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Berlin Day 1

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Berlin started out like most cities– me going through the Let’s Go guidebook and getting a list of things I want to see in the city. First on the list was the Hamburger Banhof: Museum for the Present. Housed in the old train station, this huge exhibition space focused on contemporary art. I grabbed a Doner Teller, a doner kebap minus the pita- on my way there.

The museum had a lot of weird stuff in it. Some was cool weird and others was just weird weird. Like this one room which was mostly filled with huge blocks of tallow (solidified beef fat) that had been made by the artist, Joseph Beuys, pouring the warm liquid tallow in between concrete forms at a construction site. The description said “The senseless urban construction was to be transformed with a healing substance. Fat, a source of energy for the body, was used as a positive substance to rescue a cold, wounded place.” Now is that what you would call art? I tried not to condemn stuff like that, instead just admitted that it was over my head. The artist had a bunch of other varied and bizarre works, including a video of him boxing a TV set. You can check out his Wikipedia page here. It claims he is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Hmm…. guess it was over my head.

After seeing a lot of seemingly senseless and random art, it put my mind in a different place. I started really enjoying the nonsense of it all– it was a nice break from all the sense we have in normal life. I started to realize how we have all these specific patterns and habits and conventions and don’t ever really step outside them. Of course there are good reasons for the things we do, but there’s seldom a good reason against doing something completely different.

It’s fun to see art doing that because it you confront the work violently and indignantly- asking questions like “Why is this stupid thing in a museum?” and “What’s even the point?”. You feel pressured to come up with good answers and this process of rationalization forces you to think in ways you never have before. Once nonsense starts making sense are you going crazy or just deepening your understanding of the universe? Think about it.

Anyway, you can see some of the other odd works in my pictures. It was a fun experience but eventually I got tired of thinking and wrapped things up. Maybe it was just time for a meal, too. So I walked around the surrounding area for a bit, checking out the Berlin Cathedral and the Tomb of the Unknown soldier. By this time, I was getting really hungry so I found a place serving authentic German food and got a weisswurst, white sausage. It’s a local favorite in Bavaria but I hadn’t gotten a chance to try it there. I thought it was pretty good.

And from there, I must’ve gone to an internet cafe to do some planning because I have a bunch of pictures of maps and addresses. That’s how I save stuff for later. After those shots, there aren’t any more pictures for the night. Hmmm… I wonder what happened. Without those little reminders, I’m drawing a blank. The timestamp was 9:00 on the last picture so I must not have gone back to the hostel right away, but then again I must not have done anything interesting or I would’ve take pictures. Part of the trip just slipped into oblivion. :( Well, I guess that’s the end of the day. Bye!

Cover of next month's Bon Apetit

The brush technique on this one was crazy.

Andy Warhol, whose works or fame I still can't understand.

Some scribbles on canvas done by Cy Twombly. Whaaaat?!

Those are faces of real people who got convered in paper and flour and paint. Its part of a style called Action Art and this one is by Otto Muhl.

Tallow.

One of many bug models. Incredible level of detail.

This one was disturbing. Yes, that's Michael Jackson.

This can't be purely coincidental. The question is, which came first?

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August 27th, 2010 at 7:01 pm

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Munich Day 4

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My last day here and there were way too many things I still wanted to do. Wanted to visit the concentration camp Dachau. Wanted to visit the renowned modern art museum Pinakothek der Moderne. Wanted to visit the BMW World and museum. Only one would fit in the half day I had until boarding the 6 hour train to Berlin. I ended up choosing the BMW World because I thought I might be able to get fit into one of their factory tours. They were booked out for the week when I called, but I thought there would be a chance for one person to get squeezed in.

The BMW World housed in a crazy looking building and was just opened in 2007. Inside, there were all of BMWs current cars on show and a bunch of little exhibits showcasing BMW technology. Felt like a big fancy dealership to me. It was cool to see the huge engines they put into some of those cars. I talked with guy at the information desk about the tours and he said I might be able to go on one leaving in 15 minutes but it would’ve made me miss my train to Berlin. It was the last direct one and I was arriving after 11 as it was, so I decided to skip it. Add that to the “Next Time” list.

So instead of hitting the tour, I went over to the BMW Museum, which housed a bunch of classic cars and motorcycles produced throughout the companies 94 year history. Seeing the evolution of body styles and aesthetics was fun and some of their early motorcycles looked especially cool. They had a couple famous BMWs from movies, like the 007 cars from James Bond. There were little videos talking about the design process and even a full-size clay model of a BMW 1-series.

But my favorite part of the BMW Museum wasn’t the cars. In the temporary exhibit space, they were showing a collection of contemporary architecture projects. Some had been completed in real life while others were still under construction, but here they were all tiny models built from wood and metal. The intricacy of the models and their beauty captivated my mind. The designs were so new and crazy and opened my eyes to the huge range of possibilities in modern architecture. Check out one of the craziest buildings, the new National Museum of Qatar, here. That one only had a picture in the exhibit and the link has much better ones. I’ll post a couple pictures of other scale models, too.

At the top of that exhibit space, which was shaped in a spiral ramp, was a 360-degree screen playing a short computer generated video. This technical achievement brought out the nerd in me and I marveled at how they synced 16 different video projectors and speaker sets together to form one seamless multimedia experience. Cars would zoom around the walls without a single blip or line in the image and sound would come from all different points in the room. It was a cool experience! Wonder when they’ll be pushing that system for home use. 10millionP 3D 360-degree 16.1 multimedia explosion!! You’ll never want to go anywhere and you couldn’t afford to either.

From the museum, I left for the train station and got there with time to spare. Relief! The train ride was uneventful– spent some if it watching “Goodwill Hunting” and the rest either blogging or relaxing. I got into Berlin after 11 and was able to find my hostel without problems. It was really nice– only a couple months old and had a cool lobby with a bunch of couches and blasting dance music. I went to bed then and prepared for a new day in a new city!

P.S. The pics are this way because there are more than usual and I didn’t want to hog the entire page with one post.

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August 26th, 2010 at 3:39 pm

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Munich Day 3

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Day 3 in Munich (July 26) started with a free tour of Munich given by the popular Sandeman’s Tour company. The guides get paid solely by tips given at the end of the tour and I’m amazed that they can survive on it. We met outside the New Town Hall, in front of the famous clock called the Rathaus-Glockenspiel. Twice a day, 32 life-sized mechanized figurines on two levels act out two different stories from their culture in a 12-15 minute spectacle. The guide said it was supposedly voted as the #2 most overrated tourist attraction in the world so I wasn’t too sad to never see it in action. #1 went to another animated clock which has an even longer time-waste of a show.

Anyway, our guide was a character and I laughed both at him and his jokes. We saw a couple churches and buildings and learned a lot about the early beginnings of the Nazi party, which started in Munich. I won’t go into too much detail, but Hitler was a devilishly clever and well-spoken man and fought a hard uphill battle on his way to the top. At first, the Nazi party was some small, ultra-conservative group of political outcasts. They actually had a violent encounter with the Munich police when they were marching to overthrow the Bavarian government. The group lost 16 members and Hitler barely escaped alive. He was devastated at the loss and in his despair, contemplated suicide but was talked out of it. What a different place the world would be if he had gone through with it!

Anyway, he was arrested on grounds of high treason and thrown into jail. Unfortunately, during his trial, he was given complete freedom to speak as much as he wanted and the press reprinted everything he said in the newspaper. He used the opportunity to espouse his nationalistic ideals and rail against the political system in Germany. This powerful speech pushed Hitler and the Nazis into the national spotlight for the first time and he even became somewhat of a celebrity, receiving a greatly reduced sentence and even fan mail in jail. I’ll stop there with the history lesson– Wikipedia the rest if you’re curious. It was interesting to me how this unlucky string of events started Hitler on his path to destruction.

Oh, something interesting about modern Germany is how they’ve outlawed stuff related to the Nazi party. Our tour guide warned us that if you do the Nazi salute even as a joke you will be instantly deported and given a huge fine. It’s also illegal (except for special situations) to own Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf or to draw a swastika. Germany has a huge national guilt over this dark past and is trying to show the world they are as far from that thinking as possible. Yet they still protect the right of free speech and allow the Neo-Nazis to have marches. Interestingly, a recent one was completely blocked by angry citizens, so the marchers were all taken by bus to march around in countryside field. Not exactly what they had in mind, but fine by me!

Back to the day’s story. After the tour ended, the guide invited us along for dinner at one of his favorite places so I went along. It sure beat eating alone! My dinner was pretty good and the conversation was enjoyable too. But I had to cut things short in order to make it to my next tour, the Beer and Brewery tour which started at 6:15.

This tour wasn’t free but we’d be going to several different beer halls and also seeing a micro-brewery in one of the places. There were going to be free samples of beer at each place, too. Our guide was from Michigan and had traveled to Munich and Germany so much that he and his wife finally decided to just live there. Now he was making a living by giving tours and I think he said he did about 6 different types of tours during the week, 2-3 per day. Not a half-bad way to go!

The first stop was the Schneider-Weisse beer hall. That site used to be the home of the Weisses Brauhaus, which was the first brewery to popularize wheat beer, or weissbier. Its been a hit ever since and is one of my favorites. At the place, I tried something different though– a beer called Eisbock which is a high alcohol (12%), dark, sweet beer. Its made by taking an already strong lager called Doppelbock, partially freezing the barrels, and removing the ice chips. This concentrates the flavor and alcohol content of the beer and has been used to make beer with an alcohol content of 60% (full story here). The Eisbock was pretty hard to drink because it was so strong and sweet. But hey, it was good to try out.

After Schneider-Weisse, we went to a Paulaner beer hall that brews its drinks in-house. Here, the guide explained the process of brewing beer and showed us the machinery they use. It’s pretty cool to learn how the magical stuff is made. If you’re curious, there’s a good explanation here. I’ve seen the action before when I was helping a friend start a batch of homebrew and it actually made the stuff taste different to know and experience the process. It reminds me of brewing tea, actually.

So we got to see the fancy copper mash tuns and boilers and fermenters. He explained the different varieties of malt and we tasted them. Also got a sniff of some hops, which is an extremely strong herb used to flavor and preserve the beer. After seeing that stuff, we headed to the dining area and had some samples of the beer and big pretzels. Along the way, I’d been talking with some fellow travelers and hearing about where they’d been. It’s fun to compare experiences on places we’d both been and to complain about the travail of travel.

After that, we went to our third and final beer hall, the internationally famous Hofbräuhaus. Back in the day, it was a beer hall reserved only for royalty but one king along the way opened it up to everyone and since then its been an important center of activity. The Nazi’s actually used it as a place to gain supporters and Hitler’s first public speech for the party was given there. Oddly enough, before he turned to politics, young Hitler pursued a career as an artist, painting thousands of watercolors, including one of the Hofbräuhaus, which you can see here.

Anyway, the place was cool to see and we sat down for some proper-sized beers (liters!) and food. The guide explained that some people actually come here so often they have lockers for their beer mugs and seating priority at a specific table marked by a wooden sign denoting the group’s name. There’s some ridiculous requirement for how often you have to go to be considered a regular and get your own table. I think it’s something like at least three times a week for 10 years. The beer mug lockers are so precious that they’re handed down from father to son. These people love their beer!

That reminds me to talk about how important beer is to their culture and social lives. The town was started by monks who brewed beer, so it makes sense that it’s such a strong part of their identity. It’s a law there that any place serving food must serve beer. Consequently, you can get a beer at McDonald’s or Burger King, which I find really bizarre. What’s also weird is to see old ladies headed to table with giant mugs of beer in their hands. It is cool though how the beer gardens and beer halls are packed with people of all ages out to relax, socialize and have a good time. It refreshingly reminds you of the positive aspects of beer when you’re used to hearing about about all its abuses in American culture. Not like there are no problems over there but here I think we’re overly conservative with it and drive it into a weird place where it ends up causing more problems.

Soapbox dismounted. Along with my pint, I had a delicious dessert that was basically a crepe sprinkled with powdered sugar and warm applesauce spooned over the top. Yum! More talking of course, and the place actually was shutting down by 11, so we left for another place. By this time, the group had dwindled to a handful and we headed to an Irish pub, one of the only places open late. Some more good times there until they closed at 12:30. Then I headed back to Christoph’s place.

I found the house empty, which he said might happen, but it still creeped me out to be in a stranger’s house all alone. He’d left a key for me so I went in and settled down for the night.

Scale model of downtown Munich to help the blind see their city. Very cool!

Check the price tag!

The Eisbock- an acquired taste.

Some barley used for beer making.

Top of a beer fermenting vat. Looks like a delicious latte!

Our tour guide in front of the Hofbrauhaus.

yummy dessert!

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August 25th, 2010 at 6:16 pm

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Munich Day 2

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Let’s keep the ball rolling…. here’s Munich Day 2.

Day 2 began early at Christoph’s kitchen table. We were planning how I should get out to this rural town called Kaltenburg, which was holding the Kaltenberger Ritterturnier. Billed as the largest knight tournament in the world with competitors coming from all different countries, the Kaltenberger Ritturnier caught my eye as a fun and interesting spectacle. I mean, how often do you get to see knights fighting? They also had a medieval market set-up around the venue. I’ve never been a big fan of those Renaissance fairs but I thought it’d be cool to see for a bit.

The event started at 11 but it was about an hour trip to get there and I wanted to leave plenty of time to spare, so I left Christoph’s at 9. I was a little nervous about the last leg of the trip, because we just guessed there would be a bus to take people to the small town of Kaltenberg from the last S-Bahn stop at Geltendorf. The event was big enough they’d have to provide a way to get there. Or so we assumed.

So I get on the bus from his place to the proper S-Bahn stop. Get off at the station and hop on the southbound S4 only to realize that it doesn’t go all the way to Geltendorf like it’s supposed to. Hmmm, this was a Sunday, so maybe the line is different, I thought. Anyway, I get dumped off the train about 2 stops before Geltendorf. Looking at the departures board, I see another one is coming in 20 minutes that goes all the way to Geltendorf, so I’m ok. Sigh of relief. Eat some breakfast and then get on the next train. I was glad I’d left myself extra time.

I arrive in Geltendorf and I’m not sure what to do next. I decide to just follow the dude in black leather pants. A person dressed like that only has a few possible destinations and a Renaissance fair was a very likely candidate. My instincts were right and he lead me right to a shuttle bus taking people to Kaltenberg. For once an assumption had been good!

So the bus pulls into the event grounds and I see a sea of tents and vehicles. Jackpot. People must come from all over to see and participate in this spectacle. I excitedly got off the bus and walked into the crowd. I picked up my tickets from the reservation desk and was about ready to go in when the festivities started…

Drums and blaring trumpets announced the arrival of a procession of costumed flag wavers and musicians. They marched past the crowd and gathered in a semicircle. Both old and young performed in this little ditty of music and flag work. It was mildly entertaining and once they finished, I walked through the main town gates and into a medieval world.

Shops lined the street, selling necklaces, clothes, leatherwork, ales, swords, and more. Some of them were actually buildings you could walk into and a lot of work had been put in to make the whole thing feel as authentic as possible. “Townspeople” roamed the streets as if they were living normal lives there, despite the throngs of tourists crowding around them.

All this was fun to see but I wasn’t as excited for that as I was the knight tournament. But my heart sank and blood pressure rose and I saw the schedule for the day. The knight tournament wasn’t starting at 11— that’s when the doors opened. The thing wasn’t until 3:30! I didn’t want to spend the next 4 1/2 hours wandering around this fantasy land. I don’t even like to spend time in normal Renaissance fairs, let alone ones in a completely different language! I was on lonely English island, stranded in a sea of Germans pretending it was the 12th century. Far far away, the glorious city of Munich was beckoning for me to come explore its treasures.

I kicked myself for assuming the tournament started at 11. But to my credit the site was almost entirely in German and there wasn’t a schedule posted. The other option was to leave and come back at 3:30 but it was an hour-plus travel time each way and that sounded like even less fun. I could’ve left and not come back but that was admitting failure and losing the $50 I spent on the damn ticket. So I left my mind undecided and just wandered around some more. I wasn’t in the greatest mood but I took a few pictures anyway and tried my best to enjoy things.

Somehow I managed to pass the time to the point where I figured I could tough it out until the games begun. Some beer and food along the way no doubt helped me reach that point. The town was also big and had a lot to explore. All around, there were different little events going on, from somebody being tarred (actually more like waxed) and feathered, to musicians performing, and puppet shows. There was also some band made up of 5 bagpipers and 2 drummers playing a concert. I’ll let you imagine what that sounded like. If your imagination is lacking today, here’s the link to their MySpace page.

So finally, the games were about the begin! I sat down at 3 because there were some festivities to take place beforehand and I really needed to kill the time. Don’t exactly remember the order of things though. Some trumpeters blasting, people walking out into the dirt arena, the announcer speaking in German of course. By this time, I think the official ceremony had begun. It was kicked-off by the arrival of the real Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, whose dad started this whole thing. First time I’d seen a prince in real life. Oooooh.

Somewhere in the beginning there were some really talented horse riders and horses who did tricks. The horses would run fast towards one end of the arena and the rider would do tricks on top of them. Like bounce his feet on the ground, go over the top of the saddle and then bounce them on the other side. Others rode without hands and their bodies goings sideways from the saddle. Some stood up on the horses as they galloped. It was cool to such well trained people and horses.

So eventually the games started. They drug in a big stage and set it up. Ok. Then they had a big parade with the knights riding in, all decked out and holding their jousts. Hmmm, why did the jousts look like they had lines cut into their tips? Seems like that’d just weaken them. Ignore that, everything is still fine. But then when they started mentioning something about Camelot and King Arthur and the evil Queen Minerva, I realized I had been duped. The gig was up– this whole thing was a staged show. A mere re-enactment of a knight tournament. NOooooooo!! It was true, the whole thing ended up being a Disney-style tale of the princess being kidnapped by the evil Queen, Camelot being overthrown, Excalibur stolen from its stone and of course King Arthur saving the day in the end by winning a knight tournament. I’m sure that it was great for people who had brought their kids and knew what to expect but it was quite a disappointment for me. Guess I should’ve learned to read German. But they made it sound like a real knight tournament! The jerks.

After the show finished, I got out of there and headed back to Munich. The day hadn’t been a complete waste but there were so many better things I could have done. I got back around dinner time and starting exploring downtown Munich. Saw some cool buildings and eventually got a Doner Kebab to eat. These things have been a staple for me on the trip.

The evening was pleasant and relaxed as I strolled around. I went up to the English Garden, which is a huge park– even bigger than Central Park. There were people lounging on the grass, playing frisbee or whatever. Park-type stuff, you know. It has an artificial river running through it and I read it actually has a standing wave somewhere that surfers like to ride. I saw a beaver along the river too. I saw a pantheon-type building on a hill in the distance so I walked up to that. Inside, there was a guitar player performing and he had a beautiful voice. He played some American classics, like “Free Falling” and I really liked his style. Earlier, I saw other musicians roaming around and I imagined that they all got together to jam sometimes. Cool place.

By this time the sun had set and it was almost dark. I walked up through a beer garden– seas of picnic tables around a couple small buildings serving dinner food and beer. I liked watching the locals hanging out, enjoying the peaceful evening and beautiful surroundings. I thought if I lived there, it’d be one of my favorite places.

After that I walked to the U-Bahn station, stopping along the way for a little ice cream. It was perfect for a night like that. Eventually, I made it back to Christoph’s and shared the days events with him. He chuckled at my experience with the knightfest. I bet he had a hunch it was fake all along! I was pretty tired out by that point, so I went to sleep.

Beginning processional.

Inside one of the tents. Sick pelts, brah.

I wanna work here when I grow up daddy!

Blacksmiths.

One of the many interesting medieval structures. I think these must be up year round.

Trick horse riders. Digitally zoomed so it looks bizarre.

The stupid fake knights, those heartbreakers.

Fog and sparklers wow all the seven year olds.

Mini-waterfall in the English Garden.

Pagoda thing near the beer garden.

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August 23rd, 2010 at 6:02 pm

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Munich Day 1 (half day)

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The train ride from Fussen was only about two hours long so I was in Munich around dinner time. I thankfully had a CouchSurfing host for my stay there so I was excited to meet him. I took the U-Bahn from the train station and then caught a bus to his place. The host, named Christoph, happily greeted me at his house and we sat down to chat in his kitchen. He’s also a Software Engineer, working for a company that goes through old software to streamline it. BMW is a big client of theirs and he said it’s pretty cool to see how much money can be saved by changing a bit of code to make it run faster. The systems he’s used to working on are 20+ years old and they’ve never been upgraded simply because it’d be too costly and they work just fine as-is. Same thing with the bank mainframes, actually. They’re running programs written in languages that are completely antiquated and almost laughable in today’s standards.

But I digress. During our conversation, he even served me up some pasta and white sauce, which I eagerly scarfed down. Now after this point, my memory gets foggy and there aren’t any pictures to help me out. Nothing very exciting must have happened. The next thing I remember was playing his digital keyboard while he sung along or played his guitar. We were just reading off of lead sheets, which is music with just the chords and no specific notes written. This barebones notation requires the musician to fill-in the rest of the details and isn’t really a skill I’ve developed yet. But what I hacked out did sound decent and we had a lot of fun. Even his girlfriend sung along to a couple songs. I thought it was pretty cool to barely know somebody and their language and culture but still be able to engage in this close musical interaction with them. Music is the universal language!

After that we all went to bed. I had the basement to myself and a nice fold out couch. Ahhhh… goodnight.

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August 23rd, 2010 at 4:07 pm

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Posts are still coming, people!

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Hey so I’ve been on hiatus for a while with these posts but I promise you I will be better. I must finish them all before I start work on Monday or they’ll never get done and I’ll feel like a failure forever. Now this is all in writing, I’ll be more compelled to finish. Here we go!

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August 23rd, 2010 at 3:50 pm

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Fussen Day 2

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It was raining again this day. I had a ticket for a 9:00 AM entry to the castle. I heard that the earlier one arrives, the less crowds there are to deal with, so I got the first one of the day. I was running late by the time I got out the door (no breakfast) and decided the quickest way to get there would be walking. Not a whole lot of fun in the rain, but at least I still had my umbrella from Paris. They said 20 minutes at the hotel but after about 30, I arrived and then had to find the ticket desk. By this time it was 9:20 and they said I’d have to get new tickets, since I missed my reserved time. Thankfully, it still was not busy there and I got a 10:20 entry time.

Hiked up to the hill to where the castle stood and the first thing I noticed was that it’s much smaller than it seems in the pictures. It was the first time I’d been to a real castle before so it was still pretty cool though. After waiting around for a while for my tour to begin, we started off through the castle. Unfortunately, they didn’t allow any photos to be taken and now I think it’s just a conspiracy to get visitors to buy the picture books in the gift shops. Worked on me. I’ll post a few scanned pictures from it to give you an idea of the highlights.

To give you a bit of background, the castle was built in 1869 by “crazy” King Ludwig II as his own private retreat and a tribute to the operas of Richard Wagner. The castle was never completed, due to the death of the king under “mysterious circumstances” (read: murdered). Despite it never being finished, the king did spend about 180 days in the castle before being declared insane, deposed, and found dead in the shallows of a nearby lake with his psychiatrist. Anyway, the castle was fantastical, with murals of knights and dragons and even an artificial cave. For some reason, it did feel a little fakey, but I think that was the point. It was the playground for King Ludwig to carry out his romantic fantasies of Middle Age life. Anyone who knows the operas of Wagner would see scenes from those stories in the artwork throughout the castle.

It was still raining after the castle tour ended and I rode the shuttle back down to the main bus stop. I had a while to wait before the next bus to my hotel, so I grabbed some lunch in a nearby restaurant. It was venison in red sauce and it tasted pretty good. Finished that up and caught the bus back to the hotel. There, I grabbed my bag and headed by bus to the train station in Fussen. Remarkably, I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I boarded the train and was on my way to Munich.

Neat picture of the castle.

A tower of the castle.

North side of the castle.

Looking out from Neuschwanstein. The orangey-yellow building is another castle called Hohenschwangau.

Scale model of the castle.

Throne Room (facing away from throne)

The bedroom. Check out the wood carvings!

Beautiful!

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August 17th, 2010 at 3:41 pm

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Fussen Day 1

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I started out the morning in Innsbruck and after doing laundry, started my journey to Fussen, a small town in the south of Germany. The trip was going to be a bit tricky– it had 4 different legs, two of them on the train, two by bus. Looking back, it would’ve been smarter to just take a train to Munich and then to Fussen, but this way I got to see more of the countryside. I had a few hiccups along the way, too, but nothing too catastrophic, luckily. It was raining pretty heavily that day and there was a lot of fog, so I didn’t see any mountain tops. But it was cool to be winding my way via bus through small towns in the foothills of the alps. They were like tiny cosmos, spinning around in a completely different orbit than my own. I marveled at the miracle of modern transportation to be able to take me on this circuitous path from Innsbruck to Fussen. At the same time, I had to be double-sure that I got my routes and stops right. One misstep and I’d be stuck in the middle of god-knows-where staring at a herd of goats. That would’ve made for a good story though!

I happily arrived in Fussen around 8 and found my hotel room to be quite nice. I booked to late to get a hostel, so this was an upgrade and a nice treat. My own room, bathroom, TV, and even a balcony. Big pimpin’. I got settled and then walked around the town (in the rain, still) looking for a good place to eat. I never saw anything that looked better than the restaurant in the hotel, so I came back. I was seated with a Japanese daughter and mother, so I thankfully had company for the night. Its always a bit awkward at the very first, but the ice was broken quickly and we had pleasant conversation throughout the meal. The daughter lives in Germany and was taking her mother around for a vacation. Her English was fairly good, so she could talk and also translate a bit to her mom for me. They were happy to meet somebody from Seattle and actually had been there to visit before. It’s a small world!

I ordered the Bavarian specialty called Pork Knuckle, noticing the little warning that this was not for those with a small appetite. Well, I thought, I’m a big boy and have been traveling all day so I won’t have a problem putting it away. When it came out though, I just laughed at myself for thinking I could eat it all. I swear it was the size of half a volleyball, just solid meat, and I learned later that it’s actually an entire shoulder of pork. There was a delicious crispy skin baked on the outside with a layer of juicy fat right below. It was mouth-watering but stomach-conquering. After eating for 10 minutes, it barely looked like I made a dent in the massive hunk of meat. In despair, I ate some of the sauerkraut resting beneath it.

While I was eating, I enjoyed listening to the accordion player. He was the best one I’d ever heard and his fingers were flying across that keyboard. Usually accordian music is slow and waltzy, but this was fast, lively and virtuosic. I talked to him after a bit and he said he’s been studying for 14 years. It shows! He was playing for the duration of our meal, walking around to different parts of the restaurant and smiling the whole time. A special touch added to the quaint Bavarian atmosphere.

In the end, I was able to finish 3/4 of the food but there was no way I could do it all. It made me sad to leave the meat behind, but there is only so much a man can eat. For future reference, that dish must be split by two people! Completely stuffed, I headed up to my room and turned in for the night. Tomorrow I was going to see the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein.

Passed through this Alpine cosmo on a bus.

Hmmm...

Hotel Schwanstein, my place for the night.

The Indomitable Pork Knuckle

Classic.

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air dubbed over in German. Bizarre.

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August 10th, 2010 at 6:42 pm

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Innsbruck Day 2

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Today was the day of the hike and I even woke up early to get a head start on the day’s heat. Before I came to Innsbruck, I had picked out the hike I wanted to do from a book of popular hikes in the Alps . It started in another town about 45 minutes away and passed through a couple different mountain huts. The mountain huts were built to feed and shelter hikers and some offer overnight accommodations and can be found all over the alps. This was just going to be a day hike and since there were a couple different huts, I could go to the nearer or farther ones, depending on how my stamina held up.

But once in Innsbruck, it didn’t take a genius to notice there were plenty of mountains just out the backdoor. I got a hiking map from the front desk and sure enough there were some good ones that went up to mountain huts and had trams going too. Those looked just as challenging and based on my troubles with getting around, I decided it’d be better to not have to make it back to catch a bus back home. Just in case something delayed us, we wouldn’t be stranded in another town this way. Let me put that on the short list of wise decisions I’ve made on this trip.

So my friend, who I forgot to introduce as Danielle, and I left the hostel and went to the store to get some munchies for the trail. I ended up with a couple sticks of cured sausage, granola bars, and a gatorade. After the Cinque Terre incident, I had learned my lesson about replenishing those electrolytes. We started walking towards the trail, a hike before the hike. There was a nice walking path along the river so it went smoothly.

After some wrong turns and a stop to ask for directions, we ended up at the base of the trail. It went steeply uphill and passed by the local zoo before continuing on towards the smaller town of Hungerburg. It was tough hiking back and forth along the switchbacks and by the time we’d gotten up there, we were already getting tired out and sweaty. I didn’t want to get Danielle into too big of a hike, but we thought we could still make it up to the top. We found the tram station and were shocked to see on the map posted there that the hike up to the first hut was 6 hours. No way were we going to do that! Danielle had the idea of taking the tram up to the first hut and then hiking to the top from there, so that’s what we decided on. That way we could have the taste of a hard-earned victory without taking the entire day to get up there. All the flavor, half the fat. From the top, we could take a tram all the way back down to Innsbruck and only have flat ground to walk from there on.

The tram was expensive ($25 round trip) but as we it whisked us effortlessly up the mountain, we were quite happy to pay that amount instead of hiking. Going straight down the hillside was an awesome-looking mountain bike trail, complete with jumps, obstacles, wooden ramps and boardwalks. It’d be insanity to ride down but with enough gear and practice, it can be done. I saw a few guys in the parking lot who’d just come off it and they were actually wearing body armor, so it must be a brutal ride (and a more brutal fall). Anyway, we blasted past all that and in a couple minutes, we were at the first hut.

The view was amazing, even from there and we enjoyed it for a few minutes before setting out. The next hut looked within arms reach but the signs said it was an hour hike. Not too bad, especially with these nice views and cool breeze to enjoy. The trail went sideways across the hill at first, along loose rock and sand. We heard bells clattering and were suprised to see a small group of cows grazing downhill from us. Those must be some fit cows to be traversing territory like this. Its hard to imagine how one would get fat from eating their meat. Wonder what they’d think if they saw how their relatives in Kobe live.

Anyway, we hiked on, looking for the red bulls-eye symbols that marked the trail. Every once in a while, we’d stop for to rest and to enjoy the view. Seeing the vast expanse of land, mountain and sky put me in a spiritual place. It felt like I could see the entire world from that spot. The profound stillness and perspective gave me a sense of deep peace and happiness and drew me into reflecting on life. I’ve always liked climbing mountains and this is precisely the reason why.

So we toiled our way up the hill, now hiking back and forth along the switchbacks. The top of the mounting stood back, taunting us as we struggled to reach it. Our journey was virtually uninterrupted by other hikers–we only came across a couple of them hiking back down. After about two hours, we made it up to the top. Thirty or so people were wandering around the top, staring out across the valley and snapping pictures. There was a large-sized white house off to one side and this was the mountain hut and tram station. We talked with some people and took a few pictures, then headed in for some food and drink.

The kitchen had just closed but we did enjoy a little liquid lunch and the rest of our trail snacks. It was cool just looking out the windows at the spectacular view and we agreed that it’d be impossible to ever get sick of it. After relaxing in there for a while, we headed outside to climb to the very peak of the mountain. There were a bunch of tourists up there, flocking around a big cross that had been erected at the summit. On our way up, we noticed a separate peak off to the side that looked nearly as high and much more peaceful so we headed there instead.

The view from that spot was even better than what we enjoyed on the way up. Huge mountain peaks sprawled out in all directions with lush green forest and pale gray rock slides separating them. I took bunches of pictures and then decided to settle down for a little nap. After all, we had plenty of time left up there so we might as well enjoy it. Danielle found a patch of grass close by and relaxed as well. It was a tranquil moment and we tried to enjoy it as much as possible.

As I was thinking and resting, I heard somebody yelling in German. It sounded like it came from down the mountainside and I figured it was just people coming up the mountain. I could tell they were saying “hello, hello” and then something else I couldn’t understand. It kept going and started to make me wonder what all the fuss was about. Just as I was about to get up and see, the person stopped. Ahhh, peace again. But something still didn’t seem right so after a little while, I got up to look around. My heart dropped as I saw we were now the only ones on the mountain. This was definitely not good!

So I got Danielle up and, my heart pounding, we went to the mountain hut. Posted in big letters on the door in plain English was “Last trip down 5:15Pm.” It was 5:26. Noooo!! My first reaction in any situation like this is to go into denial mode. I just couldn’t believe that we’d be stuck up there. Instantly, the mountain lost all majesty and became a cold, unforgiving prison. The view we couldn’t get enough of became an indefinite chasm separating us from civilization. We both tried hard to keep our cool and decided to hike down to the next tram stop. After all, I’d checked the tram schedule before we came up and thought that the last one was at 7:30, which is why I was being so lackadaisical earlier. I was anything but lackadaisical now.

So we quickly scrambled down the hillside, trying to reach the next station as quickly as possible without killing ourselves in the process. I felt so terrible to have gotten Danielle into this situation but thankfully she was cool about it. We all make mistakes but this one was a pretty annoying bugger. The voice of that German was ringing in my head, since it must’ve been him trying to get us off the mountain. “Hello, hello, hello, hello,…. ” I was kicking myself the whole way down for not realizing what was going on. What an idiot!

We saw tram cars going to the station and that got our hopes up. If only we could get there in time, we’d be OK. One tram, two tram, gliding up and down the hill like beacons of hope and safety. We hiked fast but no third tram came. By the time we made it back there, an hour had passed and there was no life at the station. Our hopes of getting down quickly were shattered. Well at least these places are made to host people overnight, I thought. We could have a nice night there and take the first tram ride down in the morning. Well as it turns out, this one was completely locked up. No hotel here!

We did discover a backpack that had been left on a table. Danielle started looking through it to see if there was anything of use. I was just in denial, thinking that there is no way it has come to this level of desperation. I think I’d go hungry for a day before I could steal something from that bag. But there wasn’t much of use there and so we sat down to gather the last of our courage and energy. We were both out of food and water and hadn’t packed a flashlight. If the trip down was really going to be 6 hours, our arrival time would be sometime after midnight, long after the sun had set and the day was warm. There was a road down but it still wouldn’t be safe to stumble around in the dark. The other option was to find some place to sleep up there that night. Both options were looking pretty bad and my brain still hadn’t given up on denying the entire situation outright.

Then we saw a person walking towards us. Hooray! We figured it must be the owner of the backpack and he could help us figure out what to do. He didn’t seem to concerned as he walked closer and when he got near enough, we started talking to him. And as fate would have it, he did not speak a single word of English. Not one. I tried pantomiming to him and he got the message that we wanted to hike down. He held up three fingers and pointed to town. Ok, three hours wouldn’t be so bad. But then again, this old guy must’ve been a tough billygoat to be up here, in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, his words encouraged us and we decided to hike down. I’d wanted that all along, since staying up there would’ve just been like giving up and most of me still refused to admit I had made a mistake.

So we started on the long journey back. We came across a sign said two hours to Hungerburg, so that improved our hopes a little more. If it really was only two hours, we’d still have daylight and this would’ve just been a laughable mistake, a crazy little adventure. If it was more like six, things could get ugly.

The hike down was made much easier by a winding road that went across the steep hillside. At each switchback, we were encountered with the decision to either cut straight across down the dangerously steep bike trail or take the long safe road. A couple of times doing the quick, steep route had us convinced that the road was much better. If one of us sprained an ankle or broke something, it would be a very long, very painful night.

So we continued down the road, occasionally encountering a bicyclist riding up. They never seemed to pay attention to us or to act like we might be in trouble. Just purely focused on making it up to the top. Of course, it was much easier for them, because they could just ride quickly back down again. While it was somewhat comforting to see another human being, We were getting tired and hungry and wanted to get out off that damn mountain!

We passed the time with conversations about music and bands but we couldn’t ignore the ever darkening sky. The road took wider and wider loops across the hillside and the town didn’t seem to be getting much closer. Then, we heard two hikers walking down the road behind us and that made my mood soar. If they were out, then it must be not such a bad thing. Thankfully they spoke English and we had a bit of conversation with them. They said it was only another hour to Hungerburg and were even stopping to get a beer along the way down. Well, I knew everything would be ok at that point and then our hike turned back into a fun adventure.

We still had a long hike down but it wasn’t so bad after that. We made it back to the town just as it was getting dark. So relieved to finally be back in civilization! We waited for the bus to come and then took it into the center of Innsbruck. It was amazing to make the transition from stranded in the alps to center of town. We were so thankful it had only been a three hour hike in total and that we hadn’t decided to sleep up there!

We found a place to eat dinner that was still open at the late hour of 10:15. It was a Thai restaurant and we must’ve been the only people in the place. But they happily took our order and served us food. It was probably the worst Thai of my life but I was so glad just to have something to eat. I felt so bad about putting Danielle through that ordeal that I paid for her dinner. She still didn’t seem upset by it all though and we decided it was probably one of the more fun things we could’ve done that day.Plus it made for a good story!

We took the path from Hungerburg to Station Seegrube and then Bergstation Hafelekar

Start of the hike to the very top.

On the hike from the tram station to the top.

Climbing on an avalanche gate along the way.

Victorious! The hostel is about two feet to the right of my head.

Which is more rugged and awe-inspiring, me or the mountains? ;)



We made it back alive!

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August 9th, 2010 at 3:57 pm

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Innsbruck Day 1 (half-day)

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So where we left off last time, I was on the train. Well I’m still there. Speeding west towards the smaller town of Innsbruck. I got some food and beverage on the dining cart and enjoying the scenery wizzing by. It seems like I’m always facing backwards on trains and its not as fun that way. For some reason, I draw a parallel with the way people live their life. Face forward and you’re living in the future, anticipating things coming up but by the time they are near you, they got by so fast. Sit backwards and you’re living in the past, never able to predict what’s coming next but lingering affectionately on it after it passes, watching it slowly disappear into the horizon. I get kind of dizzy facing backwards– wonder how that translates to the way I experience life….

Anyhoo, I made it to Innsbruck and after some tribulations made it to the hostel, or Jugendheberge as they call them. I unloaded my stuff and then went for dinner. I wandered into a decent-looking Italian place and gave them my order. A girl sitting at a table next to me heard my painfully American English and asked where I was from. So I told her and we talked throughout the meal. She was from Chicago, travelling alone at the moment, and had some of the same travel destinations as I did. It was good to have company for that meal and we even talked after getting back to the hostel. I mentioned that I was going to go hiking the next day and she asked if she could tag along. The crew was formed!

On to the next day.

Cool castle I saw from the train.

Rain + Clouds + Sunset + Alps = Awesomeness

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August 8th, 2010 at 9:37 pm

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