HelloEurope! Part 3: Wherein I discover the true meaning of pine cones

HelloEuropePart3 Welcome back to the Great Europe Adventure of 2012! Before we get to see what Germany: Week 2 was like (hint: more adventures, less complaining), I’d just like to take a moment to reflect on reflections.

See, you distance yourself from something long enough, and when you finally come back into contact with it, you have a whole new perspective of it. It’s like you get to experience that thing all over again, only as a different person. You learn even more about yourself back then than you did at the time. You surprise yourself with the little random details you remember, and get frustrated with the ones you’ve forgotten. You look at a photo and realize you see so much more than what the camera captured. Reminiscing can be pretty rewarding in that way.

Okay, weird, abstract thinking time over. Time to get back to the main program…

So we finished the weekend with a trip to Heidelberg, another historic town with a castle. This one wasn’t in the best condition, and didn’t come with a knowledgeable tour guide. But it was nice to walk around the ruins and soak in the view.

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At least I have a better excuse for not knowing anything about the place.

I guess with that picture, it would be a good time to bring up the fact that approximately half of the country was under construction when we were there. Every place we went, there was either a road torn up or scaffolding covering up part of a building. We never saw anyone work on anything; just places blocked off for future maintenance that seemingly never came. To this day, whenever my brother and I see multiple construction sites in an area, we jokingly complain, “What is this, Germany?”

Heidelberg itself was a nice looking town. The Neckar River runs through the middle of it, and the architecture there is just incredible. So many different styles all eclectically mushed together, but never tacky or obnoxious. Many of the other towns and cities we’d visit that week were similar. There’s just no comparison in America.

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Though the States are a bit better with the whole don’t-drive-where-people-are-walking thing.

Another pretty amazing thing we saw there was the second largest wine barrel in the world.

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So large, it won’t even fit in the shot.

Never mind where the first largest is… Just be jealous that I’ve seen, touched, and stood on top of the world’s second largest wine barrel and you haven’t.

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Just for some perspective… And yes, there is actual wine in there.

Speaking of beverages, the water situation in Germany was quite bizarre. In the States, water at restaurants is free and the waiter often pours you a glass while you’re scanning the menu. In Germany, we had to ask for it. And that day at lunch, we discovered you also had to be specific with what type you wanted, otherwise the default was sparkling. Let me just tell you, there is nothing less refreshing after a day of walking among castle ruins and giant wine barrels than carbonated water.

And thus ended our weekend, but the adventures kept on coming. The next day, Alex and I went to the Wilhelma Zoo. Looking back, I have mixed feelings about this. I’m undecided what to think about zoos in general, but this particular instance of going to one in another country seems questionable. Maybe if it had some kind of rare animal species or breed that you couldn’t find anywhere else, or maybe if it was renowned for some kind of unique exhibit or design, then it would’ve made sense to go. But going just because you don’t know what else to do seems like it might warrant another Pro Travel Tip warning.

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Brought to you by my beautifully intimidating friend the Snow Leopard.

However, we were able to pick up on some subtle cultural nuances that would’ve otherwise gone undetected. For example, we discovered that outside of California, Sequoia trees are a pretty big deal.

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This is actually my first and only time seeing a Sequoia in person. Some Cali girl I am, right?

As are farm animals…

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California cows are too busy leading the country in dairy production to be put on display.

And we learned that the Justin “Beaver” insult is actually rooted in German zoology…

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Obviously the most useful fact we could’ve gleaned from this trip.

Getting to and from the Zoo was a learning experience, as well. Up until then we had only been using the “S-Bahn” trains. The other type was the “U-Bahn,” and I don’t know the difference but for some reason we wanted to just stick with the one Uncle Eric had shown us how to use. Well, there was no direct S-Bahn to the Zoo, so we either had to transfer to a U-Bahn line or walk. We decided to walk. It ended up being a tragically long trek that involved us roaming through sketchy streets and getting lost in sudden parks. So while I may be hesitant to completely discourage visiting a zoo in another country (this one was pretty impressive, I must admit), I will go ahead and pose this. Pro Travel Tip #3: Know what transportation method is best for a certain situation. You might not be familiar using a train, for example, but compared to your terrible map reading skills it would still be more convenient than navigating on foot. A certain method could also be safer over another, or cheaper, or more rewarding, or more culturally acceptable. It’s just something you have to think about.

Okay, so moving on to the next day, where Uncle Eric arranged for us to stay at a nearby hostel. Apparently we would be staying in one when we visited Münich later, so he wanted us to try one out in a city we were already familiar with. Hostels, if you don’t know, are like dorms that you can rent while travelling. They’re typically cheaper than hotels, too, so it’s preferred among the thrifty, backpacking type of travellers.

We didn’t get any pictures of our Stuttgart hostel, so you’ll have to use your imaginations on this one. I was put in a four-bunk room with a small bathroom. One other girl was in the room with me that night. She only spoke German, and I only spoke English, so communication ended once that was established. Alex I think had two or three other roommates in his room across the hall. Overall it wasn’t too bad; I just wish someone had told me it was a bring-your-own-soap-and-towels kind of place.

After we had checked in early that afternoon, we went off to another car museum for the day. The Porsche museum was a little smaller than Mercedes since the company hasn’t been around as long, but it was still fun.

Not exactly a race car, but I'll take it.

Not exactly a race car, but I’ll take it.

We had breakfast the next day at the hostel. Breakfasts for us at Uncle Eric’s apartment consisted mainly of cereal, fruit, and tea. But at the hostel, we were treated to the full German spread. Cold cuts, bread rolls, more cold cuts, some cereal and fruit options, and… cold cuts. Being a pescatarian, Alex found some difficulties creating a substantial meal. And being a person that doesn’t enjoy meat in the morning, I was a little disappointed as well. I don’t remember what we did for the rest of the day after we checked out. Probably something really exciting like watching TV.

Then it was off to Münich. We couldn’t check in to the hostel until later that afternoon, so we decided to wait at yet another car museum.

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Guess which one.

The BMW museum was split into two buildings. The “Welt” had a lot of newer models on display that you could get in, including a motorcycle section.

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I’m telling you, I have a future as a racer.

The main museum was pretty much like the other museums we’d gone too. Lots of cars. I really enjoyed this one, but I still think my favorite is the Mercedes.

Though this car makes BMW a close second.

Though this car makes BMW a close second.

A few hours later and we could finally check in to the hostel. At this particular one, we were placed in a co-ed room that took up the entire top floor and must’ve held at least fifty beds. We didn’t interact with anyone, and because that sounds like such a lame thing to say, I have to make Pro Travel Tip #4: Talk to people. If you’re fortunate enough to be in a place where multiple cultures/ethnicities/countries are represented, don’t pass up the opportunity to get to know those people. Ask questions. Share your observations. Invite friendly discussions. Make new friends. And be grateful you’re not the antisocial loser in the corner.

The next day we went to the famous parts of Münich, the Rathaus-Glockenspiel and the Hofbräuhaus. The Glockenspiel is this old thing that plays music at certain hours and has little figurines that play out stories. The whole town square in front of the building was packed with people when it started playing.

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Honestly the most boring, overrated tourist attraction ever.

Finding the Hofbräuhaus proved to be our biggest fail yet. We weren’t interested in drinking there, we just wanted to see it and maybe buy a commemorative stein to take home. But the one little sign we found had an arrow pointing in a very vague direction, and long story short, we spent a good hour walking in a completely different part of town before giving up and going back to the city center. Uncle Eric eventually met us there, and then proceeded to drive us no more than a block away to the Hofbräuhaus.

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Okay, I give up on navigating.

After touring the beer hall, we than began our three-day road trip weekend. Now, I don’t want to rush through anything, but come on. I’ve been dragging this blog out for like a million years, and we’re not even halfway through the whole vacation, and my tangents are making babies cry, so let’s just skip all the fluff in between and look at the highlights, okay?

That said, a quick bit of background info is needed first. Our road trip was planned along what’s known as the Romantische Straße, or the Romantic Road. It’s supposed to connect all the pretty, historical sites in southern Germany for tourists like us. We didn’t feel like going all the way to the end, in Füssen, so we just started at the next stop, Schwangau.

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Oh joy, more construction.

You probably don’t recognize that castle because of the freaking construction. So here’s the view from the back.

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This involved a hella ton of climbing to see, so you’d better appreciate it.

Look familiar now? Neuschwanstein is a pretty well known castle, and it was built solely for looks and not function. The word is Disney based Sleeping Beauty’s castle on it. Because no one ever lived in it, we skipped touring that one in favor of Hohenschwangau, a functioning castle on the adjacent hill.

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Can no one make a castle that’s stylish AND comfortable?

That night we ended up in Augsburg, a city with a lot of pine cone imagery everywhere. Consulting my Germany guidebook for the first time, I learned that the pine cone symbolizes fertility. And because that’s hilarious, we went into a gift shop and got an assortment of souvenirs with pine cones on them.

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And took pictures of every pine cone we could find because we’re mature like that.

Uncle Eric stayed at a hotel while Alex and I went to another hostel. Our rooming situation here was more like the one in Stuttgart. Because I had decided against taking a shower in the co-ed Münich hostel, I took one here. To my conservative horror, the shower doors were completely see-through. See through, people. I had to shower next to an elderly lady with only a slightly fogged up screen for protection. Oh Germany….

The next day we drove up to Dinkelsbühl, a quaint and charming little village. And yes, you may giggle at the name; it is pretty funny.

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So are these, er, detailed signs we found…

We walked around the whole outside village wall, toured some dungeons, and climbed a church tower.

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Dinkelsbühl is just so stinkin’ cute.

After Dinkelsbühl came the last stop on the not-very-romantic tour, Würzburg. We checked into another hostel for the night, this one built inside an old stone building right beneath a castle. Alex and I shared a small room just between us. The showers (and toilets as well) here only had a flimsy curtain for privacy, in case you were wondering.

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Germany: the land of ruining picturesque moments with dumb cranes and scaffolding.

We toured the Würzburg Residence the next day. You might recognize it from the Three Musketeers movie with Orlando Bloom a few years ago.

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Or you might not because you’re not a cool movie geek like I am.

This is also where you can find the world’s largest ceiling fresco. The Sistine Chapel actually isn’t the largest, because it was done in sections and pieced together. You’ll see what I mean when we get to the Rome post (if we get there…).

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I don’t have a picture of the ceiling, but I do have this one. Germany Cat Count: 2.

We took a quick detour to Nürnberg before heading back to Stuttgart. I don’t remember much about this part, only that I desperately needed to pee and the bathroom (called Water Closets by the locals) I finally found had a little gate that required you to put in coins before entering. A similar situation would later happen in London, and I just can’t for the life of me figure it out. I feel like I can accept a lot of cultural differences, but paying to pee? Are you serious, Europe?!

And now, at long last, the Germany stories come to a close. It was quite the first-time-out-of-the-country experience, but you haven’t seen anything yet. Once Alex and I reached London and met up with the rest of our family, things went from weird and adventurous to wild and crazy.

Pictured: two kids who have no clue what's coming...

Pictured: two kids who have no clue what’s coming…

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