Uber LLLLoooooonnnnngggg, First Trip Report of Germany, Austria, & Italy
April 27-May 8, 2012
From drinking liters of beer with local Muencheners, listening to a Chamber Music Concert featuring the music of Mozart in Europe's largest medieval fortress, getting naked with other spa guests in the Austrian Alps, and attending Mass in St. Mark's Basillica, our trip to Europe was a trip of a lifetime.
BACKGROUND: My wife and I are in our mid forties, have been toiling away at economy deadened jobs for the last 4 or 5 years and are from northeast Wisconsin. I lived in northern Germany for 18 months while in the service a very long 25 years ago. My wife had never been to Europe but always wanted to go. My widowed mother who is 70 years old from Michigan has always wanted to go to Europe, and actually went to Italy and France 5 years ago with a friend. She had been working on us to go with her ever since. We finally gave in...it helped that she was to pay. My wife's parents would watch the kids...it was our chance of a lifetime.
After deciding that a cruise would insulate us too greatly from local experiences we started looking at the purchasing power of packaged guided tours. My mom loved the long list of nice hotels, tours, shows, meals, and "experiences" advertised in the tour books. Once again fearing the touristic insulation of a guided bus tour, I asked her if she would consider traveling independently if I could make "inclusive" arrangements that offered the comfortable lodging, meals, and types of experiences she was reading about in the tour books. My mission: Arrange an "inclusive" trip to Europe with high quality lodging, meals, air and tour experiences for under $3000 each.
BOOKING THE TRIP: After reseraching destinations on Fodor's and other websites, I began searching for what travel website(s) we would purchase from. In the end I found three websites that offered one-stop, complete trip package purchasing, allowing the customer to completely customize a total trip, to include air, train, transfers, hotels, and tours. By far, the website with the largest choice of destination cities, largest choice of hotels, and activities, and happily enough the best prices turned out to be www.europeandestinations.com .
After purchasing, I had a bit of panic as I read some terrible reviews about their service on this site and others. From what I could gather, there were some legit complaints, but also complaints from people who clearly looked to the site as a travel agent, but did not research well what they selected from the site. Immediately after purchasing, I started emailing the hotels for confirmation. I had mixed results. Had I waited a week before seeking confirmation, everything would have been fine. It took europeandestinations.com a week to get everything I requested arranged. After that, they emailed vouchers for everything purchased. The price stayed as quoted. All hotels came through with email confirmations independently, and physical train tickets were mailed 3 weeks before our departure.
THE PACKAGE (Under $2700 per person)
Air: Coach seats Chicago to Munich (non stop) on United, and Venice to Chicago via Munich on Lufthansa
Transfers: Private transfer from Airport to Hotel in Munich, and Private Boat from the Train Station to Hotel in Venice
Hotels: 3 nights in the 4 star Eden Wollf Hotel, Munich; 1 night in 4 star Goldenes Theaterhotel, Salzburg; 2 nights in the 4 star Grand Hotel, Zell am See Austria; 1 night in the 3 star Weisses Kreuz, Innsbruck Austria; and 3 nights in the Hotel Paganelli, Venice, Italy.
Train: Second Class tickets and reserved seats: Munich to Salzburg, Salzburg, to Zell am See, Zell am See to Innsbruck, and Innsbruck to Venice.
Activities/Tours: Hop on Hop Off City Tour, Munich; Gray Line Royal Casltes Tour to Neuschwanstein, Linderhoff and the village of Oberamergau in the Bavarian Alps, the Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg, Austria, a Mozart Chamber Concert in the Hohensalzburg Fortress above Salzburg, and a Tyrolean Dinner Concert in Innsbruck.3
Meals: Hotel options all included breakfast, and the 3 nights in Munich, and 2 nights in Zell am See included hotel half board options for dinner. The Tyrolean show in Innsbruck also included dinner.
Mission accomplished on booking the trip, but how would it go?
Fri Apr 27: Outta Here:
Mom drove in from Michigan the night before. After final packing and good byes we drove the 3.5 hours to Chicago. Found a coupon online for Blue Sky off-airport parking w/ shuttle. Only $65 for the 12 days...awesome.
Once europeandestinations.com purchased our air, I logged on to the United Website and reserved seats. We attempted the tactic of reserving a window and aisle in a row of three, hoping nobody would purchase the middle seat. Mom was accross the aisle in the middle bank of seats. Didn't work. The middle seat was booked at the last minute, and the woman occupying it didn't want to move to the aise as her husband was in the middle seat in front of her. She did take the window seat where she could most easily speak with him, and we had middle, aisle, aisle. It was worth a try. United transatlantic experience in coach was just ok. Extremely cramped seats with no leg room in front. Personal TV's in all seat backs with large selection of movies & shows. Food was bad to ok. Beverage service was professional but not often enough. Felt like a regional hop that lasted 10 hours.
Sat Apr 28 ARE WE REALLY HERE?
Arrived Munich on time 10am. We packed light and all luggage was brought on board as carry-ons. We simply walked off the plane and got in line at customs. Immediately upon entering the Arrivals Hall, sure enough, our transfer from europeandestinations.com was waiting. Gerhardt stood front and center with a sign with our names and a smile on his face. He insisted on taking the heaviest bag, and waited for us to use our debit cards in the airport ATM. TIP: Don't use the airport ATM as it has higher exchange rates. We had a 40 plus minute drive to the hotel. Gerhardt pointed out sights such as the BMW headquarters, and Soccer Stadium on the way into Munich's center. TIP: If you have a hotel near the Hauptbanhof (Main Train Station), you can go cheap on the Lufthansa shuttle bus from the airport, or you can buy a super cheap partner day pass on the S-Bahn system, and take S-1 or S-8 right to in front of the train station. Either of these options would have dropped us off directly in front of our hotel, the Eden Wolff, the transfer was worth it though as we had my mom along, and it really started our arrival off right, with no stress.
Immediately upon entering the very Bavarian, and very nice Eden Wolff otel, I was checking in at the desk as I heard my wife being hit on in the lobby by a very large, very drunk soccer fan from Sweden named "Jimmy". Yep, our trip was starting off with a bang. After "meeting" Jimmy, we headed to our room where my wife and mom oohed and aahed, obviously pleased with the accomodations. A large corner room, with one wall, exposed pine wood, and the rest brightly colored. Large bathroom with stone floor large glass shower, and nice bathroom products. The Queen bed slightly partitioned with the standard European duvet set up was crisp, comfortable and was the best bed of the trip. The "triple" or third bed was smaller in the corner and not to my mom's satisfaction. I switched with her and found it more than comfortable.
Despite being exhausted, we took Rick Steve's advice and I purchased a one day partner day pass to the Munich transit system at the hotel desk, and off we went on the S-4 train to Dachau as it wouldn't be open later. Upon arriving in the town in Dachau, we boarded the clearly labeled bus and were dropped at the Dachau historical site. THe Dachau site was huge, very much sanitized, but with many decent museum style exhibits which tell the gasthly story. Dachau was the first of the concentration camps, and was more a work camp than anythinge else. The Nazi's did use the facility however to test torture, medical experiments, extermination, and crematory methods which would be used elswhere on the masses at the more notrious camps. The most powerfully horrible part of the facility to me was walking through the building from the "changing room", to the "shower", to the crematorium. A very effecient trial facility indeed.
After the shuttle bus dropped us off at Dachau station, we found our S=Bahn train was not due for 35 minutes. Accross the street was a very nice bakery with very nice Tiramasu, and some needed bottled water. Partially recharged, we were soon back at Munich's Hauptbahnof S Bahn station, and back in our wonderful hotel. While wife and mom napped, I enjoyed an hour in the Sauna and spa area on the top floor of the hotel. I think this was better than their hour nap. I was nervous about doing the Sauna thing, but had read how they do it, and headed there in my robe and spa slippers only. Luckily I was the only one using the facility and had a very relaxing sweat in both sauna and steam room.
While we were tired, we were looking forward to our first meal. We had no idea what to expect from Half Board at the Eden Wolff. When I checked in with my voucher from Europeandestinations.com , he looked at it and said, "how in the world did you book this?" After giving me the room key he suggested to tell the restaurant hostess our room number and what time we wanted to have dinner. We arrived at the right time, and the attractive hostess remembered me and let us pick a table by itself in front of the glass window and doors looking out on Anulfstrasse and diverse pedestrian traffic and the train station accross the street. Table linens were the most highly starched ever, and the glass and cutlery sparkled. I expected "polite" slow service, but it was brisk, effecient, and very friendly. We were given no menus. After drink orders, we received a beef consume which was excellent..great flavor, not too salty. Next came a fresh salad, no dressing. The main course turned out to be black angus sirloin steaks and perfectly fried bratkartofflen (fried potatoes). The steaks were done medium to perfection and had a tasty au jous pooled on the plate. Onions fried crisp topped the steak. While we were discussing wether dessert was included or not, it arrived. It was predictably apple strudel, but the plating! A generous slice on a large plate with a scoop of bourbon vanilla bean ice cream on a wafer, and a selection of fresh berries, and a large dollop of whipped cream and mint leaf. Best dessert ever!
Energized by our great meal, we once again headed to the S Bahn. It is hard to describe the sights, sounds, and feelings of riding up an extemely steep escalator from one S Bahn stop over at the Theresenweisse stop. We emerged from undergound into Fruehlingfest on the Oktoberfest Grounds! It was basically Oktoberfest, but with only one beer tent open instead of 6. All the supporting carnival like stalls, rides, and attractions were in full swing. The place was packed. Munich was just hopping as Bayern had a major Soccer game that day. Adding to the festivities were all the local Muencheners and Bavarians in lederhosen and drindls. 25 years ago, I came to Oktoberfest and only the servers and staff were in costume. It appears that with the economic unification of Europe, there has been a resurgence of local regional pride. I imagine that in Scotland, some businessmen are in kilts, just as lederhosen can be seen on businessmen on workdays in Munich. At this Fruehlingfest, many of the party goers themselves were in Lederhosen, Drindls, or Soccer shirts. It was a great party, packed with lots of hard drinking, enthusiastic locals. THe Hippodrome tent was awesome with lots of soccer chants and songs, with half the place standing on the tables. It was too much for my mom, so we we went to the equally hard partying beer garten. At least it was open air, and some of the noice could disapate, and she could handle it better. I used my dated GI German to ask a nice young couple (Boritz and Yormela) if we could sit at their table. They were awesome, and we all enjoyed the rest of the evening together, using bits & pieces of Boritz's very respectable & Yormela's very passable English, and my really bad and limited Deutch.
SUNDAY Apr 29 MUNICH TOUR DAY
Wonderful breakfast at Eden Wolff. THis was my mom's reunification with breakfast croissants, and the beginning of my wife's love of Semmel rolls with fresh butter and fruit preserves. Eden Wolff of course does it up right with extras like bacon, eggs, preseco, champaign. Wow.
Hop on Hop Off Tour bus departure point was just around the corner. Very convenient. Staff was harried and rude, but our voucher worked just fine. This tour was perfect for us as our first stop was the art district, and my wife's long awaited visit to the Alte Pinakotek, the old master's painting gallery. My wife, a former teacher was really turned on to art and art history by teacher when she was younger. Her enthusiasm rubbed off on my mom and I. On Sunday, admission was only 1 Euro. We paid a couple of more for the museum audio guide. Wow...what a great experience. It was fascinating to watch as how time went by and how painting materials, and techniques really advanced the art. Same with the reformation, enlightenment, and the switch to more humanistic efforts. We spent a full half day here, and much to my surprise, I don't regret a moment.
Back on the tour we headed out to see the rest of the City Center. Englisher Garden, Freuenkirche, St. Peter's, the incomparable Neu Rathouse, of course the obligatory stop at both Hofbrauhaus and Hard Rock. (The later to update the shot glass collection only). We ordered the Orbatzer (cheese spread and onions) at Hofbrauhaus and received only one small peice of bread to put it on. We ordered pretzels but the rude waiter forgot them. The beer helped though, and my non beer drinking wife fell in love with European Fanta, (not the too sweet orange soda stuff we have here).
Back at the hotel while wife and mom relaxed, I renewed my solo sauna and steam room routine from the night before. For dinner, they asked how we liked the previous evening dinner. We told them we loved it, but were expecting something more Bavarian. He said a sirloin steak (it was only sirloin, but it was the best sirloin any of us had ever eaten) was a very Bavarian meal. Due to this comment, our menu this night was cream of mushroom soup, Roast Pork w/ crackling, saurkraut, a huge potato dumpling, and Bavarian Cream w/ berries for dessert. Outstanding.
Already missing the Fruehlingfest, we contemplated going back, but thought we might be disappointed after so much fun the night before. Besides, it was late and we didn't want to get there and not have much time. Instead we hiked down Anulfstrasse to the west for 3 or 4 very long blocks. Augustiner Beer Garden was just gorgeous. After some relaxing Beer and Fanta, we were introduced to our very freindly waiter to the raditeller. We weren't hungry but wanted to try it.....extremely thin sliced radish which you sprinkle salt on to "make it cry". Sure enough, the radish moistens up, and become tastier. After this plesent nightcap we fell exhausted into our comfortable beds.
Mon April 30 CASTLE DAY
After our breakfast routine it was accross the street and around the corner to board the Gray Line Bus heading out to Mad King Ludwig's castles two hours away in the mountains of Bavaria. We found ourselves in the back of an early leaving bus. Sitting with us was a young man named Adam who is an American on a long weekend from Bahrain. He said he "contractor" in "admin" and IT. He seemed kind of wiry, was from San Diego and let slip some Navy terms and military lingo. I hink he was an off duty "operator".
No problem with our vouchers, friendly, professional tour guide, and nice bus. The family sitting accross the aisle were very friendly and from Brazil. This was our first view of the spring time Alps. Cut glass snowy peaks, and lush green lower slopes. It was a very warm day....just gorgeous. Linderhoff Castle was fascinating, and the grounds were beautiful. THe next stop was the village of Oberamergau, and despite it being built for tourists, we did in fact buy more trinkets and trash to bring home from here than anywhere. Prices were a bit better than elsewhere, much to my surprise. Finally we arrived in the valley below Neauschwantein. We had some time to wait, so we had lunch on the patio of the restaurant and we spoke with a nice couple from the East Coast. We split up from Adam, and we took the bus up beyond the castle, where we could hike to Marienbrucke or Mary's Bridge. My mom made it, and the thin bridge high above a scenic gorge above the castle was mobbed with tourists. It was an adventure to cross and take pictures. The views were magnificent. This alone made the whole trip out from Munich worth it. The tour of the castle below was good, but the walk down to the castle was unbelievably scenic as well.
Upon reuniting with Adam and boarding the bus, we noticed the back picture windsheild was finely cracked all over. It was shattered, but held together by the inlaid wire net in the safety glass. The window had a small piece of duct tape on it and a seat cushion leaning against it. WHen the tour guide came back, we ashed her what happened. She blushed deep red, and this previously very proper tour guide said...."shit happens". She went back to the front, the bus left, and we started taking bets on when it would blow out of the bus. This occurred just a few miles after driving out of the mountains on secondary roads, and just a couple of miles after getting on the autobahn....just after going under an underpass. It's quite funny and you can view it on You Tube by searching for "Scheisse Happens". Adam spent about 25 minutes filming the window until it went. There are 3 minutes on You Tube, but you can skip until about 2 minutes 23 seconds in to save time. Nobody was hurt except for some slight abrasions from the shower of safety glass shards. The bus didn't stop for another 25 miles or when they finally checked on us in the back of the bus. We were having a great time taking pictures, waving at cars on the autobahn, etc.
Back at the hotel I enjoyed my Sauna for the last time, and at dinner they asked if we liked fish. Much to my disappointment, mom and wife said no. We had steak again, but it was a different cut, with a different gravy. It was accompanied with soup, salad, and the best and biggest baked potato we ever had. Desert was once again Apple Strudel. They also had chocolate muesse on the dessert menu, but we weren't complaining about their apple strudel! All this activity finally caught up with my mom. She has trouble with stairs, and Europe is definitely not handicapped friendly. Neuschwanstein alone had over 300 stairs to climb. Mom went to bed, and wife and I enjoyed our first time alone, strolling down to Marienplatz, and enjoying the evening in front of the Neu Rathause.
Tues May 1 SOUND OF MUSIC
Up early, last breakfast, in Germany, and wife says, "I don't want to leave Munich". From here we simply walked accross the street with our bags to the Hauptbahhoff and boarded the 9:27 am train to Salzburg. We already had our tickets and seat reservations from Europeandestinations.com No worries. After a pretty 1.5 hour ride to Salzburg, we arrived to a train station under construction, our first bathroom requring payment of Euros to get in, and a May Day protest outside the station complete with red banners and sign. We hopped in a cab and for 7 Euros or so, were dropped off at the Goldenes Theaterhotel on Schallmoosstrasse. THe helpful clerk at the guest, took my voucher without comment, found an empty room even though we were early and checked us in. We told him we had a voucher for the Sound of Music Tour. He called the tour company and arranged for them to pick us up at the hotel. We had two hours to walk to the Gedestrasse (SP?) in the new town and shop. Because it was May Day many stores were closed, but it was a gorgeous walk. To keep our energy up a small hamburger and shared coke from McDonelds kept the energy flowing.
We arrived back at the hotel, (small clean room, no AC, small third bed) and small clean bathroom, changed into nicer clothes and prepared to leave until late that night. THis was billed as 4 star hotel, but was 3 at best. Nothing wrong, typicial to nice European hotel, but nothing special, although breakfast was very, very good.
The Sound of Music tour showed up with a small van and whisked us off to the big bus at Mirabell. The guide was Peter, and the bus driver was Llazlo. They were fantastic, and were a great comedy duo at times, with Llazlo playing the straight guy. We tourists were Americans, Brits, and Japanese. The tour pointed out Salzburg City sights, and pointed out where scenes from the Movie/Musical were filmed. The tour then went out into the beautiful Salzgammurgut lake and mountain area. It stopped in the village of Mondsee where they filmed the wedding scene in the cathederal there. The humor of Peter and Llazlo made what would be a very cheesy tour into something light and fun.
After the tour, we walked to the Augustiner brewery in the old monastary. This is easitly walkable from Mirabell. I found us seats at a table next to a couple of guys who were Serbian immigrant workers in Salzburg for the last 30 years. They were interesting to try to talk to. the place was awesome with chestnut trees, indoor and outdoor food court with traditional foods and self service beer station. Awesome place.
Finally, with a little difficulty we found a cab who whisked us right up to the furnicular entrance of the might Hohensalzburg Fortress. The attendants didn't know what to make of my voucher, but could read enough English to understand that they were supposed to let us on the furnicular. After exiting the furnicular, it was approaching dusk, and we truly enjoyed the views of the city below. After many more stairs, we walked into and through this, the largest medeival fortress in Europe. What a neat feeling. The concert was conducted by a string quartet, accompanied by a pianist for some of the numbers. The musicians appeared to be college age, and were very good. I had enough background in band to appreciate their performance, My mom who has a master's in music) pu
At intermission and near the end of the concert we heard thunder an saw lightning. As we were leaving the fortress, my mom announced that it was pouring out and it sounded like it was. We and others near us, (we were the only English speakers) put on our rain jackets only to walk outside and see that the "rain" was a water fountain just turned on. We caught a cab back to the hotel for 7 or 8 Euros.
Wed May 2: DAY OFF
Great breakfast at the hotel. Not quite as good as Eden WOlff, but still excellent. Back on the train at 9:27 am, and at 11am we arrived in Zell am See Austria after riding through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery on the planet. We stood outside the train station waiting for the Grand Hotel to pick us up. Their website said they offered this service for free with arrival notification, so I emailed them, and they said they would pick us up. They didn't. I went to the ticket booth and asked the employee how to get to the Grand. He directed us to use the tunnel heading under the tracks towards the lack, and take a left on the walking/bike trail for 3 or 4 hundred meters. One of the highlights of the trip was hearing the exclamations from my wife and mother when we arrived on the other side of the tracks. It is hard to describe the 360 degree mountain scenery while standing on the shore of the Zeller See. The next highlight came a couple of hundred meters later on the trail as the Grand Hotel came into view. It really is spectacular. WHen I told my mom that it was our hotel for the next two nights, she couldn't beleive it.
Check-in was delayed for 3 or 4 hours as the rooms weren't ready yet. I had emailed massage reservations as a present for my mom and treat for my wife and I. There was confusion over the day and time of these that was mostly my fault. They locked up our bags for us, and we headed into Zell am See to shop and enjoy the afternoon. We had a great eis sunday at an outside table in town, served by a female prorietor that became huffy when she learned that we wanted to share it between 3 of us. We then checked out a specialty shop where I was dumb enough to buy a specialty bottle of local apple schnapps. It's a cool bottle, but I should have waited until we found the Billa Grocery store where we went nuts and bought all manner of edible and drinkable gifts for friends and family back home.
Back at the Grand, they brought us to our room. A bi-level family apartment with seperate bedroom, balcony, and view to die for. Spectacular. THe Grand experience always comes with gourmet half board, so before dinner I went to the Spa, which I'll describe soon. Dinner was a 5 course affair in an oppulant dining room, or on the terrace above the lake if you desire. I thought this was the best meal of the trip, but my wife liked the Eden Wolff food better. There is a 12 option fixed menu, but you can mix and match from the 12 set munus. The food was simply outstanding. (I had lamb as a main course).
Thurs May 3 SPA DAY
Connected to the Grand's main building is a secondary hotel building, also with rooms, dining facilities, and on the upper floors, the GRAND SPA. This is a relatively new facility, and offers the full Austrian Spa experience. You get naked in your hotel room, don the bathrobe and spa slippers, then schlep through the hotel lobby to the tunnel between the two buildings. You take the elevator up to the top floors and are in a different world. The Spa lobby has panoramic windows of the Lake and Mountains. The staff are friendly, and professional. Healthy snacks, and herbal teas are offered.
We had massages scheduled for 3, 4, and 5 pm today. After sleeping in and walking around town, we hit the spa at different times. Here's my experience. I accompanied my wife to the lobby where the massuese Tatiana took her to a room downstairs, and I headed through the door to the left to the "spa world". This amazing area has an open public area. Opening onto this open area is a Finish Sauna with panoramic full wall windows over the lake, an infra red room, steam room, turkish steam room, and herbal steam therapy room. There are also different showers such as a cold plunge shower with a huge wooden tub full of ice cold water with a pull rope. Another shower had a push button hot shower head next to one with cold water, and a 6 head lateral cold shower blast. Another shower had a tin water box with holes in it...plus regular showers.
Having read up on how to spa, I knew this is a full nudity area, and you wear your slippers in the common area, and with the tiled wet steam rooms, you hang your robe or towels on the hooks and go in naked. For the cedar lined sauna, you go in with towels but sit on them so you don't sweat on the cedar. Being the ugly, fat, prudish American I was a bit nervous. My first stop was the Finnish Sauna. Nobody was in, and having grown up in a region with many backyard Finish Saunas, I grabbed the water bucket and ladle and liberally doused the hot rocks. No sooner had I done this, did a big German guy come in, then a guy whom I figured out to be the Sauna Meister. (Leave it to the Germans to formalize and organize, the free and relaxed Finnish Sauna!). The Sauna Meister looked at the rocks, the water bucket, and the thermometer. He scowled, I apologized in German and left. Off to my next mistake. I went to the steam room, hung my towel on the hook, stepped out of my slippers and started to enter the steam room. In the steam room was a very attractive woman with towels. I quickly closed the door, put the towel back on, and re-entered, wearing my towel. As I tried not to watch or be embarassed, she took her towels off and proceeded to scrub herself with handfulls of what looked like sand and salt in a small jar. Trying not watch or be embarressed, I failed at both. WHen she was done, and re-wrapped, I wanted to ask her about the jar of "salt/sand". Trying to be polite, I asked in German if she understood English. Long silence...she thinks I'm a perv. She says she speaks a 'little bit". I ask about the jar, she says she doesn't speak enough English....silence. Who should then walk in? The Sauna Meister. THey chatter away, I'm sweating and embarassed, and he addresses me about the jar. He leaves, comes back in with one for me and scrubs my back! I then scrub myself, he leaves, then she leaves. I sweat, but feel great, but a bit embarassed. After a cool off shower I head back to the Finish Sauna. Of course the big German guy and the Sauna Meister are there. I go to sit down and the Sauna Meister says, no. Sit over by the other guy...I do. Sauna Meister goes into his doctor looking kit. Comes out with measuring cups, scented oils, etc. He precisely measures oils into the water, douses the rocks, swings a towel int he corners to circulate air, then in turn stands in front of each of us with a fan waving the hot air on us. Then he kicks us out and leave with us to cool down. Out in the hall, my wife is done with her sauna, and I am explaining the steam room, towels, salt/sand jar, etc. To my releif, while i'm doing this, the steam room hottie and the Sauna Meister walk by. I can tell I am no longer a perv, but just a big ugly American. As I went to my massage, my wife enjoyed the Sauna world, complete with back scrubbing Sauna Meister, and more naked sausages then she saw at breakfast.
The guy in the Sauna turned out to be a nice guy who sells garden tools to major players like Home Depot. He's been to Chicago, New Jersey, and Vegas for business conferences. We have tea together outside, and I'm working up to offering to send him a resume for a job when the Meususse says it's time for my massage. This experience was really similar to the same type of service from a licensed messuese in the States. She was professional, competent, and later during the massage, fun to talk to. She has an interesting background, is studying to be a physical therapist, and we had background things in common like the military. All in all, it was possibly the most interesting couple of hours of the vacation, I definitely left my comfort zone.
Dinner at the Grand that night was their celebrated Austrian Buffet. All courses were table served, except for a salad bar, and a main course buffet. The Buffet featured with signs and on the menu, regional specialty dishes from each of the states of Austria. It was excellent. That night, mom and wife went to bed early, apparantly exhaused by the wiener fest at the spa. I took a walk along the lake, offering to take a picture of a couple who were taking turns taking each other's pictures. He was a young Arab guy, and she was dressed in western clothes. Most of the young Arabs around the Grand look rich, and their wives are covered head to toe in traditional dress. Zell am See and Austria in general, and the Grand Hotel in particular have become popular destinations for Middle Eastern families, as well as playboys. In the off season, they were also present, along with the Germans vacationing there. In the summer, I understand that a large percentage of guests are from the Arab countries. The Grand is also popular with the Brits and Irish in the winter for ski vacations.
Fri May 4 YODEL
A leisurly start to the day, then back on the train to Innsbruck. An 8 eu00 ro taxi ride brought us almost to the door of our hotel, but was blocked by some construction. The Hotel Weisses Kruez is only a 3 star, but is utterly charming. It's 500 years old, has tons of character, and once accomodated an 13 year old Mozart. The hotelr is on the City Center Walk Strasse in front of the famous Golden Roof. The location architecture, and clean modern rooms, are fantastic. This is a budget hotel choice, but feels like a million buck experience. Staff was fantastic, as was breakfast.
As we prepared to go explore after checking in, the hotel staff informed us that our Tyrolean Dinner and Show were cancelled. I called EuropeanDestinations.com, and they took notes, and told me to request a refund by email when I get home. (Later, the Family Gandolf who runs this Dinner Show sent us a DVD and CD of their peformances.......I am so glad it was cancelled......I'm sure my mother would have loved it, but it was literally an Austrian version of the Lawrence Welk Show.....they have even performed on the Lawrence Welk Show......the average age of the audience looked to be about 85. As plan B, we walked 3 blocks north to the Nordkettebahn, boarded the furnicular, which headed out of town. We then switched to a series of cable cars, and within about 30 minutes, found ourselves standing in the snow on top of an Alp, looking down at Innsbruck, and the Inn valley far below. Very cool! We headed back down town, the ladies shopped for purses, and we had a nice dinner on the street in front of the Hap restaurant/gasthof in front of the Golden Roof. (The Golden Roof, like half of Neuschwanstein was covered in construction tarps....at least the Golden Roof's tarp had a picture of the Golden Roof).
Three time, I had pointed out the Swarovsky Innsbruck store just two doors down to our hotel. A half hour before they closed, my mother "discovered" it. An hour and a half later, the store employees were literally forcing my mom and wife out of the store. The next morning, I bit my nails as they were at the 8am opening, and I was stressing about us making our 9am train. (we made it)
Sat May 5 Ahhh Venice
THe train ride was beautiful through the Alps, then Dolomites, then vinyards of Italy. 5 hours later we arrived at Venice's Train Station. Having purchased a transfer, we looked for the sign with our name to no avail. I stationed my wife and mom in one place and searched the station. I saw a guy with a sign containing my first name....must be us, but wrong track. Alex was freindly and helpful, grabbed the heaviest bag and escorted us to the water taxis where he got into an argument with one of the boat owners. He looked at my voucher, said we were the wrong ones and dumped us. I left my wife and mom there,walked through the train station again, and scoped out how buy vaparetto (water bus) tickets as a plan B. Alex called my name, and ran up with Annuncio, who was our guide. The private boat ride was fantastic, and was the best way to enter Venice and was worth every dime. Annuncio walked up to our hotel, and made sure the hotel was good with our voucher before she left. Hotel Paganelli is a 3 star hotel that should be a 4. THeir breakfast was very good for Venice, and included all the made to order capuccino, expresso, etc. that you want. THe staff was mostly friendly, the decore in the rooms was true Venetion with wood beamed ceilings fabrick walls, chandelier light....very nice. We had a small courtyard balcony, but the hotel is just on the far side of St. Mark's Square right on the Grand Canal. It is directly accross the sidewalk from the San Zaccaria Vaparetto stop. Possibly the best located hotel in the city.
We used our Rick Steves book and toured the Doges Palace that afternoon and were absolutely blown away. We then went to a very nice restaurant recommended by the hotel and paid a fortune for 3 very small and very good pasta dishes and a carafe of white wine. We would eat street food, wine bar food, and go to "cheap places" after this. We started off with rain that afternoon, but that evening, the sky's cleared, and Venice magical that night. Indescribable.
Sun May 6 Sinking City I
The Mass at St. Mark's Basillica was at either 9:30am or 10:30am. We had trouble figuring out hot to get in. We stood in the tour waitining line for a while before I took a walk and figured out to enter in the back. We walked in right before Mass started, and the pews were full. A perfect section of bench along the back wall was open and this couldn't be better. IT was open, we could breathe, and it was slightly elevated so we could see everything. We could really admire the architechture, and art of the church. The Mass was in Italian, and the Music was in Latin. The music was a highlight, and it was a treat to receive communion in such a historic place.
After Mass, mom was tired and took a nap. My wife and I then went and one of the best times of the trip, when we simply headed into the interior and walked to get lost. In the end, after walking through endless twists, turns, alleys, and over bridges, we found what felt to be a remote little square. It actually had a couple of park benches and shade trees. It had the lowest priced wine bars that we had seen, as well as the lowest priced food. It was quite a hike from our hotel, but we figured out how to get back, and brought her there for dinner. We really enjoyed just exploring...you never know what cathederal is around the next corner, or a tiny square with kids kicking a soccer ball against the wall, or fresh laundry hanging out to dry. Walking along the Grand Canal on the way back, we saw a classical concert being advertised at ancient church just down from our hotel. My wife and I were not interested, but for 20 euros, my mom had one of the highlights of her trip. She bought the CD's, raved about the concert and had a great experience, while my wife and I had an evening together, listening to the Dueling Orchestras on St. Mark's Square, until the alte aqua drove them away.
Monday May 7, Sinking CIty II
Our last full day in Europe. First stop was use our Rick Steves book to tour the Correr Museum...fabulous, but nothing will beat the Doges Palace. From there, we bought a Vaparetto Pass for two days. We rode the fast boat to the train station, then got back on the slow boat (#1) heading back toward's St. Mark's. We got open seats in the front, and we used Rick Steve's Grand Canal tour. I read from the book and pointed out all the sights worth seeing....it was great. We got off at Academia, walked to Frari Church, and even took a 50 cent ride in a gondola like Traghetto accross the canal....fun stuff. We purchased some prints from an artist, who is actually a Venetion, and suggested we walk east from the train station into the Jewish Ghetto to get away from the tourist crowds. We attempted this, but found that the tourists packed the east/west thoroughfare in that part of the island, and there really wasn't much away from the main drag. Exhausted, we stopped at a grocery store, where I spotted a bottle of Bellini for 5 euros. Knowing tha Harry's Bar might sell one drink for 20 euros, the three us sat on the steps of a church, and drank that entire bottle, just passing it around. It was refreshing and tasted great.
Our day ended with mom once again tired in bed, and wife and I on one last walk towards Rialto, having a white wine here, a canoli there. The biggest attraction in Venice is Venice. When you consider that the place was the world's premier super power for twice as long as our country has existed to date, it's humbling. When you also consider, that it went from super, to has been tourist attraction instally, it's amazing. Since then, as building failed, they wouldn't tear them down, they would fix them as best they could. The result is the single best preserved entire city state in the world from a historical prespective. Despite the thousands of tourists and the constant gouging, just to eat or use the bathroom, the place is still magic. You can really feel it if you stay on the island after the day trippers leave. It really is worth a couple of night's stay.
Tues May 8 HOMEWARD BOUND
After our last breakfast, we simply walked straight out and to the left to the Vaparettlo stop, and boarded the Number 2 boat to the train station. We has a moment of panic when it didn't go up the Grand Canal, but went around the other way. THis turned out to be neat as we saw the "business side" of the port where all the work gets done. We arrived at the train station in 40 minutes and boarded the shuttle bus to the airport right before it left. We found a seat for mom while wife and I stood. After shopping the overpriced Venice airport and buying nothing but a geleato, we boarded our Lufthansa hop to Munich. At Munich, we walked forever, and ended up in long remote hallway and experienced 3 seperate passport checks enroute. Our Lufthansa flight back to Chicago left on time, and was a different speciies of aircraft and service then our United flight over. There was much more leg room between seat rows. The stewardesses, were pretty, charming, and always right there. THere were drinks before dinner, during dinner, and after dinner...alcoholic drinks. WHen they weren't offering drink service, they invited you to self serve. The food was good, there were hot, scented towels, and Lufthansa just put United to shame. THe flight path actually flew over southern Greenland, and we now have pictures of the mountains and glaciers of Greenland. It was a great trip back. The tough part was the 3.5 hour drive back to northeast Wisconsin from Chicago, and hitting the real world upon our return.
Summary: A trip of a lifetime. Munich, Salzburg, Zell am See, Innsbruck, Venice proved to be a great itinerary. Not much travel gets you maximum scenery and cultural diversity. The cities are clean, comfortable, and hospitable, and the geographic scenery is the best in Europe.
Tips: Book a complete trip through EuropeanDestinations.com . We saved $1000 per person, and received air, ground transport, transfers, insurance, many meals, tours, and activities, for the price of what I would have paide for air, hotels, and train alone.
Research your hotels for quality by using TripAdvisor, but put your money into hotel location. If traveling by train, reserve your hotels near the main city trian stations. You will save on transfer or taxi costs. We could have literally walked eveywhere we needed to go, and wouldn't have needed to hire a single taxi.
Talk to the locals, even if you embarass yourself. Our greatest memories are our interactions with locals and fellow travelers.
Please accept my apologies for such a long review, but our trip really made an impression on us, and it's fun to share. Input and questions are welcome.
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