Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Journey to Austria - The Goldbergs in Europe Days 9-11

We set out on the morning of Day 9 to drive from Prague to Austria.  In my infinite wisdom I thought that rather than take the route recommended to Salzburg by GPS, Google Maps, and every other navigation system imaginable, we should take a more direct route to Salzburg.  The reason for foregoing the recommended route was simple, we had already been on the route from Munich to Prague, and the return route from Prague to Salzburg had us on the same path.

My planned route had us going directly through the center of the Czech Republic, through Linz, Austria, and into Salzburg.  How bad could the roads be, right?  The Czech Republic is part of the EU, they have infrastructure.  Who cares if we don't speak the language, can't read any signs, and don't have any idea what areas are safe and what aren't...right?  right.

We had our new favorite breakfast at the Hotel Josef, did a quick walk around downtown Prague and headed for the highway...if you can call it a highway.  As we made our way through the 2 lane "highways" of the Czech Republic we were constantly stuck behind tractors, semis, mopeds, people on bikes, etc....there must be a better way.  I re-programmed the GPS to take us on the fastest way possible.  That's when the fun started.  Hannah was driving, as she wanted to drive when it was still light out, and it was "easy", aka, no mountains.

It seemed every road we turned onto was even more remote than the next.  The GPS consistently called the roads "Unnamed Road".  The roads twisted and turned through small towns of which we couldn't pronounce the names.  The roads were only wide enough for one car, and we were more and more concerned that a tire blowout or other breakdown would leave us stranded, unable to make a phone call, know our location, or communicate to anyone we encountered.

While this route map won't do our perils justice, it is clear that we didn't take the most direct route.

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When we reached Austria, it was probably the happiest 2 Jews have ever been to enter the Austrian borders.  Once we entered the country the roads had a name, we spoke enough of the language to get around, and we cruised with no issues all the way to Salzburg.  All things considered, we made it, although there were times that both of us doubted we'd ever make it out of trip unscathed.

We found our hotel in Salzburg and were immediately concerned.  The main reason for concern was not the musty smell in the hallways but the full size cutout of the what could only be the god of African moons on the door of our room.

Salzburg is a beautiful town, weather permitting, a quaint old town with shopping, a large castle on the hill above the city, and views of the nearby Alps in all directions.  While we arrived after dark we had worked up an appetite in our 6 hour driving ordeal so we strolled into the old city and enjoyed a light Austrian dinner of weiner schnitzel, potato balls, roasted pork, and of course, a Helles.

The plan for the following day was to jump back in the car and drive another 6 hours to Lucerne, Switzerland.  While I am a glutton for punishment, we thought it would be cruel and unusual to subject us to another all day driving trip across Europe, especially with rain in the forecast.  We made the call to relax and enjoy Salzburg for another day...

...and return to Munich a day earlier than planned.  As much as I wanted to show Hannah yet another country and beautiful city, no one was more happy than I to return to Munich and spend the time somewhere familiar.

Prague in a Day - The Goldbergs in Europe Day 8

We got off to a great start on Day 8 with a wonderful breakfast at the Josef Hotel's patio breakfast area.  The food was just right to give us the energy for a full day.

We took a quick stroll around the downtown area and popped in and out of some stores while we waited for our tour to begin.  The shopping and sites in Prague were just as I remembered them.  There were tons of stores selling crystal, glass, and more touristy souvenirs.  There were also all kinds of people from bachelor parties to old asian tour groups.  We were definitely not quite in our element.

We both had a perception of Prague going into the trip that was, to an extent, shattered when we realized that we were just two of about 30,000 tourists in Prague on any given Monday.

We decided that it was best to, rather than be constantly be annoyed by the multitudes of people of fanny packs and large cameras, that we should include them in our story.  Here are just a few:

We spent most of the afternoon on a private tour we arranged through the hotel with a great guide, named Teresa.  Teresa, a local of Prague, gave a great tour.  What was of special interest to Hannah and I was that she was one of the 6000 Jews actually living in Prague.  This is a tiny fraction of the number that lived in this city before the 1900s.  This is evident by the tour of the Jewish quarter where we saw at least 5 synagogues in a tiny area.  Teresa explained to us that the loss of 2 generations of Jews in the 20th century has diminished not only the Jewish population but also the ability for young Jews to meet other young Jews.

We stopped for a quick picture for our parents at the wall devoted to the memory of John Lennon.  Lennon's was special time for Prague as it signified speaking out against communism and led up to the end of it.

Our tour of the old town, Jewish quarter, King Charles Bridge, and the Prague Castle ended at the monastery where the monks have brewed their own special beer for hundreds of years.  This was a great time to treat ourselves and our guide to a little local flavor.

After having a farewell drink with Teresa, Hannah and I stopped off for a beer at the oldest pub in Prague.  This pub was nothing more than a couple of old men sitting in what looked like an old stone building serving Czech beer from behind a table.

 It would have been a quick beer if it wasn't for making the acquaintance of Matz and Martin.  Matz and Martin were two extremely animated Swedish fellows that Hannah I spent the next 3 hours chatting with at the pub.  Actually, they did most of the chatting.   We were most impressed by how they had memorized every episode of Friends, Family Guy, The Simpsons, and Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia....quite a mix.  We took turns trying on their Jagr hockey jerseys and taking random pictures.

They consistently berated us for knowing nothing about hockey players, especially the Swedish ones.  I think they thought that if they kept saying names of players that we'd miraculously become experts at the sport.

We narrowly managed to escape the clutches of the Swedish and went out for another decent, yet overpriced dinner in Prague.  In as much as we had a great time together, we were looking forward to going to a less touristy place and seeing more of Europe.

Dachau and The Journey Out of Munich - The Goldbergs in Europe Day 6-7

We got a late start the morning after we went to the HofBrau Haus.  Although we were both tired the next morning, we felt surprisingly good, given the amount of beer and sausage we had consumed the night before.  German beer never lets you down, not even the next day.  We did, however, wonder if anyone caught us on hidden camera dancing around the train station with a bratwurst.

We decided today was the best day to go see the Dachau Concentration Camp.  We took the S2 train to Dachau, and after a short bus ride arrived at the camp.  It always surprised me how close the camp existed to Munich.  It wasn't more than a 20-30 minute train outside of Munich.  Not a very uplifting experience, but it was definitely something that Hannah wanted to do on our trip, and I was happy to go back and experience it with her.  Dachau had changed quite a bit in the 12 years since I had last been.  The local organizations had put a lot of effort into making it more accessible to visitors.  We did the audio tour of the camp, trying in the 2 hours we had to see all of the exhibits.  Dachau's grounds have remnants of the atrocities of the concentration camp while providing recounts by survivors. 

One of the most powerful things for us was the Jewish memorial which is a sloping cave with a small hole in the top that allows light into the cave, which we felt could be interpreted as a glimmer of hope.

After the visit to Dachau we realized that our days on this stint in Munich were coming to an end.  We were exhausted to the point of delirium after the past week, especially after the Hofbrau Haus the night before but we managed to pull ourselves together and find a nice Greek Restaurant in my old neighborhood.  The hardest part of motivating ourselves is getting out of the house, yet once we were out we had a great time as usual.  For some reason we can't seem to order a meal in Germany without ordering enough food to feed a family of 4.  We stuffed ourselves with strips of delicious Greek Gyros, shrimp, salads, and of course Helles.

The next morning we said Auf Wedesehen to our lovely apartment which we had come to love and call home and started off at Hannah's favorite place in Munich, the good ole Hauptbahnhof.  I think next time we come to Munich I'll just set us up on a bench at the train station.  This will serve two purposes, it will save us a ton of money on accommodation, and let my wife spend time in her favorite place in the world.  Maybe we'll even upgrade to an ATM vestibule, but we'll see what's available.
After stocking up on water, fruit, sandwiches, musli, candy, cookies, and chips, we got our Hertz rental car, a Chevy Cruise, with manual transmission…something you'd never get in a rental in at home…and hit the Autobahn, Prague or bust.

We cruised along the beautiful countryside, passing towns, hillsides, and farms along the way.  At times we pushed the limits of that Chevy to past 100mph, loving the freedom to drive as fast as we wanted…yet still being passed like we were standing still by BMWs and Audis.  When we arrived in the Czech Republic there was a stark difference in of course the language, but also the infrastructure, and the countryside.  The manicured look of the German landscape turned into a much less maintained, cultivated look.  We know the reasons for this, but to see such a strong disparity in just a few miles was evidence of the strong economic differences between these two countries.

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We arrived in Prague at about 4pm and easily found our hotel, the Josef Art Hotel.  This hotel was recommended to us by a client of mine, and was by far the nicest hotel we ended up staying in on our trip.  There were obviously plenty of choices of hotels in Prague, but choosing based on a website wasn't ideal at all.  It was great to get the recommendation of someone who had lived and worked in Prague.  We had a nice patio for having coffee and writing, and the included breakfast was served every morning on a sunny patio.

We only had two nights and one full day in Prague, and it turns out this was just enough time.  I had been to Prague a few times many years before, but obviously the 12 years in a country that architecturally peaked 400 years ago, this didn't make a difference in the sights.  You would think that the lifetime of one isn't consequential in a city such as Prague, but when you reflect on what has happened in this city and others in Europe from 1930 to the present you realize that this only holds true for architecture, not the dynamics of the local population or the mentality of the people.

We found a seemingly local establishment with an Argentinian theme.  We remembered that we weren't in Argentina, but in fact, in Prague and immediately realized that they got us again...we were in a tourist trap.  We had  a quick drink, solely to be polite, and got out of there as quickly as possible, right before the tango show started.   We then found what appeared to be a slightly more local feeling establishment, but the smoke was so thick that we felt it better to have a quick drink and leave before suffocating.

That evening we went out to a very nice, although probably tourist priced restaurant in the city center called Apostila.  It was a great meal and a great experience, and we realized that finding a local restaurant in Prague with "local" prices was hard, if not impossible for us, not knowing the language or having any idea where to find the local scene.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lake Starnberger - The Goldbergs in Munich Day 5

Day 5 will go down in our memories as a perfect vacation day.  We spent the day relaxing with The Murphy's at Lake Starnberger, a beautiful lake situated at the foot of the alps, about 30 minutes south of Munich on the S-Bahn train.  The Alps were in the distance and seemed to become closer as we moved the lake.

It was around 11:30am, which was perfect time for the first beer of the day.  Weissbier was the beer of choice...the morning beer.  Where else but Europe would you be served a tall glass of beer on a ferry boat...and looking around notice that everyone else on the ferry was also drinking a beer at 11:30am.  Ciaran and I couldn't have planned our outfits any better....good thing I called him in the morning and told him to wear sunglasses and a black jacket.

We had a wonderful lunch on the banks of Lake Starnberg.  The weather couldn't have been nicer, and even Finian agreed that it was sunny enough for sunglasses. 

Back in Munich we stopped by the Murphy's new apartment which they had just gotten keys for that week.  The apartment, very near Rosenheimer Platz, was in a perfect Munich location.  Seeing their apartment and plans for their new life was very reminiscent of my days in Munich.  

That evening Hannah and I spent an evening at the Hofbrauhaus…to anyone who's ever visited Munich it needs no introduction.  When you get to the HB Haus you can't understand how anyone would ever want to spend more than the requisite one beer….its loud, there are tourists everywhere taking pictures and staggering around drunk, people are inappropriately hanging on strangers and either telling you how much they love you and your country or hate you and your country.  After 30 minutes you find yourself telling everyone how much you love them, hanging inappropriately on strangers, and cheering incessantly when the band starts playing.

We met plenty of interesting characters that night, including, but not limited to the 50 year old farmer from Bavaria and his cousin who kept telling us about the ease of obtaining illicit drugs in Prague, the young overly affectionate couple from Africa who live in Munich, the 7 kids from Koln who immediately friended us on Facebook, and the winner of the US beer stein holding championships (to the right) who was awarded a trip to Munich for holding a beer glass for 7 minutes, longer than anyone who somehow realized they had a talent for this.

 The Bavarian farmer and I had one thing in common, we both have the same fat fingered hands.  No where else but the HofBrau Haus is this something that you bond over.  After talking to this fellow and his cousin for 2 hours we stood up to take a picture, turned around and they were gone.  They sidled out like thieves in the night, never to be heard from again.

As we headed home, not even slightly sober, we stopped by our favorite place in Munich, the hauptbahnhof, which seems to be the place where we start and end every day.  We cleaned them out of sausages and danced and ate through the train station.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Day of Rest - The Goldbergs in Munich Day 4

Between the Thai Food, German Food, beer, pretzels, and castles, Munich had taken its toll on the happy couple.  We were in need of a Sabbath.  We made a decision on Day 4 to relax and left later in the day to spend time walking around some of Munich's beautiful neighborhoods.

We started by taking the subway to Marienplatz and walking through the back streets to Sendlingor Tor, which is landmarked by it archway leading to it.  As we walked through Sendlingorstrasse we stopped off for a quick weiner schnitzel on a roll zum mit nehmen (to go) and shared it as we walked.

As we walked I taught Hannah how to say a useful phrase in German....Konnen Sie ein Photograph machen (Can you please make a picture?).  We later learned from our friend Danka that she was actually asking people to "make a Photographer".  That must have sounded very presumptuous to think that she was capable of making a photographer or that the person she was asking would even want to make a photographer with her.  No one seemed to mind though, but they did look confused when we handed them our camera.

 After some wandering around Sendlingor Tor we jumped on the U6 U-Bahn and headed up to the Giselastrasse stop.  This area, called Munchner Freiheit, is full of locals and travelers alike shopping and enjoying the bars and restaurants, far away from the uber touisty areas around Marienplatz.  We popped into a few shops and bars and eventually found ourselves having a beer at a local pub while we waited for an unexpected hail storm to pass.

After walking and a few beers we had dinner at one of my old favorite spots in this area called Wirsthaus zur Brez'n.  This is a place where I always brought visitors when they came to town.  Its got the authentic German Beer Hall food with more of a hip trendy vibe.  We had the best service we've had yet in a German restaurant and even though we didn't order very well, still enjoyed our meal of roasted pig and ribs of a pig....and of course the Munich specialty, asparagus soup with a slice of pig.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Schloss Neuschwanstein - The Goldbergs in Munich Day 4

Day 4 started much like Day 3, beautiful weather forecast, a quick walk to the Hauptbahnhof, a Starbucks, and a bratwurst mit semmel.  We then hopped a train to arguably the most beautiful tourist trap known to man....on earth....in the universe....ever.  Schloss Neuschwanstein is another beautifully ornate castle built by the crazy, eclectic King Ludwig II.  It amazes me how one person be so beloved by millions of Germans during his life and after his apparent suicidal drowning when he spent all of the taxpayer money building castles that had no use or significance aside from honoring Richard Wagner?  All that aside, they are some pretty amazing places to visit...at least he gave us all nice places to spend the day.

We took the train 2 hours south to the town of Fussen where we hopped off for our trek to the castle.  If Hannah was writing this blog she would describe her total astonishment and annoyance that I didn't pack as much as a book, magazine, iPad, or game for the 2 hour trip (each way).  Shame on me for wanting to spend quality time staring at each other on a slow train that stopped every town between Munich and The Alps.  I will likely never live that one down.

We decided that even though Hannah still had a cold that wasn't yet getting any better that we should rent bikes and ride them to the castle.  How hard could it be, there were tourists everywhere walking to it, right?  It wasn't hard, it was vertical.

We were actually forbidden from taking the bikes up to the top, but this is where signs and warnings of ticket takers fell on the deaf ears of American tourists.  I felt terrible for the wife and her cold, but she made it.

Along the way we stopped for some great views of the Alpensee at the foot of the massive hill we were about to climb.

As we ascended to the summit of tourism we couldn't help but feel like we deserved more sausage.

We took a tour of the castle, led by Marcus, who reminded us of a character from the Princess Bride.  It appeared to the first day he had given the tour or spoken English.  He made it through it though, we were proud of Marcus.

Sometimes I just want to see things through Hannah's eyes.

After the nonsense we headed back into town on the bikes.  The 30 minute ride up took 30 seconds to get down.  We then made sure to nourish ourselves before hopping back on the train for the ride home.

When we returned to Munich, we had 2 choices....sit in the apartment or make something of our evening and hit the town.  After much online searching we hit the road and took the subway back to my old hood and sat at the buzzing News Cafe and had a nice glass, myself the California Cabernet and Hannah the Sauvignon Blanc, of course.  The News Cafe is a hip spot for a drink or dinner and is riddled with students and young professionals enjoying the Munich night life.

After walking by Terrine where we had our original reservation we decided to call an audible and hit up a Thai place we saw along the way.  The restaurant, Kon Tuk, was one of the best meals we have had in a very long time.  The fresh ingredients, the lack of hormones in the meats, and the attention to authenticity make the food in Germany surprise, no matter what the cuisine.  What made the meal even better was that we got the pleasure of wondering who dressed this fellow and why neither of us could ever pull off this outfit.