Sunday, September 28, 2008

Day 6: Gone with the Wind

The night before, around 10pm, we stood at the youth hostel's adventure reservation desk with crossed fingers. After calling around to about 3 or 4 different locations, the receptionist was able to book my mom and I reservations to hang glide over the Alps. The main hang gliding group the hostel worked with was booked solid, but there was one person available to take us one at a time.

At 9:30 am we were picked up at the hostel, and made our accent up the mountain. I'm afraid of heights, so every time I looked out the window as we were going up, my heart beat faster and my stomach churned. After signing my life away, I took a few deep breaths and calmed myself down. Besides, how many people can say they've soared over the Swiss Alps? ...That was also the motivation I used to jump off the side of a cliff. After getting geared up, and being given instructions, we ran until our feet no longer touched the ground.

It was perfect, with an absolutely beautiful view. I only wish I could have stayed up longer than I did.

As I waited at the bottom for my mom to have her turn, I met a couple who started asking me about the flight. After saying they weren't brave enough to do something like that, I assured them that the scariest part was the car ride up. The rest... was a breeze.

My mom landed around noon. She was rather disappointed that she hadn't gone para gliding instead. (Para gliders went up higher and stayed up longer than the hang gliders). At least we know for next time.

For lunch we chose to go to a restaurant with a view. We hopped on a cable car that took us straight up a mountain, which got me more nervous than when I was getting ready to hang glide. At least I wasn't alone in my fear this time. The people in front of us made a comment, as they were exiting, that they were glad the cable car didn't flip and roll down the mountain. Maybe it would have been better if we had been facing up the mountain instead of down.
The restaurant had phenomenal views. And the food was just as good. We split a bratwurst and rosti (similar to hash browns). Yum.

Filled with the sustenance we needed, we had our feet take us down the mountain. We ended up taking the scenic route, since we would have been down the mountain in less than an hour otherwise. We were again amazed by the absolutely breathtaking views that surrounded us.

We made it down the mountain just as the sun was starting to set... perfect timing. After showering and making ourselves more presentable, we had a nice relaxing dinner outside. Well, let me make a slight correction. It would have been more relaxing if we didn't have to listen to a guy at the restaurant sing '70's - 80's lounge music. I was quite embarrassed for him. My mom enjoyed herself though... laughing at him.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Day 5: my battle with carbonated water

The day started out like any vacation day. We were up, dressed, packed, had eaten, and were aboard the train by 10:30 to head down to Interlaken, Switzerland. It wasn't until we had decided to stop off in Bern, since the sky threatened rain -(we'd rather be in a town that had indoor things to do)- , that a water bottle battle would commence.
Since my mom and I both had water bottles which were full, we walked around Bern without a clue as to what would occur later on that day. We absolutely loved Bern. Couldn't get over how beautiful and clean it was. We spoke of how we would love to live there. We admired the crystal clear river that ran through the city, amazed that it was all natural.

We watched as the happy people of the city played giant chess and went about their daily activities. We passed by children running through the water spouts that shot water up from the ground as though the water itself was dancing. Little did we know, that as each minute passed us by, we were drawing closer to the inevitable.

We continued onward, naively. We went to Albert Einstein's home, during the years he discovered the theory of relativity. We read that he loved the city as much as we had in the few hours we had been there. We went in search of the best chocolate, and bought a year supply. (It was gone in a week).

We walked over to the Bern gardens, which overlooks the entire city. We had "herbal tea time" at the restaurant located at the gardens, and ate a strawberry torte while taking in the view.
Although we didn't know it at the time, it was at that point when our story took a drastic turn for the worst. - We both drank the last remains of water from our bottles, and thinking nothing of it, threw the bottles away.

-- slight pause for dramatic effect --

We walked around the gardens and rated the smell of each rose bush. We walked back down towards the city center to see Bern's mascot, a bear. We walked back up the main street, passing the Swiss flags that were proudly hung on every other building. We stood around Bern's famous clock, with other spectators, and watched as the moving statues rang the bells on the hour.

We then went to the grocery store to get water and dinner for that evening, before heading back to the station to make our train to Interlaken. The store, we found out upon entering, was more of a glorified convenience store than a real grocery store. So we stocked up on water bottles. I bought 2, my mom bought 1. (Like I've said before, you can never have too much water). After we paid, I opened up a bottle, to hear a sound that makes me cringe... the sound of fizz. I went even further and tasted the water to confirm what I had just heard. Carbonated water. Yuck. We turned right back around, told the cashier we were going to exchange the two closed bottles for ones without gas, and walked back out with 2 new bottles in tow.

As we went in search of another grocery store, with food options, I threw away the bottle containing carbonated water. I then proceeded to open the other bottle, only to discover that we had exchanged the previous bottles for a different type of carbonated water. You could imagine my horror at this point. What type of place was this?! In a land of crystal clear rivers and dancing water... do they not have bottles of fresh, all natural, gas free water? I thought back on the lady I saw earlier, filling her water bottle from a fountain. Earlier I had thought she was crazy... I no longer felt that way.

We found a larger grocery store and got food for the evening. I resolved to try, one last time, to get a bottle of water without gas. As I stood in front of the aisle containing the multiple varieties of bottled water, I picked up one that, I felt, was finally safe to drink. I shook it repeatedly to see if there were any gas bubbles. I saw none. I asked two separate people if the bottle I was holding contained gas. They both said it was gas free. So, I decided to take my chances. And this time I was pleasantly surprised to find fresh, all natural, spring water. Bern was no longer tainted in my mind, and went back to being a city I absolutely adored.

Once peace had been restored, we left for the train. We met a couple from New Zealand along the way and found out they were staying at the same hostel as we were in Interlaken. So, we chatted with them on our train ride over, and continually commented on the breathtaking scenery we were passing through. We all got off at the wrong station in Interlaken, and took a taxi over to the hostel. After checking in, went out to eat together. Since my mom and I had already eaten, we just ordered water. This time we made sure we bought the right type... although it ended up costing as much as their beer. Some days you never truly win.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Day 4: Volunteer Farm Hand

Like all farmers, we were up before the sun to help milk the cows. Actually, we only fed them their hay while Gisela (the lady whose farm we were staying on) put the machines on the cows utters.... But, I'm sure that without that food, the cows wouldn't have been half as productive.

Once they were done milking, Gisela showed us the pasteurization process, and gave us the grand tour of the farm. Besides the milk they sell and make fresh butter out of, they have 2 pigs they're fattening up to eat. They have chickens they gather eggs from. They have machine to make schnapps with from the fruit they grow in their orchard. They have a heard of sheep to shear in the summer for the wool. And, they have a goat ... for fun.

After the tour we got washed up, had a great German breakfast (bread, fresh eggs, fresh butter, honey, meat slices, etc.) and were driven to the train station for a day of exploration. First stop was the town we were dropped off in: Gegenback. It is home of a 2 second shot in the world famous "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (original version). It was quite a cute little village, with great little shops to explore.
Our next stop was Wolfach. Not a place to go if you're looking for your typical German village. But, we went there for one purpose only- to visit the glass factory/Christmas shop. I was on a quest to find a Christmas ornament in each country we visited, so my mom planned the detour just for me. Yes, that is love.

Inside the factory, not only can you watch vases being made, but for the small cost of only 10 euros, you can help make your own. I've been in need of a vase since I've been in Amsterdam (so many flowers to buy, but no place to put them), so I decided to make one of my own. I picked out the vase I wanted mine based off of, and the glass maker added coloring to the molten ball of liquid glass. After initially shaping it, I had the all important task of blowing in the tube to create the exact vase shape. Once the vase was made, it didn't look much like the vase I had chosen. He assured me, after seeing my expression, that once it cooled it would look like the other. So in the mean time, my mom and I walked around the factory while waiting. But once the allotted 10 minutes cooling period was up, the vase still didn't look like the one I asked for. Slightly disappointed, I was handed my vase and I headed over to the room where they sand down the top. As I waited in line, a miracle happened. The vase popped and a crack appeared down the side of it. I say miracle, because when I took the vase back to the glass maker, he told me I could just pick out any of the display vases I wanted. So I ended up taking home the exact vase I wanted to begin with.
(As a side note, it matches perfectly with my newly painted walls - but that's a blog for another day).

It was nearing 2pm by the time we left the factory, and I made an executive decision for us to find a place to eat. The train to the next town we were planning on visiting was a 45 minute wait away. So instead we went to the village of Hausach, since that train came sooner. Unfortunately we were not impressed. It was quite similar to the village we had just left. And on top of that, it started raining... and we couldn't find a single restaurant. We did, however, find a bakery and satisfied our hunger with a Frankfurter Kranz cake, an apple tart, hot chocolate and mint tea. That bakery changed my life forever, it was then that I decided to become a connoisseur of the Frankfurter Kranz. It is an absolutely delicious cake, especially coupled with a decadent cup of hot chocolate.

By the time we finished with our desserts, the rain was dying dow. So we took the train to Haslack, which was the last stop for the day. It was a cute village, even though all the buildings had been renovated in the past 70 years, and didn't have a true authentic feel to it. We came across an Aldi grocery store as we were walking, so we bought food for dinner before heading back to Gegenback to be picked up.
That evening we helped shape loaves of bread to be baked in a stone oven, and called it a night. After all, being a farm hand isn't an easy job.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Day 3: land of the cuckoo clocks

Our couchette from Paris to Germany was great... it was actually the best one we had our entire trip. Unfortunately, all the other couchettes we had from then on out couldn't even hold a candle to that first one. So after a few good hours of sleep we arrived in Schwarzwald (aka the Black Forest). Upon hearing the words "the Black Forest", one may immediately think of a dark and frightening place, where witches in gingerbread houses try to eat little children. However, the Black Forest is anything but. Instead it is a warm, inviting place, and absolutely beautiful. Maybe, just maybe, it was a dark and dreary place at one point in time. And maybe it wasn't until Hansel and Gretel defeated the witch that Schwarzwald became an absolutely peaceful and beautiful place. If so, my hat goes off to them.
Our first stop in that area of Germany was Triberg, home of the world’s largest cuckoo clock. *[insert sounds of awe here]* We got into town in the early morning while the air was still crisp and select shop owners were barely opening their doors. By select, I mean the grocery store, gas station, and one large tourist shop. After stopping by the grocery store to buy the essentials (water and chocolate), we spent a good hour or so at the tourist shop biding our time. Once we left the shop, the small town was alive. (We probably woke them up when we set out testing every cuckoo clock that shop had on their shelves and walls).
We then took the 1.5 mile uphill trek to see, what my mom and I rightfully dubbed, the "tourist trap". The world’s largest cuckoo clock wasn't nearly as impressive as we hoped it would be. What it is, essentially, is a one roomed house where giant wooden gears are located in. You pay 3 euros to look at the gears, then wait outside to watch a small door, located 2 feet above the face of the clock (which is installed on the outside of the one room house) to open. Then, on the hour, a small bird comes out and hangs there for a minute or so before it hides itself back inside. At least it makes a cuckoo sound.
After we walked around a bit more, entered a few more shops, and ate lunch we took a train to Offenburg. We were grateful we hadn't booked a room in Triberg since there isn't much to do there. My mom had found the cutest place to stay while she was surfing the net. It's a great apartment to rent for a mere 35 Euros a night. It was located on a family's farm, and they pick you up from the train station and drop you back off there whenever you please.

My mom scheduled with them to pick us up around 4 or 5 in the evening, so we had a few hours to tour Offenburg, and for my mom to get a hair cut. There ended up being a mix up in the meeting location, but gratefully they found us around 6pm and took us back to the wonderful 2 month old apartment. The apartment also held the most decadent shower I've ever been privileged to use. That night when I used it, I didn't want to turn the water off. I made a mental note to buy one exactly like it when I finally own a house.
Before leaving Offenburg we had bought fresh bread and slices of meat to have for dinner. So, after dropping our things off at the apartment we grabbed our sandwiches and took a walk along the property and had a picnic overlooking the rolling hills. We walked for a bit longer after eating, enjoying the wonderful scenery. Then we headed back to our apartment for an early night... because we had some cow milking to do in the morning.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Day 2: Le Art de Paris

Our train was scheduled to go out of Paris East Station that night. When we went to store our luggage there that morning we found out it would be much cheaper to put them in the lockers at the Paris North Station. Thankfully they were only one stop away from each other by metro. However, once our luggage was safely packed away, it was nearing 11:am, and due to metro maintenance we wouldn't have made it to Versailles (which was our planned destination of the day) until around noon at the earliest. So, we decided to nix the plan, since we wanted to see a few museums in the city as well, and wouldn't have made it back into Paris before 5:pm when those museums closed.
There are at least 2 main attractions that tourists visit while in Paris. One being the Eiffel Tower and the other the Louvre. I enjoy going to museums, and probably could have spent hours if not days wandering around the halls of the Louvre. But my feet were aching from the day before, and my backpack, which was filled with 2- 1.5 liter bottles (you can never have too much water, especially when grocery stores are few and far between), was not pleasant to carry. I ended up taking every advantage I could to sit down. Unfortunately, the museum hardly has any seating, and I found it less than enjoyable standing while looking at all the paintings. So, after an hour of wondering around we headed to the room containing the main attraction at the Louvre. I've never understood the world's fascination with the Mona Lisa. It's not particularly a painting like. But we went to see it, just to say we did. I was at least 50 feet away from the painting, behind the hundred or so people crowded around it. I held my camera above the many heads, zoomed in on the painting, and took a picture. Proof, to anyone who may care, that I've seen THE Mona Lisa. I personally enjoyed seeing the Winged Victory of Samothrace much more, and could have skipped the Mona Lisa all together if it weren't for it's fame factor.
As we left the Louvre we were both were ready to sit down, so we made our way over to the area of the Opera House. We were sure we'd be able to find a place to eat there and visit the Opera House right after lunch. But, like the previous day, we were unable to find a quaint cafe, so we once again found ourselves back in the Latin Quarter. Oddly enough though, we then decided to get something cheap and had a gyro in a restaurant that was anything but quaint. But our trip to the Latin Quarter was well worth it once we had the most delectable gelato... in the shape of a rose no less.

Instead of heading right back over to the Opera House, we went to the Museum d'Orsay. The afternoon was already winding down, and we wanted to see the French Impressionistic paintings before it was too late. It was great seeing Monet and Renoir... with a bit of Van Gogh thrown in the mix as well (since he lived in Paris for quite some time). -- I'd fill my house with their paintings if I was wealthy enough.-- I must say though, that my favorite part of the museum was the wonderful chairs they had set up in the middle of the rooms. There is nothing better than admiring paintings from a seated position. I could have stayed in that museum much longer than we did, but we were kicked out about an hour after we entered due to it being closing time. Upon exiting, we saw a rather mean mime, mimicking passers by on the road. So, of course we sat down on the steps leading up to the museum to watch.
Once we had our fill of watching innocent bystanders being made fun of, we hopped back on our friend the metro to check a few more things off our list before our train left. First stop was the Moulin Rouge. Quite disappointing if you ask me. Not nearly as glamorized as it was in the movie. So, after a photo op, we left (besides it cost over 85 Euros per person just to stick your head inside). Next stop was back to the Opera House. It's a beautiful building and quite stunning as you walk up the stairs from the metro to see it right in front of you. Unfortunately, due to the time, we were unable to tour the inside of the building. So we threw that on the list of things to do for the next time we visit the city. We wandered a round a bit more and didn't even bother finding a restaurant in a new area. We went right over to the Latin Quarter, since it never failed us before. We had fondue at a small cafe on a tiny street while men were singing and playing instruments as we ate.

Although the night was still young, it barely being 9:pm, we left after dinner to gather our luggage at the station since our train was scheduled to leave at a quarter to 11. That was quite the event. My suitcase got stuck in the turnstile at the metro. It's actually a turnstile plus glass doors that open for you, and close immediately after. My suitcase got trapped in the doors. After pulling and pulling while my mom was pushing, and trying in vain to open up the doors, a man walked over and stood right next to the door, thus activating it. Not only was my luggage released, but he got into the metro for free.

Once we arrived at the Paris East station, my mom had to run to the convenience store to get more water. That took much longer than we expected, but we made it over to the correct car on the train. My mom got on first and then doors started closing... luckily my suitcase was once again stuck between some sliding doors, otherwise I wouldn't have made it on. And that concluded the first momentary panic attack of our 3 week trip.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Day 1: My Parisian Birthday

Birthdays are just like any other day, with the added benefit of receiving presents and eating cake. There are some people, however, who don't settle for the norm. Those are the people who think "Why have a good birthday by receiving presents and eat cake, when you can have a memorable birthday by opening presents and eating cake... in Paris?" This year, I was one of those people. However, I opened my present the day before; and skipped the cake and ate croissants instead.
We got up bright and early in the morning... or to be more realistic, dark and early in the morning and took the 6:30am high speed train down to Paris. Our cabin steward was hilarious, and provided us with a bounty of food for breakfast... croissants, croissants and more croissants all covered in chocolate. Definitely a good start to my special day.

After speeding through Holland, Belgium, and a bit of France we arrived in Paris around 11:00. Once we figured out where we were located on the map, and where our hotel was located we were able to figure out the metro system and made our way to the hotel. Now, I've been told that all hotels in Paris are quite poor in quality, and ours fit along quite well in that assumption. It was clean, light and airy... but it was nearly the size of a generous walk in closet. It had a bed that felt like you were sleeping on the floor with pillows so flat you really didn't know what they were there for. However the bathroom was quite nice, and you couldn't beat the absolutely perfect location. We were situated in the Trocadero: 1/3 of a mile away from the Eiffel Tower and 1/3 of a mile away from the Arc de Triomphe/Champs Elysees.

When you grow up seeing the Eiffel Tower in pictures... or in 3 inch miniatures, actually seeing the magnificent building for the first time as you round the corner is breath-taking. Once we were finished taking pictures from the Trocadero, we sat on the grassy hill overlooking the tower and ate lunch (brie, bread and fruit).

We then continued on to Notre Dam, because the lines to go up the Eiffel were worse than those you'd find at Disney on a busy day. By the time we walked over to the cathedral it was nearing the end of the afternoon, and the clouds had taken over the sky. So I wasn't able to see the reflection of the stained glass on the floor, but it was beautiful none-the-less. The only thing I was slightly sad about was not being able to ring the bells while yelling “sanctuary, sanctuary”. Fortunately, I live close to Paris so I haven’t given up on that dream entirely. Notre Dam was also enormous in size, but, in general, Paris is large in scale. All houses and apartment buildings are at least 6 stories high, so you can imagine the size of the buildings they want to stand out.

After touring Notre Dam and its grounds, we moved on to the Latin Quarter, which was our favorite area of Paris. It was much cozier than the rest of the city and felt more inviting. We ended up eating dinner and both lunch and dinner the next day in that area, since we liked it so much. But, before dinner we had much more to see.

We continued our day long self-guided walking tour by walking down the river, along the length of the Louvre which is at least a mile in length, and down the Champs Elysees. Needless to say, we were much too over zealous on day #1 and paid the consequences for the next few days with aching legs. The famous Champs Elysees was extremely over crowded and I personally felt it was slightly over rated. Yes, it was an absolutely beautiful street, but most of the shops I had noticed were ones you could find anywhere, and the restaurants weren’t anything close to a bistro or cafĂ© you’d find on the smaller streets of the Latin Quarter. So we hopped on the metro and ate outside at a cute bistro with a waiter who sang questionable songs to us.

Once dinner was through, we took the metro back to the Eiffel Tower to go to the top. After waiting in line and paying for our entrance, we found out that the elevators had stopped for the night. So we had to climb the stairs. Ugh. We called it good on the first platform, even though we could have walked up to the second. By this time our legs were burning, especially since we had walked the city the whole day. But seeing the city from above (even in the dark) was quite nice. Good thing Paris is the city of lights.

Then before calling it a night, we walked past our hotel and over to the Arc de Triomphe …all lit up. It was a great ending to a wonderful birthday.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

All good things must come to an end.

I'm back. And after dropping my mom off at the airport yesterday, I spent the rest of the day cleaning house and running necessary errands (which included buying a new bike) to once again head back into reality. My new bike is similar to my previous one, with an addition to a bike rack in front. However, it doesn't ride as nicely, since it was made in China (which is the European way to term 'generic'). I just took a picture of it from my window since it is raining outside and I'm not willing to sacrificing myself to the elements,... and that is my excuse for the picture quality.

My mom and I had quite the adventure... with a number of bumps along the way. My stolen bike was just the first of those bumps, and each one thereafter seemed to become bigger and bigger as the trip progressed. But besides those unwanted experiences, we had a wonderful trip. Plus it was great having 3 weeks to spend with my mom where she didn't have to divide her time with anyone else.

I'm still organizing the 1000+ pictures I took over the last few weeks. Along the way I had to buy another memory card and a charger (since I had left mine at home), but were well worth the added expense. I had also bought a small notepad to write outlines and highlights of each day in order to have an easier time remembering them when it came time to blog. However, as the trip came to a close, laziness overcame me. I only have notes on 16 of the 21 days. So, if my posts on Berlin and Rothenberg ob der Tauber seem short, you'll know the reason why.