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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Europe Trip Report – Day 5 – Around Munich

This morning, once again – I am giving the Hilton Munich City hotel serious accolades. Here’s why…….

Today is our last day in Munich before heading up to Berlin for a couple of days. We realized this morning, not really to our surprise that we had planned a rather aggressive schedule of travel the next few days and we were asking for some trouble. Tonight we planned on taking a night train (nacht zug) to Berlin to kill two birds with one stone – we will not have to spend 6 hours of daylight on a train and we can avoid having another hotel stay. Then we were planning on being in Berlin at the Hilton Berlin for one night before taking another night train to Heidelberg. The only problem was that we did not have a night train with sleeper and would be making changes at 3:30am and 5:20am in the morning. Finally reality hit us this morning. So, a quick change of plans meant that instead of taking a night train in a couple of days, we will take a late afternoon train to Frankfurt for the evening before continuing to Heidelberg in the morning. However, we did not have a reservation. This is where the staff at the Hilton Munich City really helped. They called the Frankfurt Hilton, made a rewards reservation and took care of the whole thing for us. Too easy, and great job!

We spent our last day in Munich seeing the sites that our previous walking tours had not taken us on. Our first stop was the Munich Olympic Park.

While we have not yet seen Oliver Stone’s new picture, Munich – about the events that took place back in 1972, we still wanted to visit and see the park. We took the friendly S-bahn out to the grounds and walked around. One of the first sites we saw entering the park was a street vendor selling white asparagus or spargel – a popular delicacy in Germany.

The park is expansive and covers quite a bit of space. As you approach it, the first thing you notice is the tower (spire) that sits in the middle of it. We immediately recognized it from a past Amazing Race season where the contestants took a bungee jump off the top of it. Beyond that you see the interesting architecture of the buildings that make up the park. Each building is covered what can be described as a glass drape that has been placed over the top of them. They appear fluid and are supported by a wire system that lifts and provides tension to hold them in place. Perhaps the thing I find most puzzling about the Park and main Olympic stadium is that there are no World Cup preparations taking place. To my eye, it appears that this Olympic stadium is every bit as capable of hosting several World Cup matches as the soccer stadium on the outskirts of town used by Bayern Munich. However, it will not be. We make our way across the rest of the park to a hill that overlooks the entire park and take a couple of pictures before leaving.

As we exit the park, we heading to the nearest tram stop to catch a line that is heading towards the Nymphenburg Palace, our next stop. The Nympenburg palace, while relatively young in age is impressive from the walk up and has a sprawling set of gardens. We explore the gardens a little before running out time before we need to head back to the Marienplatz by the way of Karlsplatz.

Marienplatz’s largest attraction and one that we were really looking forward to was the clock tower. We purposely planned a day where we could see the clock ‘perform’ specifically at noon, because it would naturally last longer than the ones at 10:00am or 3:00. Watching the clock tower realizing its age and how long it has been operating is quite amazing. It is well worth the wait and spending the time to see it.

Here are some pictures from the rest of the afternoon:

Isator gate.

2006 World Cup preparations.

As we searched for a place to eat dinner, we realized that we needed a little break from the typical heavy German food that one has while in Bavaria. So, we came across a very interesting Argentinean/Brazilian restaurant chain, the Maredo Steak. It is located just a couple blocks off of Marienplatz at Rindermarkt 5 – right next to the open air market. In summary, nothing to write home about or make sure you see when you are in Germany. However, it did have a non-smoking section which was a plus.

Now we are off to the Munich Hauptbahnhof to catch our night train (nacht zug) to Berlin. Perhaps the biggest oddity about the trip is that we will be going to Berlin via Stuttgart and Frankfurt, the longer way rather than going the more direct route.

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Monday, May 01, 2006

Europe Trip Report – Day 4 – Bavaria & Neuschwanstein Castle

Today’s excursion is one that Ashley has been looking to for quite awhile – her return to King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle in southern Bavaria. She visited King Ludwig’s fairy tale castle back in 1997, this same one that Snow White’s castle that Disneyland in Anaheim is modeled after – important Disney connection! It will be my first trip to southern Bavaria to see the popular castle.

In our original planning being Americans, we did not consider the May Day holiday. While we planned to make a few other stops along the Romantic Road, however the abbreviated bus and train schedules for May Day had us change our plans just to head down to the town of Fussen.

We grabbed at quick bite to eat at executive floor at our Hilton Munich City hotel and hopped the quick S-Bahn down to main train station, the Hauptbahnhof. This experience was less stressful than our way in from the airport, as we picked up a German Rail Twin Pass for our planned train trips. We wrote in the date on the pass and headed down to the train station to have it activated. Once activated by the Deutsche Bahn attendant, we headed to our train platform.

The minutes before the train left provided a little bit of comedy for us. For our trip, since we knew we would be taking a night train (nacht zug) we went ahead and picked up the first class German Rail twin passes rather than the second class ones. For a five day pass, the price difference was less than $100, however there are a lot more non-smoking, no cell-phone, and spacious compartments.

As we attempted to get on our board, a German lady pleaded with us not to get on in the first class car. We motioned to her that it was ok, but she insistently pointed towards the second class car. We went ahead and boarded the train in the first class compartment as we realized that she was trying to keep us from making a common and costly mistake. Fines are steep for passengers sitting in the first class compartment that should not be, even if they are ignorant Americans.

Our train trip to the town of Fussen was quick and peaceful. During our quick train switch, several other multi-nationals (Americans and Japanese) decided to follow us. It made us feel good to know we were getting the hang of it again. The rest of the way provided breath-taking views of the German countryside as we saw the snow-capped Bavarian Alps grow bigger and bigger until we reached to the town of Fussen.

After getting off the train, we went to jump in line for the bus, when we again realized that we did not know when the bus would be coming or even if it would be. So rather than wait in line for an indeterminate amount of time, we hopped into a taxi and took it to the base of the “Royal Castles” in about 10 minutes for about 10 euros.

The Taxi dropped us off at the Ticket Center, where we waited in line to get tickets for our tour. Fortunately, the lines were not as long as some of the horror stories you hear. Our tour time was only about 60 minutes from when we got our tickets. Since it was a beautiful day, we decided to take the half mile walk up the steep winding slope. While walking up the mountain, we had some great views of the neo-Gothic Hohenschwangau Castle, where King Luwig II spent some 17 years there. The castle was undergoing restoration, so a large portion of the castle was hidden from view.

The way up to the castle provides some picturesque views of the valley around Fussen and of the Neuschwanstein castle itself. Once arriving at the top, I was surprised at the vast diversity of tours and languages. I had mainly expected Americans and Japanese tourists, but the tours were offered in several other languages including Italian.

The Neuschwanstein castle undoubtedly is a very beautiful from the outside. However, I never realized how unfinished the castle was. The two most impressive rooms are the throne room with Christ looking down on the twelve apostles and the six canonized kings of Europe. The Singer’s Hall on the 4th floor is equally impressive – although since it was not September we did not hear the Wagnerian concert.

The most impressive view from the castle is off the balcony of the king’s bedroom. From the window you can see the amazing 150 foot waterfall in the Pollar Gorge. Breathtaking.

Upon finishing our tour, we grabbed a quick bite at restaurant just at the bottom of the Schloss Neuschwanstein, with traditional German fare include apple streusel. After having the heavy meal, we decided to hoof it back to town to catch our train back to Munich. The walk turned out to be a little longer than we remembered – about 3 miles.

However, we did have the chance to walk through the down of Fussen and take in the principal shopping area in town, the Reichenstrasse. We arrived back at the train station with 15 minute to spare.

Once back in Munich, we headed down to our favorite area – Marienplatz. In the square, there was a concert and peaceful protest for the May Day celebration. A bunch of people in white lab coats and orange hats. We did not quite get it, but it was amusing.

For the evening and dinner we headed to the world famous Haufbrauhaus beer garden. The Haufbrauhaus is perhaps the most popular and widely known beer house (Biergarten) in the world. On this particular night it was packed with patrons and tourists alike, attracted to the beer, the camaraderie, and entertainment with lederhosen clad Germans dancing and singing German folk music. One very interesting fact about the restaurant is that many of the repeat visitors store their beer steins there in the lockup.

As we walked through the hall, we passed the pretzel station and Ashley’s eyes immediately lit up. I knew that very shortly we would be back to pick a couple of these huge wonders of bread up. The night itself was pretty calm as the Haufbrauhaus goes, on my previous trip to Munich a few years back – great beer and food.

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