Travelogue for Germany, 2011

Travelogue for Germany, 2011

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.

— Martin Buber

Welcome! This is an online travel journal for my Summer 2011 trip to Germany, which covers the following destinations:

  • Rothenburg ob der Tauber
  • Detwang
  • Munich
  • Dachau
  • Füssen
  • Hohenschwangau
  • Mittenwald

Also, you should know that while I’ve embedded some photographs into the entries, many more from my trip are available on Flickr.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

When I was a girl growing up in Pennsylvania, my earliest dreams of Europe were defined by Julie Andrews and “The Sound of Music.” For me, it was a place bathed in soft Technocolor, where the mountains were tall and the meadows were green, and where people of a rosy and cheerful disposition wore dirndls and lederhosen as they sang folksongs and ate strudel. Such, it seems, is the power of movies.

Once I grew up and fell into middle age, I finally visited the Europe of my imagination.  In London, I communed with the orphans and scoundrels of Dickens’ novels, and in Bath with the heroines of Jane Austen.  In Paris, I walked the damp streets and cafés once haunted by Hemingway, and in Italy I breathed in the Rome of Julius Ceasar, the Florence of Michelangelo, and the Venice of Casanova.  Along the way, I thought—more than once—that it was time to see the Salzburg I had longed for in my youth, but for five long years other scenes had beckoned.  Now, at last, it is before me, and I feel a familiar thrill of anticipation as I page through an itinerary that will soon be filled by Alpine lakes, medieval villages, and fairy tale castles. To quote Julie Andrews, these are a few of my favorite things.

It’s a Thursday evening in late spring and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting for a U.S. Airways flight to Frankfurt, which will be the start of my 20 day trek through Germany and Austria. We depart the gate on time and as we taxi to the runway I find myself amused by the bilingual admonition against the use of portable electronic devices.  For weeks, I’ve been practicing the basics in German—ja and nein, bitte and danke sehr, guten morgen and auf wiedersehen—but the words “computer,” “laptop,” and “iPod” are all the same in German as they are in English, which makes for a comically disjointed translation.

Once in the air, we are served a late dinner on tiny plastic trays with impossibly tiny plastic utensils, and I listen in as two strangers behind me causally begin to flirt.  I’m sitting next to a socially inept engineer with a stack of blueprints and a bad head cold, but all things considered, things are blessedly uneventful and for this I feel fortunate.  I look out the window at the nighttime sky, where there are flashes of lightening arcing in the distance above the clouds.  As I pull the shade, close my eyes, and pray for whatever sleep may come while sitting upright on an airplane, I feel big and small in the world all at the same time, which is as it should be at the start of a great adventure.

Friday, May 27, 2011

It’s just after 10 AM and my flight has arrived early in Terminal 1 at the Frankfurt am Main airport.  When I was last here in 2009, I was en route to Paris, but this time after filing through passport control and baggage claim, I follow signs to the Fernbahnhof where I buy a train ticket from a helpful clerk at the counter to the small town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which lies three hours away at the end of a solitary railway line.  It’s going to be a long day, this I know.  I am determined nonetheless to spend my first night in Germany along the Romantic Road, and from what I have read there is no more enchanting place than Rothenburg.

I climb aboard a high-speed ICE train to Würzburg, and from there change to a slower local train to Steinach, and in Steinach change yet again for the final leg to Rothenburg. The clock at the train station shows that it’s nearly 3 PM when I arrive, shoulders hunched and aching, dragging my luggage behind.  There is a dull sky overhead and it’s spitting rain as I walk the half mile to my hotel along bumpy cobblestone sidewalks that grind down the plastic wheels on my suitcase.  Yet as I pass under the stone arch of the town gate, my heart leaps.  I have been in the air and on the road for thirteen hours straight, but I have arrived a world apart from where I began, in a place Hansel and Gretel might have recognized as home.

Rödergasse is a snug street lined with colorful half-timber houses, where flowers perch from window boxes and the names of businesses are painted on plaster in bold Bavarian script.  My first thought is that it is pleasingly foreign and yet oddly familiar, like the well-worn page of a fairy tale brought to life.

I am staying at the Romantik Hotel Markusturm, a former toll house that dates from the year 1264.  It appears often in postcards of Rothenburg ob der Tauber because of its prime position alongside the Markus Tower and Röder Arch.  I duck inside and find a rustic parlor  with an oak paneled ceiling and fanciful fretwork chairs.  I check in at the reception desk and I’m led up the stairs and through a long hallway lined with antique pots, an old butter churn, and a doll carriage, all the way back to #114, a small room with a twin size bed.  I spend a few minutes settling in, but by now I’m famished and with a burst of adrenaline I’m eager to head out to explore the town.

It’s just a short stroll to Rothenburg’s market square—the marketplatz—and for a moment I twirl happily in the center, gathering my bearings.  My map tells me that the west side is anchored by the town hall, a massive stone structure dating back to 1250.  It’s ornamented with turrets and a portico, added later in 1681. Perpendicular to it is the City Councilor’s Tavern, or Ratstrinkstube, awash in salmon pink, and to the east a row of handsome shops and cafés under pointed gables and red tiled roofs. And finally, to the south there is a fountain with a tall column crowned by a painted figure of St. George slaying the dragon.

I take a short walk to stretch my legs, down Herrngasse to the castle gate and the edge of the Burggarten, before returning to the marketplatz for dinner.  I settle into a table at Restaurant Ratsstube, which faces the square, and dine well on pork tenderloin in a sherry cream sauce, with potato fritters, a salad, and a glass of crisp Riesling wine.  For dessert, the waitress offers me to bring me ice cream, fresh fruit, or apple strudel, but I have my heart set on something different.  I have been in Rothenburg for little more than three hours, but already I have seen hundreds of Schneebällen, stacked row upon row in shop windows, and as loathe as I am to admit it, I want one.

In English, Schneebäll simply means snowball, but here the shape is transformed into something of a local culinary specialty. They are, in essence, large deep-fried balls of dough, made from strips of pie crust.  Some are sprinkled generously with powdered sugar, others dipped in chocolate or coated in nougat.  In his Germany guidebook, Rick Steves is uncharacteristically harsh on Schneebällen, calling them “unworthy of the heavy promotion they receive,” but honestly I find nothing about the idea to dislike.

I walk down Untere Schmiedgasse, past the ornate wrought iron signs of butchers and bakers, until I reach the charming little square known as the Plönlein.  Nearby, I buy a Schneebällen of the chocolate variety from Café Uhl Gastehaus and happily munch through it as I mount the stairs to Rothenburg’s medieval walls.  By now, the sky has cleared and a slant of evening light is warming the stone. I can’t resist exploring.

I have walked a lot of walled cities in my travels, from York, England, to Lucca, Italy, but this night stands apart.  Maybe it’s the novelty of seeing a new place for the first time after an exhausting day of travel.  Maybe it’s the charm of the red tiled roof above the narrow corridor that frames the town like an Old Master painting, or maybe it’s the plaques I encounter every now and then that commemorate those whose loyal support rebuilt portions of the wall that were destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II.  Or, maybe it’s simply the unexpected break of weather.  Whatever the reason, I walk on and on in an elevated circle above the town until I reach the Klingen Bastion and the approach of darkness finally drives me home.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

As exhausted as I was when my head hit the pillow, I’m surprised to find myself oddly alert at 6:30 AM.  I lie still for a bit, trying to fall back asleep, but when sleep doesn’t come I seize upon a moment of inspiration and slip quietly downstairs and out of the hotel door with my camera in hand.

Rödergasse is a perfectly lovely street, but it is a busy one by day, with cars parked up and down the curb.  At this hour of the morning, however, I am quite alone in the world. Rays of sunshine are hitting the clock at the top of Markus Tower, casting shadows onto the timber-frame buildings below.  As I walk past the colorful Café-Stübchen, I glance up at the motto painted on its façade and at the year 1617.  It reads: Herr, der Du Segen teilest aus, Gib ihn auch mir und meinem Haus, which means something like “Lord, of thy blessings you divide, give them to me and my house.”  I’ve never been an early riser, but this accidental walk has been enchanting.  I almost feel as if I’ve stepped back in time. 

I walk back to the hotel and doze off until breakfast.  The restaurant downstairs has handsome wood paneling and the selection of food on the buffet line is superb, although the value of both seems lost on the gentleman seated at the table next to mine.  In a loud and grumpy British accent, he has beckoned to the waitress and is insisting on two boiled eggs, cooked for six minutes precisely, and warm milk—not cold—for his coffee.  I roll my eyes, but feel badly for him in spite of myself.  Inflexibility does not make for happy travels, and I suspect he has many disappointing days ahead.

I head outside and down to the marktplatz, where local farmers selling fruits and vegetables and flowers have set up shop under a canopy of green and white striped umbrellas.  I stop at one stand and buy a glass of fresh pressed apple juice, before cutting across the square towards the lacy spires of St. Jakob’s church.  

The church is bright and beautiful inside, with a trio of tall stained glass windows that soar above the High Altar, but the altar itself is equally impressive, with stunning figures of Christ and the twelve apostles carved in wood and then painted. I spend so long admiring it, I nearly forget that an even more famous treasure is housed upstairs in the Chapel of the Holy Blood. It is an altarpiece depicting The Last Supper, carved by the Würzburg sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider between 1499 and 1505 to house a reliquary containing a drop of Christ’s blood.  Here, the wood figures are left unpainted, which lends a rustic authenticity.

I make my way out of the church and decide to stroll next down Herrngasse to do a little shopping, stopping at the Käthe Wohlfahrt store to buy a Christmas ornament. It’s a massive place, stuffed to the brim with cheerful nutcrackers and incense smokers. I decide on a round little Bavarian man in lederhosen, clutching a mug of beer in one hand. It’s a cultural stereotype to be sure, but an appealing one I can’t resist.

After a steaming cup of cappuccino at a café nearby and a Franchise bratwurst from the local butcher, I feel fortified and ready to walk once more along the city’s walls. I make my way down past the Plönlein towards the Spital Bastion and then head clockwise to explore a new section of wall. Along the way, I meet a couple who greet me with a polite “Guten Morgan.” Never confident in predicting nationalities on sight, I return it with a smiling “Guten Tag,” only to hear the obviously American wife grumble to her husband after we pass, “See, I told you, it’s not morgen anymore!”

Mindful that the day is, indeed, slipping away, I climb down from the walls and wander back through town to the Crime and Pumishment Museum for an intruiging tour of medieval torture devices, ranging from the barbaric to the comical. There are grusome spiked chairs, hanging cages, thumb screws, and iron maidens, but also elaborate “shame masks” with long tongues and large ears that once subjected light offenders, such as gossips, to public notice and ridicule.

At 2:00 pm, I decide to join an English language tour of the city offered by the tourist information office, but I make an early retreat from the group once we reach the Burggarten. The guide is friendly and kind, but she seems to offer the same commentary that is printed on the city map, and the afternoon sun is beckoning me to linger longer in the shade and relax.

Late in the day, I use the last strength in my legs to climb the 13th century tower of the city hall for a glorious view all around, then settle in for dinner at Baumeisterhaus, at Obere Schmiedgasse 3, where I order a plate of Jager Schnitzel. It is a perfectly acceptable plate of food, but already I’m beginning to suspect that the best German food may be not much different from the worst.  Afterwards, I return to Café Uhl Gastehaus for dessert and find that my purchase of a small nougat Schneebällen and an almond crescent called a Mandelhörnchen improves my culinary mood tremendously. Sweet things always do.

It’s been a lovely day, but the true highlight has been saved for the end as I queue up for the night watchman’s tour at 8:00 pm, along with a least fifty others.  Wearing long black robes and a cap, from which long curls of hair protrude, the guide–a Rothenburg local named Hans-Georg Baumgartner–walks dramatically into the square carrying a lantern and an executioner’s axe. He has a dry and ironic sense of humor, but when a young woman posing for pictures asks to hold his axe, and then suddenly turns it sideways into an air guitar which she grips like a rock star, tongue stuck out, he has trouble suppressing a grin.

Hans-Georg, as it turns out, is a bloody fine tour guide, living up to every inch of his exhaulted reputation.  His jokes are entertaining and well-timed–such as his quip that the two lowest medieval professions, the executioner and the grave digger, “like to work together, only minutes apart”–but the stories he tells are also surprisingly touching.  During the second World War, the city’s perimeter was bombed by the Americans and the rest was slated to be destroyed until John McCloy, a Deputy Secretary of State, and a beleagurered Nazi officer intervened.  The Deputy remembered that his mother had come here as a child and he had grown up with a romantic painting of Rothenburg on the family’s dining room wall.  Impressed by its beauty, he pushed to delay, promising to spare the city if enemy troops withdrew.  This was in March 1945, and knowing the end of the war was near, the mayor and the Nazi commander acted against orders and chose to surrender the city rather than see it destroyed. 

History, it is said, makes for unlikely bedfellows, especially in times of war.  I think again of the commemorative plaques the line the reconstructed portions of walls today, and of how they represent the affection of those who have come here for centuries and been moved by its beauty.  How grateful we should be.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

This morning, inspired by a brief entry in the Rick Steves guidebook titled “A Walk in the Countryside,” I’m going to hike through the Tauber Valley, past Toppler Castle and across a covered bridge to the tiny village of Detwang.  It seems like a brilliant idea on a Sunday morning in late May, but midway there it occurs to me that I may have overlooked, or at least underestimated, the sentence that reads “The trail becomes really steep…” Heading down through the woods is fine, but with every step I take I become ever more acutely aware of the effort it will take to return.

In the end, the walk is a long and tedious one under a scorching sun, which somehow makes the destination less impressive.  When I reach Detwang I find a sleepy little town with little to recommend it, aside from the charming country church of Saints Peter and Paul, which houses another of Riemenschneider’s carved altarpieces.  I linger there in the cool of the interior, before trudging back down the road and up the hill and through the streets of Rothenburg, all the way back to my hotel, where I crash upon the bed for a much-needed one and a half hour nap. 

By 2:00 pm, I’m refreshed and back out on the streets, determined to see a quartet of small museums before I leave for Munich in the morning.  First, I browse the Christmas museum upstairs in the Käthe Wohlfahrt shop, where there are shelves of blown glass ornaments, feather trees, and Victorian diecuts.  Then, I head to the Imperial City Museum, which is housed behind lush gardens in a former Dominican convent nearby.  It’s a fascinating place to wander, well worth the extra fee they charge for photography.  There are trade signs and tankards and pastry molds, an impressive series of panels painted by Martinus Schwartz in 1494 that depict the passion of Christ, and the original weatherbeaten statues from the façade of the Baumeisterhaus depicting seven vices and seven virtues. Yet my favorite, perhaps, are the romantic paintings of Rothenburg so similar to those that must have hung on the McCloy’s dining room wall, which their son remembered so fondly years later.

Finally, I trace my steps back towards my hotel to visit a small museum devoted to German dolls and toys, and another that preserves the home life of an average tradesman from Rothenburg’s prime 700 years ago.

By now I’m starved for dinner.  I walk down Herrngasse and settle into a table at  Burgerkeller, where the owner is playing an odd selection of music that sounds as if it came from an American jukebox in the 1970s.  I order a hearty plate of Nürnberger Bratwurst, boiled potatoes, and white asparagus.  It’s Spargelzeit season, after all, so the latter is practically unavoidable on local menus, but for the life of me, I can’t think why.  The sausage is delicious, but the asparagus is sodden and tasteless, saved only by a generous portion of clarified butter on the side. 

This is my last night in Rothenburg, and I’m loathe for it to end.  I finish off a generous slice of apple streudel with vanilla ice cream for dessert and then head for the walls, as I have every night since coming here.  Like so many others who have come before me along the Romantic Road, I have found what I was searching for and will remember it always.

Monday, May 30, 2011

I’ve got a long and tedious journey to Munich ahead of me and I’m eager to get through it, but before leaving Rothenburg I have one last stop to make, with my luggage in tow.  For the past few days, I’ve been eyeing a beautiful sterling silver and seed pearl lavaliere in the window of an antiques shop along Rödergasse, so on the walk out to the train station I decide to stop in and see if I can negotiate a price.  The owner of Sammler Truhe is a sweet woman with an excellent grasp of English and before long I have a beautiful pendant around my neck, the perfect souvenir of my stay.

I board a mid-morning train to Steinach, change lines in Ansbach, and then change again for the final leg to Munich.  It’s not a difficult trip–the luggage belts that run alongside the stairs make changing tracks relatively easy–but it feels long.  By the time I reach the massive hauptbanhof in Munich three hours later, find my way outside, and settle into the back seat of a cab, I’m more than ready to relax.  Thankfully, the view from the car window on the way to the hotel seems to confirm all I had heard and read about Munich.  On first impression, it has a lively, laid back charm that I like very much.

I’m staying at the Platzl Hotel, in a prime location just a short walk away from Marienplatz. I check in at the front desk and take the elevator to room 515, a comfortable single room with a burgundy print carpet and green drapes.  It’s more than satisfactory, but when I pull back the curtains to look out the window, I’m thrilled by the view.  I am high among the red rooftops of the city, and the spires of the Heiliggeistkirche, Alter Peter, and Altes Rathaus stand before me.

I make my way outside and down the street, following the crowds to Marienplatz before deciding to climb the tower of Alter Peter for a better view of the city.  There are some 300 steps to the top and I have to stop multiple times along the way to catch my breadth.  Perhaps it’s jet lag finally catching up with me, or perhaps it’s only the fatigue that comes with energetic travel, but I feel unexpectedly tired and out of shape.  It’s only when a woman stumbles past me, panting heavily, that I feel justified.  She looks up at the spiral of stairs yet to come and grumbles “Jesus Christ!”

From the top, all of Munich is at my feet.  I gaze down at the fountains in the square and at the tourists perched lazily upon their brim, and then pan up the long, lacy façade of the Neues Rathaus and its carillon before turning to admire the twin onion domes of the Frauenkirche, their copper sheathing aged to a brilliant verdigris by the weather.  It is only then that it occurs to me that nearly everything I see was obliterated during the Second World War–the old town hall, the Frauenkirche, even St. Peter’s itself on which I stand–all were badly damaged by Allied bombs and painstakingly recreated after the war.

The afternoon is waning by the time I climb downstairs, but I’m eager to understand more of the history of Munich, not just of Hitler and the Nazis, but of the more distant past of the Bavarian kings. I check my map and see that The Residenz is just a few blocks away, so I chance to see what I can before they close for the day.  The exterior is entirely obscured by scaffolding, but the interior rooms of the palace are opulent beyond belief, from the Hall of Antiquities to the Ancestral Gallery, where more than a few of the Wittelsbach portraits lining the walls bare scars from being cut from their gilt frames in haste as the Allies approached Munich during World War II.  Indeed, much of the Residenz was bombed in the war and later rebuilt, as the signs posted in each room explain.  It’s a sad legacy, but an oddly worded one, too, for the plaques explain in a jarringly passive voice that the rooms “were destroyed,” with no reference to the armies involved on either side.  I leave feeling unsettled by it all. 

Several years ago I had a long conversation over coffee with a local couple in Bruges, Belgium.  I spoke then about wanting to visit Germany someday and they did little to conceal their distain.  The events of the war were too recent, they said, the wounds still too fresh, the crimes too unforgiveable.  I leave for the day, thinking of my Belgian friends and wondering if a brutal history can ever be forgiven, especially if it is not owned?

The early evening sun is still warm and there are some welcoming outdoor tables at Spatenhaus an der Oper, just across the street.  I grab one and order some traditional Bavarian fare for dinner: Wiener Schnitzel with Hollandaise sauce and buttered potatoes.  When the plate arrives with a generous helping of thick, white asparagus on the side, I sigh in disappointment and wonder when Spargelzeit season will come to its merciful end.  What is it with the Germans and their affection for beige food? 

In search of the lively, colorful city I saw earlier out the taxi cab window, I walk back through Marienplatz to the stalls of the Viktualienmarkt, past baskets of fresh produce and tables of tourists drinking beer under the shade of the trees. 

I’m not a beer drinker myself, but I am in Munich after all, so I decide to end the day with a stop at that cathedral of beer, the famed Hofbräuhaus. The atmosphere is jovial inside, but also loud and chaotic.  As a woman travelling solo, I don’t quite know how to find a seat along the long wooden tables.  I slide shyly onto a vacant patch of bench, but before long I’m greeted by the two cheerful men seated at the other end.  Their names are Tom and Rick, they’re from Ohio, and they are extraordinarily nice.  I order the best I dare, a one liter mug of “Radler” made of half beer and half lemon soda, which visually passes as beer for the photo I intend to send to doubting friends back home.  Tom and Rick have been here before, so as we listen to the Oompah band, they teach me how to clink glasses whenever a proper drinking song is played, which is, it seems, at least once every five minutes. 

Soon we are all singing along:

In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus: Eins, zwei, … g’suffa!
Da läuft so manches Fäßchen aus: Eins, zwei, … g’suffa!
Da hat so manche braver Mann: Eins, zwei, … g’suffa!
Gezeigt was er so vertragen kann
Schon früh am Morgen fing er an
Und spät am Abend kam er heraus
So schön ist’s im Hofbräuhaus.

I’m whistling it still when I stroll back around the corner to my hotel and fall into bed.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The weather report is calling for rain today, so when I stretch my aching limbs and draw aside the drapes in my room I’m surprised to see a bright blue sky and warm sun.  This will give me a good chance to make a day trip outside the city this afternoon.

After a hearty buffet breakfast at the Hotel Platzl, I decide first to visit the interior of the Frauenkirche, and then the tomb of “Mad” King Ludwig II in St. Michael’s church while I wait for the 11:00 AM glockenspiel show back in Marienplatz.

Munich’s famous glockenspiel on the new town hall dates from 1908 and consists of 43 bells and 32 life-sized figures that reenact two stories from the 16th century.  At the top is the wedding of Duke Wilhelm V to Renata of Lorraine.  In honor of the happy couple there is a joust with knights on horseback representing Bavaria, in white and blue, and Lothringen, in red and white.  The Bavarian knight wins every time, of course!  The bottom half depicts the Schäfflerstanz, or cooper’s dance.  According to myth, 1517 was a year of plague in Munich.  The coopers are said to have danced through the streets to “bring fresh vitality to fearful dispositions.”  The coopers remained loyal to the Duke and their dance came to symbolize pervereance and loyalty to authority through difficult times. 

After the festive music and the dancers have once again fallen silent and the tourist crowds have dispersed, I head underground and buy a day pass for the S-Bahn and ride the train to Dachau station, where I transfer to a free shuttle bus to take me the rest of the way to the remains of Dachau concentration camp, about 10 miles northwest of the city. 

Like so many other S.S. camps during the Holocaust, the slogan on the iron gate at Dachau makes a cruel promise: ARBEIT MACHT FREI, which means “work sets you free.”  Established by the Nazis in 1933 and run continuously until its liberation by American troops on April 29, 1945, more than 200,000 Jews and other political prisoners were interned here. More than 30,000 died–of disease, malnutrition, and murder.

A sculpture by Nandor Glid, erected on the parade grounds in 1968, represents the scale and human cost of those sins.  It is a massive wall of twisted metal, blending haunting human forms with fence posts and barbed wire.  Nearby, a plaque translates a simple message into a multitude of languages:


I spend the next few hours in solemn thought, walking quietly through the interior of museum.  There are displays that attempt to explain the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, a mundane office desk that was once used to register prisoners, a pile of chain from which prisoners were hung from, and a crematorium known ominously as “Barrack X.”

Before I go, I walk out past guard towers and rusted barbed wire fences and a row of reconstructed barracks towards the Jewish memorial on the far edge of the camp.  It slopes gently into the ground, allowing only a narrow beam of light to seep through an opening in the ceiling, revealing a menorah high above.  Chiseled over the entrance is a psalm: “Put them in fear, O Lord: that the nations may know themselves to be but men.” 

As I leave the cool air and dim light of the memorial and face the full glare of the afternoon sun, I squint and brush away a tear.  It has been hard, this visit, but it must be so.  How could it be otherwise? 

I ride the train back to Munich, where at 4:30 the day’s expected rain finally starts to fall.

For dinner, I want to stay close by and the promise of Italian food at Trattoria La Valle just down the street sounds like a refreshing change of pace.  Truth be told, I am growing weary of beige Bavarian cuisine.  I order a caprese salad and veal saltimbocca, which pale in comparison to a similar meal I once had in Rome, but for now it is more than good enough.  Afterwards, I turn the corner and walk down Tal street to Bäckerei Aumüller so that I can buy something sweet for later.

The sky is still spitting rain, but the cooler night air is pleasant, so I continue on to Odeonsplatz and the Theatine Church and the Feldherrenhalle, modelled after the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.  In the Hofgarten nearby, I duck under the cover of the Diana pavilion and then circle back to the Platzl Hotel, where a dry robe and a slice of lemon cake await.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The night’s drizzle has worsened into a steady morning rain, but since I am intent on spending the day in museums, the inclement weather doesn’t concern me in the least.  After breakfast, I plan to head first to the Schatzkammer, the treasury in Munich’s grand Residenz, but I can’t resist wandering through the luxury food store of Alois Dallmayr, at 14-15 Dienerstraße along the way to drool over trays of decadent pastries.

The treasury exceeds my wildest expections and I spend my time there happily.  On display are countless priceless objects that once belonged to the Bavarian kings, including religious art, orders and insignia, crowns, tableware, and toilet sets.  My favorite is the jewel-encrusted statuette of Saint George and the dragon, made in Munich between 1586-1597.

By midday, I’m back on the U-Bahn heading towards the Alte Pinakothek, which has one of the world’s greatest collections of Old Master paintings.  In honor of the museum’s 175th anniversary, Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance” is here on temporary loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  In the early 19th century, the painting was part of an exceptional private collection amassed by the first king of Bavaria, Maximillian Joseph, but after his death it was sold at auction in 1826.  There is also a special exhibit devoted to Lucas Cranach.  I ask the clerk at the desk for a ticket to everything–the permanent galleries, the special exhibitions, and for good measure, the Neue Pinakothek next door.  It’s shaping up to be a fantastic afternoon. 

After admiring the Vermeer again (I’ve seen it several times in Washington, and it remains one of my favorites), and touring the Cranachs, I stop for a break in the museum café with a cappuccino and a slice of pear tart before heading upstairs.  For the next two hours, I wander from to gallery after gallery, immersed in Rubens, Bruegels, and van Dycks.  It’s only when I look at my watch that I grow concerned with the time.  There are several Van Goghs waiting for me across the street.  I’m down in the gift shop when a postcard reminds me that I somehow missed seeing a charming self-portrait of Rubens with his wife, Isabella Brant.

On a whim, I start to jog back up the long staircase, but halfway up I suddenly find myself out of breath.  By the time I reach the landing, I’m gasping for air.  My heart is pounding and I am shaking like a leaf.  I try to walk it off, but when I can’t, I grab my coat from the cloak room lockers and rush outside.  The cool mist is a relief on my flushed face, but I feel terribly, horribly, unwell.  Nearby, there is a taxi stand.  I pace until one arrives, then slump in the backseat as the driver takes me back to my hotel. 

I’ve felt tired for days, but dismissed the signs of illness as jet lag or merely the overexertion of travel catching up with me.  Now it seems like something more.  I call home for reassurance and later ring the front desk for room service when it becomes clear I won’t be going anywhere for dinner.  A mug of peppermint tea and a small bag of dry pretzels are all I can handle.  It’s not until 10 PM that the waves of nausea finally start to lift and I sink into a much needed sleep, not sure of what will happen in the morning.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I feel completely wiped out this morning.  I’m not in any condition to go anywhere and yet my itinerary calls for me to head south to Garmisch-Partenkirchen today.  Reluctantly, I cancel my reservation at the Hotel Gastof Fraundorfer and talk to the clerk downstairs about staying two additional nights at the Platzl.  It’s going to cost me, because a single room isn’t available, but I don’t have any choice.

I lounge around the hotel, take a slow walk around the block, buy some medicine from a local pharmacy, and later buy a ticket for an open-top sightseeing bus so that I can be out in the fresh air seeing something, but while expending as little energy as possible. 

For now, I’m in a holding pattern, nothing more.

Friday, June 3, 2011

I’m feeling a bit better is morning.  In a surge of optimism over breakfast, I decide to head down to Mittenwald for the day in an attempt to get things back on track.  It’s clear that I won’t make it up the Zugspitze on this trip, but this much I can do. 

However, by the time I get to the train station, buy a Bayern ticket from the machine, and board the train, I’m feeling horribly ill again.  I step back off just before the cars pull out, and grab a cab back to my hotel. 

It’s going to be another long and lonely day in Munich.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I am determined to get on with things.  I pack up my bags, order a cab to the train station, and settle in for the journey south to Füssen and the Hotel Sonne.  It’s a charming place awash in salmon pink, where the corridors are lined with costumes and memorabilia from the local stage production of a musical based on the life and death of “Mad” King Ludwig II.  I settle into room 212, but then immediately hop onboard the #78 bus to Hohenschwangau.  The town of Füssen can wait.  Above all, I want to see Neuschwanstein Castle and I will not rest until I do.  My reservation to tour the interior isn’t until tomorrow afternoon, but since the sun is shining brightly today, I think of this afternoon’s exploration as a prudent insurance policy.

As I peer out the window of the bus for my first glimpse of the castle perched high on the hill, I feel a welcome stir of anticipation, the first I have felt for days.  I walk through town, past a line of souvenir shops selling postcards and beer steins, to the shuttle bus stop and ride the rest of the way up a long and winding road to Marienbruecke.  Mary’s Bridge hangs suspended above a deep gorge and looking down gives me an unsettled feeling in my still fragile stomach, especially since the narrow planks are crammed by hoardes of tourists, but the view between the mountains and out across the valley towards Neuschwanstein Castle is nothing short of spectacular.  I snap away on my Nikon D5000 and when I’m through I inhale deeply and relax.  It’s hard to put what I feel into words, but I am grateful to be here.  Perhaps it is as simple as that.  No matter what happens next, I have been here.  I have at least done this, and perhaps it is enough.

Back in Füssen, I build on the afternoon’s success by visiting the opulent Baroque interior of St. Mang’s basilica, and then walk up gingerly to the Hohes Schloss, or high castle, once the summer residence of the bishop of Augsburg, to see its whimsical tromp l’oeil decoration.  I have a quiet dinner in the restaurant of the Kurcafe Hotel, and then stroll through town under damp and darkening skies, all the way to the banks of the River Lech and back.  Later, when my head hits the pillow and I fall off into a well-earned slumber, it is with a contented heart.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

After a cheerful breakfast at the Hotel Sonne, I stretch my legs by wandering down through the cemetery of St. Sebastian to the Franciscan Monastery, which provides a lovely view of the town of Füssen.  I head back up the hill just in time catch the bus to Hohenschwangau, retracing the steps I took yesterday afternoon.  This morning, however, I have to keep my eye on the time because I have reserved tickets to tour the interiors of Hohenschwangau Castle and Neuschwanstein

Hohenschwangau Castle, with its tangerine façade and blue and white striped awnings, was the childhood home of King Ludwig II.  The original castle on the site was built in the 12th century, but later destroyed in war.  The ruins were acquired by Ludwig’s father, King Maximillian II and the castle was rebuilt according to the original plans between 1833 and 1837.

It’s high on a hill overlooking the village, so when I see a sign outside the ticket office advertising a horse drawn carriage ride to the top, I seize it. 

Tour 152 doesn’t depart until 12:20 PM, so while I wait I admire the view from the castle gardens out across the valley to the foothills of the Alps, and then turn my attention to the castle itself. 

The lavish rooms inside, covered by murals of knights in shining armor and damsels in distress, confirm what I already knew.  Namely, that while there are turrets and battlements and coats of arms here, this is clearly a 19th century romantic vision of a medieval castle, which is more than all right with me. 

I make it to the 477 tour of Neuschwanstein Castle at 2:25 PM with little time to spare.  Here, much of the interior was left unfinished when “Mad” King Ludwig died under mysterious circumstances in 1886.  Only fifteen rooms are complete, including the Throne Hall, decorated in elaborate Byzantine style, the Singers’ Hall, intended for banquets and musical performances, and Ludwig’s bedroom, circled by wall murals depicting the story of “Tristan and Isolde” from an opera by Wagner.  It’s quaint and charming and sad, all at the same time. 

I would take pictures, but our tour guide is a young man with a chilling demeanor who promises to escort anyone who does into the eager embrace of castle security.  No one dares try, and although I am tempted to ask where Hitler and the Nazis hid their hoard of stolen art during the war, I don’t have the nerve.

All in all, though, it’s been a satisfying day.  I collect my luggage from the lockers at the station in Füssen and head back to Munich on the train, where I check in to room 519 at the ultra-modern Fleming’s Hotel across the street at Bayersraße 47, tuck in for dinner in the restaurant downstairs, and then shuffle off to bed.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Sensing a shift in both luck and momentum, I have decided to give Mittenwald another try before moving on to Salzburg, Austria tomorrow morning.  Along the way, the Bavarian landscape outside the window is an evolving panorama of tiny villages and barns and onion-domed churches.  As we approach the Alps, I start to see the remanents of snow in the highest peaks of the mountains, which for a native of the eastern United States are fantastically tall and sharp.

When the train pulls into the station in Mittenwald, I jump to my feet, eager to explore the town, which is best known for the colorful frescoes that adorn its houses.  As I step across the tracks, however, a familiar wave of dizziness and nausea cascades through my body.  I look around, feeling lost, and then find a park bench outside the tourist information center, where I sit patiently for the next hour, waiting for it to pass.  It does not, and so I sit for a few minutes longer, digesting the situation.  There are two things I know:  One, that it is time to see a doctor, and two, that the trip I had planned for over so many months, is over.

I open the door to the TI, step inside, and approach a young woman at the counter to explain that I’ve fallen ill.  She brings me a cup of water and I ask if there is a doctor in town who speaks English.  She makes a phone call and returns to say that there is and that his office is just a mile or so away.  She starts to me offer me walking directions, but I interrupt and ask if she might call me a cab instead.  She furrows her brow in incomprehension and says: “But that will cost you five Euros.” I assure her that will be fine.

She makes another call, and minutes later I’ve arrived at the office of Dr. Kristian Dressler, who is expecting me.  In truth, there is not much he can do so far from home, but he checks my blood pressure, shows me the result, and pronounces it “not good.”  It’s 159/96.  He gives me half of a beta blocking pill to lower it, but when that doesn’t work, he adds the other half.  Still nothing.

He thinks I have a virus and that I haven’t given my body sufficient time to recover from it.  He’s probably right.

By now, I’m desperate to lie down and he offers me the use of one of his examining rooms.  When I’m still not better two hours later, he recommends that I return to Munich on the train in first class so that I might prop my feet up.  He starts to give me walking directions back through town to the station when, as I had done earlier, I interrupt to ask that he call me a cab instead.  “But that will cost you five Euros,” he says, sounding exasperated.  I think: “What is it with these people and five Euros?”

I have come to believe that the Germans are tight fisted with money and that they do not tolerate weakness.  I am tired of their beige food and I want to go home.

This is terribly unfair, I know, and yet it is easy to think such things when we are sick.

Three days later I do go home, but not before dismantling the remaining days of my trip one hotel at a time.  There will be no Sound of Music tour this time around, no boat ride across Lake Hallstatt, no Vienna Boys Choir or Spanish Riding School, and no opera.  The closest I will come to Austria is the terrace of Neuschwanstein Castle with its sweeping vista south towards the Alps.

Travel is an adventure, and by virtue of that definition, it is not always a pleasant and rewarding experience, despite (or even because of) our lofty goals and expectations.  I will need time to recover from this, and to mourn for opportunities lost, but after that, I will—as I always do—cast an eye towards next year, in the persistent and unrelenting hope of doing it all again.