Saturday, August 15, 2009

Germany 2009 Trip Report

This trip was to celebrate our 25 anniversary. We are from a small town in Oklahoma and have never traveled out of the US other than to the Caribbean. Just the two of us traveling this time, we left the three teenagers at home.

Day 1:

Our flights on American Airlines out of Kansas City were smooth, but a late start out of Chicago resulted in us arriving late to Heathrow. We had about 30 minutes to make our next flight to Munich. If you were in Heathrow on Friday, June 19th, I am sure you noticed us. We were the out of shape sprinters. When we got to security I frantically flagged down a worker and begged for help to make our next flight. Thankfully we were taken through security quickly. We probably still would have missed the flight, but when we arrived at the gate we found that our flight to Munich was delayed 30 minutes. I will never again criticize the contestants on “The Amazing Race”. It looks so simple from home! We breathed a sigh of relief when we finally got on that last plane.

We arrived in Munich at 4:00 pm excited and a bit apprehensive about being totally out of our comfort zone especially since the only German we know is in our pocket size translator book. We located the Avis desk and picked up our compact car with GPS unit without any problems. As we were leaving Munich heading towards Fussen where we would spend our first two nights, my husband mentioned that “Ausfahrt” must be a pretty good size city to have so many exits. Turns out ausfahrt means “exit” in German…lol!

After we drive awhile we spot a McDonald’s which is of course synonymous to “public restroom” so we make a pit stop. Even the familiar McDonald’s was interesting. It was two stories and had such a small parking lot that we were required we parallel park. My husband makes it up the stairs before me and I find him hesitating between the restroom doors. There are no symbols only words. German words. He points to the “Damen” door and tells me he is “pretty sure” that is the ladies and why don’t I go ahead in and see? Being “pretty sure” you are correct is just not enough when it comes to restrooms. I found someone to verify!

We arrive in Fussen and find a picture perfect town with cobblestone streets and pretty buildings. After driving in circles for a bit we locate Hotel Zum Hechten, our first hotel recommended by Rick Steves. We find our room to be basic but nice, with interesting bedding, shiny updated bathroom, flat screen TV and cute balcony with bright red geranium window boxes. Our two night stay at 94 Euros a night was very pleasant!

Day 2:

When we awake the next morning we are a bit disappointed to be greeted by cloudy skies and the threat of rain. Rain turns out to be our weather forecast for the week but after receiving reports from home where the heat index was 108 degrees we decide to embrace the weather and be thankful that we are not hot! We enjoy the hotel breakfast buffet included in our rate, although we find the sandwich fixin’s a bit strange, and head out to explore. Our plan is to stop in Mittenwald on the way to visit Castle Reifenstein in Vipiteno, Italy. We ooh and ahh at the beautiful scenery all the way to Mittenwald. We are from a rural area where crops and cows are common but have never seen such groomed fields and our cows do not wear bells!

We spent a pleasant couple of hours in Mittenwald. We visited the church and several of the shops and took lots of photos of the painted buildings. Unfortunately the rain began to come down pretty steady at this point so we did not spent as much time here as we would have otherwise.

The reality that we were actually in Germany, Austria and then Italy was truly amazing! We were in awe of the fact that we are actually seeing the Alps, the ALPS! In person! Around every bend in the road there was a picturesque town and we could not believe that each town seemed to have a prominent church. During this drive there were a few times of intense stress. We probably should have read the instructions on the GPS before using it. I think it would have been easier to discover that if a wrong turn is made or you lose the signal just to keep with the instructions and it will turn out ok. We spent a lot of time not trusting the GPS and wondering if we were lost. In retrospect we did not have any problems driving or finding our way, but there was a bit of underlying stress of autobahn driving and just general stress of not knowing where the heck we were. Of course my husband is now bragging that he “drove the autobahn”!

We took a great many photos and eventually found our way to Vipiteno. We drive around taking in the sights of this small town which seems different than Germany or Austria even though it is just over the border. We need directions to the castle so I take advantage of a refueling stop and ask the attendant and another customer. There was a lot of smiling and gesturing and a few English words but not nearly enough to actually locate anything. By this time it is early afternoon and seems a long time since our breakfast sandwiches so we decided to take a break for some lunch at a small hotel. When we are handed the menu it is, of course, in Italian. Our German menu coder is not going to help here! My husband was very brave and just pointed at a selection and ended up with some type of rice dish. It was very obvious to our waiter that we couldn’t read a word. He asked me “spaghetti?” and I was grateful to say “yes”! We found our experience with language very interesting in this town. We had not traveled far but we couldn’t find anyone that had enough English to direct us to the castle!! We did finally SEE the castle up on the hill but by the time we located it the tour time had passed and we were exhausted. Although we didn’t tour the castle who could complain? We just had lunch in ITALY!! We oohed and ahhed our way back to Fussen with a break for shopping in Innsbruck.

Day 3:

Our Germany information before this trip was pretty limited but one thing I was aware of was that Walt Disney’s castle was inspired by a castle in Germany, so I was really looking forward to seeing Ludwig’s castles on our second day. After our bologna sandwich breakfast (just kidding, kind of) we took the 10 minute drive to the castles. We purchased our tickets through the hotel receiving a small discount and would have avoided long ticket lines if they would have existed. We walked up the hill to Hohenschwangau Castle, took a great many photos of the beautiful castle and views and enjoyed the tour with about 20 others.

After visiting the public restroom where we paid 50 cents to urinate for the first time in our lives (yes I took a photo of the machine), we got in line for the bus to go up the hill to Neuschwanstein Castle. We were awaiting the bus when it seemed like flood gates were opened and many, many people poured in. It was still very manageable since the tours are timed but I think it would be advantageous to arrive as early in the day as possible. We made a brief stop on Mary’s Bridge before walking the last few minutes up the hill to Neuschwanstein Castle. The view of the castle from the bridge is certainly worth the short walk. I was informed on Fodor’s board to expect scaffolding on the castle, or I would have been disappointed. Another walk and we were at the castle entrance. One small tip: you place your ticket in a machine to enter when your tour time is posted. Similar machines in the US actually take your ticket into the machine and then you proceed through the turnstile. The machine at the castles do not take the ticket they just scan it; you keep it in your hand and proceed through. I felt for the Americans who did not understand the procedure and were not able to get through the turnstile. The line was backing up and they were frantically looking for help as we passed by. Speaking of Americans, we found it so interesting that we could spot the Americans a mile away. They were the only overweight people with ball caps and big white tennis shoes. I am sure they were engaging in conversation about “so much walking” just as we were. We enjoyed the Neuschwanstein Castle tour, made a few gift shop purchases and headed back down towards the horse drawn carriages. We just reached a cafĂ©/gift shop with umbrella tables when the rain started. Pouring rain!! We were so very fortunate in our timing. We stopped for some lunch, purchased an additional umbrella and then rode the covered carriage down without ever getting wet!

Originally we had planned to spend one more night in Fussen but we decided to go ahead and head up the Romantic Road on this rainy Sunday afternoon when everything was closed. We made a stop at Wieskirche on the way. My first impression as we drove up was a bit disappointing. I had imagined a picture perfect setting with a beautiful church in a meadow. I did not picture the souvenir stands right on top of the front door, but once I stepped in the door the souvenir stands were forgotten. We are not Catholic and Rococo is not our style but it didn’t matter, this church is really special. I loved the ceiling with Jesus on the rainbow! Wieskirche was one of the most memorable sights we enjoyed in Germany.

We spent the rest of the day enjoying the drive up the Romantic Road towards our next destination of Rothenburg. So many things to see and discuss! We get as far as Dinkelsbuhl and decide to call it a day. We do not have a reservation but we get out our trusty Rick Steves book which recommends the Hotel Palmegarten. We are not surprised to find a very attractive hotel with beautiful flowers when we arrive. The manager was not onsite but came within minutes of our call and gave us our key to our small but very clean room. No paperwork, no credit card, she didn’t even ask us our name, just a friendly greeting and told us she would see us in the morning! The room was a bit dated but had a lot of character including a small chandelier and a balcony overlooking charming houses. We enjoyed a meal across the street and had an early night. I had not been sleeping well so far on the trip. I always have trouble sleeping when not at home and maybe I had the additional thoughts of what those three teenagers we left at home were up to, but lack of sleep was certainly not due to noise. One thing we were beginning to notice was how quiet our hotels have been. I guess lack of sleep and the very quiet hotel with a comfortable bed caught up to us and we didn’t awake until 10:30 the next morning which is very unusual for us! We made our way down about 11:00. After good morning greetings we are SHOCKED to find that the manager didn’t want us to miss breakfast although we were an hour late, so she saved the breakfast buffet for us. Needless to say we highly recommend the Hotel Palmegarten! 75 Euros for a spotlessly clean room, free wireless, excellent location, awesome friendly service and definitely breakfast!

Day 4:

We arrived rested in Rothenburg and really loved the town. The cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes, beautiful buildings! We enjoyed touring St. Jakobs Lutheran Church which was such a contrast with Weiskirche Church. We are Lutheran so found it especially interesting. We also enjoyed the Crime and Punishment Museum. There were so many wonderful shops to explore and I was excited to realize that a Black Forest Cuckoo Clock would actually work in our budget. Anneliese Friese Shop offers a 20% discount on purchases with the Rick Steves book so we go in and once again received some very special customer service. When I showed Ms. Friese the book she greeted me as if we were long lost friends, she showed me photos of Rick visiting the shop and she autographed a map of Rothenburg for us which I thought was very sweet. We left the shop with a HUG and not because we made a purchase large enough to warrant one!

I had read several times that for the best Rothenberg experience you should spend the night, but it was still shocking what a difference it made. When the shops closed and the tour busses left, the town became almost deserted. We planned on taking the Night Watchmen’s Tour but unfortunately when we arrived at the square we found that although the town was very empty in comparison to what it had been, the 300 people that were left in town were all going on this tour! I am really not even exaggerating much on the amount of people. There were two HUGE school groups and various others. We decided that this was not what we had in mind for our anniversary evening so instead we took a long walk around the city wall and enjoyed a picnic in the castle garden which was right outside the Hotel Kloster Stueble. Since this was our actual anniversary we splurged a bit on this hotel and were not disappointed. We had a wonderful third story loft style room called the Falcon’s Nest. It included a sitting area, beautiful furnishings, gorgeous tub and shower, flat screen TV, and breakfast. 176 Euros and worth every penny!

Day 5:

Our first stop on our drive back to Munich where we will spend our next two nights is Castle Baldern. This castle is located near Bopfinger about 20 minutes off the Romantic Road. We do not know anything about the castle and located it only because it is listed on our road map. We find a castle at the end of the winding mountain road that included a large walled courtyard with imposing buildings, etc. The next tour starts in minutes and we are the only ones touring! Our friendly guide apologized for limited English but we greatly enjoyed seeing the castle and she conveyed plenty of information to us.

This castle certainly had a “lived in” feeling, some original furnishings and lots of weaponry. It has not been restored other than the roof (if we understood correctly) and is a bit faded, worn and very real.

In Harburg we stopped for lunch before visiting the castle, in what we thought was a restaurant, but turned out to be a deli. They had some prepared foods and a small eating area and a server with nonexistent English. It was a bit confusing to place our order but we managed and felt as if we were really on an adventure!

After our lunch adventure and driving through the cute town of Harburg we find the Harburg Castle. Unfortunately we find that an English tour is not offered. We decide to go ahead and take the German one. We figure we can at least look! The guide did speak English and was kind enough to say a few sentences to us in English in each location after the German explanation. It was a good tour for us and I am sure a great tour for those that could understand everything being said! We learned that the castle is owned by the same man that owns the Baldern Castle and he lives in the area in a third castle. Wow!

We eventually arrive in Munich using our GPS unit, which has now become our friend, and easily locate the Pension Lindner where we will spend our next two nights. Our clean double room with private bath included wireless internet, breakfast and was in an excellent location about a block from the Marienplatz. We were surrounded by all kinds of shops and restaurants and again enjoyed great service. 75 Euros per night.

Day 6:

We were thankful that the location of our hotel allowed us to walk to all of the sights in the area. We enjoyed the various churches, especially the Asamkirche, The Residence, people watching and shopping. Shopping opportunities abound here with all kinds of what looked to be very nice clothing, jewelry stores, etc. We spent our time and money in the t-shirt, beer mug, refrigerator magnet venues (we’re hicks remember?) but there certainly seems to be something for everyone! We spent our last evening in Munich with the inevitable visit to the Hofbraeuhaus. Somehow we managed to find our way in the backdoor to the upstairs hall (it is just amazing how not being able to read signs affects everything!) where a buffet and corny stage show are offered. Arriving in the backdoor enabled us to scout the buffet, which left a lot to be desired, and we were happy to find that ordering from the menu was also an option. We found the Hofbraeuhaus mildly entertaining. My lack of enthusiasm may be due to the fact that I was drinking coke as opposed to a liter of beer.

Day 7:

We woke up on our last day in Germany a bit sad to see a great vacation coming to an end but also looking forward to the comforts and kids at home. We did a bit more walking and shopping soaking in the atmosphere and then headed out to tour Dachau on the way to the airport.

We felt almost obligated to visit such an important sight in history and found the grounds and museum to be very well done. Dachau was stark, cold and depressing just as it should be. I can’t say that we enjoyed the tour but we were happy that we went.

We enjoyed one last ooh and ahh drive through additional picturesque small towns before spending our last night in Germany at the Kempinski Airport Hotel. We chose the Kempinski for convenience for our 7 am flight home. We enjoyed the American style bedding, plush bathroom and continental breakfast for 139 Euros.

This first trip to Europe was a very big deal for us. World travel is not a common experience within our friends and families, but something I have always dreamed of doing (most world travelers we know went on a ticket from Uncle Sam). We enjoyed every minute of our time on this vacation even the times of stress and especially the times where we had issues with language or felt out of our comfort zone. We were impressed over and over by the beautiful scenery, architecture, cleanliness, and friendliness of the people we encountered. We enjoyed a great vacation that expanded our world and consequently our children’s world as well. Thanks to all who answered my posts to help me plan this great adventure and for reading this lengthy report!

We loved Germany!

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