In May, I took my first week-long vacation (true vacation – no cell reception, email, etc.) since I graduated from college. For the past 8 years, when I’ve taken a vacation I have always been available via email and phone. Unfortunately, even when we take time off from work – people don’t respect that anymore, so even my family vacations have been filled with texts/emails/phone calls that were “too important” to wait until I returned. This is an utterly frustrating side effect of the creation of smart phones.
So I took time off, and I went to Europe where I couldn’t be reached for a week!
After many hours on a plane, I met my friend Lisa at the Munich airport. Lisa is from Graz, Austria and currently lives in Munich. How do I know someone from Austria? She and I used to work together in Chicago. In fact, she invited me to visit her over my birthday weekend and I instantly bought the plane tickets! I have her to thank for all of the lovely memories I’m about to share with you.
Our first stop, after getting the rental car, was Neuschwanstein Castle. This castle is incredibly beautiful. And it’s no wonder why Walt Disney fashioned Sleeping Beauty’s Castle after this stunner. Unfortunately, we missed the last tour of the day – AND the bridge with the most famous view was closed – but we didn’t let it ruin our visit.
My legs and lungs may have been burning from the hike to the top, and I may not have really known where I was due to the jet-lag… but I was already in love with Bavaria and so ready to start our adventure!
We had plans to stay in Innsbruck, Austria after our visit to the castle, and continued onward. With the backdrop of the Alps on the Autobahn, Lisa and I were able to catch up about where our lives had taken us since we both left Chicago a year before.
On the border of Germany and Austria sits Germany’s highest peak – Zugspitze. We stopped here for a moment to stretch our legs and take in the amazing view. Lisa spoke of her dreams to hike this mountain – and has since done so!
We crossed the border in to Austria, and this is where my brain stopped working properly. Jet-lag got the best of me, and holding a conversation became very difficult. I may have even fallen asleep from time to time – officially making me the worst road trip partner! We made it Innsbruck, and got a little lost finding our hotel for the night… but once we made it there, it was the most adorable inn! Up in the hills of Igls, tucked near the bobsled track from the 1976 Olympics, sits the Hotel Römerhof. The owner greeted us, teaching me to say “Servus!” in this part of Austria (instead of Hallo) and promptly gave me a shot of some liqueur that was delicious. I’m still not sure what this was, other than tasty. We hit up the sauna, relaxed on the balcony and went to sleep early. Well, I went to sleep early…
After eating the most enormous spread of local cheeses, breads, fruits, and anything else you can dream of (all of which was included in our stay), we ventured down in to the city of Innsbruck.
Downtown Innsbruck is a beautiful mix of old and new, set in a valley in the Alps. Everywhere you look, you see snow-capped mountains! We walked through the city, enjoyed their famous strudel and of course – Swarovski.
After spending a few hours strolling through the beautiful streets of Innsbruck, it was time to move on and head towards Zurich, Switzerland. Lisa has friends that she has met all over the world, and we were staying with one of these friends in Zurich. The drive included a pit stop in Vaduz, Liechtenstein where I got my passport stamped and we appreciated the small downtown area, with the castle above.
As expected, it didn’t take long to see this small city and drive through this very small country! Not long after crossing into Switzerland, the scenery changed and we approached one of the most awe-inspiring lakes I’ve ever seen. Reminder: I’m from Minnesota (aka the Land of 10,000 Lakes) and I love water. I also love mountains – so Lake Walensee was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen.
I dipped my toes in, and though it felt amazing after the many hours of walking, my feet instantly froze. It was worth it.
We made it to Lisa’s friend’s house just outside of Zurich, just in time for dinner. We ate an insanely delicious meal called Raclette. You melt cheese and veggies (or meats or whatever you dream of) in this fun little grill, then you pour it over potatoes! Here’s a video to give you a better idea. Being from the Upper Midwest, this was basically my dream dinner – and now I want to know how I can have it in the USA. It’s a special kind of cheese that makes this dinner possible, so if any Americans reading this know where I can find it please let me know immediately. I imagine the grills and tools are available on Amazon, because what isn’t available on Amazon?
Zurich sits on a large lake, with the Alps in the background. Unfortunately, the day we were exploring we couldn’t see the mountains well. The city is filled with lavish stores, Lindt chocolate shops and everything else that was far too expensive for me to afford. Lisa and I were well-prepared, and brought our own snacks which we devoured while sitting on a wall overlooking the city. Some thieves attempted a jewelry store heist, which caused some confusion, road blocks and a lot of police presence. Without access to the internet, this was slightly unsettling so we left downtown for the arts district (the Viadukt shopping area).
We had previously read about an area called Frau Gerolds Garten, and went on a mission to find it! We enjoyed our lunch overlooking (the cafe tables were on top of stacked rail cars) the open-air shops and cafes, set against street art. In one alley we found one of many art installations, the famous umbrella canopy outside of Gerold Cuchi restaurant.
From Zurich we drove to the Black Forest, and stayed with an couple that Lisa met hiking in South America. The following picture perfectly captures the fun loving personality Kurt, as well as the amazing house and views we were able to call home for a night.
Kurt taught me that in Germany “a little walk” is what Americans would call a hike. And yes, I learned this the hard way. Twice. The first “little walk” we went on was to a tower – which we then climbed – provided for breathtaking (literally) views of the area (you can see Switzerland and France on clear days). And of course, we treated ourselves to a traditional Black Forest pilsner after the climb.
After a fun night of grilling, enjoying a thunderstorm rolling in from the deck and way too much wine – we woke up and went for another “little walk” on a rainy morning.
The cows wear HUGE cowbells, and it was a beautiful sound to hear on the hike. Here’s a video I took to give you an idea of the chorus of bells. After our hike, it was time to say our goodbyes and drive to Munich. Unfortunately, the light rain gave way to torrential downpours (this was the same few days that Paris flooded) and our plans to enjoy the drive – stopping to sight see along the way – was thrown out the door. We had to return the car and Lisa had to work in the morning. I do want to take time and go back to this region of Germany – mostly because I’ve never seen so many vineyards in one place before! And I’ve been to California wine country.
The trip so far had been filled with delicious chocolate, breads, wines and cheese. More cheese than I could have ever wished for! Now, it was time to embrace Munich’s traditions of pretzels and beer. And man, did I embrace it. I felt like I earned with all of the walking though, right?
We arrived in Munich during the late evening, and Lisa lives outside of downtown – so I didn’t know what to expect the next morning. I boarded the train for downtown, and was in awe when I came up from the subway to view Marienplatz for the first time. What a way to be welcomed to the city! Without planning it, I happened to time my trip perfectly to catch the Glockenspiel at Rathaus (video).
I spent my entire first day just walking around the city, without a true destination in mind – except for Hofbräuhaus and Cafe Frischhut. Walking through the famous Viktualienmarkt on my mission for the cafe was an added bonus. I ended up back at the market at least five more times before I left Munich. After enjoying the most delicious donut I’ve ever had – an apfel krapfen – I ventured towards the royal estate and Englischer Garten.
Munich was incredibly easy to navigate without GPS, or knowing the language. I mostly kept to myself, but when I did interact with others they were very friendly. The city is beautiful, with narrow passage ways, street cafes and gothic architecture. One really unique part of Munich is the Englischer Garten surfers (video). I spent a long time hanging out in this park, resting my feet and watching the surfers.
After some time taking in the scenery, it was time for beer and a pretzel. I made my way to Hofbräuhaus for a radler and brezel. I had no idea that this brewery, restaurant and landmark was so large! I was taken aback by the artwork, the live band (video) and the overall atmosphere of the place – not to mention the MASSIVE beers being served. I had quite the buzz after just one!
Day one was complete, and Lisa cooked a delicious dish called kaiserschmarrn. On a full belly of pretzels, beer, wine, cheese and kaiserschmarrn – I slept like a baby! I awoke to a threat of rain and decided my best bet was to find indoor activities to spend my last day of the trip. I navigated my way to Olympiapark, home of the 1972 Olympics and neighbor to BMW Welt and Headquarters.
Before the heavy rains hit, I made my way around Olympiapark. The architecture and colors screamed 1970’s. I enjoyed watching the ducks on the lake near the tower, eating – you guessed it – a pretzel.
After I’d had my fill of the park, and as the rain started to fall, I found my way to BMW Welt and Museum – where I spent the next four hours or so. I kid you not, the rest of my day was learning about the history of BMW and looking at the beautiful cars.
Hats off to the architects and designers who created these two buildings/experiences. I’m not even a huge “car person” and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my time at BMW. Of course the cars are beautiful, but they did a great job of creating a museum flow through history that was equally engaging and educational. Plus, they have coolest entrance to a museum I’ve ever seen (video). And of course, the pretzels were awesome too! When I got home, Lisa made me her favorite dish – and now one of my favorite dishes – kaesespaetzle. Think of a cross between mac & cheese and gnocchi, but not at all pasta and A LOT of delicious cheeses. It’s pretty much heaven.
I had such a wonderful time in Europe. I’m so grateful for Lisa for introducing me to our hosts (and new friends) in Switzerland and the Black Forest, and for being an extraordinary tour guide/host/translator. I cannot wait to travel abroad again, and I hope I can make a trip like this an annual tradition.
For more pictures from Europe, please check out my Flickr page.