I won’t be taking an overnight bus from London again. This is not Turkey , where you get a wide seat, trolley service tea and cakes and a little personal TV. This is not Chile. This is not anywhere that knows how to do civilised buses. Oh no; this is England. Our bus was a bog standard coach, actually worse than the modern National Express models but, credit where it is due, better than a 1980s double decker. Wafts of piss emanated from the toilet every time we went around a corner. Immediately commenced the on-board fast.
That line about the bus being fully booked? Bull. Every person on the coach had two seats to themselves. Just as well cos I’m not sure I could have survived otherwise, and I arrived an hour and a half later than scheduled covered in bruises as it was. Was going to try and make the promised connection to Tuscany on arrival in Munich but was too destroyed by the journey to contemplate anything but beer, bratwurst and sleep. Plus it was difficult and expensive. Stupid school summer holidays. I don’t know if you can read anything into the clientele, but before the Chunnel, it was mostly immigrants. After France, young students. There must be some perceptional sociology in there somewhere.
So, Munchen. Named after the Benedictine monks who lived here back in the day, not munchkins, as the internet reliably informs me. Kicked off day two with a walking tour of the city. Not something I’m usually inclined to do since I seldom think they’re worth the money. But this one was free so… Our vivacious American guide started off at the central Marienplatz, showing us how the old town hall is actually newer than the new town hall cos the old one was bombed by the RAF in the war. The locals in Munich had a hunch that this would happen so they actively photographed all the architectural details of every building to make rebuilding easier. Seems to have worked a treat since you wouldn’t necessarily know that they weren’t the originals. Certainly a better job than they did with the concrete carbuncle that was Broadmead and is Coventry.
Marienplatz – or specifically the statue of Mary in the middle of it – was erected by the townfolk after she supposedly saved their bacon during the invasion by the Swedes during the Thirty Years’ War (which boiled down to Catholics vs Protestants, as always). Yeah, Mary and a sizeable chunk of cash n beer. The glockenspiel is located here that has been voted the second most overrated attraction in Europe, according to my capable guides.
I later learnt that the fountain on the Eastern side of the square (Fischbrunnen) used to be where the fishmongers kept their fish when the market was located here…but it was also where the Butcher’s Leap initiation ceremony took place. Apprentice butchers were dressed in nothing but a sheepskin with a calf’s penis around their neck, spun around three times and thrown into the fountain in order to be allowed to become a fully fledged butcher. All the rage, right up until 1900.
Onwards around the city, and a few subtle memorials to the Holocaust were pointed out. This, after all, was the heartland of Hitler’s uprising, where kristallnacht took place and the headquarters stood, but also the heartland of passive resistance. When Hitler and Goebbels came to power, they celebrated the Beer Hall Putsch (actually a chronic failure which saw Hitler high-tail it in a stolen ambulance) as the beginning of the mighty Third Reich and put up a plaque declaring it a success and those who died martyrs. Even though some were policemen and one was a waiter caught in the cross-fire. Residents were required to do the silly salute as they walked past this plaque so many simply started cutting around the block early in defiance, a diversion that became known as Dodger’s Alley. Unfortunately the Nazis caught on and started stopping people on the dodge and taking them away, never to be seen again. Sickheads.
There are lots of stories like this, but another that stands out is that of a small group of students who worked for a few years producing and distributing leaflets telling the version of events that Goebbels hadn’t got his hands on. They were caught and guillotined face-up for their trouble, but not before the Allies got hold of the leaflets, mass-produced them and air-dropped them over Germany. In your face, Adolf.
Munich isn’t just famous for the Nazis. It’s also famous for beer. The Hofbrauhaus has been offering locals the chance to get drunk for so long that they have a special horse-step outside so they could flop drunks over their steed and send them home. There was a lady here carrying 11 mas (the biggest stein thing) to the table in one and I doffed my invisible cap at her. It is the birthplace of Pope Benny’s – God’s Rottweiler – favourite beer, Edelstoff, and is where the man himself hails from. You might have heard of Oktoberfest, a legacy from the marriage festival of King Ludwig and Therese. That happens here in Munich every year and sees the town’s population swell from just over 1m to about 6.5million. All wearing lederhosen. In fact, many of the people in these parts wear lederhosen and dirndls (the wench outfit) just to nip out for a pint and a bite to eat. I thought they were being ironic, or in the tourist industry, but nope. These people just love their leders.
Biked out to the summer palace, Nymphenburg, one day. Beautiful place to soak up some rays and eat some apples.
Pedalled off from here to The English Gardens cos it looked from the map to have a good amount of ground to explore. Bought an icecream by the waterfall and took it to a patch of grass to chill and enjoy it. Did *not* expect to look up and see some wedding tackle swinging loose. Only in Germany. Enough to put a donkey off his oats, as Grandma said. Why is it that only the old and ugly like to wear their birthday suits in public? Why is it that they they feel the need to oil themselves slowly and intimately in the middle of the park?
One day, after a night sampling the various beer halls and gardens and under an appropriate cloud of grey, I decided to take myself off to the Dachau Concentration Camp. One curiosity of Munich’s public transport system is the partner ticket. The journey out to Dachau is a case in point. A single for one person would cost around €7.50 if you travel alone. However, if you are with friends, you can buy a partner ticket, about €12.50, on which up to five people can travel. What? Isn’t a ‘group’ the whole point of public transport? Why fiddle around with further complicated sub-groups? Why penalise Billy-no-mates? It sees the curious habit of people – locals and foreigners alike – loitering by ticket offices waiting to find some pals to share a partner ticket. One way of making friends.
Dachau was the first of Hitler’s camps, lasted the full 12 years of the Third Reich and also served as the training/indoctrination ground for SS guards. Pretty nasty place, but tastefully transformed into an interesting and honest museum. It contains so much information that I’m sure each visitor must get a slightly different impression from it, to the curator’s credit. Personal histories, accounts and stories of courageous resistance in every medium help to show how awful these places were. Although it sees up to one million visitors each year, it’s a bit less of a circus than Auschwitz and people tend to behave more respectfully. No Israeli conscripts talking in the gas chamber, for example.
Chatting to the London-based pals earlier in the week, it has transpired that one of my old school chums was heading to Bavaria, the Austrian side, for a brief holiday. What luck! Pran landed in Munich on the Saturday night for a few holiday beers before dragging me, very willingly, to the little alpine town of Bad Gastein for a few days R&R. It was pretty much the name that sealed the deal. Took an early train and smugly settled ourselves into the ladies compartment, turning away hopeful gentleman who tried to invade. Bitterly regretted our smugness when a girl with the most acute BO I’ve smelt in a long time arrived for the last hour. Instant karma.
Once upon a time it was known as the Monaco of the Alps, but has fallen from the stellar list of ski resorts after some wealthy dude apparently bought up swathes of the town and let them crumble. He/the consortium/whoever they are, also refuse to sell them on, despite having been offered a hefty sum by some Russian (I think) dude.
Whatever. It’s still chocolate-box perfect.
I checked into the local hostel (excellent deal on private rooms – score) while Pranner and Ava made themselves at home at Gruner Baum hotel up the valley. Cracking deal, since Pran got upgraded to a Junior Suite with her lonely honeymoon package for one (!), and I got to hijack the spa facilities and dinners.
Hired a car one day and gleefully motored off for a day trip to Zell am See lake for a spin on the water in the world’s slowest ‘speed’boat and a strudel in the picturesque gardens of the Grand Hotel.
After soaking up the rays for a couple of hours, we headed up the valley to Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain. The 45km road happens to be super scenic and popular with those hairy biker sorts, as these places often are. You pass through two sorts of landscape, verdant valley and moonscape, before arriving at the Kaiser Franz Josef glacier. Was not expecting that, but joy! I love glaciers.
Alas, Pran had to leave the very next day to go back to London and be big and important. Me, I liked it too much so decided to extend my stay for a few days. That Neugarten’s Clock thang had me pondering for a day or two whether a year out travelling was the right thing to do, or whether I do myself a disservice by stepping out of the rat race with no visible re-entry plans. But you have to strike a balance in life. Though it is important, for your own mental health more than anything else, to have a function and get yo’ass out of bed in the mornings, it is also important to have perspective on what is important, both to you and in life. If a high-pressured job causes you too much stress, you lose sight of what really counts and the Black Dog can come yapping at your door. No danger of that in this camp. You’ll be relieved to hear that my mind is soothed and the Great Escape continues unabated. Phew.
Gastein is perched up in the mountains and as a result boasts a surfeit of excellent alpine hikes. I love mountains as much as I love glaciers so took myself off on a couple of hikes to see just how unfit I’ve become. The first uphill was a bit of a struggle. Ok, a lot of a struggle. Noooo! I’d become a couch potato. But the mountain-scape, and a coffee break at the top of the first steep slope, fortified me. Asked the bloke in the hut what the best route was: around the lake and back down the valley or over the top to the chairlift. “Around the lakes are nicest,” he said. “You may take a break at Bockhardtsee then walk down the valley.”
Completely ignored his advice. Think he had taken one look at the leggings and amateur gear that I’d presented myself in and tried to encourage me into something ability-appropriate. But he had woefully underestimated Big Len’s induction to mountaineering which came with one important lesson: never take the easy route. As kids, we (I think I speak for the three of us) didn’t always relish the notion of being taken on one of Dad’s hikes. In fact, one Easter notoriously carsick Sar was so against the idea that she ate every single one of her Easter eggs before getting in the car and puked a pure chocolate rainbow before we’d even got to the start point. Livid Dad had to turn around and spend the afternoon scraping Cadburys out of the footwell carpet.
At the time, Dad’s hikes were a subject of ridicule. Now, with the least-enamored, Sar, having been up to Everest Base Camp, I think we all owe Big L an apology. Me, I <heart> mountains.
So instead I went over the top to the Stubnerkogel lift and made a sport out of trying to beat all of the predicted times on the comforting yellow sign-boards which make picking out the routes well easy. Saw a real live marmot for my troubles. I was genuinely thrilled. Since having more time on my hands, the littlest things fill me with childlike joy. Butterflies, flowers, a red squirrel in Helsinki graveyard that was courageously frolicking by my feet, a bad geyer (I think)… Back to the marmots, they’re a delicacy in Mongolia and they stuff the insides and barbeque outside in. With a blow torch. Just before serving it looks like an inflated balloon with four paws. Gotta go steady though cos you can still catch the bubonic plague from the fur.
There’s a hiking route out here called the Almenweg, which has 35 stages over 350km. Pick up a map and you can stamp various stages from the ink pads hidden in little tin boxes along the way. The easiest game of orienteering you’ll ever play and if you go show your stamps in a tourist shop, they’ll sell you a special badge based on how many you’ve got. Ooooh.
Another day, another hike. This time Poserhohe and another towards Prosau which turned out to be an OAP promenade that I bailed on in disgust, heading for the nearest hill.
With the legs suitably mountain-tested (and creaking with every flight of stairs), I bid my temporary home a grudging farewell and headed down to Salzburg, home of the Sound of Music and Mozart.