Archive | June, 2011

A Castle Called Neuschwanstein

29 Jun

Somebody pinch me – I think I just woke up in a Disney movie. Ok, so maybe there weren’t any singing animals, princesses or evil step-sisters, but the Neuschwanstein castle is enough to make Walt Disney drool. (he actually used the castle to model the one in the Sleeping Beauty movie)

I mean, you really can’t get more fairytale than riding a horse-drawn carriage up the steep hills of the German Alps to the castle of Neuschwanstein. Being the budget travelers that we are, we opted for the bus ride, but I assure you the experience was no less magical. 

The castle itself was built by King Ludwig II, a man who knew a thing or two about castles. He is often called “The Fairy Tale Kinghe” because he built so many castles during his reign, the most famous being Neuschwanstein. 

I’m not sure what is more impressive though, the massive white towers of Ludwig II’s masterpiece, or the stunning backdrop of the German Alps. 

Set high up in the mountains, the castle has a panoramic view of the towering alps above and the sprawling green hills below, dotted with villages and lakes. 

The best view of castle is for those willing to brave the rickety wooden bridge across from the castle. The shear height of the deep gorge below along with the views of the castle and countryside are enough to take your breath away. 

The inside of the castle, while beautiful, is slightly less impressive. Perhaps because you can only see it while on a guided tour, or perhaps because it isn’t finished. Good old Ludwig II ran out of money before being able to decorate the whole thing. (Maybe someone should have worried a little less about castles and a little more about his bank account?)

What is finished of the castle is a tribute to Wagner, a favorite of the King. Each room has giant frescos depicting legends, such as Tristan and Isolde, and as you walk through the castle each room seems more impressive than the last. The king even had a fake cave added in by his personal chambers. 

The biggest pity? Ludwig II only got to live there for 172 days. 

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Dachau Concentration Camp

27 Jun

As we walked up the gravel path – past the guard towers and to the gate – a strange feeling washed over me. Was it sadness? anger? pity? You could sense that the place had a troubled history. 

We passed through the black iron doors, like so many “prisoners” had done years past. And there above us, in the black wrought-iron door, read the infamous lie:

“Work will set you free.”

There we were. Inside the former concentration camp of Dachau. 

About 25 minutes outside of Munich, tucked on the outskirts of a little town by the same name, Dachau provided the ideal spot for Hitler’s first concentration camp. It was close enough to Munich, which was the headquarters of the Third Reich, and it was also in a small village, where the townspeople either turned a blind eye or were too scared to ask questions. 

Dachau’s history is long and complicated, beginning in 1933 when it was taken over by the SS with the purpose of housing political prisoners. It quickly turned into the first concentration camp and served as the model for other camps, such as aushwitgz. 

The former entry building and shower house is now a museum,  complete with artifacts, pictures, first-hand accounts and video from the past. Winding through the building, you pass through a timeline of events, from the rise of the SS and the creation of the camp all the way through to its liberation in 1945. 

Then passing outside the museum, you enter the role call area, where “prisoners” were forced to stand for hours in lines. 

From there, you can see recreations of two of the housing units – all of which had been destroyed after the war. The most shocking fact was not the small space, but the fact that the windows in the bunk house were thrown open during the cold winter months and nailed shut during the smoldering summers. As the camp became extremely overcrowded and disease spread quickly, I can’t even imagine what the living conditions were like. 

Overall, I was shocked at the size of the camp. It was much smaller than I had imagined, especially because it was home to more than 200,000 prisoners during the time it was in operation. (official records note that more than 30,000 died while in the camp and another 10,000 at it’s sub-camps)

Then, tucked in the back corner of the camp was a place that few were allowed to visit: the crematorium and gas chambers, both original to the camp. 

Although Dachau never used the gas chamber for mass murder, a massive amount of “prisoners” died from other causes – guns, exhaustion, disease, malnutrition – to name a few. 

When the camp was liberated in 1945, American soldiers found the crematorium packed full of bodies.  There were too many to get rid of. 

I can only describe the accounts from the soldiers, along with the pictures and facts as powerful reminders of the past. But they give us hope that nothing of the such will happen again. 

Salzburg, Austria

26 Jun

“The hills are alive, with the sound of Music…” But we couldn’t manage to hear them over the hustle and bustle of our day spent in Salzburg. 

The birthplace of Mozart and home to the infamous rebel nun Maria, Salzburg was just as beautiful as the movie depicts. First, the Mirabel gardens (fast-forward to the “do, rey, mi” portion of the movie…. It’s the part with the fountain and the running) are as stunning as they are colorful. With winding rows of blooming flowers and trickling fountains, the garden has a perfect view of the Festung Hohensalzburg (hohensalzburg fortress) set high up on the hill. 

Setting out from the gardens we wound our way through the town and found Mozart’s childhood home, his birthplace, the family grave and even ate a few Mozart balls… Chocolate and pistachio candy, of course! A lovely compliment to some wiener schnitzel from a roadside stand. 

Then we braved the steep incline and took a tram up to the fortress (which I don’t recommend to those afraid of heights!). The fortress, which was started in 1077, grew and grew with the city until it became the large castle that it is today. 

The tour through the elaborate royal chambers was informational, not to mention it had beautiful views overlooking the town of Salzburg and the countryside – all surrounded by the high mountain peaks. 

My favorite part of the tour? Learning about Prince Archbishop Leonhard Von Keutschach, (good luck pronouncing that!) who was responsible for the building of a large amount of the castle. One day, while growing up in the countryside, little Leonard was hit on the head by a turnip and thus chose the mighty turnip as his coat of arms. The turnip coat of arms appears in the castle 58 times, but we only found about 20 of them. 

We left Salzburg through the winding hills (with their music) and made it to Munich by dinner.

Munich, Germany

26 Jun

Thanks to our GPS and the lack of speed limit on the German Autobahn, we quickly arrived to Munich.

(Sidenote: I only got our little Corsa up to 185 once, but people passed us like we were standing still! I don’t think I’ve seen the back end of so many Audis in my life!)

After a weird encounter with a pretty elaborate shrine to the late Michael Jackson (Europeans live that guy!) we stumbled upon an outdoor festival in the main square of Munich. We stayed long enough for some German sausages and some people watching. 

The rest of our three days in Munich were mostly spent outside the city at other places. Thanks to which I learned some very important German words, such as Ausfahrt (exit), Einfarht (entrance), and strasse (street).  And that’s about the extent of our German for ya! 

While in Munich we did have time to check out the first Hofbrauhaus, hang out in the main square, check out the cathedral, the royal gardens, and the Olympic park… Most of which were under construction! :/

Our first side trip to SALZBURG, Austria – home of Mozart and The Sound of Music. 

Zurich, Switzerland

26 Jun

After some serious driving through the streets of Brussels (those people drive like lunatics!) we made it to country number 3 – Luxembourg – in time for lunch and a few hours of sightseeing. Then it was down through the French countryside, which I’m sure would have been beautiful had it not been pouring rain. (starting to notice a rainy theme here?)

Then we finally arrived to Zurich, Switzerland for our second couchsurfing experience. We made it just in time to get some traditional Swiss food, which included lots of meat, sausages, etc. Not speaking any Swiss German myself, I couldn’t ask the waiter for a recommendation but I picked something with cheese, potatoes, pickles, etc and he said “the melted cheese?” There is clearly only one correct answer to that question: “yes, please!”

Little did I know that is exactly what I was getting. A big bowl of melted cheese with a few potatoes and pickles to dip in.   Talk about Swiss cheese! This may be one case where too much of a good thing is actually a good thing! 

After dinner it was out to enjoy Zurich  nightlife, which included the most American bar I’ve seen yet and many, many biciclers (most of which has probably been drinking).

The next day we had a few hours to explore the city and get a little lost. We headed to the Grossmunster church for a beautiful view of the city, the mountains and the lake. We spent a good amount of time feeding the swans, who ate nearly all of my pretzel, and then it was back on the road. 

Switzerland was lovely, but I don’t think I’ll be heading back until I have a few more Swiss francs to spend – the city is expensive! (We had to pay 40 euros just to get into the country!)  On a related note, I learned that a grocery clerk makes more money than I do teaching in Spain. Impending career/country change possible. 

Off to MUNICH, Germany – the beer drinking capital that’s home to oktoberfest and the original hofbrauhaus. 

Belgium

26 Jun

In a land famous for waffles, French fries, beer and chocolate – not to mention a little public urination –  what’s not to love about Belgium and its capital city Brussels? 

Home to the European Union headquarters and the birthplace of the french fry (all this time and I should have been calling it a Belgian fry?!) Brussels is an odd mix between old and new; ugly and beautiful – but even the ugly buildings give it a bit of charm! The most famous sights include the Grand Place, which (as the name suggests) is a grand place for a lot of things, such as:  gaping at the high buildings with their wonderful architecture,  strolling between the flower stands, taking pictures, and paying far too much for a meal.

And a trip to Brussels wouldn’t be complete without paying a visit to its most famous citizen: the Manneken Pis. 

You don’t need to be able to speak the language to understand that one – it’s exactly what it sounds like. One of the most famous things in Brussels is a statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain. The reason as to why or how the statue got there are varied (some say it was a tribute to the boy who saved the city of Brussels from a fire by peeing on it to put it out.) But the exact origin isn’t very clear. 

It’s popularity, however, is clear to see as it is crowded with photo-taking tourists most of the day. But the Manneken Pis need not feel lonely because there are the less-known peeing dog statue and the hard-to-find peeing girl statue both hidden throughout the city. We of course found both. And with the help of our couchsurfer host, we also managed to find a 2 liter mojito and some pretty tasty Belgian beer! 

We liked Brussels so much that we decided to stay in Belgium longer and took a trip to the fairytale city of Brugge – Belgium’s answer to Venice. Home to canals, old buildings, cobblestone streets and a coagulated vile of Jesus’ blood, Brugge was very beautiful. I’m sure it would have only been better if it hadn’t been pouring down rain for most of our stay. 

I’m thankful for our new opal corsa that we rented so we could      come and go as we pleased.

After 4 days, 3 nights, 2 orders of Belgian fries, and 1 giant waffel, it’s time to start the road trip version of the trip. To ZURICH or bust!  

A Little Stone in Blarney Castle

14 Jun

“Baloney is flattery laid on with a trowel. Blarney is flattery laid on with the lips; that is why you have to kiss a stone to get it.” 
-Monsignor Fulton Sheen

So reads one of the signs at the top of the Blarney Castle, the sight of the infamous Blarney Stone. 

If it weren’t for the short line and a camera man, one might easily miss the stone. But as you bend over backwards, grasping onto the metal rails, and dangle upside-down high above the ground below, you can’t help but believe that there is something special about the stone you are kiss kissing. 

I also found myself wondering “What kind of crazy came up with this idea?” 

Regardless of when or where, the Blarney Stone has become an integral part of Irish tradition (and tourism). Those who have been lucky enough to place their lips upon the stone are said to get the gift of gab. I’m still waiting for it to kick in, but I’m fairly confident the girl behind me on the bus has kissed the stone one too many times! 

If only they made a stone for sleeping on public transportation. Now that would be a something worth kissing!