Monday, August 10, 2009

Day 8 - Castles!

After breakfast, we got in the car and drove up to see the famous castles of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. Both were former residences of King Ludwig II. He grew up in Hohenschwangau and then built Neuschwanstein later as his fairy-tale palace. Unfortunately, he died before it was completed.

Hohenschwangau was cool to see because it was a more "intimate" castle; the royal family actually lived there and it was their hunting retreat when they were away from the Residenz in Munich. The walls were all painted with scenes from German folklore, particularly the legend of Lohengrin, the Swan Knight.

After seeing this castle and admiring the spectacular views, we hiked up a really steep mountain to get to Neuschwanstein. I'm really glad that I had been working out for about 6 weeks prior to this! It's a shame that the castle wasn't completed. Only 18 or so rooms are finished. You can look at the drawings that show what the plans for the rest of the castle were, and it definitely would have been awesome. Not that it isn't awesome as it is. The views from the windows are spectacular - you can see the village of Hohenschwangau, the other castle itself, the Alps, and a beautiful lake.

From Neuschwanstein, we hiked a little farther to the Marienbrücke, which is a bridge over the gorge behind the castle. We got to see more spectacular views, and then we hiked down into the gorge. Here we saw lots of waterfalls and beautiful trees.

Back in the car again, we made our way to another of Ludwig's personal palaces, Linderhof. To get there, we had to drive on a twisty road through the mountains. It was a little scary, but Sean performed admirably! This palace was supposed to be sort of a replica of Versailles. It was all very ornate inside... pretty gaudy, actually. The best part about visiting this palace were the incredible grounds. There are gardens, fountains, statues, etc. everywhere. There is also a "Venus Grotto" behind the palace, which is the largest man-made cave in Europe. Inside, Ludwig had a stage built for people to sing Wagner's operas while he rode around in a boat on the lake. Ludwig was a rather eccentric king!

After a long day of castle-ing, we headed back to Füssen for dinner. We had some tasty traditional German fare, I believe. After dinner, we took a little walk through some pretty gardens, and then it was an early bedtime since we were tuckered out!

Day 7 - Dinkelsbühl and Füssen

We said goodbye to Rothenburg o.d.T. the next morning and headed down to Dinkelsbühl, which is another preserved medieval town similar to Rothenburg o.d.T. We probably would have appreciated it more if we hadn't spent the entire previous day in Rothenburg o.d.T., but it was still a good half-day. We bought another city guide and did a walking tour. This town still has a city wall and towers as well, and a beautiful Gothic church from the 15th century. We spent the entire morning checking it out, and after lunch we indulged in one of the best pastries we had in Germany: a pudding pretzel. This is a pretzel made out of pastry dough, and the pretzel holes are filled with vanilla pudding. DELICIOUS!

In the afternoon, we got back in the car and drove down to Füssen, which is close to the Austrian border. I remember as we were driving, we topped a hill, and suddenly... BAM! There were The Alps! It was really beautiful to see mountains, green hillsides, and charming little villages tucked away in the valleys.

Once we got to Füssen, we checked into Suzanne's Bed and Breakfast (Suzanne's an American who married a German and moved to Germany). It was a charming old farmhouse with a lovely garden. After dropping off our stuff, we walked around to see what we could see. Among our first stops was an Eiscafe where we indulged ourselves in some enormous ice cream sundaes while checking out the view of the Alps. I had a strawberry and chocolate ice cream one topped with chocolate and strawberries. Sean's was some concoction of chocolate and Nutella. Mmm. I talk about food a lot, don't I? Well, I can't help it. It was all so good! It was a hot day, so the ice cream was totally justified.

We explored the town for a bit and saw the Hohes Schloss, a castle which used to be the summer residence of the prince bishops of Augsburg. We also walked through an ancient cemetary outside of a convent that is still in operation.

For dinner, we ate at a really nice Italian restaurant with a beautiful outdoor seating area. After that, we sat on a bench by a beautiful lake for awhile before heading back to Suzanne's B&B for bedtime.

Day 6 - Rothenburg ob der Tauber

In the morning, we packed up the car and headed south on the Romantic Road to Rothenburg ob der Tauber. You have to specify "ob der Tauber," ("above the Tauber River") because there's another town in a completely different part of Germany called just plain Rothenburg. So, I'll abbreviate it as Rothenburg o.d.T. like the Germans do.

Anyway, Rothenburg o.d.T. is a huge tourist attraction because of its preserved medieval Altstadt (old part of town). It still has the old wall around the city, complete with watchtowers. You can climb up into the battlements and walk all the way around it if you want.

We bought a city guide and followed the suggested walking tour that it provided. This allowed us to see all the major attractions at our own pace and without the annoyance of a tour group. It was really interesting to step back in time and see a town as it might have looked hundreds of years ago. Another point of interest for me was that my Granddad's unit helped to capture this town in World War 2. Apparently the American commander in charge of the attack knew about the city's historical significance, so he did not allow the use of heavy artillery when taking the city, so there was only a little bombing damage.

Among the highlights of Rothenburg were walking in the beautiful gardens that overlook the Tauber River and seeing little villages with grazing sheep down in the valley. It was also interesting to walk along the old wall and see evidence of ancient battles. There was a place in one tower where they used to pour out hot oil onto the attackers, and you could still see char marks on the stone. We also went to the Medieval Justice Museum, which is the largest such museum in Germany. Did you know that in medieval Germany, if you skipped church on Sunday, you had to wear an iron rosary around your neck as punishment? Well, you did!

We stayed at the Goldenes Lamm (Golden Lamb) hotel and it had an excellent restaurant attached. The best apple strudel we ever had in Germany was consumed after dinner. Mmm.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Day 5 - The Romantic Road begins in Würzburg

This was the day we said goodbye to Bill and Elise back at the Stuttgart Airport. After parting ways, Sean and I picked up our rental car (a tiny Mercedes) and headed down the Autobahn to Würzburg, which is the first city on the "Romantic Road."

We got into town around lunch time, and it took forever to figure out where we could park our car at our hotel. I think the lady at the front desk and I had some language issues, because she kept saying the entrance to the parking garage was on the opposite side of the hotel than it actually was. Anyway, after checking in to the Hotel Strauss, which was right smack in the middle of the Altstadt ("old town"), we struck out in search of food. If you're interested in what we ate, it was another one of those Kebab thingies... tasty.

We saw several beautiful old churches in town, but the main highlight of Würzburg is the Marienburg Fortress, which is across the river from the main part of town on top of a huge hill. You have to cross the Altmainbrücke (Old Main Bridge) to get there, which is a sight in and of itself. The bridge is covered in statues of saints and famous locals from yesteryear.

The Fortress was pretty impressive (and so was the climb uphill to get to see it). It originated as a fort in the year 704 and was fortified with a wall in the 13th century. Unfortunately, we didn't get to go inside many of the buildings of the fortress because everything closed up at 4:00. It was still nifty, though. It was worth the climb to see some awesome views of the city from such a high vantage point.

After dinner (I think it was Italian food?), we crossed the Old Bridge again and sat alongside the river watching people and riverboats go by. Some of the people watching got a little risque, as evidenced by a certain couple that I will not describe here. It's a family blog!

We were pretty tired from being in the sun (and a little burned), so we went to bed. The problem with hotels that are right in the middle of everything is that people outside are noisy until pretty late. That wouldn't be so bad except that there is no air conditioning, so you have to leave your windows open if you don't want to roast. And that is why God invented ear plugs!

Day 4 - Heilsbronn, Schwäbish Gmünd, and Täferrot

On Sunday morning, Sean, Elise, and I went to church at the Münster where we'd performed the previous evening. How often do you get to go to church in an 800 year old building? It was a pretty cool experience, despite the fact that most of the German went right over our heads. They had a guest brass choir there that Sunday that played during the service. That was pretty sweet to listen to in such an acoustically live space. The weird thing, though, was when they got to the postlude. Here we are, sitting in an ancient building, and this brass choir plays... "Hey Jude." Yes, the Beatles song. I like the song, and it was a good arrangement, but it just seemed kind of out of place for the situation. I think all the Germans around me thought so too, judging by the surprised facial expressions.

As we were walking out after the service, the church's music director (who spoke very good English, thankfully) hurried up to us to tell us how much she enjoyed our concert the night before. We talked for a little while, and then I told her that I am also a church music director and wondered if I might be able to buy one of their church hymnals (yes, I'm a nerd and I collect them). She enthusiastically presented me with a hymnal as a gift! SCORE! So now I have this awesome German Lutheran hymnal, and it includes a section at the back with hymns and prayers and such that are specific to the Bavarian area. It's pretty nifty.

Anyway, after we got back, we checked out of the hotel and said auf wiedersehen to Heilsbronn. We drove along some German back roads to the town of Schwäbish Gmünd. We weren't actually singing in that town, but the town where we were performing, Täferrot, wasn't big enough for us to lodge there. Our hotel, Hotel Patrizier, was a very nice, large house and turned out to be one of the nicest hotels we stayed in. After checking in, we wandered out to explore the town and find some lunch.

Some kind of children's festival was going on in the center of town, so there were about a million kids in orange shirts running around. We never did quite figure out what that was about. For lunch, we stopped at a Kebab place and had what were basically gyros. I'm pretty sure the owner was Turkish, and he had this gigantic rotating spit filled with a huge piece of meat (lamb, I think?). It was delicious.

Schwäbish Gmünd had a few medieval watchtowers in it, a beautiful old cathedral, and there were Smart Cars everywhere with unicorns painted on the side. I wish we could have spent more time in this town, because it seemed pretty cool. In the early afternoon, we drove out to Täferrot to rehearse in the parish church of St. Afra. This church was much smaller and the acoustics weren't as good, but it was still a beautiful building.

The concert was very successful and we had much more attendance this time around - the place was packed! I think they estimated about 450 people were there. We had to do an encore again, and we had to come back in and bow at least five times. Some people up on the balcony even stood up, which is extremely rare for concerts in Europe. So, that was a pretty awesome feeling. We talked to a few people afterward and they were very appreciative and friendly.

Dinner that night was epic. We ate outdoors at a restaurant next to the Dom (cathedral) in Schwäbish Gmünd. Much tasty beer and wine was had, and this was the first time I experienced the joy of Jägerschnitzel and Käsespätzle. Jägerschnitzel is a breaded and fried pork cutlet covered in a mushroom/cream gravy, and Käsespätzle is homemade cheesy noodles. Pure deliciousness! Dessert was fried apple cakes with vanilla ice cream, and I topped it off with hot chocolate (no, I didn't gain weight on this trip... too much walking!). Sitting next to the cathedral was fun, because we had church bells as a backdrop every once in awhile.

After dinner, we went back to the hotel and shared a bottle of wine in the dark in the hotel's terrace garden. Elise made the mistake of falling asleep first, so she had many candy wrappers and fake flowers thrown into her hair. The rest of us enjoyed many laughs and good conversation!

This was definitely one of the best days of our trip!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Day 3: Heilsbronn/Concert #1

We woke up early due to the aforementioned chirping birds and the bright sunlight flooding the window. After getting ready, we went to the restaurant part of the hotel and had our first German breakfast. We later discovered that "German breakfast" was the exact same thing wherever we went: cold cuts, various breads, fruit, yogurt, cereal, eggs.

After breakfast, everyone but Bill wandered around Heilsbronn in search of postcards. Bill went to go talk to the cell phone guy who had sold him something or other that he couldn't use. We then picked up some bread, cheese, and sausage and headed back to the hotel's garden for a light lunch.

At 2:00, we headed to the Heilsbronn Münster (cathedral) to rehearse for the concert that would take place later that evening. The church was built in 1192 and it was huge and beautiful and OLD. The acoustics were awesome and I really enjoyed singing in there. All the folks in charge were really nice, and after the rehearsal, the little old Lutheran church ladies invited us to stay for coffee and cake! It was extremely tasty, and I was tickled that little old Lutheran church ladies are the same in Germany.

Dinner was had back at our hotel, where the waitress got Elise's and my orders mixed up. Unfortunately, we didn't realize this until it was too late. I think I liked Elise's food better than she liked mine. Sorry, Elise!

The concert went really well and seemed to be well-received. There were maybe 70-100 people there, but we got to do an encore and had to go back four or five times to take more bows. A recording was made of this concert, so I hope we get a copy soon.

After the concert, the guy who booked us for the show (I think) invited us to go out for food/drinks with him and some of his friends. The guy's name is Wolfgang, and he is about the jolliest, most stereotypical Bavarian man you can imagine. When he sat down at the table, his belly pushed the table away from him, and he chortled with glee. I really wish I would have taken a picture of the motley crew seated around this table. There was Wolfgang, a one-armed man, and three ladies. Some of the Germans spoke fairly good English and some barely spoke it at all, but we all managed to understand each other well enough to share some really good laughs and companionship.

The food was also excellent. The waitress told us that one of the late-night offerings was Camembert, so I ordered that. I was expecting a small plate of cheese and crackers, but I received a gigantic ball of fried cheese with toast and jam. It was AWESOME. I also had a really good glass of white wine. After consuming this "second dinner," I was feeling uncomfortably full. I patted my stomach and said, "Zu viel Käse!" (too much cheese!) The Germans laughed heartily, then suggested that I have a Digestiv to settle my stomach. Before I could protest, they ordered me a shot of Jägermeister! Much to my surprise, I actually liked it. Even more to my surprise, it really did make my stomach feel better!

This was seriously one of the best nights of our trip. Heilsbronn was a great town. All the people were so tickled to have Americans in their town, and they were very friendly. They put up with our bad German with much good humor!

Day 2 - Headed for Heilsbronn

We awakened the next morning to the sound of someone knocking on the door. "What the heck," I thought to myself, "The 'do not disturb' sign is out, why are they pestering us?" Sean started stirring and I said, "Someone's knocking on the door" as they knocked again. Sean grabbed his travel alarm clock and said... "It's 11:15!!" He went to the door and peered through the peephole, then exclaimed, "It's Bill and Elise!"

Much colorful language ensued as we realized that the alarm clock had failed us and we had, in fact, slept for 15 hours straight. It took us a mere 20 minutes to shower, dress, pack up our stuff, and book it down to the lobby to check out. Thankfully, Bill and Elise were patient with us!

We piled into the rental car and headed for the Autobahn, guided by our friendly GPS system... which spoke German. Apparently the rental car person couldn't figure out how to change the language. Luckily, I had a dictionary handy and looked up words from the back seat while Bill drove.

The Autobahn is awesome. Not only can you determine your own speed limit, but other drivers are competent, courteous, and safe. It was like Driving Paradise for me. I don't see how you could get road rage on the Autobahn. But I digress.

We were all hungry, so we pulled over in some random small town, the name of which I have now forgotten. It was long and had lots of consonants in it, whatever it was. We ate lunch at the Gasthof Adler, where the locals were dumbfounded to see American tourists in their town. The waiter didn't speak English, but we managed to procure some tasty rations for ourselves. I had some super amazing schnitzel and Sean had wurst, I believe.

Feeling recharged, we got back in the car and made it to Heilsbronn, which is an adorable small town (about 9,200 people) in Franconia. We stayed in a hotel called The Goldener Stern, which was a cute bed-and-breakfast type place. Only one staff member (I think he was the chef) spoke English, but everyone was really nice and friendly.

While Bill and Elise took a nap, Sean and I walked around the town and explored. After Bill and Elise woke up, we did a little more walking around and then had dinner outdoors at a little pizzeria. Bill was brave and tried the tintenfisch, which the waitress translated as "ink fish." Turns out it was stuffed squid. He seemed to enjoy it... maybe the gigantic glass of beer helped. After dinner, we got some complimentary "digestifs" (a small shot of liquor to settle the stomach). I tried the Grappa and it was way too strong for me. I ended up trading Sean for his shot of Bailey's.

After that, we walked over to the local Eis Cafe and had some lovely ice cream, then took a walk around town by night before bed. We spent a rather sleepless night thanks to the clock tower in town going off every 15 minutes all night long, and the birds chirping their heads off at 5 AM. Sleeping 15 hours the night before probably didn't help, either!

Germany, Day 1 - Traveling/Stuttgart

The day began with a few last-minute errands in Bloomington (including a Dunkin' Donuts stop for breakfast) and then the lovely Ashly came over to give us a ride to the airport in Indianapolis.

We got there plenty early for our flight, so I indulged one of my traveling traditions by reading trashy magazines (People and Cosmo) at the airport. After a quick flight to Chicago, we got on the big plane that would take us to London Heathrow. Of course, there were small children seated on the row in front of and across from us. This happens to me on every single long flight that I ever take.

Sleep on the flight proved impossible due to screaming children, the people in front of us turning their stupid reading lights off and on every 10 seconds, and people walking by to use the bathroom. The in-flight movies featured "17 Again" with Zac Efron. Gag. Thank God I had books (Pride and Prejudice, which I finally got around to reading) and my MP3 player!

In London, we discovered that we had to take a bus to another terminal, then go through security again. This left us with next to no time to make our connecting flight to Stuttgart, and we actually had to run through the airport to make it to the gate in time. We made it, though, and after an extremely bumpy flight (I almost got sick) we landed in Stuttgart... at 11 AM.

So, after having been awake almost 24 hours, we had to wait for night time to go to sleep. We walked around the area of our hotel, but there wasn't much to see. For dinner, we went to an Italian restaurant called The Flying Ship (yes, the name was in English) and had some really good pizza. The waiter was Italian and was speaking heavily accented German, which was hard enough to understand without having been awake for a really long time.

Anyway, around 8 PM we gave up the fight and went to sleep. We had set the alarm for 8 AM so that we could get up and eat breakfast and get ready for Bill and Elise, who were flying in the next morning and would come pick us up in the rental car.

Germany Trip!

Hi everyone,

Lots of people have been asking us to talk about our trip to Germany, so I thought the best way to do that would be to put it on a blog. If I'd had a laptop, I would have done this while we were over there, but my memory at this point is good enough that I can probably reconstruct it. I'm sure Sean will help too.

In future, we'll use this blog for other McCarther family developments. Stay tuned!