Thursday, November 27, 2008

Day 20: and so [we] face the final curtain

What I'm about to say is said with a heavy heart. This is the last of my posts on my "mommy and me" vacation. Please try to hold back the tears. Heck, you can go back and read the posts of our 20 day adventure as often as you'd like.

So, how, you may ask, did we end up spending the last day of our trip together in Rothenburg? Honestly, I'm having a hard time remembering.

Now that 5 minutes have gone by, and since my 28 year old mind hasn't succumbed to Alzheimer’s yet, our last day is vaguely coming into view. We had a delicious German breakfast at the hotel. Rolls, cheeses, warm hard boiled eggs, honey, fruit, juices... the works. We parked our luggage in the breakfast/make-shift storage room and made our way over to the medieval torture museum.

We admired all the creativity used "back in the day" and chose the items that would be nice to use on my brothers from time to time. Well over an hour and a half went by and we still hadn't gone through the entire museum. But we felt we gained a sufficient amount of knowledge on how to torture those who require more than just the usual types of punishment known in our day and age.

So, we left and got a bratwurst for lunch. We only had a few more hours to pick up our last souvenirs in Germany so we set about buying a few items. Number one requirement on my list was to buy more schneeballs in a large variety for myself... and a few miniature ones for my colleagues. We went to 3 different schneeball shops to gather the perfect varieties, but it was well worth the search. (For those of you who are wondering, the caramel and chocolate filled varieties were my two favorites).

Once we broke the bank on souvenirs, we took the opportunity to walk the rest of the wall, since we hadn't walked the entire thing the prior day. During the war, part of R.o.d.T was bombed, because there were Nazi soldiers stationed there. The US Assistant Secretary of War's mother had a painting of the town displayed in his childhood home, and it left a lasting impression on him. So, when he discovered that it was in the process of being destroyed, he commanded the US army general to not use artillery in taking over the city. It was eventually handed over by the local militia, due to the German commander not following Hitler's orders in fighting to the end.
After the war, residents of the town set about repairing the damaged part of the city. When people from around the world, who had previously fallen in love with Rottenburg, got word of the destruction they gave donations for the reconstruction of the town. Now the names and hometowns of the donators grace the wall. It's quite a beautiful site to see.
We had an amazing trip, granted it had it's up's and down's, but there was no better way to spend our birthdays than traveling Europe together.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Day 19: Rothenburg ob der Tauber

We couldn't have ended the trip in a better place. Rothenburg ob der Tauber was number one in my book of all the cities/villages we visited. Nothing beats a quaint walled-in medieval city to end a trip on a relaxing note.

My mom wanted to arrive there early, which meant we had to leave even earlier. I mean, up at 3:45 to catch the 4:30 train, early. The 4:30 train turned into the 5:15 train, and our 7:00 connection turned into our nearly 9:00 connection. In a nutshell, we woke up at 3:45 to wait at train stations, only to arrive in R.o.d.T. around lunch time, which was hours after my mom's desired early arrival.
We checked into our hotel, which looked like your typical medieval styled German home, and went in search of food. Lunch was absolutely excellent, except for the elderly waiter/owner who asked my mom to leave me in the city. That was slightly uncomfortable... .

We climbed the tower of the Town Hall, which was built between the 1300-1400’s, and overlooked the city. I was paralyzed up at the top, my fear of heights took over... and I was freaking out. Hang gliding was nothing compared to that tower. I tried playing cool, but my mom called my bluff as I was clinging to the wall, trying to stay as far away from the ledge as possible.

After making our way back down, we decided to check out the Christmas shops, which are what put R.o.d.T on the map in our day. By the time we made our way down to the end of the road, we were all Christmas-ed out. So, we decided to walk a part of the wall that surrounded the city.
The view was amazing, and the walk was so relaxing. We ended at the city gardens, which used to be where the royal family's castle was. My mom and I spent a good part of an hour sitting on the wall, absorbing the view. Then rain clouds started rolling in.
We made our way back to the hotel, stopping at any remaining store that was open... which weren't many. However, there was one shop I was excited to find still open. In the medieval era, women used to make a dessert called a "Schneeball" or snowball, which is a ball of dough pieces that taste somewhat like a donut. The tradition has been kept alive for the past 600 years, and is another famous trademark of the city. So, we popped into the store to buy a chocolate covered (and filled) schneeball. My mom didn't like it as much as I did, so I was the "unfortunate" one to finish it off.
We hid from the rain for a while inside our hotel room, but didn't let the rain stop us from taking the Night Watchman tour. We were led through the streets by the local "night watchman" who told us stories about life in the days when the city was in it's prime. We both agreed it's an absolute necessity to take the evening tour if visiting the city. And the rain only helped set the mood.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Day 18: Walk like an Egyptian

My mom is first generation American, her parents both came from Germany after the 2nd World War. My grandmother lived in the heart of Berlin and at a certain point during the war, the house she and my great grandfather lived in was taken over and turned into a hospital. Unfortunately my mom couldn't remember where the house was located exactly. Even though the house is no longer in the family, it still would have been nice to see. However, we still own land in a small town just outside of Berlin.

My mom had emailed my aunt to get the exact address of our family's land. We were both looking forward to seeing it. So we arrived at the the train station rather early to catch the train. But then after checking and double checking, plus speaking to customer service, we found out it would take us over half the day to see the property. The train would drop us off nearby, but then we'd have to wait around for a bus that runs 3 times a day to take us to our land. Quite a shame. But we hadn't given up hope. We decided to check out how much renting a car would cost,... and then gave up hope.

Since visiting our property was out of the picture we went back to the hostel to eat breakfast and regroup. When we had arrived the day before, I noticed a half bombed church while passing by on the train. Since I had a desire to see it up close, we went there after breakfast. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was built in the late 1800's and bombed in 1943. Thankfully it was preserved -as is- to serve as a memorial of what happened, since the majority of the city was rebuilt. Although, in the early 60's two other buildings were constructed for worship, which look completely out of place, but have become famous themselves.

Now, I'm sorry to say, I've come to the point where I'm at a loss as to the exact details of our day. My notes ran out on the beginning of day 16, and try as I might, I just can't remember all that we had done... except through pictures.

That being said, at some point after visiting the church we went to the history museum for one purpose only: my dad. There are many things he says that, being completely honest, go in one ear and out the other. But I'm sure he knows that. There are other things he says, though, that I don't forget... because I am a good daughter after all. One of the things that stuck was the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts he spoke of. One of his passions include the Egyptian culture. Knowing the large collection he spoke of was within walking distance, we couldn't not go into the history museum. Granted, I couldn't appreciate the collection like he could, so I took over a hundred pictures which will allow him to admire it second hand. (Merry Christmas Dad!)

At some point after the trip to the museum we stopped at, what we learned the day before to be, one of the best cafe's in all of Berlin. They serve 30 different types of cake daily. (No pictures were needed to remind me of going there). And boy, did they serve THE best hot chocolate. Mmmm....

We didn't end up staying out too much later that night. My mom's arm started to swell and hurt. We had stopped at an ice cream parlor for her to put ice on it for a few minutes before deciding to go back to the hostel early. An early night let us plan for our last two days that way... and allowed us much needed rest, since we really hadn't stopped moving since Venice.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Day 17: Ich ben ein Berliner

The train ride up to Berlin was horrible. The couchette was sweltering hot, and the two other people we were sharing with had 2 oversized bags a piece. There was no room to move and too hot to sleep. Worst part of all though was that all the chocolates I had bought were all melted. What a bummer. We were kicked off the train early and were told we needed to take a different connection than planned. When we finally arrived in Berlin, nearly half the day was gone.

I had made reservations at the same hostel chain that we had stayed at in Austria. Who would have thought a chain hostel would be drastically different from one place to the next. Upon entering our room we found what looked like a tornado had passed through. It was worse than my teenaged brother's bedrooms and bathroom which, anyone in my family can attest, is saying something. We took the opportunity to change clothes, then took our suitcases with us back over to the front desk. 'There's no way we're staying in that room', we told the receptionist. She made us take her back to the room so she could see for herself. 'I guess the room hasn't been cleaned yet', came her response, as if we were too dumb to figure that one out on our own. After talking it over, we put our luggage into the storage area, since there was no other available room. My mom and I decided we'd look for another place to stay later, because we were on a time crunch.
But then after greater hesitation we decided to quickly look online and found a much better hostel to stay with. We had enough time to check into the other hostel before our tour of Berlin started. Just as I was getting my money back from the hostel, a herd of young people piled into the reception area. We managed to squeeze our way through the teenagers and their luggage to find that the elevator down to the storage area was blocked by the herd as well. So we took the stairs, which unbeknown to us had been mopped within the 5 minutes we had stored our suitcases. My poor little mom, not knowing the floors were wet, started down the stairs, slipped and landed on her arm. It immediately started to swell and bruise. I grabbed the suitcases, and helped her carry hers up the stairs and left the hole of a hostel as quickly as we could through the back door.

The metro dropped us off at the doorstep of the hostel we changed to, which was located in once was East Berlin. It also happened to be a stones throw from most every place we wanted to visit, which made the change even more convenient. Gratefully we entered our private and wonderfully clean room, dropped off our things and left for the designated spot for our tour. On the way we stopped at a pharmacy for my mom to get pain and swelling reducing medicine. When she returned home she found out her arm wasn't broken like we suspected, she had a blood clot instead.
We made it to our tour, and even had time to get doner kebabs to eat along the way. The tour was fantastic. The guide was an expat studying German history at the University of Berlin, and was a plethora of knowledge. For nearly 4 hours she led us on a journey through the history of East Berlin. We stood at the river and learned of the city's beginnings as port, we went to the museum island and learned of the history of the Kaisers, we walked down Unter den Linden street where Hitler had cut down all the trees to have a better view during his dictatorship.
We walked by a free standing piece of the wall, she explained to us stories about Checkpoint Charlie as we stood in front of it, we walked through the Jewish Memorial, and stood on Hitler's rightfully deserved memorial... a parking lot.

After the tour ended, we loaded up on more delicious chocolates at a gormet chocolate shop, before going over to the Opera House. As we entered the concert hall, we looked like homeless people among the rich. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday finest, except for us. We soon discovered that the concert had to be a school run production when the first 30 minutes faculty were being thanked, and 2 minutes of clapping followed each name that was read aloud. We stayed for the next hour listening to the symphony and left after the intermission when more speeches began.
When we finally made it to the hostel I was famished. So my mom and I ate a curry worst and fries at the downstairs restaurant of the hostel and finally crashed for the night.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Saint Martin's Day

Never did I imagine that my vacation postings would go well into the middle of November. No, I'm not done yet, as I have a few days left to go. So, I'm making a brief interruption.

Martinsdag, or St. Martin's Day, is a celebration of Martin of Tours. He was a Roman soldier in early 300 AD. Legend has it, he was at the gates of a city with his soldiers when he met a scantily dressed beggar. He impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the beggar. That night he dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak Martin had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me."

Soon after, he was baptized. He served in the military for another two years until, just before a battle in 336, Martin determined that his faith prohibited him from fighting, saying, "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight."

He realized he was in the wrong vocation, and went to the city of Tours to become a monk, then a bishop and after his death on November 11th, he became a saint. From the late 4th century to the late Middle Ages much of Western Europe began a 40 day fast the day after November 11th, which was called "the forty days of Saint Martin", ironically enough. On November 11th, St. Martin's Eve, a giant feast was held before the fast began.

Today little children celebrate the holiday by decorating lanterns and going door to door singing songs about Saint Martin and November 11th, receiving candy in return. Riding home this evening it looked a bit like kids were trick-or-treating, with the exception of not wearing a costume and carrying a home-made lantern instead.

My adorable upstairs neighbor boys came by my home with their lanterns later in the evening and sang me some songs. In a way, I found it to be even nicer than seeing children in their clever costumes, which may be because they had to work for their candy by singing.

Fun fact: Martin Luther was named after St. Martin, as he was baptized on November 11 (St. Martin's Day), 1483.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Day 16: The Hills Are Alive

Ah... The Sound of Music. I've seen the movie a handful of times, but I've only seen the ending once. And I'm not sure I even watched the movie in its entirety when I finally saw the Van Trapp family hiding from the Nazi's as they were fleeing the country.

But even though I'm no die hard fan, I still had a desire to visit the city where the movie was filmed and the real story took place. Plus, we had an extra day to use since we only went to Prague for 1 day instead of two.

Another fact I'll disclose about myself is that oftentimes my attitude is based on the amount of food that is in my stomach. Yes, it is quite sad, but I'm usually good about satisfying its needs... which is probably why it's so hard for me to lose even 5 pounds. But that's beside the point. When we arrived in Salzburg around 11 am, not having eaten, all I was focused on was food. I'm sure I wasn't the most pleasant person to be around, but my mom's an amazing woman, and took it in stride.

So, food is what we went in search of... after we locked up our luggage, and bought tickets to see the Sound of Music musical. We ate outside at a cozy little restaurant. Sticking to the theme of the day, I ordered schnitzel with noodles, since they are one of Maria's favorite things. My mom, however, didn't play the game and had a giant meatball instead.

We walked down the main streets, filled with unique signs that hung over each shop. It's something which has been passed down since the medieval era since most people couldn't read at that time. We both really enjoyed Salzburg. It is a beautiful city, with houses built right out of the mountains, crystal clear rivers, and extremely clean streets. My favorite part of it all though, had to be the women who kept tradition alive by wearing dirndl dresses. Tourists even took part in the tradition, spending more than 700 Euros for a dress. Question is, when will they use them once they leave Salzburg? Because 700 euros is quite a lot to spend on a Halloween costume. But then again, nothing beats seeing an Asian lady in a dirndl.
We paused in front of Mozart's house, entered a cathedral which I deemed my favorite so far on the trip, and then climbed every mountain. Ok... we didn't climb EVERY mountain, but we climbed the one that lead to the famous Salzburg castle. Not feeling like paying a fee to enter the castle, we continued onward and upward until we reached a tower with bagpipe music escaping from the one window the tower had. I'm sure the city, or at least their family members, were grateful they chose the tower to practice in since it sounded like they just started learning to play the instrument.

Wanting to keep with the theme of the day, the next item on our list -after "herbal tea time"- was to see the gardens my mom said were in the movie. Although made famous through the movie, I can't seem to remember the name of the specific gardens we went to. But what I do remember is singing Edelweiss as we walked through them. We could have spent hours relaxing amongst the flowers, but then again we did have a musical to see.

And what a musical it was. Absolutely horrible. We spent as much money on that excruciating experience as we did the night before for an absolutely wonderful concert. It felt like we were back in elementary school... or Disney Land where you can see things like that for free. My mom and I grimaced throughout the whole thing, but stayed since it was later in the evening and everything besides restaurants were closed. The best part of the entire musical was when we could say "so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, GOOD BYE!"

By that point we had about 30 minutes before we had to take a bus back over to the station, so we took one last small walk around the city streets. The city is even more beautiful lit up, although hard to capture on camera at that time of night. Then we had to say good night to the city and walked onto the train to face yet another frustrating couchette experience. And to think, we were no longer in Italy...

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Day 15: a tiny mix-up

Early that morning I went to reception to change keys. Since we were staying at the hostel for another night, we ended up having to change rooms. We moved our luggage from an 8 person to a 4 person room and then headed down for breakfast.

The morning was quite relaxed. We gathered more pamphlets at the tourist information, walked along the Rhine (Vienna's beach), and watched as Vienna’s famous musical clock struck 12… for ten minutes. My mom was on a “musical clock” kick during the entire trip. In every Germanic country we had to search out the city’s famous chiming clock. In the Black Forest it was the cuckoo clock, Bern’s clock only chimed as a mechanical figure hit a bell, Prague (although not Germanic) had a clock that appeared to be a sundial and a picture of the sun would move across the clock as music played. In Vienna however, it was a big production.

Two minutes worth was more than sufficient for me, but the music and the figures kept on going, and going, and going. Needless to say, by the end of the clock’s daily 10 minute production, I was exhausted… and famished. So, we went back to my already favorite (from 2 days before) bratwurst stand to eat the best brat.After lunch we took the metro over to the Hofburg’s (royal family) summer palace. It was quite stunning, with acres of absolutely beautiful gardens. Local residents can buy annual garden passes, many of which we saw jogging as we strolled the garden’s paths. Not only did we see joggers, but we saw horse drawn carriage rides. My mom wanted to go around the gardens on the carriage, so while she rode I took the opportunity to watch a demonstration to make apple strudel… yum.
Once we were back into town we went to the Sacher Hotel for “herbal tea time” to eat Austria’s famous sacher torte. I thought I would have fallen in love with a famous chocolate cake, but the hint of apricot - which apparently is its signature flavor, just didn’t win over my tongue. Oh well, like the saying goes, you win some and you lose some.
Later that evening we arrived, extremely underdressed, to another palace in the city to watch a Mozart/Strauss concert. The concert was wonderful, we absolutely loved it! All the musicians were having so much fun you couldn’t help but have a great time.

When we finally arrived back to the hostel, we arrived in our room to find the beds we had chosen occupied. In fact, all four beds in the room were taken and our luggage was no where in sight. We quickly found ourselves at the reception desk, where we were told they had made a mistake, and changed us to a 2 person room. We grabbed our luggage from behind the desk, and free bottles of water and went to our room. At 1:30 in the morning, obviously surprised by hearing me say “hello?” in the darkness, someone opened and quickly shut the door to our room. It may be a wild guess, but I’m betting that the hostel made yet another mix-up. I just wonder where that person ended up sleeping...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day 14: a day of regret

Prague was on our list of cities to make a two day visit to. Then on our way down to Paris, I looked through the Eurail packet and found out that our tickets weren't covered in the Czech Republic. We had spent the next 12 days debating on whether we'd go or not... then we arrived in Vienna. At the train station my mom found a package for a day trip to Prague. It appeared to be a good enough deal so we booked it and cancelled our Prague hotel since we were no longer going to stay overnight.

We were already starting to regret our decision for booking a day trip when during our tour through Vienna we were told by two men we met how wonderful the city was and how we'd need two days minimum to see everything. Unfortunately by then, since our hotel was cancelled, we decided to go for the one day. Because of it, we ended up changing our schedule around. Instead of spending two consecutive days in Vienna we spent a day in Vienna, the next day in Prague, and then a day back in Vienna.

We were picked up at our hostel at the crack of dawn, and were dropped off at the tour bus. My mom was continuing to regret her decision, and apologized repeatedly to me for even suggesting the day tour. I figured since we were already on the bus we'd might as well go through with it and stop fretting about it. For the next 6, yes 6, hours we made our way over to Prague. Our guide told us on the way that we'd spend a measly 4 hours in the city... two of which would be with another tour guide who would show us around.

When I had told people at work the number of cities we were visiting in only 3 weeks, they'd laugh and say "yep, you're definitely American." However, I didn't feel that was the case until the bus ride into Prague. Who spends 10 hours minimum on a bus for a 4 hour excursion into a city? Only Americans. I have to say, I was quite disappointed that we were on that tour when the guide made that announcement.

We pulled into a parking lot just outside of Prague around noon, and another guide hopped on the bus. As he started pointing out landmarks, I sat there thinking I couldn't believe we spent money to listen to a talking map. I wondered if we'd get any useful information out of what he'd say during the next two hours. Then as soon as the question was posed in my mind, it was answered. His excitement peaked as he had us all look out the window to the right and pointed to the Hilton hotel, to which he exclaimed is the largest hotel in all of Prague, accommodating up to 40,000 guests! 'Good grief', I thought... 'isn't this going to be the most exciting tour ever?'

We finally exited the bus, and our walking Tom-tom steered us through the city. I was painfully bored, so we managed to loose the group a number of times as we'd walk at our own pace and explore things on our own. Walking around Prague is as if you've entered a story book. The city looks like a fantasy, completely magical. During our 2 hours of "free time" we thought about taking a train back to Vienna, depending on when the departure times were, so we could spend a few extra hours there. After buying a few souvenirs we stopped at a youth hostel which provided internet access.

While we were searching train times, a kid sat down next to my mom who looked a bit dodgy, his eyes darting around the room nervously. We should have tuned in at that exact moment due to our recent history with another young guy in Italy, but we were focused on the computer screen instead. Unbeknown to us, the sketchy kid managed to steal my mom's wallet. We realized 3 minutes after we had left the hostel, already bummed because we couldn't find a train with a good schedule to take us back to Vienna.

When my mom discovered it, we ran back to the hostel, but the kid had already fled. We ended up spending the final 45 minutes of our "free time" dealing with the logistics of a recently stolen wallet. On the plus side, her passport was still inside her purse, so we didn't have that to worry about. We made it to the tour group's meeting point 10 minutes late, and was greeted by the glaring eyes of our impatient tour guide.
Neither my mom nor I were in the mood to deal with attitude at that time, so we said nothing and started walking towards the bus. I finally spoke up as the guide was going on and on about how he likes to get on the road on time because he hates returning to Vienna so late. His venting ended after I explained our situation. However that didn't stop us from receiving snide remarks from a few people who had been waiting for us on the bus. I rolled my eyes as we walked down the aisle and focused all my energy on not opening my mouth.

I successfully made it to my seat without making a snide remark in return. My mom was too shaken to even notice. Her nerves were finally calmed as the last phone call to the final bank on her list was over and all her cards were officially cancelled. As she handed me back my cell phone and said she no longer has a desire to visit Prague again.