Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Next step: Wertach.

Our last day in Vienna dawned bright and sunny.  After breakfast at our hotel, we rolled our bags out the door and headed for the closest U-Bahn station.  As we rode towards the Bahnhof, we felt the same way about Vienna as when we left Venice…our time spent there was just enough to begin to understand the possibilities.  We had become comfortable maneuvering around the city and were ready to really begin some serious sightseeing.  Our first visit here was accompanied by snow and cold, and this trip cold rain made walking around town a challenge.

The train eased out of the Vienna station 2 minutes late as a result of the section from Budapest arriving that much behind schedule.  Only a few brief halts as we rolled toward Germany on this express.  In Salzburg, ½ the cars and an engine were detached, with no noticeable delay, so those souls could continue on to Innsbruck in the Tirol.  Our section rolled along and into Munich.

It turned out the most difficult part of our trip from Austria to Germany was finding the car rental salon in the train station.  I had seemingly straightforward instructions from the website where I had reserved the car, telling us the salon was on the 1st floor(2nd floor for us Americans) in the center of the station.  Unfortunately, the area was being renovated so there was some construction confusion.  We finally located an elevator which seemed sure to take us the right direction(up), but got herded off by an enthusiastic Deutsche Bahn employee who spoke no English, but kept insisting it was verboten.  Fifteen minutes later, after finding an out of the way stairway, the salon de autos was located and we were able to obtain the keys to a VW Golf which was hidden away in yet another building.  As we walked away from the counter, the helpful young man called out to us, saying, “There is an elevator you can use just around the corner.”  You guessed it…the same elevator we had been chased off!

We found the car without too much difficulty, and set to familiarizing ourselves with its controls.  The built-in GPS was, of course, set up totally in German with no apparent way of switching it to English, and it was quickly obvious we would be relying on paper maps and my smart phone’s map app for our trip.  
Driving across southern Bavaria turned out to be much less stressful than I had feared.  Picking up the car at the Hauptbahnhof meant we were on the side of town closest to where we were headed, so we were able to make a fairly quick escape from the big city and into the countryside.  There were only a couple of turns required to put us into the general area where the town of Wertach is located.
"Our" Pizza Place

It was only after I turned off the main road into Wertach that I ran into trouble.  We had a hand-drawn map and some photos from our hosts to guide us to our destination.  Unfortunately, trying to follow the directions & photos, listening to my iPhone butchering German street names, all while dodging the drivers who actually knew where there were going, caused us to circle the very narrow streets several times before finally arriving at our condo. 

The next day was spent walking the streets and getting a much better feel for this small town.  It is not a large place and there are not very many streets, but none are actually straight.  Most streets curve as they follow old paths which were laid out long before there were such things as automobiles.  Fortunately, everything is within walking distance if you don’t mind a few rather steep hills.  I try to view it as a little extra exercise to help offset the really good Gasthaus meals we’ve been sampling.
Gasthaus Hirsch - one of many good places to eat.

Where y’all from?

                               "Never ask a man if he is from Texas.  If he is you'll 
                   know soon enough, and if not, you don't want to embarrass him."

I conducted an informal test during our recent trip through the Czech Republic, Austria and Bavaria.  One of the things we enjoy most about traveling is meeting people from other countries and cultures.  Getting to know them and finding out how they view the world helps us to better understand the world and our place in it.  Just as interesting were their views of us and our country.

We had never been to Prague, so we signed up for a couple of tours to better learn about this new city.  In the small groups were people from a variety of countries, and always the first order of business was introductions.  Our first tour had a couple from Manchester, and another couple from India.  After learning about them, they asked what country we were from, and the response was “TEXAS”.  All knew exactly what Texas was and where Texas was located, and the only questions were about what part we lived in, what we did for a living, etc. 

The second tour came with a different guide and a different group.  I used the same answer of “Texas” when asked what country we were from, and the Finnish, Swedish, French and Canadian tour members all knew exactly what that meant.  In fact, we were asked about Texas declaring her independence again in the near future!  This led to a spirited discussion of where Texas would fit into the world economy as an independent nation, and whether the rest of the united states would survive without Texas propping them up.

In Vienna, the same occurred several times, with the same results.  Many of the people in the remote part of Bavaria we visited did not speak very much English, but when they asked where we were visiting from, and the response was “Texas”, there was an immediate smile and a look of understanding.

Being an “American” in today's global society requires explanation.  Your allegiances must be clarified.  Your role, in either contributing to the current state of affairs,  or in trying to change that state needs to be voiced.  In essence, who and what you are as an American must be defined.  Watching unfiltered Deutsche Welle, the BBC and other European news services quickly reveals the depth of concern with which the United States is viewed by what were, in the past, our allies.

Being a “Texan” is well defined and understood by all.

“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.” 
- John Steinbeck

All Rental Cars are not Created Equal

One of the great debates among those traveling in Europe is the question of how you move around after your plane lands.  There are those who insist on flying from city to city, others are advocates of train travel and Rail Passes, while some go completely native and ride the local buses.  Each of these methods has pros and cons, but many find themselves renting and driving a car in a foreign country.  Having the freedom to be able to explore at will and not being tied to public transportation can make a vacation truly memorable and enjoyable.  During our latest visit, we combine train travel between Prague, Vienna, and Munich, with renting a car for the 10 days we spend in the Bavarian Alps.

Renting a car in Europe can be different from renting one in the US.  In the US, just walking up to a car rental counter with a credit card and a driver’s license is all that is usually needed.  In most European countries, a reservation is required and will make the process much easier, and if the rental process is conducted from the US in advance, there can be some significant savings.
Not this one!  A Trabant on the streets of Prague.

The vehicles involved can also be very different.  Fuel is more expensive, roads and towns were laid out for horse & foot traffic, and cars are generally much smaller than their US counterparts.  Automatic transmissions are not common and engender an extra charge, so chances are good you will end up driving a small car with a standard transmission.

Ford Focus in Italy
The last car we had rented overseas was a little Ford Focus which was classed as an intermediate size car.  Brand new with less than 500 km, turbo diesel and a 5-spd.  Great little car that was able to go as fast as I was willing to push it in the mountains in Italy.  With the turbo, there was no lack of power and, regardless of the gear, it would keep accelerating up the mountain as long as you kept your foot planted. 

VW at our Oberammergau Hotel
Our rental car for this trip is a new VW Golf Wagon, diesel, and a 5-spd manual.  It sounds very similar to our last rental, so I was expecting a similar driving experience.  The German manufactured Golf seems to be well put together and handles curves without breaking a sweat.  The engine, however, is the wimpiest thing I have found in a currently manufactured vehicle, reminding me of a rather anemic Simca from the early 1960s.  My first inkling I was in trouble was as I pulled out of the rental agency garage into downtown Munich traffic.  I spotted a hole in the midst of the BMWs, Mercedes and Audis and dove into it.  I started to wind it out in first gear…and discovered a rather obnoxious Rev-Limiter which shut down all forward motion until I could shift into second.  We finally escaped Munich and pulled onto the Autobahn where merging with the flow of traffic was decidedly not for the faint of heart.  I have gradually gotten used to this underpowered roller skate, but that doesn’t mean I really like it.  Driving the smaller back roads of Bavaria is strictly a 2nd & 3rd gear adventure.  Fifth is suitable only if you are on a long, fast stretch of autobahn.  With a larger engine, or maybe a turbo to help compensate for its lack of muscle, it might be a very nice car.

The moral to this tale is that driving a car in Europe is different from driving at home.  Cars are different, roads are generally much smaller, driving into the middle of a town is something to be avoided, and fuel will cost more.  But for those who like to have some control of when and where they travel, driving may be your best option.

Monday, June 30, 2014


 Our whole purpose in taking a trip to Bavaria is to visit a small village named Wertach.  If you don’t remember hearing that name before, there is a good reason.  Wertach is located in the far southwestern reaches of Bavaria close to Switzerland and Lichtenstein.  As the cuckoo flies, Austria is only about 2 miles from our condo. 

The path to Wertach
This journey came to pass because of the generosity of several people; one German lady who donated a week in her family-owned apartment for a fund-raising auction in San Antonio, a travel Agency which donated airfare for two, and most importantly my sister-in-law who won the auction even though she knew she wouldn’t be able to take the trip.  Because of these, we are able to take a trip which might not have happened otherwise.

Wertach is situated in a region of Bavaria which is known as the Allgäu.  It is in the foothills of the Alps, and snow covered peaks are visible from our balcony in June.  It is in the center of a major destination for German tourists looking to escape the larger cities, although it is essentially unknown to Texans and other Americans.  In the winter skiing, snowboarding and other snow sports dominate.  In summer, mountain biking and hiking lead the list of possibilities.  There are rivers and streams in every little valley, some of which allow for white water rafting and kayaking.  Several large mountain lakes provide venues for boating and water sports, and campgrounds abound.  Hang gliding and para-sailing are popular and we’ve seen several of these daredevils on our drives.

This is what I had been able to glean from the Internet before arriving in Wertach, and my Lovely Bride and I were wondering exactly what we were going to be doing during our week.  We are getting along in years a bit, and we are not what you would call athletic.  Wimpy...maybe even fluffy, but not athletic.  Soon after arriving, I made the discovery there were about as many tractors driving the streets as cars.  This part of Germany is heavy in farming and cattle production.  No row crops to speak of, but every little meadow in the valleys and on the mountain sides is being cut, raked and baled right now.  It rains a lot here and it shows in the quality of the fodder being put up.  Sunrise comes early here and the farmers have been hauling hay as soon as the dew is off until after 8:00 in the evening.  Driving in the surrounding mountains has revealed this to be the case not just here, but in all the alpine villages.  My wife has used the phrase, “Making hay while the sun shines”  more than once as we have been driving, and not as a joke!  Tractors join right in on all the narrow mountain roads, frequently slowing everyone down to 40 kph for miles.

Hungry Fräuleins
I headed out one morning early for a walk along one of the many trails which crisscross the hills around Wertach.  After an hour or so, I started hearing a ringing noise.  I have whacked myself on the head often enough over the years that this is not an unknown issue, but I was gratified to discover it wasn’t my ears ringing, but rather the bells on a small herd of heifers I happened upon.  They acted very interested in my presence, but I said my hellos and moved on up the trail.  I hadn’t made it more than a few yards(okay…meters) when I heard a tractor pulling up.  It was their farmer bringing them a bucket of cubes for breakfast.

 The Wertach Bergkäsesennerei(Cheese Co-op) makes a variety of cheeses native to the area using locally produced milk, and sells them in the cheese shop located behind the Rathaus.  A tour and explanation of the history of Wertach cheese making stretching back to King Ludwig is presented every Wednesday afternoon.

It is hard to characterize Wertach simply.  Yes, it is a tourist destination with all that entails.  There are Gasthaus, restaurants, hotels and condos to accommodate the seasonal influx.  But there is a core group of year-round residents who vigorously work the land producing the bounty which is in turn enjoyed by all.  Quiet and peaceful, but with lots of outdoor activities to fill your time if you want.

Sunset - Our view every evening

Finally Arrived!

Our long awaited trip to Prague, Vienna and Southern Bavaria finally happened after a multitude of delays.  Most were my own fault for being a clumsy child as my Mother frequently reminds me.  She is still in hopes I will someday grow up and settle down, even though I am now well past 60, and have retired from the Army and also from a second career which followed my time with Uncle Sam.

Since returning home to the thriving metropolis of Naruna, Texas, life has seemed determined to distract me from getting serious writing of our adventures.  I am trying to stay at home for awhile and get my notes converted into at least semi-logical thoughts which I can post.  Some of the ideas I actually worked on while on our trip occurred toward the end while we were staying in the small village of Wertach with few of the big city distractions we encountered in Vienna and Prague, so if stories seem to be out of sequence, they probably are.  

Friday, May 23, 2014

On to Prague

Much as my late father-in-law, a B-17 navigator, did 70 years ago, at
approximately 1027 ZULU we made landfall on the continent of Europe in the
vicinity of Cherbourg.  Actually being over land makes us feel we are
finally making some progress on our journey.  Of course, it would be even
better if we were where we were supposed to be, which is on the ground in
Prague.  Bad weather delayed our plane before it ever got to JFK,
resulting in us taking off 4 hours late.  A small but helpful tailwind
allowed us to make up some time, but we will still be about 3 hours late
arriving in the Czech Republic.  I sure am glad we didn't have anything
much planned for our first day aside from getting settled in our
apartment.  And glad our temporary landlord knows to check the airline's
website before driving to the airport.

Delayed gratification.

On a 737 bound for JFK from SA on the first leg of a trip which should
have happened 9 months ago.  Got word while visiting the grand kids over
the Fourth of July that our reservations were finalized for a vacation
that would include Prague, Vienna and Wertach, a small town in the
Bavarian Alps.  But as often happens, one little slip is all it takes to 
wreck our plans.
My "slip" came on the trip homeward from Omaha as I walked across a rocky
ledge in the mountains of NW Arkansas.   Fortunately, I broke my fall
with my face, which resulted in visiting ERs in both Arkansas and Oklahoma,
as well as another helicopter ride.  Several surgeries and many months later, 
we are ready to try to make it to Europe as originally planned.

This morning found us passing through the ever entertaining adventure of
airport security in San Antonio, Texas.  For most of us, this is a fairly
standard exercise which involves taking off shoes, emptying pockets and
taking your computer out of its case.  My Lovely Bride, however, always
finds some way of garnering a little extra attention.  Today, in addition
to the usual electronic scanning, she ended up with three TSA agents
swabbing her hands and forearms.  This is not the first time this has
happened to her, but we've never been able to figure out exactly what they
are trying to detect.  Anyone have an idea?