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.