Sunday, September 15, 2013

Eurotrip 2013

Jetlag sucks. It's 6:33 PDT on a Sunday morning, and I've been wide awake for 4 hours.  I might as well do some more blogging about my most recent European vacation, eh?

As with last year, and the year before that, I took a solid 2 weeks.  Anything less is unacceptable!

Grüß Gott, Bayern!

Let's get this party started!
My friend Ralph moved to the southern state of Bavaria for work, but with the logistics of the situation and the fact that he didn't have his own apartment yet, it didn't make sense for me to go there when I went to Germany in 2012.  This year, however, it worked out perfectly!  Up until this point, I had spent nearly all my time in the Rhineland area (where my family lived while my mom and later my brother were stationed there in the USAF), Dortmund in the north (where Ralph used to live), and Offenburg (Ralph's hometown).  Over the years I've come to understand that Bavaria is, ehm, unique.  It's actually the most highly visible culture that people from my part of the world (the US) have come to think of as quintessential German.  Think lederhosen, brass bands, beer, and pretzels.  Oktoberfest, beer maids spilling out of their dirndls.  You get the picture.  The truth is, Bavaria is to Germany as Texas is to the US.  It's a very distinct region that is not representative of the rest of the country!  Most Germans have never worn a pair of lederhosen or dirndl in their lives and to do so would be pretty out of place outside of Bavaria, just as you wouldn't normally wear ten gallon hats and cowboy boots in New York or Seattle.  And that's just an oversimplification of the culture--there's much more to it than clothes and food.

All that said, I was eager to visit this region and experience it firsthand.  Because I wanted to take advantage of the Labor Day holiday and celebrate my birthday in Europe, I missed Oktoberfest by a week.  That's ok, though, because in the city where my friend lives, they have a bi-annual festival that is essentially the exact same thing on a smaller, less-touristy scale.  It's called the Plärrer, and it's fantastic.  Yours truly went to an outlet shop and bought a complete dirndl outfit, pictured above.  And, true to form, there was plenty of beer, pretzels, singing, and dancing.  Lucky for me, the band played mostly pop and rock songs in English as well, so I could really get into it.

Augsburg, where he lives, is a lovely and very old city--third oldest in Europe after Neuss and Trier, in fact.  It's not too big, not too small, and an easy distance from Munich.

Wunderschönen München

Speaking of Munich, we totally went there, natürlich!  I don't know what more can be said of this city that hasn't been already.  It's gorgeous.  We listened to a Rick Steves audio tour and saw all kinds of interesting things, like a memorial that locals took over to dedicate to Michael Jackson after he died, a posh grocery store that has an entire basement full of Milka products, and a lovely biergarten/marketplace area where I tried to get one of the famous local weißwursts to go with my beer, but was given a bratwurst instead.  (I think maybe the lady at the stall didn't think I actually knew what I was asking for?  Oh well; the bratwurst was fine.)

Let's begin our tour in Marienplatz

This was across from a hotel where MJ usually stayed.

Bonus Side Trip!

If I'm going to travel 7,000+ miles across the globe, I'm going to squeeze in at least a day trip another big city.  With US holidays being so abysmally short compared to the rest of the Western world, one must simply work with the time one has!  Two years ago my bonus city was Amsterdam.  Last year it was London.  This year it was Salzburg in Austria, just a 3 hour train ride from Munich.  Actually, we spent a day here before we made it into Munich another day--my post is slightly out of order--and we listened to a Rick Steves tour guide here too.  At Mr. Steves' recommendation, we walked, ate, and drank our way through the old town and had a couple shots of schnapps at a distillery that was featured on his tv show.

Mozart spent his youth in Salzburg before ditching it for Vienna.


This local restaurant was clearly proud of their feature in the Rick Steves guide book!

The tour took us through the old town, but there was obviously a lot more to see if you had time to hike up until the hills...which are alive...with the sound of music...

I couldn't resist, sorry.

Anyway, Salzburg was beautiful, worth another visit, and really whets my appetite for Vienna, which is another city that has been on my To See list for years.

Bonjour, France

I've been to France a few times before, but not to anywhere particularly well-known to your average person.  When my trip to Europe this year was officially "on", Ralph suggested we go to Paris.

For me, Paris was like Rome in that I figured I would get around to it eventually, but it was actually behind a bunch of other cities that I wanted to see first.  However, since Ralph was actually able to take off the entire 2 weeks of my visit, it was a relatively easy trip via train, and he himself had never been there either, we decided to go.

Bienvenue à Disney-LONDE

Let me backtrack a bit first, though, because we actually spent the first two days out in the suburbs at the Disneyland Paris resort.  This is also where I get obnoxious and point out that I pulled off some sort of hat-trick.  See, when my parents visited me for Christmas last year, we went to Disneyland on Christmas Day.  About six months later, I went to Orlando for a wedding and squeezed in some time at Epcot and the Magic Kingdom.  This trip to Disneyland Paris marks my 3rd Disney Resort in 12 months.  That's pretty sweet; I don't ever foresee myself pulling that off again.

Disneyland, 12/15/12
Magic Kingdom, 06/10/13

Disneyland Paris, 09/09/13

So, we took the high speed train from Strasbourg to Paris, then the metro from Paris to Disneyland.  Ralph got a package deal for tickets and 2 nights in a local hotel, and off we went.  Unfortunately, it rained almost all day while we were at the parks, so we were petty cold, wet, and physically miserable even with umbrellas.  Every seasoned Disney park enthusiast knows, however, that rainy weather + off-peak season = little to no wait times.  We picked up one Fast Pass and didn't even end up using it.  We pretty much walked on to every ride, and the longest wait was about 20 minutes on the second time we rode Space Mountain before calling it a day.

Now, between all the family trips, my two Disney internships, and my stint as an annual pass-holder, I've gotten to know the Orlando and Anaheim parks quite well.  How does Disneyland Paris measure up?  Well, the Hollywood Studios Park is laughably small.  I think it's the second smallest of all existing parks, and the only two or three things worth drawing a crowd for are the Tower of Terror, the Moteurs...Action! show, and the Rockin' Rollercoaster.  Unless shows are totally your thing, and in that case, go nuts there.  I'm glad we had a park hopper because ToT and the stunt show are two of my favorite attractions, but if you only had to choose one, skip it.

Now, Parc Disney?  Stunning.  Even with the dreary day, I could really appreciate the observations I've heard over the years about DLP just being "prettier" than the parks in the US.  I don't know how to exactly describe it, but is.  I suppose there's even more attention paid to detail and landscaping and definitely more trees.  It's a lot bigger than Disneyland and not quite as big as the Magic Kingdom, and feels much more spacious and park-like.  I would love to come back again, especially with hardcore Disney vets like myself who can really geek out over every little thing and compare it to the originals.

The Magic of Paris

Like Rome, Paris took me by surprise.  In fact, even moreso.  Whereas Rome is a city that I would like to visit over and over again, I could actually see myself living in Paris.  At least for a while; I'm sure it takes more than 2 days to really figure that out, right?  Yes, my time in the city itself was quite brief--much like my day in London last year--but I got enough of an impression to know that I was comfortable there right away.

For the one night we spent in the city, I used Airbnb and booked us an amazing flat near the city's two main transportation hubs, Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est.  We then popped in our earbuds for a third time to take Rick Steves' historic Paris audio guided tour.

Cathédrale Notre Dame, as seen from the queue to get in.

The first day of sight seeing also happened to be my birthday!

A happy gal enjoying a visual nightcap for her 31st birthday

Popsing, are you as amazed as I am!?

Both days were pretty cold and overcast, though thankfully not rainy like the day at Disneyland.  If I had it to do over again, I would have packed more warm clothes and a light jacket.  Unfortunately, the combination of my only bringing two small-ish bags and assuming that the nice weather forecast for my first week in Germany would extend into the second week in France made for an under-prepared visit, clothes-wise.  Thank God for scarves and the umbrella that I did have sense enough to bring.  The next time I go, I already have my eye on neighborhoods I'd like to explore more, and I promise myself that I will spend at least 5 hours of every day just dining.  There was so much to see and so little time that the only real sit-down meal we ate was dinner on my birthday at an incredible fondue place in the Marais district , which was simply called Pain Vin Fromages (Bread Wine Cheese).

Alles Gute

The great part about having a friend in another country is that when you go visit them, you get the true local experience.  Both of his sisters' had their birthday the first week of my trip and the older of the two had a nice birthday dinner at a whiskey distillery where I got to try delicious and simple local food and an educational whiskey tasting.  I also got to see his parents and hometown pals again too.  (In fact, two of them surprised me by turning up in Bavaria to welcome me to Germany!  How sweet is that!?)  So, not only did I get to indulge in some touristy sight-seeing, but I spent an equal amount of time--perhaps even more--just hanging out with friends.  That's my way to spend a vacation.

Cold meats, cheese, and bread.  I could eat this every day.

Watch out for the hard stuff, Popsing.

I've got such a chronic case of the Wanderlust that I already started thinking of next year's vacation before I even got home to San Diego two days ago.  This may come as a shock to some, but I think that 2014 I will take a break from Europe.  Yep, you read that right.  This crazy Europhile has decided that it's time to broaden the horizons a bit more, and there's a very good chance that next year I will re-visit Asia and also make my way Down Under to Australia.  Fear not, my beloved Europe, I've already planted the seed with my Dad that we should go to the UK in 2015, and I will probably try to finagle a trip to Berlin in there as well.

Until then, back to reality and rebuilding my empty vacation hours!