Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Marketing

Up early (becoming a common event), we checked out of the hotel, and were soon on the road to Rothenberg an der Tauber. Rothenberg is a extremely well preserved medieval walled city, and the weather cooperated for once with a beautiful sunny day and temperatures not too far below freezing. The Christmas market was quaint and low-key with many wonderful stands with wurst & gluhwein, but the focus for many of our group was a maze-like shop which was the headquarters of Kathe Wolfahrt. This crafty venue offered all manner of Christmas paraphernalia, as well as cuckoo clocks and other Bavarian souvenirs. Those of us who become claustrophobic in small, craft-filled spaces quickly left this shop for the open air market and the promise of more gluhwein to settle our nerves!
As with so many of the markets, eating was a simple matter of pointing at what you wanted and the vendors were only too happy to provide. An unending supply of wurst with crusty rolls and the local mustard, either spicy or sweet, made for a quick and easy meal. Local biers served to wash down these tasty treats, and warm gluhwein - red or white - allowed shoppers to warm up inside and out. Sweets were available at many of the stands, and in Rothenberg we found some crunchy waffles with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

 Like many medieval villages, Rothenberg has a number of towers, and a few members of our group decided to climb one located in the downtown area. Over 230 steps took them to the top of the tower, with the last 10 being up a very narrow ladder. After catching their breath, the process was repeated on the way down. By the time Jose & Bill got back on terra firma, their enthusiasm had definitely waned and they were glad to enjoy the offerings of the market.

Back on the bus, we found we had progressed to Alternate Plan “C”. Instead of moving to Nurnberg and spending the night there, the boat had moved to the town of Deggendorf, and we were to meet it there. If the water level dropped enough, the ship would move on up the river to Nurnberg and we could start our official cruise from there. Traveling down the autobahn towards Deggendorf, the snow continued and driving conditions worsened. Arriving, we realized that we were not at the end of our journey. With so many ships stopped on the Danube because of the high water, dockage was scarce, and our ship was tied up at a landing with no dock which was 500 meters across an icy field from where the buses stopped. A few had the foresight to put a flashlight where it could be reached and we started off, slipping and sliding across the field to our boat. When we drew closer, we found the reason we were asked to walk to the ship…the first bus arriving with passengers from the Nurnberg airport had tried to drive to the ship and had sunk to the axles after breaking through the icy crust covering the muddy field. Noses were numb by the time we arrived and, thankfully, we were greeted by the staff with hot towels and hot cider.

Fairy Tale Bavaria

Enjoying the Winter Wonderland

Today was time for one of our excursions outside of Munich. We boarded a small Mercedes bus and headed further south into the Alps through the continuing snowfall.

When we came close to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the bus turned off the main road and headed down winding, two lane roads to the town of Fussen, and on to the fairytale castle built by King Ludwig II known as Neuschwanstein. This was the pattern from which the Disney castles were taken, and the parts of it which were finished, look every bit as dream-like as the modern day copies.

View from Neuschwanstein
Schloss Neuschwanstein is built atop a mountain, nestled amongst still higher peaks, and the first quandary is how to reach the top. Fortunately, there are horse drawn carriages whose drivers are happy to cart visitors to the top for a fee. Even at the end of the carriage ride, there is more climbing to be done before the schloss is reached. Inside, there are hundreds of steps to be clambered up to visit the few finished rooms before then walking down all those steps to exit on the ground floor. A great experience, but one which wore us out completely. We even got the carriage to take us back down to the bus so we could catch our breath.

Passion Play Theater
Our next stop was the small village of Oberammergau, where the world’s premier Passion Play is presented every 10 years in thanks for being saved from the Black Plague. This was the year the play was given, and the inhabitants were obviously relaxing in the knowledge they didn’t have another performance until 2020.

St Nicholas, KristKindl & Christmas Angel
Snow kept coming down more heavily, and we had a couple hours to visit the local Christkindl Markt. After the hectic market scene in Munich, this small town atmosphere was a greatly appreciated change. Wood burning in fire-kettles, gluhwein, schokolade and lots of locals warmly greeting their neighbors made us feel a part of the celebration. St Nicholas wandered the alleys of the market in company with the Christmas Angel and ChristKindl, stopping to talk with all die kinder who were in never-ending motion. Local dogs were underfoot constantly as they chased their masters and each other through the crowd. These earthy touches made this country boy feel very much at home.

Too soon, it was back on the bus and on the road to Munich. Snow plows were working to keep the roads clear, but it was a much slower trip in the early darkness.


Thursday and Friday passed in a weary blur, finding us ultimately in the southern Bavarian city of Munich. Delays began in Houston before we boarded our first plane, and carried over and extended with our second flight out of Amsterdam.  Many hours later than planned, we arrived, grabbed some dinner and fell into bed.

Saturday morning awakened in a grey blanket of snow mixed with occasional rain. We took a bus tour of Munich, gaining a general feel for the city, and began to make our individual plans for how we would spend our time there. A walking tour of the old town led us to our first Christmas Market, and then we were on our own. 

My first purchase was a hat to keep the freezing rain and snow off my head. A jaunty pin with feathers was added so I would blend in with the natives and nobody would ever suspect I was an American tourist. Yeah, right! A brief attempt was made to enter the infamous Hofbrauhaus restaurant and bier garten, but it was already packed at lunchtime due to a televised game by the local soccer club, FC Bayern. Apparently, the local fans overwhelm the hall whenever their team is playing and others are relegated to whatever space might be left over.

Just around the corner was a much quieter place I had seen on the internet and had heard many good things about, the Haxnbauer. This restaurant specializes in Bavarian foods, especially roasted meats. The premiere selection is schweinhaxen, or pork knuckles, slow roasted on a rotisserie until the outside is crispy and the meat inside is tender and succulent. Large mugs of beer were perfect for washing down the roast pig and its sauerkraut and potato accompaniments. Shopping in the Marienplatz Christmas Market helped to work off some of the damage done by the wonderful lunch. I’m not sure what was purchased at this market, aside from Gluhwein to help keep us warm, inside and out.

As night approached, we boarded the Munich U-bahn, or subway, to head back to our hotel. As we waited on the platform, a number of youths dressed in the colors of FC Bayern appeared on the platform and began having a very loud and enthusiastic pep rally for the home team, which had apparently won the days encounter. When we boarded our train, the soccer rowdies and noise followed. The car was rocking from their wild celebrations and most of the other riders silently glared their disapproval at the young men. Susan had eine kleine Oma sit across from her, and Oma carried on a mostly one-sided conversation where the main themes were “fussbol” und “cuckoos”! As usual, Susan nodded her head and muttered an occasional “Ja,” and Oma never seemed to suspect she wasn’t totally fluent in the deutsche. Six stops later, we were grateful to be able to exit into the quiet of the snow filled evening, and then make our way back to our hotel.

We realized that all plans were tentative when our fearless leader and guide, Jutta, informed us that our ship was not in Nurnberg where it should have been. Because of three weeks of heavy early snows, the river level had risen enough to make several bridges on the upper reaches of the Danube impassable by the River Concerto. Plan “B” was to take a bus to Nurnberg, settle into a hotel and await the arrival of the ship, if the water levels dropped enough. Only time will tell.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Adventure

The idea for visiting Europe as a means of celebrating our upcoming 35th wedding anniversary, came neither from my Lovely Bride nor myself. Rather, my sister came up with the notion after making several trips to different parts of the continent in the past few years. The company she liked best was offering a cruise down the Danube with stops at every town of sufficient size to host a Christmas market or Christkindlmarkt. She and her husband will have their 40th anniversary shortly before Christmas, so “we”-meaning my wife and sister- decided a winter-time cruise through Germany and Austria would be just the thing.

Plans and budgets were arranged, the cruise company contacted and reservations made in a surprisingly short period of time. Only after the deposits had cleared the bank did any critical thinking come into play. Suddenly, the prospect of traversing Bavaria and Austria in the dead of winter, and what that might actually mean for sun worshipping Texans more used to enduring long stretches of 100F+ temperatures, loomed large. No longer a carefree boat trip floating down a bucolic river, we were faced with the potential for an Arctic expedition.

Preparations went on for almost a year, with weather forecasts being studied regularly. Strange packages arrived in the mail, and trips were made to local branches of stores specializing in cold weather gear. Research was done trying to determine what exactly was needed, and some items were noticed to be almost identical, yet apparently intended for different uses…after all, what is really the difference between “long johns” and “base layers”?

Finally, time ran out and time for the trip arrived. Ready or not, we arrived at the airport, made our way through security and onto our plane. In case any out there are wondering, flying is no longer a fun activity and it is usually approached with the same feelings of anticipation as dentist visits. However, all airlines are not created equal, and KLM made our journey much more pleasant than most recent sojourns. Better entertainment options, such as seatback monitors and large selections of passenger controlled movies, as well as food which was actually identifiable as well as edible, made the crossing much more tolerable. Seats are still too small, legroom is limited, and cranky babies still keep flyers awake when they should be trying to rest. Some things never do change.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Getting to Germany (Part 2)

 We arrived!  Only about 5 hours later than planned, we arrived in Munich.  After a few nervous moments around the baggage carousel(why is it always MY bag that comes out last and 5 minutes after everyone else?), we were immediately met by our local tourguide, Christine.  Another belated group arrived within just a few minutes, and bags and tourists were tossed into a waiting van for the trip to our hotel.  Snow was heavier than in Amsterdam, and quite a bit had accumulated.  After a quick walk around the hotel area to point out the entrance to the U-Bahn, ATM, etc. we were once more on our own.  First thought was to collapse into bed, but when we starting recalling the past 24 hours, realized we had not eaten anything in some time.  Nobody could say exactly how long, because none of our brains were dealing very well with the jet lag and fatigue.  We went across the street to a local restaurant and had some wonderful food which revived everyone to the point where they attacked me with snowballs as we left the gasthaus.

Street thugs just before the photographer was pelted with snowballs

Getting to Germany

 One Thursday morning, my Lovely Bride and I packed up and headed to Bush Intercontinental and embarked on an adventure with Sister Kaye and Brother-in-law Michael.  Our last venture overseas had been a rather free-form and unorganized time spent wandering the northern part of Italy.  Sister K kept extolling the wonders of programmed tours, and so we decided to introduce some order into our lives and try a river cruise down the Danube to Vienna. In December.  I know...this doesn't sound like a rational thing for sun loving, life-long Texans to jump into.  But as has happened frequently in our married lives, desires to shop in every Christmas Market in southern Germany and Austria overcame reason and rational thought.

 And so it came to pass that we delivered ourselves into the hands of TSA for some pre-flight processing.  We had heard there were many recent changes to the established security protocols which meant more thorough and invasive examinations of our bags and bodies could be expected.  Gratefully, such was not the case.  I'm not sure why, but when we underwent our scrutinization, TSA's main interest was the speed in which passengers were completing the process.  It took longer to repack carryon bags and get re-dressed than to be examined.
Sister Kaye waiting for our flight.

The initial flight out of Houston was delayed by an hour, and so our subsequent connection from Amsterdam to Munich was also changed.  Fortunately, the trans-Atlantic flight wasn't full, so we were able to spread out a bit and have a little extra room.  Arriving at Schipol just after dawn, we discovered Europe was enveloped in a grey miasma of fog, rain and snow.  And so we sat for four or five hours, watching Holland drip. 

By this time, the combination of no sleep and crossing too many time zones too rapidly started to take its toll.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hopping over the big pond

We are preparing to leave Naruna and Texas behind in search of some relief from stress and pressures which build up in all of our lives.  The occasion of our upcoming 35th anniversary gave us the excuse we didn't really need for taking a trip.  We fly out of Houston today in the company of my sister and brother-in-law who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year.   Our first step is to Amsterdam's Schipol airport and thence to the Bavarian city of Munich, where we will visit the local Christmas markets, visit a couple of castles and try to eat as many different local specialties as possible.  Of course, you have to wash all that wurst and kraut down with the local brew, or maybe some gluhwein, which is a hot spiced wine. Have to run now, and I'll try to keep all posted as to our progress. Auf wedersehn!