Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 4)

December 31, 2010

I’m a person who likes to know as many details about a destination as possible. Therefore, I used Google Earth™ to extensively track our course once we boarded the Amadeus Diamond… I did this prior to leaving home. In so doing, I discovered that the Danube River flows nowhere near Nuremberg; but I was able to trace a body of water from Regensberg, Germany back to, and beyond, Nuremberg. It was the Rhine–Main–Danube Canal that links the Danube with the Rhine. It’s Europe’s answer to our Northwest Passage (which is yet to be found).

The locks along the canal - We started in Nuremberg and went up!

The canal was created, not so much for the cruise ships, but for the cargo vessels. It has proven to be a tremendous commercial success in allowing goods to be transported less expensively across parts of Europe.

Using Google Earth™ I took a guess at the most logical place for us to board the ship, and shortly after boarding, I asked a man in a naval uniform for details about our location. He informed me that we were in an inlet of some sort and would have to back out and turn around once we got to the main canal.

His answer caught me off-guard. I was sure we could simply start forward and continue that way. But what did I know?

I later learned that the man I was speaking with was the “Hotel” manager and had nothing to do with the navigation of the vessel. I could only wait until we actually began sailing to learn which was correct – his answer or my guess.

On December 19th we woke with no need for a wake-up call. My internal clock was still somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. We made it to breakfast with ease and ate too much. The breakfast buffet included bacon, sausage, baked beans, scrambled eggs, and triangles of minced potatoes that had been deep fried. There were also numerous choices of cold cuts, cheeses, Kippers, raw salmon, hard boiled eggs, rolls and pastries, various dry cereals, fruit, and other platters I bypassed. Each table also held a menu of items that could be cooked to order, such as omelets, pancakes, French toast, and the like. Of course, there was a wide variety of juices (including prune for the less than regular guys), tea, and coffee. The one mistake I made was imbibing in the Kippers. The taste was with me the rest of the day.

While preparing to board the buses for our tour of Nuremberg, I discovered the answer to a mystery from Munich. A day or so prior, as we were leaving the HofBrau Haus (Note the spelling of HofBrau – I had it wrong in earlier installments), there was a group of people gathered around a man speaking into a microphone. I thought it rather odd because I could hear him perfectly well – but not because of some sort of amplification system. I wondered if the man new his amplifier had died on him.

The magic sound system for walking tours.

Now, as we left the ship, we were given small audio receivers to hang around our necks. Each was numbered and we boarded buses or hooked up with tour guides with the same numbers. When the guides spoke into their microphones, we heard them through our headphones.

Our first guide took us on a bus tour of Nuremberg. I’m sure there were many points of interest, but the young lady was more inclined to chat about herself and her Christmas traditions. From time to time she’d say. “What should I tell you about now? Does anyone have any questions?” She did go into detail about the Nazi parade grounds.

Nazi Parade Grounds in Nuremberg

Another view of the Parade Grounds

We learned that Hitler began his rise to power in Munich – at the HofBrau Haus – but later moved his base to Nuremberg. Adolf Hitler would rally his troops and the local citizens by standing on the highest point of the grandstand and delivering his fiery speeches to thousands of cheering supporters. As I stated in an earlier account, his message was one of “Hope” that most Germans needed desperately to hear. His country had been broken by the Treaty of Versailles, and his actions brought the country out of depression and hyperinflation. Who wouldn’t have seen him as the savior? It wasn’t until years later that the German people discovered the true monster in whom they had placed their trust.

The building that housed the Nuremberg Trials after WW II

The above photo is the Justice Building where the Nuremberg Trials were held. A number of Nazis were tried; most were convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. A few were acquitted. Of the ones sentenced to hang, some committed suicide; if they couldn’t face a firing squad, they did not want to die by hanging. No one knows how cyanide was smuggled into the prison.

Close-up of the statues on the Justice Building

Does anyone know what the statues along the Justice Building represent?

After visiting the various Nazi historical sites, we were taken to the Christmas Market inside the walls of the old city.

Walls of the old city - seen from a speeding bus.

I was fascinated by the many walls around certain parts of the towns we visited. It was like traveling back in time to the days of castles and knights. I’m not sure where Germany stands as far as the number of castles, but they seemed to be everywhere… as did the old walls surrounding parts of the cities. Although this was a “Christmas Market” tour, I would’ve loved to devote more time to exploring the walls, towers, moats, and castles. Obviously, we have to go back and take a slower tour of the country!

Entrance to the Nuremberg Christmas Market

This sculpture was at the entrance to the Nuremberg Christmas Market. By the time we saw it, our guide had already left us on our own and had given us a time and place to meet so we could re-board the bus and return to the ship.

Close-up of Sculpture

I’m sure there was a story behind the people adorning this structure, but our guide saw no need to explain.

Roman Catholic Church near the Christmas Market

This is the Roman Catholic Church that stood at the rear of the market. We went into the church hoping to take some pictures, but they were in the middle of Communion. We’d forgotten it was Sunday.

The nearby Lutheran Church

This is the Lutheran Church which was a few blocks away from the Christmas Market. It too had a service in progress. Had we been able to go in, it would’ve cost us each one Euro for the privilege. I guess that’s a better way to raise money than a fish fry.

It’s interesting that we’d been dropped off to wander the market and spend our Euros, but Lu and I had spent so much time at the Christmas Market in Munich that we were quickly bored and spent more time exploring the town around the market.

Lu on bridge

This is Lu standing on a bridge overlooking a stream that might have filled the moat – although our guide said the moat had always been dry. Makes one wonder why anyone would bother having a moat if it isn’t full of water. Note that had a moved my gloved finger a bit more to the right, I could have taken Lu out of that picture entirely.

Jim on bridge

Lu did a much better job of taking my picture.

Nuremberg Castle

High on a hill overlooking the town and Christmas Market stood the castle. I walked half-way up the hill with Lu and decided I’d eaten too much for breakfast to go any farther. (The snack of brat wursts I had at the Christmas Market had nothing to do with it.) Lu, being much younger than I, continued on.

More of the castle

The complex was extensive with all sorts of buildings, walls, and storage structures. At one point Lu aimed her camera back down the hill and tried to find me.

Looking down from the Royal position

I may be that person standing down there wondering what happened to my bride, or that might be a total stranger. In all honesty, I was off taking more important photos.

A relic from the past

With the advent of cell phones, this may become obsolete. Future travelers may not be able to view such relics.

All too soon our fun in Nuremberg had to end and we returned to the bus and the ship. We were scheduled to set sail just as lunch was being served.

We were hardly into the soup course when I realized we had come to a stop. I looked out the window and saw a wall. We were in a lock! And I wasn’t out on deck to witness this wonder of modern engineering. I had waited weeks to experience going through a lock for the first time, and there I was – stuck eating soup!

As I finished my soup and waited for the next course, I saw the wall going down. By the time I finished the main course, we were looking out over the wall and waiting for the gates to open. All too soon we were on our way again… and I had only seen the process from the limited view of the dining room. Poop!

After lunch, we went up to the lounge and found seats near the front of the vessel. I had no idea how long it would be before the next lock, but I wasn’t about to miss it.

By the way, the Hotel Manager was totally wrong in his prediction of our sailing. We simply pulled away from shore and headed in the direction I’d determined based on my research. I didn’t say, “I told you so”, but I didn’t bother asking him anything more about the navigation of the ship.

Approaching the second lock

It wasn’t long before my wait was over… or so I thought.

Getting closer - OH! The Excitement!

The lock was within reach, and we began to slow down. However, we also started to move to the left. I hoped the captain knew what he was doing, because the way he was going, he was going to ram the wall to the left of the gate. It was then I noticed the cargo vessel to our right.

A "parked" cargo vessel

But it was tied up and it seemed to be parked there permanently. Before long, we were tied up on the left side of the canal and we were informed that a ship was stuck in a lock a dam or two further on. Traffic was halted until they worked out the problem. They expected us to be stalled for at least two hours.

Finally moving again

Night had fallen by the time we got the go-ahead to move into the lock. I decided to go to our cabin and get my jacket. I planned to stand on the deck (in sub-freezing weather) to get some good pictures. While in the cabin, I turned on the television to see if the crew was sending us any messages on their on-board network. That’s when I discovered they had a camera mounted on the front of the ship and it did a much better job of recording our journey after dark.

The view from our cabin's TV

The picture on the TV in our cabin was much better than I could hope to take with my Kodak, but I had to get the first hand experience or being on deck.

View from my camera

I rest my case.

That night, the ship televised an old movie, “Judgment at Nuremberg”. Lu and I decided to watch a bit of it before falling to sleep.

Did I mention the ice in the canal? Well, after going up through a number of locks, we were quite a bit higher above sea level and the ice on the canal was very much thicker. Lu began fearing we might duplicate the fate of the Titanic. I kept reminding myself that the canal was no more than ten feet deep and, even if we did sink; we could go up to the lounge and be high and dry. We could then walk across the ice to solid ground.

In the meantime, we turned the volume on the TV as high as it would go and still couldn’t hear the dialogue over the sound of ice crushing against the hull of our ship. I likened it to being in a thunder storm with constant thunder.

We finally gave up and turned off the television. We soon fell asleep to the calming sound of ice being crushed and shoved aside by our relentless moving toward our first port of call. Morning would find us arriving at Regensberg. This time it would be a walking tour, but we were looking forward to walking off as many calories as we could prior to another round of delicious meals.

Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 3)

December 30, 2010

On Saturday morning, December 18th, we checked out of our hotel and headed for the train station. In our previous wanderings we’d learned that we didn’t have to traverse the entire distance above ground. There was an entrance to the central train station less than half a block from the hotel. That path allowed us to avoid walking – and in Lu’s case, pulling a wheeled piece of luggage – through the slush that covered all the sidewalks and pedestrian areas of Munich. In all fairness, the city employees and business owners tried to keep the walkways clear, but the snow kept falling.

We stopped at a pastry shop in the underground mall area of the train station and had more delicious pastries for breakfast.

I don’t know if it’s true for the majority of the U-Bahn (subway) stations in Munich, but most of the ones we visited included underground malls complete with department stores, convenience stores, cafes, and all sorts of other retail outlets. That’s something else the folks at MARTA might consider as a way of reducing dependence on tax payer dollars.

S-Bahn station beneath the streets of Munich

We took the S-8 back to the Munich airport in order to catch up with the Gate 1 tour guide and be transported to the cruise ship docked somewhere near Nuremberg. We met Monika at the entrance to the Cafe Leysieffer. She was rather surprised to see us as she’d been told to expect us later… rather than sooner. There were two buses scheduled to take us to the ship; one departed at noon, the other at 3:00 PM. We’d decided to get to the airport in time to get the early bus. Gate 1, knowing we had spent extra time in Munich, had assumed we’d arrive back at the airport later.

As it turned out, some of the folks who were supposed to be on the early bus were on flights that were delayed; so there was plenty of room for us on the early bus. However, when I say we arrived early, we arrived early. We had about two hours to kill.

So, we ate a second breakfast at the café, which was really an early lunch; we’d be on the bus from noon until two or two-thirty, and had no idea when the cruise ship was planning to feed us.

We wandered around the airport terminal to see what retail outlets were available there.

The sign maker did not make a mistake

I had to take a picture of this place because it reminded me of a time, years ago, when the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted a running back out of Penn State University. We thought he was of Irish decent – Frank O’Harris. Obviously, some Germans believe that the early Italian explorer was actually Irish.

In truth, I did a bit of research and discovered that Marc O’Polo is a company that was founded in Sweden by three men: Gote Huss, Rolf Lind, and (this might be part of the answer) Jerry O’Sheets. I could find no explanation for the name of their company. We can only surmise Jerry had something to do with it.

By the way, for the uninformed, that Penn State football player was really named Franco Harris.

After spending a relative fortune (almost 20 Euros) on a book for Lu and a puzzle magazine for me, we boarded the bus and headed off to Nuremberg.

I was totally surprised to see thousands of acres of open land. A good friend from England had told me that wide open spaces were rarely seen in Europe. Perhaps his opinion was based on spending time in large cities. However, there was one thing that truly intrigued me.

Strange netting over farmers' fields

We saw netting like that shown in the picture almost everywhere. It appeared to be some way to keep birds away from the crops, but it made us wonder what sort of crops were grown beneath the netting – and how would the farmer get a tractor in there to till the ground? Perhaps one of our German friends can supply an answer.

The only other photo I took while on this bus was one showing the electric wires for the high-speed train that ran between Munich and Nuremberg.

A train runs alongside the highway

Considering the cost of that train ride was almost 300 Euros per person, I was content to ride the bus that had cost us 95 Euros apiece.

Just before 2:00 PM (the driver had a heavy foot), we arrived at our destination.

The Amadeus Diamond awaiting us

We were able to get ourselves and our luggage on board, but our cabins were not yet ready. Thus, we were forced to spend some time in the lounge and imbibe in alcoholic beverages.

Lu saved our place in line

In the above photo, the white tablecloths were a clear indication that some sort of finger food was about to be served. We wanted to be first in line because it had been awhile since our second breakfast/early lunch.

The time between our arrival and our first snack gave us time to meet some of our fellow travelers. When we saw how many folks were traveling with friends, we realized once again how much we missed the folks who had been scheduled to go with us.

As we killed time, I couldn’t help noticing the ice on the water.

Would we need an ice-breaker?

What first caught my attention is the fact that the ice would occasionally change directions. One time I’d look out the window to see the ice flowing left to right. The next time, right to left.

Lots of ice and the temperature was dropping!

It was then I remembered that we were in a canal. I correctly surmised that the flow of the water changed whenever a ship passed through a lock. It wasn’t until we set sail the next day that I discovered how close we were to that first lock.

The remainder of this day was nothing more than time to relax. We were served a light meal of small open-faced sandwiches and pastries, along with tea and coffee. Later, we would be served a champagne welcoming cocktail. That was soon followed by a wonderful cruise-ship dinner.

Every dinner on board the ship began with some sort of salad or appetizer. That course was followed by soup – always a choice between a clear broth based and a cream based soup. Then came the main course followed by a luscious dessert. The wine, being complimentary, flowed freely throughout. (I would’ve preferred beer, but the choice was simple – almost 4 Euro per glass, or free.)

After dinner, we sat around and got to know some of our shipmates, and then retired rather early. Many of the folks joining us for the cruise had flown in from the States that day. They were exhausted.

Breakfast would be served at 7:00 AM the next day and the bus tour of Nuremberg was scheduled to leave at 8:00. So, we called it a day as well. We’d be well rested by morning.

Before I bring this chapter to a close, let me say a bit about the planning that went into this trip.

December 18th is the day we would have landed in Munich had we just gone with the package offered by Gate 1 Travel. I had received an email telling me that the price of the cruise had been slashed from $899 per person to $499 per person. The cruise included six nights lodging/cruising and three meals a day (for December 19th through the 23rd.) It also included dinner on the 18th and breakfast on the 24th. AND complimentary wine at all dinners. Such an unbelievable price did not go unnoticed.

The kicker was the airfare. Leaving on Friday, December 17th and returning on Friday, the 24th meant we’d be flying on some of the airlines’ busiest days. By tweaking that schedule and leaving on a Wednesday and returning on Christmas Day, we reduced the airfare by over $300 per person. That gave us $600 to cover two night’s hotel in Munich, one in Vienna, and something left over for meals and transportation in those cities.

So, my advice to fellow travelers is to always look at ways to reduce the airfare. In most cases, you can probably save enough cash to cover the extra days at your final destination. The added bonus for us was that it gave us time to adjust to the six hour time differential.

Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 2)

December 29, 2010

We were up bright and early on the morning of December 17th. We had a date with Helmut Gottschling at St. Lukas Lutheran Church on the east side of town.

But, before I get to that, let me explain that our first day in Munich did not end with dinner in the Viktuallenmarkt. After a most enjoyable meal, we returned the way we had come… past the old gates of the city and through Marienplatz. Most of the pedestrian area was dedicated to the Christmas Market.

New City Hall

As we walked, we heard beautiful Christmas Music. One song would be by a children’s choir; the next played by an 0om-pah band; and then a male and female quartet. The music sounded “live” and we looked around for a stage. When we looked up at the New City Hall (which is over 100 years old), we spotted the three groups that were providing the wonderful music.

Musicians on the balconies

Returning to our hotel, we passed by a store with a window display dedicated to the “Star Wars” movies… and all the characters were built with Lego blocks.

R2-D2 in the flesh - er, Legos!

Now, back to St. Lukas. We rode the number 17 tram to Effnerplatz and got off at Mariannenplatz… not to be confused with Marienplatz. Recall that we had a three day pass and could ride any form of public transportation. Thus, we did not need to worry about figuring out the money and fares, and were left plenty of time and brain power to figure out the names of streets.

We arrived near the church an hour before our appointment and wandered around the neighborhood for a while. We stopped in a small store and quickly realized it was a health food store. I saw no meat, and most of the products were labeled “BIO”. We bought some trail mix, a couple of candy bars, and two pairs of 100% Alpaca wool socks (which don’t fit me – Lu wins on that one!) The cashier, recognizing us as American tourists, gave us a free plastic bag (they normally sell for 10 cents) and a bag of loose tea. (Lu wins again!)

St. Lukas Lutheran Church

St. Lukas Lutheran Church has a beautiful view of the Isar River.

Isar River near St. Lukas Church

Pastor Helmut Gottschling not only gave us a tour of his church, he also gave us a brief history lesson. First he explained that the area where the church was built in 1896 was a relatively new neighborhood populated by well-to-do families. The area had its own mayor and council who insisted that a very large and impressive church must be built to reflect the prosperity of the community. That goal was most certainly achieved.

He then tried to put the age of his church in perspective. As I recall, it was the oldest Lutheran church in Munich, but only the third or fourth oldest church of any kind. The Roman Catholic churches had been there longer, but one church in particular no longer existed.

It seems that when Hitler and the Nazis came into power, the leaders of the Christian churches were supposed to fall into lock-step with the National Socialist party. The Bishop who occupied the oldest church in Munich – while not going out of his way to defend the Jews or question the tactics of Hitler – was not enthusiastic enough (in the eyes of the Nazis) about the New Christian movement of the Nazis. Therefore, Hitler had his church razed and built a large boulevard through the area the church had once occupied.

Another thing Helmut told us regarded St. Lukas. When the Allies began bombing Munich in World War II, the oldest churches in the city removed all their stained glass windows and put them in crates somewhere underground to protect them. St. Lukas was barely fifty years old at the time and saw no reason to take such action. While the church did not suffer any direct hits, the concussion of bombs exploding nearby shattered every window in the building. For years, the parishioners believed that was the extent of the damage. Then, about five years ago, a large stone (weighing almost a ton) fell from the side of the church and landed in a children’s playground. Fortunately, it was at night and nobody was in the area.

It was later determined that the stone that fell, as well as many others, had been loosened by the bombing a half century earlier. It cost over 4 million Euros to inspect and repair the entire outside of the structure.

Pews - as seen from the balcony of St. Lukas

Another very interesting thing we learned was that the architect who designed St. Lukas had previously designed a Jewish Synagogue (that was later destroyed by the Nazis), and that following the war, Jews who visited St. Lukas said they almost felt at home.

Evidently, prior to the Nazis’ attempts to eradicate the Jews, the Jews in Germany were making every effort to “fit in”. They abandoned their traditional garb, shaved their beards, and spoke German rather than Yiddish. Following the war, they realized such attempts were in vain and returned to their traditional ways.

A number of important facts came out of our discussion with the Pastor. First of all, the Treaty of Versailles almost ruined Germany forever. The demands of the Allies – both monetary and territorial – put a tremendous financial burden on a nation that had virtually no way to pay down the debt. The Weimer Republic, established in 1919, tried to overcome the difficulties by simply printing more money. This led to hyperinflation and people hauling around their paper money in wheelbarrows – trying to spend it before it became totally worthless. It wasn’t long before the citizens of Germany gave up hope of ever seeing their country return to its pre-war grandeur. That hopelessness opened the door for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who offered hope for a better tomorrow.

Many Germans were more than glad to hop on the bandwagon, while others stayed back and questioned the tactics and promises.

It wasn’t long before the German people were divided into two camps, and neither trusted the other. All too soon, those who were against Hitler were afraid to voice their opposition; they’d seen what had happened to others, and they were afraid to trust their long-time friends.

When World War II ended, there were still those who fully supported Hitler and some continue to do so. In the meantime, the new government banned the swastika and all other emblems of the Nazi Regime. It is only in the last decade or so that Germany has begun to turn their shame into a resolve to never let it happen again. Dachu and other concentration camps have become museums and people openly discuss the evils that had once plagued their country.

This discussion and insight was not what we expected in our tour, and I may be editorializing about more than actually transpired, but I believe I’m accurate in my estimation of the Germany of today. Now, getting back to other things we learned.

Pastor Helmut Gottschling told us his church has over 6,000 members and they were all preparing for a concert to be held on the evening of December 18th. That is why there were risers in front of the altar.

St. Lukas altar in preparation for the Christmas Concert

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stick around for the concert. Our schedule called for us to be in Nuremberg by then.

After thanking Helmut profusely for spending well over an hour with us, we returned to the tram stop and rode number 17 back to Karlsplatz. That returned us to the Pedestrian area in time to hear and see the Glockenspiel on the New City Hall.

The famous Glockenspiel

After examining some of the items for sale in the Christmas Market, we headed for the HaufBrau Haus – Munich’s most famous beer hall.

My bride and I at the HaufBrau Haus

Lu was especially interested in the oom-pah band.

A real German oom-pah band

I was more interested in the one-liter mugs of beer and king-sized pretzels.

Munich - My Kind of Town!

We ate lunch and made sure to savor their specialties. I had the Crisp roast knuckle of pork in natural gravy, served with a grated potato dumpling, and Lu had the Roast pork from Bavarian production with crackling in natural gravy, served with a grated potato dumpling. We had never tasted pork cooked either way and both were delicious. The dumplings were OK.

Surprisingly, neither Lu nor I took any photos of the Christmas Market booths. However, not to worry; we took pictures of Christmas Market booths in other cities. If you’ve seen one booth, you’ve seen them all!

Following lunch, we returned to the hotel for a while to warm up and set a spell. After a brief rest, we jumped on a tram headed out of the center city. We rode it to the end of the line when we were told we had to get off and catch a different tram back into the city.

What surprised me the most about that ride was that we saw far more apartment houses and condos than private homes. Perhaps that is true of every major city in the world. I just haven’t paid that much attention.

We were less than surprised when the “next” tram back into town was the same one we had just got off. I guess the conductor was just following proper protocol.

Later, in the late afternoon, we headed back to the market and grazed – I think. I’ll have to check with my bride. I don’t recall eating a meal in a restaurant.

There was one booth where they were frying potato pancakes. One man occasionally added lard to the griddle and then spooned out the batter in neat rows of eight or ten cakes along a four by two foot cooking surface. Another man would follow behind and turn four or six cakes at a time. As soon as he reached one end of the griddle, he’d return to the other end and start taking the cakes off and placing them on a grate which allowed some of the grease to drip off. The two men worked in harmony to keep the griddle constantly filled. In the meantime, a woman would place a wafer about the size of a graham cracker on a napkin and stack three cakes on it prior to adding the apple sauce. She immediately handed it to the next person in line.

I would’ve take a picture of this booth had I not been so impatient to get in line. I was lucky and was given four cakes instead of three. Lu began by just asking for a bite. She ate two of the cakes and I ate the other two. They were delicious.

By the way, for breakfast on this first, and only, full day in Munich, we found a coffee shop at the main train station that served wonderful pastries to go with our coffee and tea.

Later in the evening, we returned to the food booth at the entry of the Pedestrian zone.

Food booth by the skating rink

There we bought two bratwurst sandwiches and two bottles of water. Each sandwich had two wursts, and we had our choice of mild or spicy. Lu stuck to the mild; I had one of each. The big surprise was the deposit we were charged for the two plastic water bottles – 1 Euro apiece! We had about $2.75 tied up in empty plastic bottles. You can safely bet that we returned the empties and got our deposit back.

I should also mention that many booths in the Christmas Markets sold mulled wine and served it up in ceramic mugs. Those mugs carried a two and one-half Euro deposit. I’d say the Germans know how to get your attention when it comes to recycling. In fact, I don’t think we saw any sort of Styrofoam container during the entire trip.

We thoroughly enjoyed our “snack” as we watched ice skaters and a Zamboni on the rink behind the food stand.

By this time, a combination of a whole lot of walking and jet lag compelled us to call it a day. We took a couple more photos and returned to the hotel. The next day would have us taking the S-Bahn 8 back to the airport so we could catch the bus to the cruise ship waiting for us in Nuremberg.

Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 1)

December 28, 2010

My best friend and I recently returned from Europe. We’d been to Europe before, but never to Germany and we’d never taken a trip anywhere that saw us returning home on Christmas Day.

Hopefully I’ll get to my relating of Day 1 before I run out of space. But first, I need to provide a bit of background.

First of all, my best friend, and favorite traveling companion, is my bride. Lu and I have taken many trips together and I hope and pray we’re able to take many more. It seems that’s the only time we can be together twenty-four hours a day for any extended period. I like it that way. And so far, such times have not led to “knock-em-down, drag-em-out” fights.

Next, let me provide some details on the planning that went into this trip.

No. On second thought… That will take too long and can wait for another time.

So, we’ll begin with December 15th. That’s the day we drove to the Atlanta airport to begin our journey. The weather was miserable and getting worse by the hour. We left the car at the Crown Plaza hotel and rode their shuttle to the Airport where check-in would have been a breeze had it not been for the TSA’s attempt to make us feel safe.

There are many people in government positions who are trying very hard to make us more like other countries. I’ll have much more to say about that subject later, but as for airport security, our government continues to ignore the best method known to man. Do as the Israelis do, and look for bombers, not bombs.

Lu and I had packed light – extremely light. I had a back pack and a small computer case. Lu had a small wheeled carry-on bag and a large purse. We checked nothing. But we still had to take off our shoes, put the computer and cell phone in a separate bin, take off our jackets, place our one-quart sized plastic bags filled with liquids and gels in a separate area, and then walk through the metal detector. Naturally, we had to wait in a long line while many others did likewise. Of course, we could not even enter the line without having our passports and boarding passes approved.

As I passed through the metal detector I realized I’d made a fatal mistake. I’d forgotten to remove my belt with its large metal buckle. I knew I would soon be subjected to further scrutiny – that’s easier than allowing me to remove the belt and pass through the detector a second time – at least that what seems to be written in the training manual for these folks. Surprise, surprise, surprise! I didn’t set off the alarms and was permitted to retrieve my belongings, put my shoes back on, return the computer and bag of liquids and gels to my computer bag and continue to the gate area.

I certainly had mixed feelings. I’d gotten through without a full-body scan or pat-down… but what if the metal on my body – that was not detected – had been an explosive device? I have nothing against the TSA agents; they are only doing what they are told to do. My problem is with a system that is all for show. Those in charge over-react to situations with origins in other countries (shoe and underwear bombing attempts) and have a penchant for spending tax dollars on controversial (and extremely expensive) equipment that is being pedaled via lobbyists who are good friends with those in top government positions. It all seems like a sham and/or scam to me.

At any rate, it wasn’t much longer before we had found our gate and were able to board the plane scheduled to depart Atlanta at 4:20 PM. Around 5:20, the captain finally made an announcement. The nose of our plane had been replaced (say what???) and we would soon be pushed back from the gate. From there, we would proceed to an area where the plane would be soaked with some sort of de-icing compound so that our wings would not ice up as we passed through the skies laden with water vapor that was now beginning to fall as snow.

By 6:20 we were rumbling down the runway and soon on our way to Munich, Germany. Like sardines packed in a tin, we were stuck in positions that made it virtually impossible to sleep. So we read, did crossword puzzles, watched movies, and played trivia games. As we prepared to land, Jim in seat 36B had the highest score – 5200 points. I don’t mean to brag, but this clearly demonstrates that my head is full of useless information.

The original plan had us scheduled to land in Munich at 7:40 AM on December 16th. Due to our delayed departure, we finally touched down around 9:30.

Although our luggage was all carry-on, we still took a long time to get to the main part of the terminal. The major holdup was the passport validation process. We had to show our “papers” to an agent who asked us how long we planned to be in Germany and what we were planning to do during our stay. Once satisfied with our answers, he stamped a visa in our passports.

We were able to bypass the baggage claim, but not the ATM. We needed Euros. These are things all travelers to Europe should know. First, you don’t need to take travelers’ checks or go to your bank to get Euros before you leave home. Also, you don’t want to go to the currency exchange booths to change your dollars to Euros. Just make sure your checking account has sufficient funds and then use your ATM card just like you would at home. Second, be aware that there are many small retail shops and restaurants in Europe that don’t take debit or credit cards. Be sure to have enough Euros to pay for your purchases and meals.

Once we obtained our Euros, we then went in search of the public transportation. Years ago on a trip to Europe paid for by my employer I decided to spurn the limo that my employer would’ve paid for and take public transit. It was far less costly, and gave me a much better feel for the city and country I was visiting.

In Munich, a one-way transit ticket from the airport to the city cost 10.80 Euros (about $15.00). Our travel plans called for us to return to the airport on December 18th to catch a bus to Nuremberg. Thus, if Lu and I had simply bought the tickets for a round-trip from the airport to the city of Munich, it would have cost us 43.20 Euros (about $60). Then, if we wanted to ride the subway, trams or buses while in Munich, we would’ve had to pay anywhere from 2.50 to 10.00 Euros per ride. Instead, we bought a City Tour Card for 48.00 Euro that allowed us to ride any of the forms of transportation as many times as we liked for three days. That’s about $67.00. That’s also considered a bargain. When I tell you that five adults could’ve traveled on that same City Tour Card, you’d realize it was a tremendous bargain!

Our well used transit map of Munich

We were now ready to head for our hotel. The plan was to drop off our luggage at the hotel and wander around the city until 3:00 PM when we’d be able to actually check into our room. We took the S1 (an above ground train for much of the trip) – look for the green circle on the map – into the main train station (Hauptbahnhof [Central Station] circled in yellow). We would take the S8 when we returned so that we could see both sides of Munich.

The transit system in Munich (as well as Vienna) operates on an “Honor” system. There are no turnstiles, and no one to collect your money or take your ticket. You simply get on and off as you please. However, there is one major requirement.

After purchasing your ticket in a vending machine or at a tobacco shop, you must time stamp it at a train station or on the train, tram, or bus as you board the first time. Failure to have that ticket time-stamped can result in a 40 Euro fine. On our first ride – from the airport into the Central Station, we were confronted by a man who would’ve passed as a New York City narcotics officer. He was showing me his credentials (which I couldn’t begin to read) and demanding to see our tickets. When I realized there were similar people checking the tickets of others, I complied. He was satisfied (thank God we had stamped our ticket!) and he soon got off the train. That was the last time anyone in Munich asked to see our tickets. We rode several trains and trams before leaving the city, but never did more than get on and get off. I think Atlanta’s MARTA might do well by employing a similar system.

Being a careful planner, I had already “walked” from the train station to our hotel using Google Earth. It was a piece of cake. All we had to do was walk out the front door, make a right, go to the first intersection, make a slight jog to the left and continue straight to our hotel on Schillerstrausse.

Map of Munich's center city

The best laid plans of mice and men…

Using that map as a guide (see red circle), we walked parallel to the tracks and came out a door and headed for our hotel (see green circle). Alas, it was not the “front” door. Therefore, we were ninety degrees out of kilter. We exited from the NORTH side of the terminal rather than the EAST side. Thus we spent the next hour wandering around aimlessly. We asked for directions from a gentleman in a department store and he walked us to a different entrance and said it was right around the corner. The problem was Lu heard him say “Turn right” while I was sure he said “Turn left.” Being a dutiful husband, I went with Lu’s hearing. After walking another few blocks, I stepped into a bakery and asked the woman behind the counter if she spoke English. She said “No”. As I was leaving, I turned and asked, “Schillerstrausse?”

Her face lit up and, with a smile, she point back the way we had come. I’ll assume the man at the department store had said “right” when he meant “left”. His English may not have been as good as we all thought.

Within a short time we arrived at our hotel and were surprised when they gave us a room key and welcomed us to Munich.

We settled into the room and took a three-hour nap. We then headed for the main pedestrian area of Munich (circled in white on the map) and knew immediately that we were in Bavaria.

The wurst place to find German food

We then worked our way to the Viktuallenmarkt (circled in yellow on the city map). That was our first indication that German butchers cut meat far differently than their counterparts in the states. We eventually found our way to a small restaurant and had our first taste of German cuisine. We quickly learned that the meat not only looks different, it tastes much better than what is served in German restaurants in America. We also discovered soft pretzels taste far better when salt is blended into the dough itself.

My best friend and favorite traveling companion

I believe this picture of my bride illustrates her pleasure in Munich. Later I’ll include a photo of myself at the Hauf Brau Haus (circled in gold on the city map) and show you some real contentment. But that will have to wait until the next installment of this on-going saga.

Jim’s Shortbread Surprise Cookies

December 5, 2010

Lu and I made a batch today and I made a comment on Facebook about them. Rather than try to bake enough to feed all my friends, I’ll simply share my recipe.

Here it is…

¾ pound butter – at room temperature

1 cup powdered sugar + 1 cup for dusting baked cookies

3 to 3½ cups flour

½ to ¾ cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts

½ tsp salt

2 pounds Hershey’s Kisses

1.          Preheat oven to 325°F.

2.          Cream the butter with electric mixer at medium speed.

3.          Gradually add the powdered sugar to the creamed butter and beat until fluffy.

4.          Gradually add the flour, chopped nuts, and salt and blend the mixture thoroughly.

(NOTE: Add about 3 cups of the flour and ½ cup of the finely chopped nuts. If the mixture is not too gooey, stop there. If the mixture is too gooey to roll in your hands to make a ball, add the additional flour and nuts.)

5.          Take about 1/2 teaspoon of the mixture and roll it around 1 (unwrapped) Hershey’s Kiss. There should be just enough cookie dough to cover the kiss.

6.          Roll the kiss and dough in your hands to form a small ball. (Roll the dough and kiss between your palms as you would to make a ball of mud or clay.)

7.          Place on ungreased cookie sheet about ½ inch apart.

8.          Bake for 25 to 30 minutes – until bottoms of cookies are light golden brown.

9.          Place cookies on cooling rack for about 5 or 10 minutes.

10.     Roll in powdered sugar.

11.     Eat any Hershey’s kisses left over.