I wrote. If so, I might blog some of our older trips including the USA road trips. It would be interesting to know what other readers think as well. I know some people come here and read the blog but never comment or provide feedback, so it's kind of like writing in a vacuum regarding what the general public wants to see.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:36 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

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