Friday, April 19, 2013

2000 Years Modern

Yet another day trip on the Great Christmas Markets of 2011 Trip was to the city of Augsburg,   which had quite a different feel than the other towns we'd visited in Bavaria. While the city is beautiful, there was definitely a more modern vibe, ironic considering Augsburg was founded over 2000 years ago. Perhaps due to the large university that's there, perhaps it's the sleek and quiet tram running through the historic part of town, or maybe it's that the pedestrian streets are wide and bordered with freshly painted, brightly colored buildings. The market filled the main square in town and was refreshingly quiet on a drizzly weekday morning, so we sped through it quickly, sipped the requisite cup of gluhwein, then headed into the pedestrian zone to take in more of the city.

We came upon the Fuggerei,  a fascinating complex that is the world's oldest social settlement still in use today. In the early 1500s, one of Augsburg's rich citizens (Jakob Fugger) founded the project in order to house the city's poor. The rent was, and still is, one Rhenish Guilder per year ($1.15) for an apartment that has it's own kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, and small bonus room. The settlement was designed to be a city within a city, so the Fuggerei has its own city walls, city gates that were locked at night (and still are), its own church, hospital, and so forth. The story of the Fuggerei just gets better - Jakob Fuggerei set up an endowment meant to cover the upkeep costs of the project, and that endowment still funds the Fuggerei today, 400 years later! I was so fascinated by this that I did a little bit of research. The original endowment was equal to $11,500, but in today's market, was the equivalent of about 3,750,000. So an endowment of under four million dollars is still working today to do its job...along with the 4euro per person entry fee for non-residents to enter the settlement gates.

Back in the Munich the following day, Nathan got a traditional, Bavarian breakfast of a white sausage, pretzel, and beer. It's some sort of special, breakfast beer...maybe...I don't really know. Is there such a thing as a breakfast beer in Bavaria? I wasn't paying attention as we were in this fabulous place that was part shop (like a World Market), part gourmet grocery store, and part exotic food court. Nathan decided to enjoy breakfast while I flitted about trying to decide between a basic croissant, some macaroons, a pretzel, some sort of yummy, fruit pie looking things, and a dozen other yummalicious foods. What better way to work off our calories than by climbing a church tower. At the top, we enjoyed the sun shining down on Munich's beautiful rooftops. In the afternoon, we visited my favorite market for which I have no pictures. While I loved the actual Christmas markets with their fancy, wooden booths, Christmas light trims, and glass or wooden ornaments, the Theresienweise market was more of an artsy market, so it was a nice departure from seeing the same ornaments over and over.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Alpine Peace

As if making up for the Salzburg disaster, our next day trip was to the tiny town of Oberammergau. I really have no idea why we ended up picking Oberammergau, and against all odds, this day ended up being one of our favorites of the whole trip. It took us three different trains to get there, the town had approximately four other people out and about on the streets, the bus to one of Mad King Ludwig's castles ran only once and it's arrival and final departure of the day did not allow us time to actually tour the castle, and every restaurant in town was shut down (have no idea where we ate lunch, come to think of it). And yet, we adored tiny Oberammergau. Perhaps the conspicuous lack of drunken demons had something to do with our enjoyment. After the hustle and bustle and Krampus of Salzburg, relaxing in a sweet, Alpine village with snow falling softly was just what we needed.
Just your everyday donkey walking down the sidewalk
Even the beer truck is adorable
Oberammergau's claim to fame is its once every 10 years Passion Play, in production for 375 years. Back when the plague was ravaging Europe, Oberammergau's residents promised God that if he spared them, they would perform a play on the Passion of the Christ forevermore. He did, and they did. Currently, the Passion Play is performed during every year ending in a "0." While there is a theatre, the buildings of the village are frescoed with scenes from the life and death of Jesus (or some just have frescoes of Bavaria - this situation seems much like Italian nativities, which all feature a pizza maker). With the frescoes complementing the general adorableness, Oberammergau is a winner. The snow just added to the sweetness. My utter delight was helped along by spotting my favorite Christmas store, Kathe Wohlfart. I think there was actually a little bit of jumping up and down on the sidewalk with excitement. I'd pictured the German Christmas Markets as outdoor versions of a Kathe Wohlfart store, but they are not. The markets are nice and beautiful and fun, but I wasn't finding the Christmas ornaments I was I loaded up at Kathe's place.

The walk from the ticket office to Schloss Linderhof
With no Christmas Market going on, and no place we could find to sit down and warm up (even the church was freezing), we decided to visit King Ludwig's Schloss Linderhof, his favorite castle some say. Built in the late 1800s, it's a tiny castle compared to his others (such as Neuschwanstein, the fairy tale castle straight out of a little girl's dreamland), but the setting is beautiful. Or so it seems. We don't really know since snow covered everything. And we didn't get to see inside the castle. We did get to walk around the grounds and eavesdropped in with an American tour group who showed up about 15 minutes before our bus back to town. I came close to begging their tour group leader for a ride back to town with them just so we could do the castle tour, but in the end, my extreme shyness took over, and we headed back to our new friend, the town bus driver, who was quite skilled at managing a humongous bus (carrying only the two of us as passengers) on roads that had seen falling snow for several hours and no snowplow. We just sat back and enjoyed the trees covered with the white, then did another walk through town just to soak in the peace.
Castle Swans
Bus to the Castle
Note to Self: Return to Oberammergau in 2020 for summertime experience and to see the Passion Play.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Beautiful and the Ugly in Salzburg

We planned three day trips around Munich until meeting up with our friend at the end of the week, spending time with him in Munich, and going to Nuremberg together. The first day trip was my most anticipated - off to Salzburg, Austria. Germany has that great, train pass around Bavaria I mentioned, and Salzburg is included in it. Salzburg was high on our list. The day was rainy and freezing, and the Christmas Market at midday on a Monday was a bit dead, but we loved walking around this beautiful town, famous for the fanciful iron signs that hang outside every store front. All in all, we just enjoyed walking around the town rather than hitting up the sights, such as the castle high above town or any museums or even a Sound of Music Tour (the movie was filmed in and around Salzburg). After darkness fell (early this far north in December), I remembered that Salzburg is home to one of the most beautiful cemeteries I've ever seen, so we walked over to St. Peter's to take a look. Each grave is topped by a tiny garden and ornate ironwork, and it's like walking through a nice, city park. The church bordering the cemetery had this amazing, iron entryway, and across from the church is a restaurant that has been in business since 803 (I did not forget to put a 1 in front)! My favorite is that on their website, whereas other old businesses might have their name followed by "since 1975," or here in Europe, "since 1877," but in Salzburg, it's "since 803 AD." Just in case we might think they've been there since 803 BC. It would be an easy mistake to make.

We did not go in to eat at St. Peter Stiftskeller, and in hindsight, that was a huge mistake. Instead, we headed back to the busier section of the old town, planning to have a quick bite to eat before catching our train home. As we walked down one of the main pedestrian paths, we could hear music and saw advance parade type people as well as spectators lining up on the sides of the street. It was a narrow street, so we just stepped to the side, excited to see a fun, Christmas parade. It was not a fun, Christmas parade. It was a horror that kept going and going in the form of a Krampus run. Don't know what a Krampus is? Neither did we, but it's a demonic creature from folklore that comes down out of the Alpine hills in early December to either beat or kidnap naughty children. Nowadays, various Krampus clubs band together, create ornate, terrifying costumes out of goat hair, wear belts spewing out the smell of feces, and parade around the streets hitting people with switches. Krampus runs have become an important tradition in the region, occur on December 5 or 6 (or anytime as their popularity expands), and as I later did research, are usually fun, village events. The Salzburg one is not. From personal experience, it is violent and cruel. The police are present but do very little - they mainly stop extreme beatings, like one that occurred in 2010. A bunch of young men, drunk out of their minds, put on costumes with all their buddies, hit the women, push aside mothers who are trying to shield their scared children's faces, and in general, behave abominably. For unsuspecting tourists who had no idea this was not a fun, little parade, there is no escape - no alleys and dozens of costumed, drunk men blocking the streets. As soon as we could safely get past the remaining Krampus clubs, we practically ran to the train station as we had no desire to be in town once the official Run ended. While I wish we'd been having a beautiful dinner in a 1200 year old restaurant, who knows - we may have missed the Run but then been caught unawares by the post Run mischief, which I imagine is far worse.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Christmas Time in Munich

Munich Rathaus
 In my continuing effort to backtrack and post about our activities for the last 14 December of 2011, we went to the Christmas Markets in Germany. In Bavaria, to be exact. A region that our German friend (from the north) once said in disdain, "Bavaria! They should just put a fence around it and call it EuroDisney 2." This turned out to be a true statement. Traveling around Bavaria makes you feel like you are living in some sort of fairy tale, and you're hoping it's the Disney version rather than the Grimm version. It's all houses with exposed timber framing, and little rivers, and cobblestone streets, and Nathan's favorite, beer halls.

Nathan especially loved the Modern Art Museum, can't you tell?
We picked Munich as our base city with the goal of visiting various Christmas markets around the region. Munich is home to fabulous museums, a palace or two, a huge garden that includes a surf spot, two of the most famous beer halls, and an utterly fantastic Rathaus. The German Christmas Markets are a feast for the eyes. Each booth is a little wooden hut, some with cutouts or carved signs, even windows. No cheapo folding table with a tent overhead here. Munich is somewhat unique in that it has two huge Christmas markets in different locations as well as about four other smaller ones with a specific focus, for example, the Renaissance themed market was a favorite of ours. There, the gluhvein was lit on fire in your cup! We spent our first day just visiting the main Christmas market and taking in Munich's fabulous trio of museums (the old, the new, the modern), one of which was featuring an exhibit on...Naples! Our first day on vacation and we're wandering through halls of photographs of Naples.

And a different expression altogether at Hofbrauhaus
That night, we hit up Hofbrauhaus am Pletzl, and to Nathan's great surprise, I loved it. I don't like beer or crowds, and Hofbrauhaus is full of both. But it's such a unique place with a wonderful, convivial atmosphere. Seating is at long tables where strangers are instantly drinking buddies, and an oompah band plays while dirndl clad servers dish out pretzels and beer. Every so often, the oompah band's repertoire circles back to Ein Prosit, at which point everyone in the hall raises their beer glass and swings it back and forth until the end, where the glasses are clinked very hard with everyone else around. Which in a lot of cases would just make me roll my eyes with the cheesiness of it, but there is something special about walking through the Christmas lights and stands to this 400+ year old brew hall and joining in with strangers to share a moment of joy.
Ceiling of Hofbrauhaus am Pletzl
Doesn't this look FUN! We generally avoided the markets when
they were this crowded and visited in the mornings or later evenings.
See how adorable the huts are. I wasn't exaggerating.
A little bit of smoked fish to go with your gluhvein?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Eight Months and Still Paying

Remember when I got two speeding tickets five months ago? Actually, the tickets were from eight months ago, but they only arrived in the mail five months ago. I blogged about it HERE. Well the saga is not over. I got two more fines in the mail today. Why? Because when the tickets arrived, Nathan took them to the appropriate office on base to find out what this five page Italian letter said. That office explained it all and said to pay it, we needed to take one of the papers to the post office, fill out another form, and pay the fine. I did this. I remember it clearly. The masses of people, the couple who wanted me to ask my husband to give their son a job, the baby vomit down my back.

As it turns out, this new fine is because in addition to paying my two 170euro speeding ticket (for going anywhere from 6-40 kilometers in excess), I was also supposed to fill out some other mysterious form (don't even know where to get it) and mail it into the police so that they could attach points to my driver's license. We have never heard of this additional step, did not hear about it when the letter for the speeding tickets was translated, and so on. The fine for not mailing in this form? 300 euros. Each offense. Fortunately, we can appeal these two fines. We paid the fines on time, don't speak the language and didn't know about this extra form, blah, blah, blah. The appeal will take four months. If the appeal is rejected, then the fine is doubled. Per offense.

I love the efficiency of the Italian bureaucratic machine. And by love, I mean something completely opposite that I don't feel comfortable writing in a public blog. Also, while we should have been told about this extra step, at the end of the day, it's my ticket for my speeding and my responsibility for ensuring I have gotten all the information translated accurately. Now I'm headed to Facebook to post on a board on which local nationals are members. That way, maybe I'll make sure I'm getting correct information about the appeal. I never would have guessed that I'd be turning to Facebook over an official office in order to get accurate information.

Monday, April 1, 2013


I had so much fun last week going back and looking at our Paris photos. Here are a few of my favorites that are just shots around town.
Door Hardware at the Cluny Museum

One of my favorite photographs I've ever taken - just a cafe scene

The architecture is so stunning

Parks were filled with Bocce ball players

French stores are the most elegant of all
"Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant." by HonorĂ© de Balzac