Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June 20th & 21st – Prien am Chiemsee

At last, some sun!

We drove across the bottom of Bavaria to the region's largest lake, the beautiful Chiemsee at the foot of the Bavarian alps – a favorite holiday area for Munichers today, and a retreat for Bavarian royalty from the past.

The main reason for our visit here was to see one of the fantastical castles of "Mad" King Ludwig, the tragic and deluded King of Bavaria who reigned from the 1860s to the 1880s. Ludwig was unfortunate enough to be on the throne during the time when Bismarck railroaded German unification under Prussian domination in 1871, which left the sensitive Ludwig a powerless King, pretty much in name only.

Ludwig might not have had much power, but he did have plenty of money (at least at the start), which meant that he could indulge his fantasies with ridiculous building projects that were eventually to bankrupt him. His most famous castle is the fairy-tale Gothic Neuschwanstein, which we hope to see later, but the castle that he built on an island in the Chiemsee was much more costly, much more lavish, and in many ways, much more ridiculous.

We caught the busy ferry from Prien to Herreninsel, a suitably isolated spot for the increasingly isolated, insular, anti-social and unhappy Ludwig to build his most ambitious project. Ludwig had been born and bred to be an absolute monarch, so being handed a role as a puppet King didn't really float his boat – his only outlet was to lose himself in ever more decadent building projects that would display his power and wealth. He'd become obsessed with perhaps the ultimate absolute monarch, Louis XIV of France, so he decided that he'd build himself a replica of Versailles on this little island. In fact, it wasn't to be a true replica, it was actually going to be bigger and even more opulent than the original (if that were possible).

Sadly (or perhaps fortunately) Ludwig only had time and money to build the central section of his new Versailles (supposedly costing in the region of £100 million in today's money), before he was declared bankrupt, deposed, and then died (in very mysterious circumstances); but what he left behind is an amazing and almost unbelievable tribute to one man's insane architectural ambition. Our tour took us round some of the most over-the-top rooms I've ever seen (trumping even the vanities of the Tsars in St Petersburg), literally dripping with gold, crystal and marble.

His own incredible Hall of Mirrors was actually longer than Versailles', but instead of being the scene of lavish balls, this one was just for him to enjoy on his own – he slept all day and got up at 8pm, so it took 40 servants half an hour to light the 2,000 candles to light the hall for the lonely Ludwig to wander around and contemplate his woes.

Only about a dozen rooms were finished, and at the end of the tour you emerge into the rest of the palace which was left just bare brick, looking as forlorn and unfulfilled as Ludwig's sad life. But, in spite of the poignant background story, it's a fascinating building to explore, and to hear all the stories behind it.

The rest of the island was beautiful too, so we had a picnic on Ludwig's lawns, only bothered by colourful butterflies, before we headed back on the ferry to Prien pondering if there will ever be someone like "Mad" King Ludwig again?

June 19th - In the Shadow of the Eagles’ Nest

Sadly, back in the 1930s, the incredible beauty of the Berchtesgarden area, plus the quintessentially Bavarian landscapes and culture here attracted Adolf Hitler and his evil henchmen to make this their holiday area of choice, so a complex of Nazi holiday homes were built here in the mountains and valley around Berchtesgarden.

Unsurprisingly, the Allies bombed most of them to pieces and what survived was mostly destroyed to stop it becoming any kind of place of pilgrimage to the Nazis. The only relic that did survive, was the famous Eagles' Nest, a Nazi reception house built over 1800 metres high, up the top of an impossibly steep mountain. The reason that this one survived was because Hitler didn't actually like the place, as, ironically, the great Fuhrer suffered from vertigo, and didn't like the winding journey up there. In fact, he only came up here about 10 times – even so, there is something of a menacing air about the stark stone building constructed in an incredibly bleak spot (or at least it was bleak when we were up there – the howling wind made it seem an appropriately inhuman Nazi relic).

As we shivered our way around the top of the mountain amongst the clouds, there wasn't an eagle in sight – just a few noisy black crows squawking around. I guess "The Crows' Nest" wasn't a macho enough name for the Nazis. We enjoyed the spectacular views as long as our frozen fingers would let us, then we sheltered in warmth of the restaurant – we'd just seen black and white footage of Hitler enjoying a meal in the same dining room, which gave it something of a chilling atmosphere.

After our time here, we went to an exhibition that documents the rise of Nazism, and the devastating impact that it had on Germany and the rest of Europe. Again, it was chilling to see it laid out in enormous detail how this lunatic managed to employ a combination of often-logical social and industrial policies with strident appeals to the basest human instincts of prejudice and triumphalism. The exhibition showed how the Nazis were masters of manipulating PR, using groundbreaking mass media propaganda to win over the public, and employing first intimidation and then outright terror to chip away at the peoples' abilities to either see right from wrong, or to be able to resist.

As soon as he was put in power, almost by stealth, Germany was put on a war footing– it made you wonder what would have happened if he'd been faced down earlier.

Anyway, so many of his policies and tactics have such strong echoes with the politics and debates of today (especially in these times of economic crisis) – this exhibition was a very scary warning about the politics of blame and scapegoating that seem to be so prevalent today.

June 18th – A Thigh Slapping Good Time in Berchtesgaden

In our brief time in Berchtesgaden town centre the day before, we saw that the local brewery had some kind of traditional Bavarian festival going on in their Hofbrauhaus. Not really knowing what to expect, but needing a drink after our awning disaster, we turned up for a night of Bavarian music and dancing.

This was the absolute opposite of our disappointing experience of the Hofbrauhaus in Munich – here, we appeared to be the only foreigners, the atmosphere was genuine, the staff were jolly and friendly, and the whole place had a feeling of innocent fun. We were seated on long tables with complete strangers who spoke no English, yet by the end of a night of faltering conversation, based around miming and hand movements, we'd all had a fantastic time together, linking arms and swaying in time to the drinking songs.

The beer was tasty, the band played really joyful music, while the dancers (the men of course dressed in leiderhosen and feathered hats, the women in traditional Bavarian dresses) were energetic and skilful. There was plenty of thigh slapping from the men, and plenty of twirling from the ladies.

The audience were happy to join in with the polkas, and they even got Tracy up to do a bit of twirling and slapping – something she looked born to do, even if she didn't have a clue what was going on. There were some hilarious dances – one, chopping wood in the middle of the restaurant with wood chips flying everywhere, and another where they all stood on our tables and slapped away furiously.

To see a small snippet of the evening's activities, Tracy's uploaded a small video onto youtube -

One of the most enjoyable evenings we've had in ages – prost!

June 17th & 18th – Berchtesgarden – Awning Disaster

With the weather looking like it was improving, we headed over the German border and up into the mountains to the beautiful Berchtesgaden, an incredibly beautiful part of the world, surrounded by snow-covered peaks and cut through with icy, fast-flowing rivers. The views from our camp site were awesome.

On our first day, we decided to enjoy the beautiful weather and do the 30 minute walk into town. As we neared town we spotted some ominous black clouds hanging over the mountains in the distance - but they were miles away, so no need to worry.

As we got into town, the thunder and lightning started, and now the storm wasn't in the distance any more, it was just ahead of us. At this point, most sane people would decide to find a café, see if the storm passed, and call a taxi if it didn't. Not us, we decided we could outrun the storm, so armed only with Tracy's puny sun-umbrella we headed back to the campsite.

Five minutes into the walk, the heavens opened and a storm of biblical proportions hit us. They say that there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes – I think that wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip flops in an incredibly powerful rainstorm counts as bad clothes. As the sky turned black, we were literally soaked to the skin by enormous drops of rain that were firing sideways at us like bullets.

Eventually, the dripping drowned rats made it up to the campsite to be greeted by the joyful site of our van with the awning utterly collapsed by the weight of water and the strength of the wind. On closer inspection, the metal struts of the awning had sheered apart in three places – it was totally broken. In fact, it wouldn't retract any more, so we couldn't even drive with it.

Somehow we managed to get the awning off, and now it's a case of sorting it out with the insurance company and trying to find someone to put a new one on, in a country where we don't speak a word of their language this may not be easy.

June 12th to 16th – Salzburg – The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Water

I last came to Salzburg when I was inter-railing at the age of 18. In the evening, there was a "boat race" drinking competition in the hostel we were staying at, and the night ended up with a rather unfortunate incident with a Wiener Schnitzel, so my memories of the place are rather hazy. I have vowed to avoid boat races and shnitzels for my visit 23 years later.

This time, our campsite just outside Salzburg was in a beautiful location, at the foot of some steep hills, surrounded by luscious green meadows, straight out of The Sound of Music. We arrived there on a glorious sunny afternoon, but we were soon to find out why those meadows were so green – it rained pretty much non-stop for the next two days.

Fortunately, we both had work to do, so we got used to the constant sound of rain hammering down on our roof, and the drip, drip, drip of water cascading off our awning, as we tapped away on our laptops.

But, when the rain finally did lift and the sun re-emerged again, the long build up made Salzburg seem even better – it's a stunning town. Unfortunately, the place is fairly overrun with tourists – and this is June, I dread to think what the place is like in August – but even the tour groups can't take away from the elegance of the baroque town centre.

We took the funicular up to the imposing medieval Schloss sitting on a high outcrop overlooking the town and the Salzbach river down below it – the bishops who ruled the town grew rich on controlling the medieval salt trade; and so this huge castle was a powerful statement of independence, and an insurance policy in case they got attacked. The views they had of the land they ruled are breathtaking.

We then wandered the old town's quaint streets, stopping at a few baroque churches and passing by the house that Mozart was born in – it wasn't hard to spot which house it was, seeing as there were about 5 tour groups milling around in the street in front of it.

Of course, Salzburg wasn't just the musical inspiration to Mozart – Rogers and Hammerstein's Sound of Music was set in and around the city, so if you're really inclined, you can go on a Sound of Music tour around the sites associated with the film. We resisted that temptation of the kitsch, and just tunelessly hummed "Doh a deer" to ourselves as we cycled to Schloss Mirabel, the setting for the Von Trapp family house. In fact, even though I must have watched it loads of times in my youth, it appears that I don't really remember much of the film, because I can't remember any of the scenes that the guide book tells me were set in the Schloss's garden. Never mind, they're very pretty gardens anyway.

Monday, June 13, 2011

June 11th - Vienna on Foot

A gloriously hot day today, so what better than to do a walking tour of Vienna's monumentally grand city centre? We started off at the Rathaus, where there was a big festival of some sort going on, with a brass band playing some suitably evocative oompah music that got a pair of old biddies dancing whirling polkas furiously till they got dizzy and careered off sideways into a table.

We then walked through the rose gardens leading up to the hugely impressive Hofburg, the main palace of the Habsburg dynasty that ruled Austria (and much of central Europe) for centuries, until the formation of the Austrian Republic after World War One. Vienna must have been amazingly wealthy in the 18th and 19th century judging by the endless array of grand palaces, baroque churches and wide boulevards around the city centre. It was all done so harmoniously and on a scale that I think only Paris can rival.

Having walked ourselves into a standstill, it was time for a reviving snack, so we headed to the famous Café Central to sample Vienna's most famous pudding, the Sacher Torte. The café, with its plush furnishings, marble columns and bow-tied waiters was like something from another age, but as I'm renowned for "not being a pudding person", I wasn't really the right person to pass judgment on the Sacher Torte. To my uncultured eye, it was like a fairly dried out bit of chocolate cake, and even the crack squad of cake eaters assembled around the table seemed fairly underwhelmed with it.

In the evening, we decided to head down to the Danube Canal for a bite to eat. What could be a fairly scruffy part of town has been transformed by groovy beach bars (with imported sand) and floating restaurants into a really trendy and bohemian area. We were a bit on the old, and a lot on the untrendy, side of the clientele down there, but it was a good place to visit, and more importantly the food was delicious - not a schnitzel or torte in sight!

June 10th – A Viennese Whirl

Having seen (and largely forgotten) the film, "The Third Man", a long time ago, I had a memory of the big wheel in the old fairground featuring fairly prominently, so we headed over to Prater to give it a whirl on the wheel. The rest of the fairground is full of modern vomit-inducing rides, but this timeless classic is still going strong; so we piled onboard for a slow revolution, looking out for the landmarks of this mainly low-rise city.

For lunch, we avoided the obvious deep-fried breaded meat options, and headed to the naschmarket where there's a bewildering choice of restaurants and food stalls churning out mouth-watering stuff. We settled on that typical Viennese fare – the falafel sandwich, which was delicious.

From there, we headed for the Belvedere Palace, to see the modern art collection there, featuring the world's biggest collection of works by local boy Gustav Klimt. Even if it weren't for the wonderful art on offer, the Palace itself is pretty impressive (another mini-Versailles); but the Klimt collection was breathtaking – so different to what was being produced elsewhere in the artworld at the time.

June 9th –Oh Vienna!

We've been to Vienna before, but that was before Tracy became an art buff, so this was a chance to sample some of the amazing art on offer at the Kunsthistoriches Museum – the main collection of the Habsburg Empire. Quite how we could have come to Vienna before and not come here I don't know, because this place was amazing.

We were in here for 6 hours and still didn't see anything like all it had to offer; but at least it gave Tracy a chance to study Durer's "Madonna with the Pear", which her next essay is going to be on.

Our ability to soak up any more culture was now up to its limit, so it was good to have to go to meet Sally and Dave who had flown over to meet up with us. We stopped for a couple of drinks and a massive catch up, and then went on to Vienna's most famous Wiener Schnitzel restaurant to sample the city's trademark dish. Unfortunately, if it wasn't meat and it wasn't breaded and deep-fried, they didn't do it here, so for a health-conscious vegetarian like Tracy the choice wasn't great, so she had to settle for a potato soup. The schnitzel itself wasn't the most tasty thing in the world, although it was huge – hanging over the edge of the plate – but it quickly began to feel like a "man versus food" eating challenge rather than a gourmet experience.

With the Wiener Schnitzel ticked off the list, our next typical city dish to be ticked off was the Sacher Torte – hopefully a bit nicer.

June 8th – Van Trouble on the road to Vienna

On the long drive to Vienna, we stopped for lunch at a motorway service station, and we were hit by the smell of burning oil. On opening the bonnet, it turned out that our oil cap was no longer there and that there was oil splattered all over the engine.

We are not mechanics, so not sure if the cap had just come off or blown off, we called the breakdown people. They were remarkably efficient and arrived within the hour, and although the guy spoke about 10 words of English (which is more than our 5 words of German), we think he told us that it had just come off and there was nothing more menacing. So, he fitted a replacement cap topped up our oil and went on his way, smiling to himself at these idiot English people who effectively called him out just to fill up the oil.

Of course, he may have been telling us there was something more serious and we're none the wiser. Before he drove off I tried my longest German sentence of all time, "alles gut, ja?", followed with a thumbs up and quizzical look. He hastily replied, "ja!" and sped off. I think that means we're ok, doesn't it?

June 7th – Linz

The guidebooks don't have many complimentary things to say about Austria's second largest city, condemning it for being too industrial and too boring – never mind the fact that it was Hitler's favourite Austrian city. However, we actually quite liked the place (maybe because we didn't see any of the industrial bits).

The campsite was a long way out of town, but it was a nice cycle ride through the countryside to the suburbs, and then largely on cycle paths into the centre of town. Linz doesn't have the massive set-pieces or huge boulevards of Vienna, but it has the same baroque-inspired grandeur in its churches, palaces and civic buildings. What makes it nicer is that it's not a tourist town – the Danube cruise boats only call in for short stops here – but it still has a bustling feel to it.

Other than just general exploring, the main tourist activity is to take the tram up to the top of the tall hill on the other side of the river to visit a pilgrimage church and just enjoy the views below – apparently this is the steepest train journey in the world. True to form, it was incredibly steep and the views from the bar as we enjoyed a beer were very spectacular, across the Danube, beyond the steaming factories on the edge of town, over to the mountains in the distance.

This is the only thing I'm ever likely to agree with Hitler on - Linz is a really enjoyable place to visit.

June 6th – Passau in Passing

There's no campsite at Passau, so we decided to do it on our way across the Austrian border to Linz. Somehow, we found a parking spot in the packed car park on the edge of town, and went in to explore the historic town centre.

Passau is often described as one of Germany's loveliest towns, and its setting really couldn't be much prettier – at the meeting point of three major rivers. The old town comes to a head where the brown waters of the mighty Danube (disappointingly not blue as you might expect), mingle with the green waters of the faster flowing River Inn – it's interesting to see how the different colour waters slowly mix as they flow side by side for a few hundred metres, before the more powerful Danube takes over and continues on its way to the Black Sea.

The town is indeed lovely – full of interesting historic buildings and narrow lanes to explore. With its 3-river-inspired strategic location, the town was a major historic crossroads of trade, which brought it plenty of wealth up until the 19th century. The biggest sign of that wealth is the huge Dom, or cathedral, which boasts that it has the largest church organ in the world, with almost 18,000 pipes.

After a nice wander, we returned to the van to find that we'd got a parking ticket for being too big for our space – the town council is clearly keeping up the tradition of taxing passing trade.