Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bier Hall Walkabout Part 3

Our final destination on our quest to find Munich's best beer and beer hall was the famous Hofbrauhaus. We had a feeling this would be our favorite and we were right.

Besides the never-ending array of tables as far as you can see in all directions and the jovial patrons, there are three things you immediately notice in the Hofbrauhaus that distinguish it from other beer halls:

the racks of locked steins (for regular patrons)...

...the lively oompah band playing and singing entertaining drinking songs,
 in German...

...and men and women attired in traditional Bavarian clothing - lederhosen, feather hats and dirndls...

 ...enjoying their mugs of beer under their stammtisch (reserved) signs
hanging above the tables where they meet regularly.

At the Hofbrauhaus, you can only buy beer (except for their Weissbier) by the one-liter mug. 
We didn't mind that at all. :))) We both gave the HB beer 5 points.

 Naturally, the menu was all German...

We challenged ourselves to decipher the food choices without our German/English dictionary. After all, we'd been in Germany over a week now, we should recognize many of these words by now, ja? Nein. Our server kindly explained the entrees in English...

...and Tom ended up with this delicious meal - a definite 5 points.

Mine was good, too. Chalk up another 5 points.

I have heard and read that the beer hall servers can hold up to ten full mugs of beer at a time (five per hand). I struggled to hold three in one hand...including an empty one...hurry up and take the picture! 

FINALLY! A smiling picture of Tom - courtesy of Frau Buxom...Tom and Steve both enjoyed her serving skills; every time she leaned over the table to grab our glasses or deliver more mugs of beer and our food, their eyes widened as they waited expectantly for her ample bosom to pop out of her low cut bodice...alas, they waited in vain.

Before we walked back to our hotel for the night, we peeked into the upstairs festaal (fest hall?) where there is a nightly folk festival and all-you-can-eat buffet. The place was packed! Adolph Hitler reportedly gave his first speech before a large crowd was in this room.

If you've been monitoring our points closely, you've noticed that Tom gave all the beers 5 points, showing that as far as he is concerned, beer is beer, they are all good. I, on the other hand, am a little bit more discerning, with very particular likes and dislikes depending on the flavor, after-taste, and tap vs. bottles or cans (preferably tap beer). The combination of the frothy beer, festive atmosphere, and reasonably priced and tasty food are what propelled the Hofbrauhaus to the top of the list and into the beer hall winner's circle.

But truly, all the beer halls are winners in their own way, and we discovered the Munchners have a great attitude about life and beer - YOLO!!

Friday, July 29, 2011

What Time Is It?

A frequent thought or question. How do you find out the time, especially in public places? I check my watch all day long, and am so used to wearing one, I feel naked without one on my wrist. My adult sons seldom wear a watch; I don't think my youngest son even owns one. They consult their cell phones, iPad or computer for the correct time.

Trier Cathedral
I like the European approach to discovering the current time of day. We never had to wonder for long what time it was in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. Everywhere you turn there's a clock - on city buildings, houses, banks, lighthouses, church towers, and hanging over streets. There are ornate clocks, plain clocks, cuckoo clocks, clocks with chimes, and clocks with bells. Some clocks have Roman numerals, others have English numerals; no digital clocks. As if that wasn't enough, church bells rang every 15 minutes, so if you couldn't actually see a clock, which was rare, the bells would tell the time. Here are some of the most interesting clocks we saw.
Hanging off an Art-Deco building in Trier

Baden Baden's Famous Casino

Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks

Also from the Black Forest

A building in Lindau with elaborate frescoes, and a clock on front...

Zoomed in view...

...and just in case you missed the front, a clock on the back (above and to the right of the arched window)
Boaters and boardwalkers can find the time on Lindau's lighthouse

Munich's City Hall Clock and Glockenspiel

TWO clocks on one church steeple in Munich

Another Munich church

This clock greets shoppers on colorful Getreidegasse, Salzburg's center of trade for hundreds of years

And if you stroll down the same Salzburg street in the opposite direction, you see this pretty one 
Hallstatt's Protestant Church, built in 1863, with clocks on the tower

Hallstatt's Catholic Church also has clocks on all four sides of the tower

A church in Vienna

St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna
Back in the U.S. I see outdoor clocks in only two places - on a courthouse and some city hall buildings. And I only hear the melodious ringing of church bells just before Sunday mass. I'm glad I have a watch or I'd never know what time it is. YOLO!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How NOT to Shop and Pay for Souvenirs

This is my dumb blond moment of the trip...

First, some background. I'm female. I was born to shop. It's hotwired in my brain. I think most females are wired that way. And it seems most men are not.

When we travel, along with exploring all the sites, seeking out all the adventures, and tasting the different foods and beers, I like to shop for a few souvenirs. Nothing big, certainly nothing expensive, just a few mementos here and there to remind me of the places we've been. Or something little to take home for family and friends. And I don't always have to buy something; most of the time I just like to look.

I've learned over the years to buy useful things, items I will actually use and not just move around the house from place to place and then to a box and finally to a garage sale. Lately, I've been buying tea towels (kitchen, linen). Now those are certainly useful. I also have a large collection of shot glasses - small, cute and useful at parties. Sometimes I buy Christmas ornaments - sometimes because I'm very particular about what I want - handmade from the location I'm visiting - not made in China or Japan. I also like ceramics, made locally, preferably by the person selling them, and really have to restrain myself in those shops. Lately I've been buying local tea in their small grocery stores - my favorites of the ones I try during breakfast, flavors and/or brands that we don't have here in the U.S.. (I searched all over for two weeks for a certain brand of vanilla tea and finally found it at our last stop, Vienna.)

Tom, meanwhile, does not like to shop. Anywhere. Anytime. Especially on vacation. However, he doesn't seem to mind sitting in a bar or cafe drinking a beer or two while I shop. So, we've found the perfect compromise: as long as I can find a good place to park him for a half hour or so, I can shop.

Now, back to the story.

One morning, our group went on a short excursion to Trummelbach Falls down in the Lauterbrunnen Valley. We glided down on our gondolas, hopped on the bus, and Ronny, our driver, drove us a short way, maybe 2K, to the waterfall entrance. This is not your ordinary waterfall experience, where you hop out of your car, gaze up a cliff, take few pictures, and ooh and aah about the beauty and the volume of water gushing down from the Alps. This is a waterfall you get to experience - by going into, around, above and behind it. You pay to see this waterfall, and the experience begins with an elevator ride inside the mountain. (See Trummelbach Falls post for further details.)

When we exited the bus, some members of our group, including Tom, made a beeline for the WCs (water closet/restrooms) while our guide went to buy our tickets. My attention was captured by something else - this cute little souvenir stand. Like a bee drawn to a flower, I headed over to "browse" and wait for the others.

Hmmm, here's some kitchen towels, but not linen, and too expensive anyway. Cute t-shirts, but again, more than I would pay. Postcards - don't need them (does anyone send postcards, these days?). I quickly scan over the smaller, typical tourist trap items - key chains, pens, toothpick holders, etc.  Look, beer mug-shaped shot glasses - cute, but I'm not really in the mood to buy those.

Over to the racks - aha! This is what I want! I can't believe I found some. Just last night at dinner I told Tom it would be neat to find some to add to our collection out back - cowbell wind chimes. From the open window in our hotel room and everywhere we've gone in this area we hear ringing cowbells. The noise could be annoying, but the constant clanging amuses us. We could have the sound at home, anytime the wind is blowing, as a reminder of the fun times we've had here. No one else would have a wind chime like this. I check the price - $37 Swiss Francs (SF) - somewhere around $50 US, I guess. OK, I need to think about this for a bit, $50 for a wind chime...

We go to the falls, then stroll back by the souvenir stand. By this time, I've decided not to buy the wind chimes - too big and bulky to carry in our limited amount of luggage. More than I should pay. And so on. I look at them again, and reconsider. I really like and want them. Then I spy something else on the rack. Something useful and not as expensive. Something touristy. A horseshoe shaped key holder. It has a small cowbell hanging on it, is decorated with Swiss scenes - an alpine horn, a farmer and cows, flags, etc. Everything we want to remember about the area is compressed in this one souvenir, even the paganistic horseshoe, still hung in homes to ward off evil. I know just where I'll hang it in the kitchen and which two keys to hang on it. And the price is not too bad - $21 SF. Tom moves on to wait at the cafe while I consider.

Finally, we're at the dumb blond part.

I take the horseshoe to the cashier. She doesn't take credit cards. I only have $5 SF. Tom has some but it's our last day in Switzerland, we're conserving what we have for meals, and don't want to withdraw anymore from an ATM. She asks if I have Euros. Yes, I do. $20 Euros and I have my horseshoe. I'm not sure about the exchange rate between Euros and SFs, I have a hard enough time converting between US and foreign currency, but it seems about right to me.

Wrong! I head over to Tom to show him my useful souvenir and tell him how I paid for it. He and the few other guys sitting with him, all patiently waiting while their wives "shop" or go to the WC, give me an "Are you kidding?" look. Apparently, the clerk just swindled me, and made a nice profit. No problem, I'll just go ask her for my Euros back and give her some Swiss Francs. Tom says we have enough to do that.

She's happy to do this, but wants the $2 Euros coin back that she says she gave me for change.

"Huh? I don't remember getting $2 Euros back. You told me it was $20 Euros and that's what I gave you," I protested.

"No, no, it was $18 Euros and you gave me a $20 and I gave you back $2," she insisted.

I look in my coin purse, don't see a $2 Euro coin but can see she is not going to budge, so back I go to Tom and the guys, tell them this story, ignore their dumbfounded faces and silly grins, get a $2 Euro coin from Tom and go back, give it to her along with $21 SF and she gives me the $20 Euro bill. Now, I have no idea how much my horseshoe cost, but I have a souvenir. And a good story to tell.

Back home, I've hung up the horseshoe where I'd planned and it's cute. And useful. But somewhat touristy. When I go out back by our pool, I wish I'd bought the wind chimes.

Moral of the story - if you like to shop while on vacation, shop. But first, understand the currency conversions. And finally, buy what you really want, so you have no regrets. YOLO!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Munich Walkabout

By the time we reached Munich late in the afternoon, we were tired and the sight of a bustling big city full of people was a bit of a shock after staying in peaceful Murren. But after we arrived at our hotel just steps away from the Viktualienmarkt (food market) and had our orientation tour with Tara and our group dinner and a good night's rest, we were refreshed and ready to explore Munich.

Kathleen, our city tour guide, explained that much of the old city was destroyed by English bombs during WWII and when the war was over the citizens had two choices: start over and build new modern buildings (like Frankfurt chose to do), or preserve the past by restoring what they could and building the new to look old. The Munchners voted to restore their city. In the process, they kept the original street layout, built underground railways, and blocked off streets to make the city pedestrian friendly. The facades of many buildings are very ornate (sort of a combination of Gothic and Baroque) and decorated with statues, and the church steeples still look medieval. I think preserving the city's history was a good decision. The result is a cosmopolitan city with an old world feel that tourists love to visit.

Standing in Marienplatz near the St. Mary monument gives a visitor a taste of all that is Munich. We had a panoramic view of the spires and domes of two huge Catholic churches and the cathedral. The old town hall and the block-wide Neo-Gothic new town hall with its famous glockenspiel are hard to miss. The U-Bahn and S-Bahn intersect underneath the platz. Contemporary stores fill the first and second floors of other buildings facing the platz and, of course, there are beer gardens and cafes scattered around on all four sides.

I think what I will remember most about Munich, though, (besides the beer) is that this is the place where I finally began to appreciate art. The last stop on our tour was the Alte Pinakothek, a large art gallery full of the Wittelsbachs' collection of European artists' paintings including works from Rembrandt, da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens and Durer.

I've seen paintings by these artists in other famous museums and galleries around the world, but frankly, I often just look at them, comment that they are pretty or unusual or whatever, and exit as soon as possible. Kathleen's intimate knowledge of the artists, their time periods, and their motivations was impressive. Her precise explanations about the techniques the painters used (i.e. symmetry and people arranged in pyramids) and the symbolism contained within the paintings opened my eyes and sparked an eagerness learn more. Here are several paintings that captured my interest.

The first is a collection of paintings depicting the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. The vivid colors and ornate framing of these Dutch masterpieces tell a story as beautiful as they are.
 In Four Apostles, German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, a friend of Martin Luther, painted Matthew, Peter, Paul and John as protestant saints - in plain clothes, and with real human features such as receding hairlines and wrinkles. These paintings are larger than life and dominate the room they are in.

Raphael's Madonna Tempi is an example of the Italian Renaissance "pyramid" style of painting. I collect Madonna (or Mary) trinkets so was especially attracted to this artwork. I love the tenderness she shows to her baby, Jesus, in her eyes, lips and expression, and the way her hands tenderly cradle and caress his body. Pressing his cheek on his mother's, his eyes convey contentment and safety.

For me, our hour in this amazing museum passed by too quickly. There were so many more rooms and paintings that we didn't get a chance to see. I never thought I'd think or say those words. Thank you, Kathleen (and Rick Steves). YOLO!!

Bier Hall Walkabout Part 2

The next morning (Saturday) we had a tour of Munich with a local guide, Kathleen. After seeing Munich from the perspective of a resident, we began to appreciate more than just the city's beer halls. (See Munich Walkabout.) Afterwards, we continued our beer hall quest.

Our next stop was the Schneider Weisse Brauhaus, suggested by Kathleen. Schneider brews wheat beer which Tom and I both like. This cute sign hanging out front welcomed us.

We sat across from the bar area with its numerous taps that were constantly flowing...

...and laughed when Tom's beer, in a bottle, came with a wine glass. Both beers were very good and even in the middle of the afternoon, there was a good crowd of people enjoying a variety of wheat beers.  Ratings: Tom - Beer, 5, Atmosphere 4. Devoni - Beer 4, Atmosphere 4.

Next we went to the Paulaner Beer Hall. The inside of this large hall seemed newer or recently updated compared to the previous ones we'd been to but there was no one inside. We decided to sit outside so we could "people watch" while we enjoyed our beer and french fries. 

Ratings: Tom - Beer, 5, Atmosphere 3, Food, 5. Devoni - Beer 5, Atmosphere 3. Food, 5.

We took a break to go to evening mass at Frauenkirche, the Gothic, twin-domed cathedral that was Pope Benedict XVI's church (where he was an archbishop) until 1982, when he left for Rome to work with Pope John Paul II. It was a startling sight to exit mass into the plaza surrounding the church to see sidewalk biergartens filled with patrons.

You don't have to walk very far in Munich to find a beer. YOLO!!

Bier Hall Walkabout Part 1

I haven't blogged about Munich yet because, at the time, our first impression wasn't so great. Arriving late in the afternoon during rush hour to a busy city with old buildings and palaces, huge churches, traffic jams, and people everywhere was a culture shock after spending three days in peaceful and scenic Murren. But it didn't take long for us to readjust our attitudes and immerse ourselves into the Bavarian lifestyle - especially since so much of Munich's culture is centered around bier (beer). Since we were here, we might as well enjoy it, right? So Tom and I decided to go on a quest to find the city's best beer and beer hall. We used a point system to determine a "winner."

First, I need to explain the concept of a beer hall. Like most everyone, we'd heard of Munich's beer halls (and Oktoberfest) but until you actually sit down to drink one of the local beers (and perhaps eat a meal) in a beer hall, you can't truly understand what the big deal is. When you pass through the tables set up outside and enter the front door of a beer hall and start walking past tables inside, and keep walking and walking and walking, past more and more tables, and notice tables stretching out on both sides as far as your eye can see, then go out back and see even more tables, and upstairs where there are more tables, and nearly ALL of them are full of people drinking beer, well you figure our real quick what the big deal is. Bavarians really like their beer.

Each beer hall sells only its own brand of beers. The beer is either helles (light or blond in color, not in calories), dunkles (dark) or Radler (half lemon soda, half beer. We don't understand why anyone would mix these two, much less order one.)

And while the decor in each hall varies, they are all essentially the same - very large buildings filled with numerous tables, bar areas with constantly flowing taps, and bar maids who can carry up to six full mugs in each hand to their thirsty customers.

We began our quest during a "Welcome to Munich" group dinner at the Augustiner Bier Hall, a place many Munchners consider to be the best in town (according to things we've read). We both ordered a helles, Tom a large, me a small, with our meal.

I ate liver dumpling soup and spinach dumplings...

and Tom had the schnitzel (the first of many we would eat over the next week).

We sat outside in the "garden" and thoroughly enjoyed the beer, the food and the experience. Ratings: Tom - Beer, 5, Atmosphere 4, Food 4. Devoni - Beer 5, Atmosphere 4, Food 4. That was it for the first night. YOLO!!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Wandering with Tour Guides and Bus Drivers

In a previous post, I discussed the advantages of group travel vs. independent travel. Once again, we thoroughly enjoyed a Rick Steves' tour and two of the main reasons we enjoyed our vacation so much was our guide, Tara, and our bus driver, Ronnie.

First, I must disclose that Tara has two of my dream jobs - she works in Rick Steves' Edmonds, WA office and she also guides several group tours around Germany, Austria and Switzerland (GAS) every year. I can't imagine a more interesting and fun job!

From the first night our group met, it was apparent that Tara's sense of humor, motherly nature, fondness of the Bavarian region, and intimate knowledge of GAS would combine to make our trip fun and educational.

Throughout the two weeks we traveled together Tara revealed bits and pieces of her personal and professional life with us - her 10 years living and working in Bavaria after college, meeting her future husband in Garmisch, their three-year-old daughter Poppy (named for Germany's poppies and whom she missed very much for the month she was away), and their current life living outside of Seattle, WA. I could go into more detail but an interview with Tara that I found on Rick Steves' web site captures the essence of her personality and her zest for life. (Click on her name, above.)

So what does a tour guide do? Generally, they
  • post a schedule of each day's activities, starting with breakfast
  • provide historical information during bus rides of places you are about to visit
  • give orientation tours of each city/town and various modes of transportation
  • arrange for local guides to conduct city tours (some countries require this) 
  • suggest free time activities and good restaurants
  • take care of hotel arrangements and assignment of rooms
  • arrange and pay for group dinners
  • coordinate scheduling and locations with the bus driver
  • purchase tickets for various attractions and museums included in the tour price
  • are on call and work 24 hours a day
  • answer a gillion questions
Tara did all this and more, but it was the extra things that she did to introduce us to the local culture and customs that made her an excellent guide to share our trip with. For instance, she started off our bus ride through the Black Forest with a box of local chocolates.

Then after lunch, she gave us German schnapps

 (which none of us liked)...

...and Black Forest Cherry Cake
(which we all LOVED).

She entertained us with special music on the bus - Mozart and other classical artists from the region, the Beatles singing She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah in German (we learned from her that they actually recorded one of their early albums in German), and my favorite, The Sound of Music soundtrack. She gave us German stamps for postcards, Lady Bug chocolate candy, and her favorite German brands of white chocolate and cookies. She arranged a picnic lunch for us in Neuschwanstein featuring local meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables.

And she color-coded city maps for each of us, by hand.

Like us, Tara enjoys hiking and on our free afternoons she always told the group which hike she was going to do and invited us to join her, which of course we did, figuring correctly she would only go on the best trails wherever we were. This is a picture of us hiking in Hallstatt, one of our favorite places.

Tara joined us at an Irish Pub in Salzburg to watch the World Cup game and taught us how to travel in the Alps on various forms of transportation. She was a lot of fun, very patient, and she made each and every person on the trip feel special. We were so fortunate to have her as our guide, and we let her know that at our farewell dinner.

I can't close without mentioning the other indispensable part of our tour - our bus driver, Ronnie. I think he is from Belgium but I also heard he was Dutch - maybe he's both. We didn't get to know him as well as Tara but Tom and I learned what a great driver he is while sitting behind him on the front seats of the bus several days.

Ronnie skillfully navigated our big bus around winding mountain roads and through narrow village streets (some of which were construction detours from the autobahn and a bit tight), grumbled under his breath (in Dutch?) sometimes (very amusing to listen to) at the bad drivers in larger cities who tried to dart in front of him or ran red lights, but he was pretty calm about the van driver who cut us off in Vienna then shot Ronnie a finger.

Ronnie used his GPS to steer us away from autobahn traffic jams and accidents and took us on scenic country roads we otherwise wouldn't have driven on. In Neuschwanstein we were all amazed as he reversed our bus, squeezing it in a narrow space between two other buses, barely turning the wheel as he parked. And he waited patiently for us wherever he dropped us off no matter how long our tour or activity was. Most important of all, he delivered us safely to all our destinations.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to give Ronnie a proper farewell as due to more road construction and one way streets in Vienna, he literally had to stop on a trolley line to quickly drop us off on a street several blocks from the hotel. We had less than a minute, it seemed, to hop off the bus, unload all the suitcases and backpacks from under the bus, and wave goodbye when a trolley pulled up behind us, honking a horn. Later I heard that after dropping us off, Ronnie was heading down to Rome to pick up another driver, and he was getting married in a few weeks - we wish him well wherever he is traveling today.

Thanks Tara and Ronnie, for a great trip!  YOLO!!