Sunday, March 30, 2008

Munich

Above: Waiting in the huge buffet line at the Hofbrauhaus is accompanied by great entertainment.
Above: Singing in German.
Above: Dancing in German.
Above: Europe dads with their new favourite lady.
Above: Bakers of Neuschwanstein
Above: Triplets of Neuschwanstein.
Above: At the entrance to the castle.
Above: Mary and the Christ child looking out over Bavaria.
Above: Mack and Karsten are so excited to be visiting Neuschwanstein.

Above: Dachau - the grass represents the first line of imprisonment. If prisoners were to place one foot on the grass, they would be shot by snipers in the guard towers, no questions asked.
Above: We listen to Claudia with the guard tower in the distance.
Above: One of the punishment devices.
Above: In the barracks.
Above: Ludwig II's famous Neuschwanstein.





Munich is the capital of Bavaria, the fun-loving, beer-swilling (this is where Oktoberfest takes place), mostly Catholic southern part of Germany (as opposed to the very conservative, mostly Protestant north). Munich is also home to a major international airport, and as such is the end of many trips to Europe.

Our hostel, the Easy Palace, is great as far as hostels go. The girl at the front desk with pretty good English struggled a bit to let me know that “Smoking in any part of the building is strictly forbidden”. “Great!” I said. We’ve been in enough smoky places. Sitting in the lobby updating the blog on the free wireless internet, I met lots of people, most of whom were American students studying in Italy or Spain traveling around Europe on their three week Easter break. I know some former LFMSS Europe trippers have gone on to study abroad – what a great opportunity.

Our day in the Munich area started at Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, and the model for all the others to follow. Dachau opened in 1933, and had over 200 000 prisoners live and die here until the Americans liberated it in 1945. It was never an extermination camp like Auschwitz, but rather a slave labour camp where Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, homosexuals, Catholic priests, and any others who Hitler and his ilk didn’t like were worked, often to death. Our tour guide, Claudia, did an excellent job of explaining the camp’s functions and history. This very solemn and sad place always has a strong impact on me, and many of the parents and students also were deeply affected by the visit.

We left Dachau, eating our VERY LAST LUNCHPACKET (I know everyone will miss their bun and cheese, bun and meat, Corny bar, apple, and juicebox) heading to a site that represents a very different part of German history, Neuschwanstein. “Mad” King Ludwig’s 19th century castle dedicated to the operas of Richard Wagner is always a treat. From the sweeping views at Marienbruch to Ludwig’s 5 MILLION dollar bed, it is over the top like Versailles but in a German style. Ludwig died under mysterious circumstances a few months after he moved into this castle, and the vast majority of it remains unfinished. The tour takes us through the finished rooms, from the 2 million-tile-mosaic-floor throne room to the concert hall built for personal performances for the king (and finished only a few days before his death at age 40). Our very German tour guide loosened up a bit and challenged us to count how many swans, the main motif of the castle whose name means new swan stone, there were in the appropriately named Swan Room. The closest guess was 42, but there are actually 96 he told us.

After we returned to Munich proper, I gave everyone 20 minutes to get ready and reload the bus for our trip down to the Hofbrauhaus. I had invited Rens to park the coach and join us by walking the 20 or so minutes through Munich to get there, but not feeling well, he declined this year and offered to drive us to the city centre instead. When twenty minutes was up, I went out to the bus to discover the back of the bus full and the front of the bus empty. Rens said, “Ja, Kreg, it is only the parents who are not here,” and laughed. The parents looked great and smelled fresh as they entered the bus for our last trip to an attraction in Europe (unless you count the Munich International Airport as an attraction). I missed out on the pork sausage fest as one of our kids was feeling a little under the weather and I took him back to the hostel basically as soon as we got there. It was no big deal to me; I ate dinner with Rens in the restaurant beside the hostel and enjoyed some quiet time to organize my final paperwork for the trip. I’m actually at the hostel right now writing this, and the group is, I’m sure, full of every pork product imaginable from the Bavarian buffet, and singing along with the traditional Bavarian musical entertainment, drinking down pint after pint of ice water, while the guests at the other tables drink their 1 LITRE mugs of beer. The Hofbrauhaus sells, on average, 10 000 of their 1L mugs a day. That’s a lot of beer! The room our group is in is mostly tourists and not too rowdy (although it is loud and jovial); you have to go downstairs to find the hardcore drinkers. It’s great for a group like ours as the focus is more on the Bavarian entertainment than the Bavarian beverages.

I know I’m going to miss this group – it is a very unique experience to travel through Europe with a group of kids you know well, and a group of parents you get to know during the trip. I’ll write another entry to end this blog, maybe on the plane ride home, or maybe after we get back. I can’t believe that we were in London just a couple weeks ago! We’ve seen so much, done so much, eaten so much… it’s hard to believe it was only 18 days.

Craig

Friday, March 28, 2008

Playing chicken with the Mediteranean

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The hills are alive with the sound of salt mines

Above: Everyone enjoys a giant pretzel.
Above: In the fortress courtyard.
Above: In Mirabella Gardens.
Above: Berg at the Burg
Above: Chocolate overdose.
Above: Chrian is imprisoned in the fortress dungeon.
Above: Crosses over Salzburg.

After an OK evening at an Austrian Gasthof (decent meal but only one waitress for the whole restaurant) and a frustrating breakfast (we were kicked out of the area where you could get a hardboiled egg, orange juice, yogurt, etc, and told to stick with our bun/meat/cheese trays. Also, an old Austrian man came into our breakfast room, sat down, lit up a cigarette, and downed his morning beer), I decided I would probably go back to Mostwastl (a different Austrian Gastof) next time.

Before entering Salzburg, we headed for the salt mines that made Salzburg (literally “salt castle”) rich. On the way we stopped at The Real Austrian Superstore (that’s what it seemed like anyway) to buy cheaper-than-Dumons-but-still-really-good-European chocolate. Once again, Rens was shaking his head at how much stuff we bought. At the salt mines, the students enjoyed the different forms of transportation (underground rail, underground boat on underground lake, and long wooden slides), while the parents enjoyed the highly informative and entertaining film, which is shown in different clips as you go through the guided tour. I think Mr. Cook got a copy of it to take home and watch again.

Entering Salzburg, we got to see the impenetrable fortress on a bluff overlooking the city. We went up the funicular (an on-the-ground gondola) and toured the fortress, which is the largest intact medieval fortress in Europe. From the top of the fortress you can see why it protected the city so well – it gives you a 360 degree of the Salzach river valley where Salzburg is located.

After a giant pretzel each, a stop at the Sound of Music cemetery and Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich’s “Florence of the North” domed baroque cathedral, we split up near Mozart’s birthplace to have our LAST HOUR OF SHOPPING IN EUROPE! A couple kids are out of money , and I have lent a bit, but not too much. They seemed to budget well despite the amount of souvenirs falling off the overhead shelves of the bus onto people’s heads.

We reentered Germany, and will not be crossing anymore borders until we take the plane home on Sunday. The trip, alas, is almost over.

Craig

Berg gets owned by wada

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Better than Playland

This is how the salt miners used to get to work.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

More Pictures from Slovenia

Above: On the Pletna - Robert rows us back from the island, Ethan naps
Above: Pletna race!
Above: Pat makes a wish and rings the bell; Brad looks skeptical
Above: At the top of the 99 stairs!
Above: Pletna's are usually named after the owner's daughter - Vanja is Robert's sister since the first owner of this Pletna was his dad. Castle is barely visible on the misty cliff.

New Stop Number 3

Above: On the castle lookout
Above: Enjoying Slovenian cuisine.
Above: Product of the Gutenberg Printing Press.
Above: Wine-crazed monk blocks our exit until we all buy a bottle from him.
Above: In front of the baroque St. Mary's church on Slovenia's only island.

Slovenia is a tiny country, half the size of Nova Scotia, that used to be the northernmost part of Yugoslavia. It escaped most of the ravages of the war in the early 1990’s that saw a lot of the Balkan Peninsula in chaos, and has recently joined the European Union, adopted the Euro, and closed down the massive communist era border checkpoints in the north (though they have had to increase border security with Croatia to the south as Croatia is not part of the EU). After seeing a film about tourism in former communist countries of Eastern Europe that talked about Tito’s (the Yugoslavian dictator for most of the 20th century) holiday home on Lake Bled, I set out to add a new stop to the LFMSS Europe experience.

Bled is a small town on a lake in the middle of the Julian Alps. In the middle of the lake is Slovenia’s only otok (island), and on top of the island is an inviting baroque church. Slovenians bring their wedding parties to Bled, take a pletna (more about that later) out to the island, and climb the 99 steps to the church to ring the bell, which, according to a local legend, will grant you one wish. The interesting thing about the stair climbing thing is that the groom must carry the bride up all the steps without a rest.

We arrived in Bled in the rain, unfortunately, but that didn’t dampen our spirits. Our local guide Robert, who can be seen in Michael Palin’s BBC travel series, guided us to the restaurant where we had a traditional Slovenian meal, ending with a piece of Kremna Resina – the cream cake Bled is famous for. He took us down to the lake where our group split into three and we boarded three Pletnas. Pletnas are s flat bottomed boats (no keel) that are traditionally hand made in Bled only. Maria Theresa, Austrian princess, instituted this practice during the Hapsburg reign in the region. There are only 21 pletnas on the island, owned by 20 families (one guy has two), and passed on generation to generation. Robert was working in Baltimore for Lloyd’s of London when his dad called him home to take over the family pletna since he was retiring. The Pletnas are beautiful boats, and we were all really glad they are covered.

On the Island, we rang the bell in the church, annoyed a swan who laid its eggs too close to the dock, and hid out in the gift shop while our pletna captains took a break. After returning to the mainland, Robert took us up to the Grad, or castle, on the cliff overlooking the lake. Even with the clouds and rain, it was a beautiful view. Robert told me all of his clients who had booked tours for Easter time had cancelled except us. He liked our hearty spirit. Inside the castle we saw something I thought was really cool – a Guttenberg printing press. A man in costume and playing the role of a medieval printer showed us how to use it, and let those of us who wished to buy a handmade paper and have something printed on it actually use the press. In one of the cellars of the castle, a man dressed as a monk made a great sales pitch to our kids – for Slovenian wine! It was an awkward silence after he went through his explanation of some of the customs around wine in Slovenia and then told us which wines were which and how much they cost. I made all the kids buy a bottle to end the awkward silence. Plus he was holding a huge sword they use to open magnums of champagne at weddings, and blocking our exit from the cellar. Hopefully they still have there bottle when they get home – they are supposed to give it to their parents.

I hope you enjoy my sense of humour. If you do, great. If not, it was Mr. Johnson’s idea to write those last couple lines.

I would definitely return to Bled, and would definitely book Robert as our guide again – he got a nice big tip after being very patient (we were an hour late, got lost on the way to the restaurant where we were supposed to meet him, he had to run up the hill to the sports park to guide us to the restaurant) and very friendly and informative (he had a huge smile almost the whole time, and answered all our questions).

Craig

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Last set of Italy pics for the blog


Above: Everyone's new favourite drink in Italy - Chinotto. A sweetened, carbonated, squid ink beverage. Thanks to Mack for discovering it. I brought home a six pack myself.

Above: The star of many meals here
Above - On the Rialto Bridge.
Above - This is us in the morning of our full day in Venice, well rested from our sleep in the Venetian palace behind us (on the left) and enjoying the early morning rays of sunshine.
Above: Venice from Campo San Marco bell tower - in the foreground are Saint Marc's Basillica (domes on left) and the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's palace, on the right)
I can't get rid of this duplicate without deleting the whole post, so enjoy it again.


Ok, I took a lot of pictures in Italy

Above: In front of the recently rebuilt Fenice - Venice's famous opera house that burned down in 1996
Above: Overexposed in the Doges Palace courtyard
Above: Looking back at Venice - check out the cool partial reflection in the water on the walkway
Above: mmmm
Above: In the gondola on the Grand Canal

Yet more pics of Italy

Above: Only Fundy kids are crazy enough to swim in the sea at Levanto in March (must be that Loon Lake training)
Above: Florence from the top of the Duomo
Above: In front of the fake David (no photos allowed of the real David)
Above: Casey in the prison of the Doges palace
Above: At the entrance to the Grand Canal

Even More Italy Pics

Above: One of the countless views from the path
Above: The "A Team" - first group into Vernaza for lunch
Above: The group who decided to do the last path before setting out
Above: Through the Cinque Terre
Above: We made it! Proof - the sign behind Ryan's raised fist says Monterosso, the most northerly town of the Cinque Terre. These guys deserved their extra scoop of gelato in Venice!