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.