Monthly Archives: September 2009

Berchtesgaden: So much more than the guide books tell you

Berchtesgaden, Germany

September 29-30, 2009

September 29th:

I was coming to Berchtesgaden because my father put it in my head a year before that I should check it out. We are both World War II history buffs and on the European front, Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus) falls under a must-see. In all the guide books that I read before leaving, the only information given is that it’s the home to the Kehlsteinhaus and that Lake Königssee is just up the road. What it fails to tell you, are the amazing hikes to take, the National Park Museum, the quaint charm the local part of the town has and how there is an amazing view around every corner.

I took the train into Berchtesgaden from Salzburg. It was a short ride, but scenic nonetheless. I dropped my bag off in a locker at the station and crossed the street to the tourist office. I needed to find a place to stay and information on the Kehlsteinhaus. I walked in wearing a Leinenkugel’s Beer shirt and was looking at brochures waiting for the girls at the desk to be free. A guy comes up to me and asks if I’m from Wisconsin, like him. I let him know that I was and ask where he’s from.

“Oh, I’m from a small called Shawano, you?”

“I’m from an even smaller town called Wabeno.”

We both got a laugh out of it, as we’re from towns not that far away from each other. He and his wife were on their 4th or 5th trip to Berchtesgaden so he went right into telling me everything that I would “like.” I let him know that I was looking for a place to stay and hoping the tourist office would be able to help me find a place. He recommended the Hotel Demming, their favorite place to grab a bite to eat in town. They were staying in the Hotel Bavaria down the road, mainly because it offered rooms with hot tubs, which is what they needed after the miles upon miles of hiking they were doing each day. I talked with the girl at the information desk, she gave me all the information I would need on the Kehlsteinhaus, Lake Königssee, the hiking trails, bus schedules and she called the Hotel Demming to arrange a room for me. The couple from Shawano offered to drive me to the hotel, which is up a steep hill. Even though it’s only a few blocks away, they assumed I had some luggage and wanted to take the chance to offer up some more advice on things to do. I gladly accepted their offer for a ride.

So the Hotel Demming has to be one of the quaintest, coziest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. It’s a total Ma and Pa stand—the owner was running the front desk, the daughter was the waitress in the restaurant and they personally cooked the continental breakfast in the morning. When I came in the owner gestured if I was the one they called about. I let her know that I was and she handed me a key to the room and pointed me in the right direction. No paying in advance, no holding a credit card (turns out they didn’t accept cards), etc. All the reservation info was to be filled out in the room. I got up to my room, unloaded my stuff and headed out to see what Berchtesgaden had to offer.

I started out by walking around the main business district, which overlooks the rest of the city. I did everything from explore an old cemetery to shop for traditional German wear. I learned that most of the town businesses don’t accept credit cards, so I found the bank with the ATM and withdrew my money then so I wouldn’t run into any trouble. I decided to head to Lake Königssee just before dusk to check it out. It’s a quick boat ride up from the town, but I learned pretty fast that it’s better to get their before 6 pm, as all of the businesses around the Lake shut down then. I walked around for a bit and then headed to the only place open—McDonald’s, to grab a bite to wait for my bus. When I got in there, I realized this would be my first meal in Germany and no way was it going to come from a McDonald’s. I opted for some ice cream instead.

I headed back into town to grab a beer before retiring for the night. I was excited to check out the Kehlsteinhaus the next day.

September 30th:

My original plan for the day was to head to the Dokumentation Center in Oberslazburg before arranging to take the tour of the Eagle’s Nest through the tourist office. I was informed that the only way to get a tour of the whole building was through the TO. I knew that it included parts of the Dokumentation Center, but mainly just the bunkers. So I figured I would do the main part of the exhibit and then have the rest filled in by the tour. Yeah, that didn’t happen. You really need to set aside a couple hours to go through the Center in Obersalzberg. It’s the largest in Germany and focuses not only on WWII in the region, but the whole of Germany as well. Obersalzberg was where Hitler had vacationed and finished Mein Kampf before going into power. Once he became Chancellor of Germany, he and his administration took over the town by offering exuberant amounts of money to the locals for their houses and lands. Those that refused to sell were constantly pressured and eventually some of them literally lost their roofs in the dead of winter. Here, Hitler built his Berghof, a place where he could appear one with nature and the people. It was a pretty neat exhibit that put a lot of focus on Hitler and his administration. I also found it to be a strait-forward view on WWII from the German perspective. I didn’t come away with any biased opinions, just a “this is what happened and this is how life is today” feel. From the Dokumentation Center you can explore some of the underground bunkers. When the Americans and the Allies came in May of ’45, they took over the area and Hitler’s possessions. The bunkers belonged to the Americans until the 90’s, and it’s pretty obvious as they etched their names, towns, states, etc. all over the walls. I took advantage of being the only one in a specific bunker for a few minutes and etched my name and town as well.

I opted not to take the tour offered through the Tourist Office since I spent a few hours already in Obersalzberg. Instead, I headed up to the parking lot to catch the bus to the Kehlsteinhaus. You do have the option of getting a general tour for 5 Euro once you get to there. A local girl gave a couple Norwegians and me a basic tour upstairs of the history, the current dining room of the restaurant, one of the viewing windows, the terrace and general information. I then walked up the path on the mountain away from the building to partake in some of the most amazing views. On a clear day you can see Salzburg, Austria 20 KM to the east. That day, it was nothing but clouds, but it made me feel more on top of the world than I have ever before. After, I ate lunch in the beer garden and then headed down the path back to where the busses pick you up at. I ran into the couple from Shawano again, who invited me to meet them near the Oktoberfest grounds the next day in Munich. I was never able to join them, but once again, it was nice talking with someone from back home.

My time in Berchtesgaden was finished. I had to catch a train to Munich so I could begin my drinking the next day…


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Who knew Austria was across the street?

Salzburg, Austria

September 28-29, 2009

September 28th:

A funny thing happened on my way to Berchtesgaden, Germany—I ended up in Austria. I was nearing the station to transfer between Munich and Berchtesgaden, they made an announcement that Salzburg, Austria would be the stop after next. In the span of two minutes I decided not to get off the train as planned and continue on to Salzburg. I was intrigued that I could spend even just a day in the land that my great-grandparents came from. As a family, we have done some research on them before they came to the States, but we have been unable to find their original towns. Our best guess is that the small towns changed names after WWII.

I pulled into Salzburg late in the afternoon and decided that after a trip to the tourist office, maybe I should find a hotel. I settled on the Best Western about 500 meters from the main station. It was a very decent priced hotel and the room was great, and just what I needed. I looked forward to a shower and bath all to myself. I got situated and immediately headed into the old town to do some general sight-seeing. Since I hadn’t planned on coming here, I had no idea about anything, other than the fortress and that Mozart was from here. I had gotten a couple of maps at the tourist office with some good information on historical sights to see. I took off on foot and walked around for a few hours. I ran into a guy from Southern Wisconsin that was living in Germany and vacationing with his family at the moment. He seemed a little too excited to be meeting someone from back home, so I indulged him in conversation for a bit. I tried to get some good pics of Salzburg at night before heading back to the hotel. I would explore further in the morning before heading to Berchtesgaden.

September 29th:

I woke up early in the morning and checked my bag in the hotel luggage room before taking off to explore. I decided to hit up a couple of the churches and plazas, but not either of Mozart’s residences or the fortress. I only had a couple of hours to play tourist, so I had to pick and choose the maximum I could do in the least amount of time. I also wanted to do some shopping along the Getreidegasse. I wanted to make sure I got some gifts for my Grandma, since it was her parents that came from Austria. I also wanted something for my Dad, Aunt and myself. I hit up all I wanted to get to, and I got a couple brooches made of Austrian Crystal and a couple of Christmas ornaments. I was glad about the gifts I got, but now I had to just be extra careful with my luggage!

While my time in Salzburg was short and unexpected, I enjoyed my time there and can’t wait for the chance to go back and explore the place in more detail.

Sights in Salzburg to hit up:

The Fortress—you can hike up or take the funicular. There is a Museum and gift shop at the top.

Mozart’s Residences—there are two places to get some insight into Salzburg’s most famous resident. Either at Getreidegasse 9 or Marktplatz 8. He also has a square named after him: Mozartplatz.

Salzburg Cathedral—an amazing dome. Its Sunday Mass is famous for its music.

Residenzplatz—Munich isn’t the only place with a glockenspiel!

Kapitelplatz—Home to the golden orb.

St. Peter’s Church and Cemetary

Mirabell Gardens and Palace—I enjoyed walking around here.

St. Sebastian’s Cemetary—Mozarts wife and father are buried here.

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Who’s up for a hike or ten?

Interlaken, Switzerland

September 25-27, 2009

September 26th:

I lacked the funds to make it to Interlaken when I backpacked Europe in 2007 and I vowed I would make it there on my next trip, so I wasn’t passing up the chance this year. My host in Zurich tried to convince me that there were better places, less touristy to go instead, but I had my heart set on making it to Interlaken. I didn’t do anything my first night, as it was a bit rainy and my feet needed a break from all the walking I had done the past few days. I hung out in the lobby of the hostel I had found, caught up on some postcards, writing and reading. I planned out my course of action for the next couple of days. I knew I wanted to do some hiking and possibly some sort of sporting activity—skydiving, canyon jumping, paragliding, etc. over the next two days. I also wanted to find another hostel for the next night or two, because I wasn’t all that impressed with Funny Farm, where I was staying that night. Yes, it was nice that it appeared I would have a whole dorm room to myself, including bathroom and shower, but I wanted something a little more central and social. So I booked a room at the Backpackers’ Villa Sonnehof for the next day. Turned out, I would be sharing my room with one other American guy who showed up around midnight, small world, but we would end up being roommates for the next 2 nights as well…

What intrigued me about Interlaken were the unlimited options of outdoorsy things to do. It’s located in Switzerland’s Jungfrau region and provides the chance to do a lot of mountain hiking and exploring. I decided that my first full day would be dedicated to hiking. I caught the train up to Grindelwald to hit up some trails. Grindelwald, much like Interlaken, is there strictly for the tourists—tons of shops and restaurants catering to the interests of outsiders. It really hits you when you step off the train and notice all the shops subtitled in Korean (I think). There are also a couple of “American” restaurants. Maybe it’s me, but if I’m somewhere away from home, I’d rather eat local cuisine rather than a greasy burger and fries. That aside, I had picked up a map at my hostel that outlined the various hiking trails in the area, so I headed off to find some. Three hours later, I was ready to head to another town for some different trails. I looked at my map and price-wise, I opted to head to Lauterbrunnen, which is known for having some good trails and waterfalls. As the train pulled into the station, I noticed a slate-gray creek running alongside the track. I got off the train and while everyone headed in one direction, I headed toward the bus drop-off to find a path along the creek. I walked alone along the water, every now and then climbing down the rocks to the bank. I walked for about a mile, crossed a bridge and then turned around to head back toward the station. I was surprised that out of the amount of people who got off at Lauterbrunnen, that I was the only one walking along this path. It was so tranquil and I couldn’t get over how gray the water was. I made my way back to town and went in search of a waterfall. It didn’t take too long to find one and the best part, there was a stair case leading up the side of the mountain to walk underneath it. So I took a stroll up there, took in some amazing views and the start of a thunderstorm, so I headed back down.

That evening I met up with some Aussies staying in the same room as I was, so we headed out to downtown Interlaken to find some food and drink. They had just come from Munich and Oktoberfest, so they gave me the low-down on what to expect when I got there. We walked around for a bit afterward and then headed back to the hostel to crash for the night. I decided that the next day I was going to go paragliding and possibly canyon-jumping.

September 27th:

Today I went paragliding! I ran run off the side of a mountain and prayed that a bunch of nylon connected to some rope would catch wind. ! I had signed up with Outdoor Interlaken to head up in the early afternoon, when the wind would be most favorable for a longer “flight.” I met up with the van and discovered I was the only person meeting downtown, so I rode up the mountain with the driver and 3 pilots. We picked up 2 more guys half-way up, to bring the grand total to 3 of us. My co-pilot was going to be Simon—half the time he works in IT the other half he jumps off mountains. He was pretty cool and very reassuring that there was nothing to be concerned about. It’s not like I was scared or anything, maybe just a little hesitant. He explained that we would start out running—slow at first and then we would speed up. We would go airborne for a brief moment, but we need to keep running, as we’ll touch land again. Simon and I went second behind Jose from Costa Rica. Pretty much it’s one of those things where you take off running and don’t look back. Next thing you know you’re gliding through the air for 20 minutes. Interlaken from the air is amazing. You see the teal green water of the River Aare between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, while surrounded by the mountains. Simon and I made landfall in the park in the center of town. When we got down, I looked up and saw that there were about 20 paragliders in the air. I was glad there were only a couple of us when we went, mainly for the sense of security knowing that I wasn’t trying share air space with a lot of other people.

I opted not to go canyon-jumping, mainly because it would take up the rest of my day and I still wanted to get some hiking in. I headed back to the hostel to see if anyone was up for a hike and Michael, my roommate from the past couple of nights was game, so we trekked to Lake Brienz, explored some old ruins and then made our way back to town with the hope of finding a place that showed American football on TV. We struck out on the last goal, but thanks to the internet, we were able to enjoy some drinks and follow the games online. We would both be heading out the next morning, he to Venice and I to Berchtesgaden.

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Capital frenzy in 3 hours flat

Bern, Switzerland

September 25, 2009

I was going to head to Interlaken, Switzerland this morning, when I got to the Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof to figure out my scheduling options. Turns out, there was a train leaving in 15 minutes that would get me to Interlaken in the early afternoon, after a quick transfer in Bern, the capital of Switzerland. I decided to hop on the next train out to maximize my time in Interlaken. Somewhere between Zurich and Bern, I thought maybe I should explore the upcoming capital city for a couple hours before making my way toward the center of the country. I was glad I did.

Bern is a gorgeous, scenic city along the River Aare. The Hauptbahnhof sits on the outside of the city’s old town and is a good starting point for walking around. I headed toward the park, Kleine Schanze. This park is set up with relaxing chairs, perfect for lounging and enjoying a peaceful day in the park. A stroll through the park leads to the Bundeshaus (Parliament), which dominates the skyline of the city and provides a good backdrop for many a picture. From there, I enjoyed a couple of the scenic overlooks of the city and the river. I decided to head across the Kirchenfeldbrucke (bridge) to the collection of Museums on the other side. I didn’t have time to explore any of the exhibits, but it’s a cool area to walk around and explore. Plus, there are some cool fountains worth making a wish in. I then headed over to Munster, one of the more interesting churches in Europe. The exterior is under construction, but plenty to see and do inside. I strolled through the old town and checked out sights like the Zytglogge, a clock tower that one can take a tour of to see the inner workings of. It also marks the towns former West Gate and it also used to be a prison for prostitutes. I checked out the Rathaus (Town Hall), Barenplatz (a square that used to be a moat) and Marktgasse. Bern’s old town is dotted with Renaissance statues adorning 11 fountains in the middle of the streets.

I can’t say that I really “saw” Bern, but I like to think I got a good feel for the city. I enjoyed being in a part of Switzerland where I could practice my French, see some scenery, history and politico’s walking around. The sampling I got left me with the feeling that I wouldn’t mind coming back to explore it further when given the chance.

Other sights in Bern:

Einsteinhaus—Einstein lived and worked on his theory of relativity from 1903-1905 here

Franzosische Kirche—oldest church in Bern

Gerechtigkeitsgasse—eastern section of the Old Town, check out the Fountain of Justice

Munstergasse—becomes a street market on Tuesdays and Saturdays

Barengraben—the symbol associated with Bern is a bear. Here you can check the real ones out in person at the bear pits.

Kunstahalle, Schweizerisches Alpines museum, Bernisches Historisches Museum and the Museum fur Kommunikation—all across the Kirchenfeldbrucke, opposite the Casinoplatz

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Zurich, Switzerland

Zurich, Switzerland

September 23-25, 2009

September 23rd:

I made my way into Zurich’s city center to start some sightseeing. I got to the Hauptbahnhof and discovered that on Wednesday’s it becomes a farmers market. Way cool and well worth a visit. I grabbed a bite to eat and made my way to the main tourist office inside the station to get a map and some insight on what I should hit up. Essentially, a lot of the big things to see and do in Zurich are in the city center so I started off on foot to play tourist.

A little bit of history that I researched before coming on over:

I already knew that Zurich was the heart of the world’s banking and home to some banks that I would more than likely never meet the minimum balance requirements of. I can only imagine that if I attempted to walk through some of the doors of the famous “Swiss Banks,” I’d probably be laughed right back out the door. Fine by me, I was happy where I was. I also knew that Zurich had gone from a Celtic settlement, to the Zahringen dynasty, to a part of the Holy Roman Empire, before joining the Swiss Confederation in 1351. As a World War II buff, I also knew that Switzerland’s neutrality during both World Wars is what made it the banking capital of the world that it is today. Switzerland’s banking role in WWII is up for dispute though, as the Nazi’s deposited a lot of gold into Swiss Banks, much of it stolen from other countries and their people during the Holocaust. Also, a lot of Jews that had deposited their savings into Swiss Banks at the breakout of WWII were unable to retrieve their savings due to lack of proper documentation after the War. History aside, it is the premier banking center of the World today.

Geographically, I knew that the River Limmat ran through the middle of the city and eventually flowed into the massive Lake Zurichsee to the south. It provided a very scenic backdrop from the bridges up and down the river to the beautiful walking paths along the waterfront. I was excited for some of the outdoor cafes and bars to sit down and people watch at. I had also heard of the decent restaurants that ran through Zurich’s Old Town, the Niederdorf. I wanted to walk down the Bahnhofstrasse to explore the main shopping district, which would also lead me down to the financial district, which used to be an old pig slaughter district.

I decided to spend a good portion of my first day in Zurich going in and out of its famous churches. I explored the gothic feel of Augustinerkirche, amazed myself over Europe’s largest clock face at St. Peter’s Kirche and enjoyed the beauty of Fraumunster’s stained-glass windows. I also made sure to hit up the Kunsthaus Museum, as it is free to visitors on Wednesdays. I spent a good two hours walking through each exhibit—everything from Van Gogh to Warhol. After I had tired of walking, I headed to the Limmatquai to grab a bite to eat and a drink. I got a quick lesson on how beer is much cheaper than liquor to drink. I pint would only cost me a couple of Swiss Francs, while a mixed drink would set me back at least 10. Being a bartender, I got a kick out of the prices they charged for certain liquors, also, that they priced their drinks by whether or not they were short (liquor only) or long (with a mixer). I was very surprised to see that they served old fashioneds, which are almost impossible to find outside of Wisconsin in the states and that bitters strait up was a common after dinner drink (ugh).

I finished my evening up by strolling up and down the river to get the amazing views of the city at night before heading to my couchsurfing host’s apartment.

September 24th:

So my whole reason for deciding to start out in Zurich was to meet up with good friend Maria. She would be coming into Zurich this afternoon, and we would get together and spend the late afternoon and evening catching up. I had a late start to my morning, as I had to wait for my luggage to get dropped off. I decided to head down to Confiserie Sprungli, Zurich’s most famous chocolate shop. I was planning on Swiss Chocolate to be the gift I brought back for my family, but I didn’t want to be lugging it around for 2 weeks, so I looked into having it shipped directly from the shop. Sprungli’s had a shipping option, but it would have cost me a minimum of 60 CFH just to ship it, and I feel it didn’t pay to spend more on shipping than I would on the actual product, so I figured I’d buy some chocolate from a grocery store before leaving Switzerland for Germany. I bummed around the Paradeplatz for awhile before heading to catch a tram to meet up with Maria.

When Maria and I met up we thought it would be fun to head down by the lake before grabbing some dinner. Zurich’s waterfront is amazing and very relaxing. We then headed to Niederdorf to grab a bite to eat in the old town. We settled on an Italian restaurant, enjoyed some pasta and wine and caught up the other’s life. At night we headed to the other side of the Lake to check out the sights and walking paths, before calling it a night. I was going to be heading to Interlaken the next day and Maria had an interview for a research position in Zurich—my time there was ending and hers was just beginning.

Zurich’s Other Key sights:

Rathuas—Zurich’s town hall along the Limmatquai

Zurichhorn Park—gorgeous park south of the city center

Wasserkirche—old gothic church, that is built on the spot where Felix and Regula were martyred. The patron saints of Zurich would lend lore to another famous church in Zurich.

Grossmunster—tall, twin towers that take over the Zurich skyline. Legend has it that after Felix and Regula were killed, their skulls were carried atop the hill that Grossmunster lies.

Opernhaus—hosts a plethora of ballets and operas. My lack of true art appreciation had me more interested in the statues that adorn the exterior than the possibility of seeing the Barber of Seville…

FIFA Headquarters—lies a way outside the city center, but it is possible to pay the place a visit.

Zurich’s West-side—I hear it has some good restaurants and a lively night life.

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Here’s some money, now don’t sleep on any benches this time…

Zurich, Switzerland

September 23, 2009

I had a pretty uneventful flight to Zurich, minus the part of not getting an ounce of sleep. I’m beginning to think I must have ADD, as I took some sleeping pills hoping to knock myself out for my flight from Detroit to Amsterdam, but instead of passing out, I was WIDE awake. I got into Zurich around 8 am and headed straight to baggage claim. Before any bags started to make their way around the luggage track, I hear an announcement made in German, including what sounds like my name. I turn to the guy next to me and ask if he speaks English and if he could tell me what the announcement was. He informed me that some luggage failed to make the flight with us, so if your name was called you have to report to the lost luggage counter. Great, I can’t wait to hear why they know ahead of time as to why some luggage failed to make it to Zurich.

Apparently, they have been having issues with getting luggage on the respectful departing planes in Amsterdam for the past week, and a few of us on this flight fell victim to that. The lady at Lost Luggage was very helpful and said that she expected my bag to be on the next flight to Zurich to arrive around 10:30. I let her know that I was staying at an apartment in Zurich, but that I would not be going there until 9 pm that evening (I was Couchsurfing, and this was the pre-arranged setup I had with the guy I was crashing with), so I preferred to pick up my luggage, rather than have them deliver it. She said that was fine and made a note that I would pick it up in person.

So here I was in Zurich, sans luggage and extremely tired. I was hoping I could just crash at the airport for a couple hours waiting for my luggage, but I was restricted to baggage claim and the arrivals terminal, so there was no place that I could sleep without getting kicked out. I didn’t want to head into the city, just to have to turn around and come back for my bag, so I was given the tip about a massive hill across the street from the airport with a bunch of benches that would be nice and quiet for a quick nap. I should probably mention that my last European vacation saw me sleeping on park benches, in churches, under carnival rides, apartment lobbies and essentially any place that wouldn’t require money, so my family was kind enough to give me money the day I left, and my Grandmother clearly expressed an interest that I not sleep on any benches this trip, and to use the money for accommodation if need be. So here I was, less than an hour into my vacation, and I found myself scoping out the best bench to take a nap on. It’s a pretty big hill across from the airport with a nice little trail leading to the top. I decided that I would feel safer being higher up and away from public view, so to the top I went. It was pretty cool atop the hill, they had a couple benches and a fire pit with a sign indicating that it was intended for backpackers and to be sure that all fires got put out when finished. I was pretty stoked for the prime sleeping spot when I suddenly got the scent of cow manure, and then I heard the mooing. Turns out that this hill must serve as a grazing spot for farmers, as I noticed a bunch of cows making their way up from the opposite side of the hill, led on by some farmers. I backed up in shock and discovered the electrical fence surrounding the benches and pit. WTF!?!?! So I headed a bit further down the hill, as I wasn’t comfy sleeping surrounded by cows and farmers (which is surprising, considering I’m from Wisconsin) to find a bench. I found one, laid down and got in a couple hours of sleep.

I awoke a bit more refreshed and headed back to the airport. I went back to lost luggage only to get the news that my bags yet again failed to make it from Amsterdam, so I made arrangements to have them deliver my bags that evening, after 9pm. I headed off to the train station to make my way into the city to start my vacation…

P.S…they attempted to deliver my luggage around 6 pm that night, and since no one was there as I told them, they took it back to the airport. I finally got my luggage the next morning.

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