Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Germany and England: Munich and London

By Melissa at 4:23 AM
"Huh?" you may be thinking, in what universe do Germany and England go together? Well I'm very behind in writing the blog posts so I'm going to combine two destinations. We also slowed our pace a little and had relatively short visits so, Germany and England together it is!

Germany: June 5 - June 10
We added Germany to our itinerary at the last minute and hadn't done much research, but it was well worth the detour. Our friend Stefanie, who had been living in San Francisco decided to move back to Germany around the same time we departed on our trip and we were excited that we were going to get to see her so soon after we had left. We took a train from Luzern, Switzerland to Munich and the next day took a short ride on a commuter train south to Feldafing, a cute town located on Lake Starnberg where Stefanie lives. Even though this was our first trip to Germany, we decided to limit our travel to Bavaria (a province in Southern Germany) since this is where Stefanie lives and our current itinerary doesn't allow for many more additions without overstaying our visa. We can only stay in Europe (or rather the Schengen Area countries) for a total of 90 days in a 180-day period without getting a special visa for Brian, which is just not practical for our purposes.

Bavaria was even more beautiful than I imagined. We were able to take a nice stroll along Lake Starnberg as well as a driving tour of the different towns around the lake. We were also completely spoiled by both Stefanie and her parents who prepared delicious typical Bavarian breakfast (white sausage, pretzels, mustard, and wheat beer) and dinners for us while we were there.

Typical Bavarian breakfast
From Munich, Germany

From left to right: Beer, Stefanie, Pretzel
From Munich, Germany

The highlight of the trip was our hike on Mount Tegelberg. We took a cable car to the top of the mountain and then embarked on a four-hour hike along the top of the mountain ridge and down into the valley where we got amazing views of Castle Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for several Disney castles. This castle as well as many other buildings in Bavaria were the brain children of the so called Mad King Ludwig. At the time he was viewed as something of a lunatic for spending so much state money building opulent castles and palaces, but of course today these buildings are major tourist destinations, drawing millions of visitors to Bavaria.

Schloss Neuschwanstein from the gondola
From Munich, Germany

The Bavarian Alps from the top of the mountain
From Munich, Germany

Schloss Neuschwanstein
From Munich, Germany

From the valley
From Munich, Germany

After our hike, we visited the Wieskirche (White church), the most significant Baroque church in Bavaria as well as a major pilgrimage site since 1738. While it has all the main elements of Baroque style, it's quite different from the Italian Baroque churches we've seen in that many of the walls are painted white as a backdrop to the richly ornamented column capitals and frescos. The effect is quite stunning and serene.

The organ in Wieskirch
From Munich, Germany

We also had a fabulous day in downtown Munich with Peter, a friend of my sister's who also lives near Munich. A veritable encyclopedia, Peter showed us all the big sites and lesser known finds in Munich. Peter is also an economist, so we were able to have lively conversations to boot (Brian and I both studied economics in college; he as a minor, me as a major).

Fountain at Karlplatz
From Munich, Germany

Rathaus
From Munich, Germany

Lion statues at the end of the Odeonsplatz
From Munich, Germany


London: June 10 - June 16
After our lovely stay in Bavaria we hopped on a short, one and a half hour flight from Munich to London. It was a quick detour from our eastward travel to visit Saurabh, one of Brian's college roommates who now lives there.

We slowed our pace even more when we reached London as both Brian and I started to feel pretty tired. One morning we woke up both feeling like we'd been hit by a truck. Time to take it easy for a few days! But London was a good place to take it easy as we'd been there before and only had a few items left on our agenda. Our friend took us around the city for the first two days we were there, highlights include the Burrow Market and a trip we took to Greenwich, an adorable town just a short train ride from London, and of course the location of Greenwich or Prime Meridian.  After a fun-filled weekend of touring around the city with our friend Saurabh, he had to go back to work and we were on our own during the day to explore the city.

We had fun finding cheap eats around the city. Luckily that was not too hard since our friend lives in an area of East London that is home to a large Bangladeshi community, as well as other immigrants, and plenty of cheap food. We also took a few trips to a nearby Waitrose, my new favorite supermarket. Think Trader Joe's prices with Whole Foods selection. Too bad they are only the UK! We also visited a few of London's many museums, most of which are free. There were a few we hadn't gotten to see last time like the British Library. It is home to the Magna Carta, Gutenberg Bible, original printings of Shakespeares plays and a variety of pages where the song lyrics for several Beatles songs were originally composed. Next up, Vienna!

Couple kissing on Millenium Bridge
From London, England

The Chapel and the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich
From London, England

In the colonnade at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich
From London, England

Big Ben
From London, England

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Switzerland: Zurich and Luzern

By Melissa at 2:11 PM
After a delightful taste of the Mediterranean, we hopped on a train from Cinque Terre to Zurich. Switzerland was not on our original list of destinations, mainly because it is shockingly expensive, but shortly after we left for our trip, we learned that our friends Daphne and Lee were moving from the Bay Area to Zurich. So with a chance to hang out with friends and a free place to stay for a few days, how could we turn down a trip to one of the most picturesque countries in Europe? Not to mention the amazing chocolate and cheese.

Zurich is more well known as a banking capital than as a tourist destination, but the city holds plenty of charm and we didn't have a hard time filling our days just wandering around it. With a population of 380,000 in the central city and under 2 million on the metro area it is surprisingly the largest city in Switzerland. But everything about Switzerland is really about quality and not quantity, so it's not surprising that Zurich manages to be interesting without a large population.

From our friend's apartment we strolled along the Limmat River, towards the downtown and watched in awe as we saw people swimming in the river! Everything in Zurich is incredibly clean, including the rivers and lakes, even in it's largest city. During the summer, the areas alongside the river become a veritable beach, complete with sand volleyball courts, young people drinking cheap beer, barbecuing and tanning. When we arrived in the downtown, or old town, we followed a walking tour from one of our guidebooks that took us down the famous Bahnhofstrasse. The street is lined with high-end shops and private banks. Supposedly there is an amazing quantity of gold stored in the bank vaults underneath the street.

We made sure to stop at the Sprungli Cafe on the Bahnhofstrasse, famous for their hot chocolate and other delicious desserts. Of course, whenever dining out in Switzerland some of the warm fuzziness and satisfaction you've just gotten from your yummy meal goes out the window when the tab comes. For example our tab for two cups of hot chocolate was $19 USD. Yeah, I wasn't kidding when I said shockingly expensive. It doesn't really matter what you buy, the sticker just shock never ends. Brian and I split a meal at a low-priced Indian restaurant well outside of the center of the city and our tab for the meal; one main dish, two included sides, one samosa and two bottled waters; came to $44 USD. And our friends told us that a cup of Starbucks coffee costs $10 USD. How do people live, you ask? Well the unofficial minimum wage is around $15 USD per hour, but many unions guarantee their workers wages of closer to $25 or $30 per hour, which explains why prices are so high. But the country does have one of the highest standards of living anywhere in the world, very little visible poverty and a low crime rate, so it seems to be working for them.

Hot chocolate at Sprungli
From Zurich, Switzerland

After our "gold-plated" hot chocolate break, we continued on our walking tour in the old town. We stopped at the Fraumunster, a 13th-century church built on lands that originally housed a Benedictine monastery complex founded in 853. The church itself is quite plain, but has five, large and stunning stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall, installed in the 1970s. We also toured the Grossmunster, another Romanesque church with impressive stained-glass windows and large, brass doors with scenes from the bible.

View across the river from the Lindenhof
From Zurich, Switzerland

Fraunmuster from across the bridge
From Zurich, Switzerland

The last stop on our tour was not in our guidebook nor did we even have an address for it, but nevertheless, we had to find it. When Brian and I first visited Zurich 5 years ago, we stumbled upon an incredibly delicious store called Gummi-Bären-Land. Yes, an entire store dedicated to Gummy Bears; normal, real fruit juice, mini, giant, vegetarian, worm-shaped, special flavors, you name it. Brian was in heaven, so needless to say, we were on a mission to find the store again on this trip. And after about 20 minutes of wandering around the area of town where we thought the store was, we were actually successful in finding it! And after lingering long enough to get a number of delicious samples from the cashier who generously and frequently distributes them from a large bookshelf filled with jars and jars of gummys, we went home with a half-kilo bag of mini-gummy bears, classic flavor. Miraculously they lasted almost two weeks.

Gummy Bear Land
From Zurich, Switzerland

After a few days in Zurich we headed to Luzern, a 45-minute train ride from Zurich, located at the foothills of the Alps. There is really only one word to describe Luzern and the surrounding towns and that is cute, no two words, unbelievably cute. It's everything you imagined a town or village built in the Swiss Alps should look like.

Daphne and Lee joined us for the day and we had a lot of fun biking around Lake Luzern and exploring the old town streets, the Chapel Bridge and eating delicious Swiss chocolate. If you ever visit a city where they sell Lauderach chocolate, run to the nearest shop.

Hofkirche from across the lake
From Luzern, Switzerland

Kapellbrucke (Chapel bridge)
From Luzern, Switzerland

A plaza in old town Luzern
From Luzern, Switzerland

The next day Brian and I took a short boat ride on Lake Lucern to the nearby town of Weggis and then hiked for a few hours over the foothills of Mt. Rigi to another cute town called Greppen before returning to Luzern by bus and train. The hills are really magnificent, dotted with cute wood-frame homes with brightly colored flower boxes in every window, bell-wearing cows and goats grazing in the hills and breathtaking views of Lake Luzern.

A lone sail boat in Lake Luzern
From Luzern, Switzerland

View back toward Weggis and the Alps in the background
From Luzern, Switzerland

Another view back toward Weggis and the Alps in the background
From Luzern, Switzerland

Greppen
From Luzern, Switzerland

The following day, not a nice weather day, we stayed close to the apartment and spent more time exploring the old town. We visited the Lion Monument, built to commemorate the deaths of Swiss mercenaries hired to protect the king during the 1792 revolution and marveled at the busloads of Indian tourists who flock to Switzerland to visit the mountain towns where their favorite Bollywood films were shot. Later, we popped into the English pub in the ground floor of our apartment building to say goodbye to the owner of the flat we rented as he also owns the pub. He gave us quite a nice send off by inviting us into the pub for free drinks. He also introduced us to a nice American couple originally from Texas who are currently living in Lausanne while the husband pursues his PhD in biological sciences.

The Lowendenkmal statue
From Luzern, Switzerland

In our next post we'll write about the continuation of the "friends and family" portion of the trip, when we went to Bavaria to visit our friend who left San Francisco around the same time we did to move back to Germany. I foresee a plethora of pork products in our future and I like it!

Melissa and Brian in front of the Kapellbrucke
From Luzern, Switzerland

Friday, June 3, 2011

Italy: Rome, Florence, and Cinque Terre

By Melissa at 12:23 PM
We'll be back in Italy for an extended stay later on in the summer to take a break from traveling, but for now we just planned a week in Italy to meet up with some friends. Since this was my fourth and Brian's third visit to Italy, it was a nice change to arrive in a foreign country, but feel very comfortable in our environment.

We flew into Rome early in the morning and only stayed for one night, leaving early the next morning for Florence to meet up with some friends from San Francisco who were vacationing in Italy. We didn't manage to get to revisit any major sights this time, but we did walk around the city a bit, fill a craving for Ethiopian food I had been having since finishing the book Cutting for Stone and have a lovely dinner with my cousin Evelyne who lives in Rome.

Our delicious Ethiopian meal in Rome
From Rome and Florence, Italy

Next was Florence to meet up with Brandon, Ali, and Ali's father Roger. After a very hot, four-hour train ride on the slow train we arrived in Florence, just in time for the temperatures which had been in the 70s and 80s the previous week to reach 90 degrees. But that's Italy in the summer, and besides, Brian needs to get a protective tan before we start our tour of countries bordering the Adriatic. Florence, jam-packed with art, tourists and supposedly the cast of The Jersey Shore--though we thankfully did not see them, had of course changed since the last time we had visited the city eleven years ago. We stayed in the same part of the city as we had before, but we were sad to see that many of the cute, local restaurants in that area had been replaced by fixed-price tourist restaurants. But it's Florence so I can hardly complain.

We spent two days in Florence, touring the main sights; the Duomo, Santa Maria Novella, the Ufizzi, the Galleria Accademia and the Ponte Vecchio. We were also extremely lucky to stumble upon the Florence Gelato Festival! Yummm. For 7 euro we got five servings of gelato from the participating shops that had set up in booths in front of the Palazzo Pitti. They even had a booth that served gelato for dogs!

Palazzo Vecchio
From Rome and Florence, Italy

The duomo
From Rome and Florence, Italy

The top of the Duomo
From Rome and Florence, Italy

Flowers in front of the Arno river
From Rome and Florence, Italy

After two sweltering days in Florence we boarded a train to cooler temperatures in the Cinque Terre, a grouping of five, mostly car-free towns on the Ligurian coast. There we met up with more friends (Danny, Julie, and their daughter Elle) from San Francisco for an international reunion. We hiked the challenging Sentiero Azzurro (Azure Trail) that connects all five towns and were rewarded for our effort by breathtaking scenery of the idyllic towns and the crystal clear, blue water.

The beach in Monterosso al Mare
From Cinque Terre, Italy

Brian, Melissa, Ali, and Brandon on the trail
From Cinque Terre, Italy

Vernazza from the south
From Cinque Terre, Italy

Along the coast looking south
From Cinque Terre, Italy

Julie, Danny, and Elle in Riomaggiore
From Cinque Terre, Italy

We capped off the weekend by cooking a meal with fresh ingredients we bought at local markets in different towns. It's always a treat to be able to eat really fresh, local produce when we're traveling, but Italy has such delicious food, it's hard not to rave about it. I can't decide what part of the meal was my favorite. I can still taste the cantaloupe wrapped in proscuitto, which is tied for first with the homemade pesto and gnocchi we picked up from a market run by an elderly italian woman and her son. At the end of the two days all three couples went their separate ways.

Leaving the world of Romance languages, we're off to spend the next 11 days in German-speaking areas (Zurich, Luzern and Munich) which is going to be challenging for Brian and I as neither of us speak more than a word or two of German. But immersion is the best way to learn a language so we're going to learn some quickly, Ich hoffe.

Brian and Melissa in Monterosso al Mare
From Cinque Terre, Italy