Saturday, September 30, 2006

Going off the Deep End in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

We arrived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (referred to as GAP from this point on) knowing two things about it.

(1) that we were 1.5 hours from Munich, and
(2) that we were at the foot of Germany's highest mountain, Zugspitz (2,962m)

We thought GAP would be a good place to stay to see Munich, and a little nature. We soon learned, however, that GAP had so much more to offer than just a bed with a view. We postponed Munich a day and explored the region. Because we were overnight guests we got a visitor card and therefore had access to a slew of free things (we like free things). They include: municipal transportation, the local wave pool, walking tours and musical performances. Since the walking tours were in German and the music season was over, we decided to go swimming!

The pool was neat. It was full all the way to the top, to the point it looked to be overflowing, and the only lights were blue atmospheric lights at the bottom of the pool. Let me tell you, Jess, there would be NOTHING to blow your whistle at in this pool, as there appeared to be NO pool rules! Running on the deck: fine. Drowning your friends: A-OK! Riding on shoulders: also acceptable! Kids in the hottub: Whats the problem with that?! You would have had a coronary! When the waves came on, the very reluctant lifeguards dragged themselves from smoking in the office to watch us. In another pool, a diving pool, there were 6 diving boards and platforms, just like at Brock. Jonathan Braveheart went off the highest platform! He's my hero. (Jonathan: It was practically as high as Zugspitz itself!) The hottub was a separate big pool all on its own with a fountain in the middle. It was a lot of fun, but I could have done without all the speedos!

Our full day in GAP was one of the most incredible scenic-wise, thus far. We hiked out to the Partnach Gorge, which is a steep cut through the mountains over 2,000m long with walls taller than 250m! We walked along close to the bottom of the gorge in galleries cut out of the rock! The water rushed over rocks and around sharp corners below us, and sun filtered down through the trees high above, barely lighting the path. It was one of the most breathtaking things that I have ever seen. (And keep in mind, I have been to Dingle! lol)

For the afternoon we hopped on a bus to Eibsee (German pronounciation: still unknown), a wee town further up the mountain. From there, we hiked all the way around the lake with Zugspitz towering of us and his other mountainous friends. It was so amazing that I almost didn't believe that it was real. Don't worry, I pinched myself: it turned out I wasn't dreaming after all.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Rothenburg: Get Medieval-ed

Rothenburg was, by far, the most touristy town that we have visited. But, being the cutest little Medieval town in all of Germany made up for that. The town is actually walled in by a tall stone wall, and the only entrances are through huge draw-bridge like gates. You could almost hear the clicking of horses hooves on the cobblestone. Except there was no cobblestone in the Middle Ages and the clicking is actually of tourist's camera's.

The Night Watchman gave us a tour of medieval Rothenburg, and we learned all sorts of interesting facts about medieval life in Rothenburg on the eerie evening walk. One of the most interesting stories is that of how the best preserved medieval town in Germany has remained preserved all this time. Legend has it after the town had been taken over by the enemy, the General of the opposing army said that he would spare the town if one of the town councillors would chug a 3.25L barrel of wine. The mayor himself stepped up to the challenge and Hurray! Rothenburg was save! Two windows on either side of the clock in the main square commenmorates the mayor every hour, on the hour, when they spring open, and out pops a moving wax-like mayor, drinking the wine. The thing is, this is tale is not true. Rothenburg started out very rich in the middle ages, which is why it is so beautiful in the first place. It was the pee break half way between several major trade routes. However, it was ransacked, pillaged and seized continuously during the Thirty Years War. After the war neither the town nor its occupants could afford to modernize, leaving Rothenburg to sleep for over 250 years. One of Germany's most touristed towns was preserved by poverty. You can see why the other story was created. Nonetheless, Rothenburg is a city rich in history, architecture, and one of the best stops along the Romantic Road.

In Rothenburg we also tried a traditional Rothenburger Schneeballen. A schneeballen (translated snowball) is dough cut into strips, and then woven all together in a ball shape, deep fried, then coated in sugar (or chocolate or nuts etc.). They look a lot better than they taste. When you visit Rothenburg, there is no need to sample one.

One of the best parts of Rothenburg was the train ride in through the Romantic Road. The landscape was dotted with fields of sunflowers, lush gardens, farmer's fields, hills and huge trees. I guess it had a little bit for everyone! Speaking of places that had a little something for everyone: Kathe Wohlfart Christmas Village had the same claim. Now, usually Jonathan and I skip souvenir shops, but a 'Christmas Village' sounded like something that needed to be checked out. Now, they didn't allow cameras, sadly, so I can't show you just how cool this place was. I did, however, smuggle a brochure into our luggage (don't tell Jonathan). The Village had a huge 5.5m tall decorated Christmas tree, surrounded by little German houses, all decorated with garland, lights and snow. Each little house had different kinds of Christmas goodies. Sparkling stars hung from the ceiling and a 3.5m nutcracker supervised everything. The store was atleast 3 floors, and so many toys seemed to move or glow or do something magical! It even smelt like Christmas!

This is me and Jonathan (he got dressed up a little) enjoying the city. Isn't he handsome?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Wine on the Rhine

At long last, we have finally made it to Germany; Deutchland, as it is really called. We laid our bags in a Rhine-side village named Bacharach (say it in the most backest-back of your throat).

Our B&B host, Ursula, was super. She spoke very little English and we spoke even less German. You might be surprised how effective smiles, coupled with wildly exaggerrated hand gestures are when verbal communication is not possible. Danke, Ursula!

The Rhine Valley is known for their wine. Before tourists discovered the beautiful Rhine, wine making was the area's largest income. In Niagara, the escarpment plays a major role in our world-class vintages. Here, slate in the hills is the major player. The heat from the slate sweetens the grapes, thus making for tastier and more potent wine. We were told the Rhine's premium wines come from the highest vineyards. Now we aren't on a 'premium' kind of budget, but we did enjoy a glass of Bacharach Riesling Trocken (it was from the lower part of the hills). Very tasty.

Taking advantage of the frequent ferries up and down the Rhine, we stopped off at a couple different Rhine villages and toured the Marksburg Medieval Castle. It is a unique castle. Most of the castles overlooking the Rhine were destroyed (courtesy of Napoleon) and later rebuilt in the 1900's 'in the style of' the originals. Not Marksburg, though. It was so well fortified that even Napoleon left it alone. It is one of the most genuine reproductions (inside) of a Medieval castle on the Rhine. It was interesting to see the simple setup of the rooms. Castles are nice tourist attractions, but would make for a cold and uncomfortable residence. I suppose, though, safety was more important than comfort in those days.

Does anyone know our next stop? If you guessed Rothenburg, you are absolutely, positively RIGHT!

Here we go again!

A Splash of Holland-Days

We like to think of ourselves as travellers with a 'more-less' philosophy. We want more locals and less cash registers. More or less, it says you can have twice the experience for half the price. What a great travel philosophy! Rick Steves calls it Europe through the Back Door.

Despite our 'more-less' indoctrination, we still came into the Netherlands through the front door. It was a safety net. Nevertheless, Amsterdam proved an interesting safety net.

Amsterdam, in many ways, is a liberal city. The chance to legally use drugs and sex workers lures many travellers, especially backpackers, to Amsterdam. While we skipped both the drugs and sex workers, we did indulge in the Dutch Art Amsterdam had to offer.

I have read that Dutch Art was considered to be very quiet, especially compared to the drama in Italian Art. It was quiet, but still displayed the mastery over the canvas and colours. It was a highlight, particularly for Kristen.

This still life, for example. The closer I got the better it looked. Rembrandt's Night Watch was incredible to see, especially because it was the size of an entire wall!

Our night in the Amsterdam hostel was an 'experience'. We slept in a dorm with 18 other backpackers, most of whom chose their days wardrobe only after conducting the all-important 'smell-test'. It was there that we realized backpackers are not all created equal. Truthfully, though, it was a fun and funny experience.

We wanted to stay outside of Amsterdam and return to our more-less philosophy. So, taking full advantage of our Eurail Pass, we took a 25 minute train ride outside of the big citz to a small town.

Zandvoort is a tiny sea-side getaway for the Dutch and the Germans. With having no Dutch or German in our blood, we were lucky to even hear about Zandvoort. Our guidebook barely made mention of it; recommending it only as a half-day trip from a day trip from Amsterdam. It was a town with real Dutch people and a lot of cheese! Today I saw a 1 kg hunk of Gouda cheese for about $5 CDN. If I were flying straight home from the Netherlands, I would definitely be over my cheese exemption (Don't worry, Dad, I wouldn't bring back more than one turkey!). And the Dutch people have been so friendly. They offer to help when I am standing helpless in the deli section and actually stop on the street when we look a little lost. When I started planning this trip I really would have never imagined that I would see the ocean from Belgium and the Netherlands, but I am really glad that I have. We strolled for hours along the beach today. The waves were HUGE! There were sea kayakers, swimmers, surfers and lots of frolicking dogs. I honestly think everyone in Holland has a dog (big ones, small ones, some as big as your head!). The lady who is running our B&B is so welcoming. We are a three minute walk from the North sea, a 5 minute walk to the train station, and just down the street from Dirks Supermarket (notable because of its gouda and availability of my favourite Belgian Chocolate, Cote D'Or. TRY IT!!)

With Zandvoort as our worthy home town, we took our time going through manz of the surrounding cities. Haarlem, for its cobblestone and architecture. Leiden for its prestigious universities and gardens and Delft, with its well-known blue and white Dutch ceramics. There then came a time when we realized we had not seen enough of what every good tourist really comes to Holland for: windmills.

After chatting with a local, we were on our way to Rotterdam. It seemed weird that we were going to an uber-modern city in search of countryside and windmills, but after a little bit of navigating (I will spare you the details) we made it from Rotterdam to the land of 30 windmills, known to the rest of the world as Kinderdijke! We wandered around the windmills which lined narrow rivers and farmers fields. We were offical tourists of the Netherlands, with dozens of windmill pictures to prove it!

Our guidebook, and others we have read, suggest using big cities as 'hubs' to visit smaller localities. We think thez have it all wrong. The more-less philosophy uses less-expensive, friendlier, close-by local towns as the perfect hub to the larger, less-friendly and more expensive bigger cities. The trip has been great so far!

I would like to take this opportunity to also thank my Dutch friends, especially Lindsay and Laura. Without them I don't think that I would have appreciated Holland nearly as much I have. For example, those little sprinkles zou put on toast: well thez are everywhere, in all flavours, colours, shapes and sizes! And cheese? The good gouda kind, cut straight from the circle that Laura's mom always sent her as a treat? (The good cheese that you need to use the cool cheese cutter for...although Laura always says its a normal cheese cutter, I personally think that it is a genius Dutch invention.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Best of Belgium

We have heard that Belgium is often side-stepped on a casual tour of Europe. After now coming here for a second time, I realize it is a matter of Belgium lacking only major tourist attractions; it is deprived of nothing else. Filled with vintage
windmills and fields spotted with uninterested cows and divided by tall deciduous trees, its country side is nothing less than charming.

Let me tell you how I know.

Our main plan for Belgium was to take a guided tour just outside the city limits of Brugge. It was a nice idea, but Belgium did not go as planned: we were bit by the adventure bug!

"Who needs a tour guide," we mused.

Our logic was that, equipped only with a bike, enthusiasm, and an interested frame of mind, we would see more for less than if we took the safe way, a guided tour.

Ode to Belgian Chocolate

Many nights you have danced in my dreams
But now, I see you through the shop window
For too long we have been separated.
No more can this be!
I go inside only to again be separated from you.
Oh what I would give to be that glass counter!
Gazing at you day and night,
always near and never far.
I could smell always your sweet aroma.
But wait no longer, my love.
You have chosen me and I, you.
Together at last, me and you, you and me.
My heart will go on, Belgian Chocolate.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Jingle from Dingle

An Daingean Peninsula must be one of the most beautiful places on the earth. The bus ride in was so Irish, with massive fields of sheep and cows all over the mountains, all right on the coast of the Atlantic. Dingle town itself was cute It had all the typical Irish looking shops, but unlike Galway, it felt like fishing and farming really did fuel the economy, not just hordes of tourists. The town centered around a harbour, which also happen to be the home of Ireland's most friendly dolphin, Fungi. Apparently in 1984 Fungi adopted Dingle as his home town (The way Bennet the Cat adopted us). In his younger years he would jump over small zodiacs and fishing boats and play with local fisherman and scuba divers. In his old age, although still active, he more swims beside and jumps alongside boats, as opposed to over them.

The really impressive part of Dingle was the surrounding peninsula. Our B&B host (who baked delicious homemade bread, pies, cakes and museli (muselage, as Gramma calls it.)) called and set us up with a private tour of the peninsula for a group-rate price.

Now, instead of boring you with more description about how incredible the most Western tip of Europe is (plus I'm running out of adjectives), I will let the pictures do the talking and tell you some interesting facts about Ireland (ps. the tour guide said that I was very lucky to be able to actually get out of the tour bus and no be blown away by the coastal winds). But don't fret, my avid fans: I would have risked it for these pictures, regardless of the threat on my life. So, anyways, when Ireland joined the EU, it was one of the poorest countries, but as promised, the other EU countries helped build it up to is luxurious position today. Unfortunately, payback time had come, and many Irish aren't pleased about the cost. For example, Ireland has experienced a huge wave of Polish immigration since Poland recently joined the EU, and since the minimum wage in Ireland is almost 3 times as much as it is back home , many Polish people are making the obvious choice and are either moving to Ireland, or at least working here for the summer. It just so happens that we met a Polish student in Dingle who had been working in Limerick for the summer, who confirmed that she didn't end up have to speak any english at all in Ireland, as the Polish community is so large. During the famine, Ireland lost almost 4 million people. We toured a famine village in Connemara that had ruins of the tiny stone houses with very few windows. The more windows your house had, the more taxes you would pay! When Ireland was ruled by the British and there was no work in the small communities, people would get paid to build walls out of stones piled on each other. The walls did not divide anything, and served no purpose other than to provide work (the British gov't didn't believe in handouts). A final intersting fact is that it pays to have a thatch roof. The Irish gov't actually gives out grants for people to maintain and install thatched roofs!

Tides. Tides are so cool. I think this because yesterday I got to walk on the ocean floor when the tide was out. They actually had steps down the cliff! There were underwater plants growing on the rocks and little fish who got stuck in puddles and missed the ride out. We were standing at the tip of Dingle Bay looking out at the Atlantic, watching Fungi having fun with the fishing boats, about 20 ft under water! (Well, if it were about 5 hours later!) We took some great 'water crashing on rocks' pictures, talked to some fishermen fishing for sting ray, snuck through cow fields and hopped some fences. After all this adventure, the only logical thing to do, was to enjoy some good old live trad. Irish music. So we did. Then we walked the 5 minutes across town (yes, thats all the way across) back to our B&B, which btw, our rooms were about 20 ft from the Atlantic with a great view, and slept with the ocean breeze on our faces. (because I insisted the windows be left open!). Dingle is now tied with Northern Northern Ireland for most beautiful places on our trip thus far,in case you were keeping track.

A note about sheep. I would like to take this opportunity to express my love for sheep. They are just so entertaining! If they aren't trying to escape their huge lots (where would they go anyways?) or narrowly diving out of the way of on-coming tour buses, or being chased by tourists (ahem, Jonathan), they really are just little fluffy and unaware entertainers. I think I am going to get a pet sheep when I come home. Just think about it Dad: you would never have to cut the grass again!

ps. sorry if the title of this entry misled you. I don't actually have a 'jingle from dingle'. Gramma, however, will be home Saturday and will be more than willing to lead a round of 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling'.

pps. if interested in an exact ply by play of Ireland 2006, Gramma has recorded every detail right down to the fresh squeezed orange juice we had for breakfast this morning, for everyone's reading pleasure. Just another example of why she is the cutest Gramma in all of Ireland (and Canada).

ppps. SARAH, we said 'hi' to Fungi for you! He wants to see you back on the Emerald Island soon.

A Typical Day in Ireland?

Our time in Galway was building up to an Irish Medieval Banquet, in the style of Oh Canada Eh?! Dinner Show, which was held several town over at Dungire Castle. We booked tickets in advance and, the day before, double checked which bus we needed to take to Dunguire. It left at 200. We double checked. Our plan was as follows: We would arrive at 145 for our 200 bus to Kinvara, the city that boasts Dunguire. It would arrive at approximately 230 in Kinvara, which would leave us 3 hours to enjoy the quaint town and tour the castle before the 530 banquet. Our day was perfectly planned; nothing could go wrong.

Now fast forward to the day of the banquet.

Although the bus people had told us which bus wee needed twice already, we triple checked at 1100am that morning.

"There is no 200 bus to Kinvara," the bus laady said, "the only bus going there leaves at 600 tonight."

We now had a 530 banquet and a 600 bus that would get in half way through our dinner show. Our hopes and dreams were shattered, and, one of us became moody and cranky.

It was looking dim: the closest town to kinvara we could get to could have still left us with a 4 hour walk to the castle. What were we going to do? Hitch-hike (with Gramma), of course! So we hopped on a bus going in the general direcion of Kinvara and started into uncharted territory (for us, anyway). I started chatting with the Irish lad next to me on the bus and learned Kilcolgan, the town the bus would leave us in, is a one-horse town: 3 stores, no gas station, no taxis, population about 200 (including sheep).

Unbeknowst to us, our conversation sparked the interest of a lady sitting a seat beyond. She made her way into the conversation. Whe was a tri-lingual Irish high-school teacher, was married to a man from Italy, had 2 girls, and was a traveller herself. She said her car was in Gort, a stop 30 minutes past our Kilcolgan stop. If I could convice the bus driver to let us stay on, she would drive us to Kinvara! I convinced him (with no extra charge!) and we were off to Gort.

It was a beautiful town full of beautiful people, much like our new-found friend/chauffeur, Pauline. Pauline didn't just drive us to Kinvara, she gave us our own private 1 hour tour of her region, the Burren, and told us the history and legends surrounding it. The Burren, we learned, has no dirt to bury a man, no tree to hang him, and no water to drown him; a unique landscape for sure! We are very thankful for her.

Until 530 we sight-seed (sight-sawed?).

The banquet was worth every penny! The actors/servers certainly knew how to entertain; and the cooks certainly knew how to cook! We ate like the 'Lords' and 'Ladies' we were that night. In the photo, if you see any looks of fear or pain on the faces of the banquet guest, it was probably because I had just finished serenading them with my rendition of Mull of Kintyre on stage. When the banquet,, filled with Irish culture, literature, and music, finished, we thought our night would start winding down.

Again we were wrong.

Half-way back to Galway, our bus driver picked up rowdy Irish boys, with beers in hand, from the Annual Oyster-Fest. They sloppily staggered to the back of the bus where our trio sat. Gramma soon became the apple of their eyes. We traded stories and accents and all were merry. At the back of the bus there were 5 steep steps leading down to an emergency exit. That staircase was out with a vengence that night: it claimed 2 Irish boys. One second they were in front of us, the next second: gone. They laid crumpled at the bottom of the stairs while their remaining pints of Guinness found a new home at the top of the stairs, sprayed across the windows. That was the grand conclusion to a rather eventful day in Ireland.

We have learned to expect the un expected when travelling Europe. Only now, we look forward to it.

ps. After that last photo was taken I was immediately informed that, apparently, it is very uncool to give the peace sign while having your picture taken. I will try not to make that same mistake again.