My First Eurotrip, Part 5: Fairy Tale Castles and Snowy Mountaintops

This is the long-delayed final installment of my series looking back at my very first Eurotrip in 2007, during which I visited Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. I never kept a journal during that trip so I am writing this mostly from memory. All photos were taken with my old pocket camera.

Neuschwanstein

After spending a final evening in Salzburg we departed early the next morning for Bavaria, where we would be visiting Neuschwanstein, King Ludwig II’s famous fairy tale castle. Along the way I took some photos of the pretty countryside.

River near a rest stop.
Taken from the bus.

We soon arrived at Hohenschwangau, where I took this photo of Hohenschwangau Castle, King Ludwig II’s childhood home.

We didn’t have time to tour this castle.

From here we began a long walk up a steep hill to visit Neuschwanstein. An optional bus or carriage was also available to take you to the top, but most of us chose to walk.

Our first view of the castle.

Here are some more shots of the castle exterior:

Front entrance with coat of arms.
Inner Courtyard
One of the turrets.
A view from the entrance.

Neuschwanstein was the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle in Disneyland, whereas the Cinderella castle in Disney World was based on any of a number of different European castles, depending on who you ask. The castle was already an anachronism when it was built–the first skyscrapers were going up in New York around the same time. Ludwig II was also known as “The Mad King” or the “Fairy Tale King.” He was eventually declared insane and deposed, but now Bavaria makes millions from his palaces.

Ludwig II was fascinated with fairy tales and Wagner operas, both of which feature prominently in the castle’s design. The inside is quite spectacular, and even includes an artificial cave. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside but you can find pictures of many of the rooms online.

One word of advice: if you’re looking buy some souvenirs after completing the tour, avoid the first gift shop–things are cheaper in the second gift shop . . . and even cheaper in the shops at the bottom of the mountain, at least that was the case back in 2007.

Following the castle tour we hiked out to the Marienbrucke, a bridge spanning a large gorge, seen here:

Marienbrucke

About halfway to the Marienbrucke there is a great lookout spot with this beautiful view:

Hohenschwangau Castle is visible in the distance to the right.

From the Marienbrucke you can enjoy one of the iconic views of the castle, seen below. The other famous view, from the front, requires a hike up to the top of a nearby mountain, which we did not have time for.

Neuschwanstein

After our visit to Neuschwanstein it was time to head to Lucerne, Switzerland. Along the way we were treated to gorgeous views of the Swiss countryside.

View from the bus.
Another view from the bus. This huge lake went on for miles.

Lucerne is reminiscent of some seaside resorts in the States, but with more historic architecture. Despite being a major tourist spot (complete with casinos) and one of the more expensive destinations in Europe, it is one of my favorite European cities. The views along the lake with the Alps in the background are simply breathtaking.

Lake Lucerne
A portion of the Lucerne shoreline.

No trip to Lucerne is complete without a visit to Mount Pilatus, the large mountain that looms over Lake Lucerne.

Mount Pilatus dominates the landscape.

To get to the top of Mount Pilatus you take cable cars, from which you can watch the terrain turn from grass to snow as you ascend.

First the grass . . .
. . . and then the snow.

After a while you exit your comfy small cable car and transfer to a large one, where you must stand, packed in with as many people as they can fit.

The larger cable car making its final ascent.

Once you reach the top, the views defy words, so I’ll let the photos do the talking, even though they could never do justice to the sensation of standing there in person.

On top of Mount Pilatus.
Some day I would like to return with a better camera.
I wonder how you get to this church . . .
The views are simply amazing.
I didn’t want to leave.

To get down, we took the same cable car route, though apparently you also have the option of taking some sort of railroad ride down.

On our way back down.

My uncle and I went to a restaurant on a boat for lunch, where we split an order of quite expensive fondue–54 francs for what was basically bread and melted cheese. I wasn’t kidding when I said that Lucerne is expensive.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the city on my own. In my travels I encountered another giant chess board like the one in Salzburg, though I didn’t play on this one.

Giant Chess

I had planned to do some shopping later in the day, but everything in Lucerne closed at 4pm . . . on a Saturday! Instead I just meandered and soaked in the beauty of the city.

Along the lake.
A city square.
One of Lucerne’s famed covered bridges . . .
. . . and another.

At one point I encountered a group of women having some type of bachelorette party scavenger hunt. The bride (dressed as a prisoner) had a list of things she had to do, one of which was to dance with strangers on camera. She tried to get me to dance with her, but I sort of just stood there and talked to her while she danced around me and her friends filmed it. The next guy (pictured with the girls below) was much more game and really got into the dancing.

Somewhere in Europe there’s a video of this prisoner dancing around me.

Later in the day, after I rejoined my group, we bumped into the wedding girls again. They said hi to me and then shouted “he’s a great dancer!” Everyone in my group gave me a look, like “just what have you been doing today?” So I had to explain it, a bit embarrassed, but it’s precisely these types of unexpected moments that add richness to your travel experience and provide you with unique stories to tell. I mean, anybody can tell anecdotes about visiting castles, but how many people can say they danced with a bride-to-be dressed as a prisoner in a public square in Switzerland? 😉

As the day wound to a close, we visited the famous weeping lion monument and posed for our final group photo.

Weeping Lion Monument

We had to wake up at 4:15 the next morning to hop on the bus to Zurich for our flight out, so we called it an early night. I got searched again at the Zurich airport (seemed to be a theme on this trip) and then we flew to Frankfurt for a five-hour layover before finally boarding a plane for the States. I had come down with a cold on my last day in Europe, which did not make for a pleasant flight—apparently my inner ear passageways swelled up and prevented my ears from popping—my left ear still hadn’t popped a week after I returned home.

Despite the dubious ending to the trip, it was a life-changing experience, and the travel bug bit me hard. Prior to this trip, the idea of traveling the world had never even been on my radar. I spent the first 36 years of my life barely venturing from the east coast of the United States, but in the 7.5 years since, I’ve embarked on three more Eurotrips, as well as trips to Peru, Mexico, and California . . . and it all began with this trip back in 2007.

So ends a story that has taken me nearly eight years to tell. 🙂

Lucerne at Night

View more photos from this trip.

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Eurotrip 2011, Part 7: Kicking Back in Basel

Basel, Switzerland

This installment covers Days 16–18 of my 2011 trip to Europe…

After our final night in the villa we awoke, finished packing, and walked up the road to the bus stop. We had time before the bus was due to arrive so we entered the nearby restaurant to have lunch, where we bumped into three of our villa-mates. They had left the villa earlier in the week but returned to the area on this day to have one last lunch at the restaurant and say goodbye to the waitress they had befriended. We were very fortunate to have run into them because our bus arrived early and never stopped. We exited the restaurant just in time to see it speeding down the hill.

If our villa-mates had not been there we would have been screwed. The next bus wasn’t coming anytime soon and we would definitely have missed our train to Basel. Luckily, they had a car and were able to drive us down the hill and into Florence, all the way to the train station.

So we hopped aboard the train for the long ride to Switzerland. We had one layover in the very busy Milan train station before getting on the final train to Basel. As is always the case when riding through Switzerland, the scenery was gorgeous.  Here’s one photo I took from the train that didn’t come out too badly (most of them had window reflections):

We arrived in Basel late that afternoon. Uncle Kipp’s friend Andy met us at the train station and guided us via public transportation back to her apartment. We would be spending the next three nights here before heading to Croatia. At the apartment we met the rest of her family, including her mother, who cooked us a delicious Tex-Mex dinner. Before dinner I had my first ever glass of Prosecco—and a love affair was born that continues to this day. It’s so inexpensive over there that Andy had an entire fridge stocked with it. After dinner I tried my first roasted chestnut, which was a big deal for me because I don’t like any kind of nuts in general, but I was able to enjoy these.

Before bed that night I skyped with my wife, Jen. I had chatted with her on the phone throughout the first 16 days of the trip, and of course I missed her the whole time, but it wasn’t until seeing her and my dog, Heidi, on video that I truly began feeling homesick—and I still had two weeks to go. We had been apart for 8 to 9 days on my previous trips, but a month is a long time. For the most part I was okay because I was always so busy during the day, but at night it would catch up with me a bit.

After breakfast the next morning we went for a walk all over the city. Unlike Lucerne, Basel is not nestled in the Alps, but it still has plenty of its own charm, and the Rhine is never far away.  There was a fall festival going on that reminded me of the carnivals we have in the States. While walking though the festival we rode the large Ferris wheel, which provided us with spectacular views of the city when we reached the top.

For this post I decided to try a photo gallery for the first time, so here is a collection of some of my favorite photos from Basel.  The fall foliage lent a beautiful color palette to the city.  You can click on a photo to view a larger version and a description:

That night after dinner we watched some TV before heading to bed. The next day, we went into France for lunch. Basel is so close to both France and Germany that a trip to one of these countries is akin to hopping in a car in New Jersey and heading to Philly or New York. This was my first visit to France, not counting the Paris airport, so I could now say that I had set foot in the country, even if it was just over the border. We had a nice lunch at a Japanese restaurant—that’s right, we went to France to eat Japanese. 🙂

After lunch we went to a mall, which was near a McDonald’s. I was very tempted to get my Pulp Fiction on and go order a “Royale with Cheese.” Anyway, that night I skyped with Jen again before bed. It was Halloween, but they don’t really seem to celebrate it in Switzerland, so it was basically just a normal night.

Overall, we had a nice, relaxing three days in Basel. I am very grateful to Andy and her family for welcoming us into their home and for everything they did for us. It was a much-needed escape from hotel living that allowed us to recharge our batteries before embarking on the second half of our trip, which would begin the following morning with an early (and long) day of riding trains that would take us through Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and finally into Zagreb, Croatia. That part of our journey will be covered in the next installment. Until then…

View more photos from Basel

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Eurotrip 2009 Part 5: Heidelberg

This is the fifth part of my Eurotrip 2009 Revisited series, a special edition of sorts in which I have divided the original post into smaller parts while incorporating minor copy edits and a few new (and reprocessed) images.

Flash Forward: Heidelberg, Germany

After our adventures in Lucerne we departed the next morning for the final leg of our trip. The hotel front desk was late with my wakeup call so I had to rush getting ready and packed to make sure I got downstairs for the bus on time, but I still had a few minutes to hit the restaurant and get some more of that awesome bacon.

Our first stop that morning was the Rhine Falls in Switzerland. While not on the level of Niagara, it is still quite spectacular and powerful.

The Rhine Falls
The tiny people visible at the top of the island on the left give you a sense of the size of the falls.
Me at the Falls

We didn’t have long to stay and I had already wasted some time sitting on a bench and staring at the falls, but I wanted to get a closer view, so I ran around the far side of the river where a path and steps led to the top of the falls, climbing as high as I could while taking photos.  However, time ran out before I was able to reach the top and I had to book it back to the bus.

Side View of the Falls

Our next stop was in the fabled Black Forest of Germany to see the world’s largest cuckoo clock in action. It was kind of kitschy (it’s no Glockenspiel). I would rather have spent more time at the Rhine Falls than rushing to make the 12 p.m. cuckoo performance.

World’s Largest Cuckoo Clock

After the cuckoo performance we went inside the building for a demonstration of how the Germans hand-make their famous cuckoo clocks. We then stood in line for 45 minutes to get some crappy cafeteria food for lunch because we thought it would be faster than going to the sit-down restaurant across the way. In all, this was my least favorite stop of the trip, but the rest of the trip was so wonderful that it’s hard to complain about one little bump in the road.

After lunch we departed for our final destination: Heidelberg, Germany. The bus took us straight to the castle ruin that overlooks the city (we would not check in to our hotel that night until after 8:30 p.m.). While not as magnificent as the intact fortress in Salzburg that I saw two years prior, the Heidelberg castle is still very impressive and provides a nice view of the valley below:

A view of Heidelberg from the castle. I would later take photos of the castle
from below while standing in the square visible in the lower left of the photo.
Another view of Heidelberg from the castle.

Here are a couple of photos of the ruins themselves.  The open window sections reminded me a bit of the Colosseum.

Heidelberg Ruins
Heidelberg Ruins

We stopped in the castle courtyard for a group photo, and then went inside to view the world’s largest wine barrel.

World’s Largest Wine Barrel

We then explored the grounds around the castle. Along the way, I snapped this photo of a nearby obelisk in my best attempt at a 2001-ish monolith shot:

My Monolith (no apes huddled around this one)

After our tour of the castle we headed back to the bus, which dropped us off in the middle of town for an hour of free time before dinner. I took a few photos of the castle from down below.

Heidelberg Castle
Heidelberg Castle overlooking a square.
I liked these trees.

I then did some shopping and bought a chocolate gelato. One of the stores had tons of absinthe of every kind imaginable. I had never seen so much in one place. I thought about getting a big bottle to bring home, but decided against it.

We ate dinner at a charming place called Zum Sepp’l, which has apparently been a hangout for university students since the 1600’s, complete with thick wood tables entirely covered in carved names.

Carved table at the Zum Sepp’l

This was the best dinner of the trip, and a nice way to spend our last night in Europe. The tomato soup appetizer was fantastic (and I’m not usually a fan of it), but this tasted almost like spaghetti sauce. The bread was great. For the main course we had these awesome large pierogi topped with ham and onion. They were so good that I didn’t hesitate for seconds when they offered them. Here’s a picture of our mini group at the dinner table:

The people I spent the most time with during the trip.
From Left: Uncle Kipp, Amber, Sam, Me, Sam’s Grandmother.

After dinner, a group of guys from the New York group bought a giant three-liter beer boot, which they passed around and chugged down in rapid fashion.

Giant Beer Boot

I was finally able to settle into my hotel room a little after 8:30 p.m., but we were right back outside at 9:30 for an extended walking tour of Heidelberg. The castle looks beautiful lit up at night, though the night photos taken with my pocket camera didn’t come out too great.

Heidelberg Castle at Night

After the tour, our Gateway group stopped at a pub for a final round of drinks. On the way home we stopped for our last European gelatos. That night at 12:30 I helped Uncle Kipp do a final room check.

The following morning we hopped on the bus with the Virginia group for a long drive to Frankfurt airport (the NY group had already left very early that morning because they had a different flight). At the airport we said our goodbyes to our driver, guide, and the people from the Virginia group.

Here’s a photo of our entire group (New York, Virginia, and New Jersey):

Our Group

After a fairly short wait (especially compared to the 2007 trip), we boarded our plane. I had my seat switched from a window to an aisle, thinking that I would have a nice relaxing flight home. Little did I know that the girl sitting behind me would think that the touchscreen on the back of my seat was a punch screen, so you can imagine how fun that was for eight hours (I did finally get up with about 90 minutes left in the flight to show her how to use the screen without punching it). The movies really helped pass the time, even if most of them were mediocre, though I actually liked Marley & Me, a real tear jerker if you’re a dog lover.

We had a pretty rough landing in Philly, just as we had two years ago. Is there something about landing in Philly? We got the shuttle back to Gateway high school in South Jersey, where Jen picked me up. After saying our goodbyes we began the long drive back to central Jersey. I couldn’t wait to get home and get some rest, especially since I was beginning a new job in a couple of days.

Overall, I had a great time on the trip, though I would rank it slightly behind the one from 2007, primarily because on that trip we visited Salzburg (my favorite European city to that point), we did not have to share our bus with any other groups (which gave us plenty of room to stretch out on long bus rides and we didn’t have to worry about losing our seats every day), and we stayed two nights in every location, which made for a more easy-going trip.

On the other hand, we visited more cities on this trip and met some nice people from the other groups. It was also a blast hanging out with Amber, and some other aspects of the trip and flight were easier this time around since I had already gone through it once before. In the end, both trips were fantastic and left me with a lifetime’s worth of memories. One day I’ll write up my journal of the 2007 trip and the comparisons can begin. 🙂

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Eurotrip 2009 Part 4: Lucerne

This is the fourth part of my Eurotrip 2009 Revisited series, a special edition of sorts in which I have divided the original post into smaller parts while incorporating minor copy edits and a few new (and reprocessed) images.

Flash Forward: Lucerne, Switzerland

We left Innsbruck after lunch for a very long bus ride to Switzerland. On the way we stopped briefly in Liechtenstein, the world’s smallest principality, basically a tiny independent kingdom complete with its own royal palace:

Liechtenstein Palace

Our guide Keith pointed out that Liechtenstein has three political parties: the conservatives, the more conservatives, and the ultra conservatives. I thought to myself: sounds like some places I know in the States. 🙂 We didn’t have time to tour the palace, so after taking a few photos and getting our passports stamped, we were back on the bus.

On the way to Lucerne we passed by some of the most beautiful scenery you are likely to gaze upon, including giant lakes surrounded by tall mountains and rolling green hills like something out of The Hobbit:

Large Swiss lake (taken from bus)
Swiss countryside taken from bus.
Bad window reflections but I wanted to get a shot of the rolling hills.

Right outside of the city we got stuck in a traffic jam due to an accident that had people rubbernecking, so it took us a little longer to get in. After finally reaching the city we were dropped off in the town center for shopping. I bought lots of chocolate and picked up my free souvenir spoon from the Bucherer. I also picked up another t-shirt and a postcard, which I had been collecting from every country for a friend of Jen’s.

We later checked into a very nice hotel right along the lake, of which I had a nice view from my room when I stuck my head out the window. The room had motion sensor lights for the bathrooms that I thought were pretty cool until I realized that the lights would often go out when I was in the middle of doing something like brushing my teeth. The hotel served a good dinner that night: a cheese ravioli appetizer followed by a beef dish with hash browns. The dinner portion was a little on the small side, but I’m used to gluttonous America where everything is supersized. 😉

That night we walked to the Lion Monument, and then around town and the lake, which is all lit up at night:

Lucerne at night
The covered pedestrian bridge in Lucerne

We ended up at a cafe where we sat in the outdoor balcony overlooking the lake drinking a beer that cost 8 1/2 franks. One thing you learn about Lucerne is that it’s kind of a tourist trap; everything is very expensive. Nevertheless, of all the cities I have visited in Europe, it is one of my favorites.  The views of the massive lake surrounded by the Alps (especially Mt. Pilatus, which towers over the city) are phenomenal, and the town itself exudes old world charm with its pedestrian streets, old buildings, and covered bridges.

After our beer we walked to McDonald’s to quell the late night munchies (sort of a tradition in that we did the same thing two years ago), where I had a Cheeseburger Royale (for you Pulp Fiction fans). During the long walk back to the hotel we bumped into a few less-than-kind locals. First, an older guy cut in front of our group, holding his hand up like a stop sign as he crossed in front of us. Later, a young guy with his friends mocked us for having cameras. Oh well, it’s all part of the travel experience. That night I finally got to bed around 1:30am.

The next morning the hotel served a nice breakfast that included bacon! Most of the breakfasts on the trip were more of a continental style, so this was a treat. After breakfast we hopped on the bus for Mt. Pilatus. To get to the top of the mountain you take two sets of cable cars. The first is a small four-person car, then about halfway up you transfer to a large car that holds roughly 30 people standing. At one point, the land along which the car is skimming suddenly drops away and you find yourself dangling over nothing but air—this always elicits a “whoa!’ from the crowd. On the way up the mountain you watch as the terrain gradually changes from green to snow.

The top of the mountain is breathtaking; no picture or description could ever do it justice, but here are a few:

At the top of Mt. Pilatus
View of Lucerne from the top of Mt. Pilatus
Gazing at the Alps from Mt. Pilatus

That afternoon I had some time to myself so I walked along the lake toward town taking photos. I stopped for a Doener, a popular Middle Eastern sandwich similar to a gyro, and decided to join the other lunching Europeans by eating it down by the lake with my feet hanging over the edge, enjoying the beautiful day and the incredible view:

Mount Pilatus over Lake Lucerne
Lake Lucerne

After lunch I walked into town to take out more francs in order to pay for the boat ride our group was supposed to be taking that evening. Unfortunately, the boat ride would later be canceled, so I ended up with a bunch of extra franks. Anyway, I went to a place called the Tea Room and ordered a cup of green tea for five francs. As I mentioned, things are expensive in Lucerne: I had earlier bought an eight-franc Fanta on Pilatus, and two years ago Uncle Kipp and I shared a cheese fondue lunch that cost around 50 francs.

While in the tea room I bumped into Keith and the adults from the Virginia group, so I sat with them. I decided to go up to the bakery counter and order a chocolate mousse cake to go with my green tea. About halfway through my delicious desert, one of the store employees came up to the table and asked me to come to the cashier at the bakery counter—I had left my wallet, passport, and return plane ticket (which had been inside the passport) on the counter!!! Everything that identified me as me was sitting on that counter for anyone to take. I would have been stuck in a foreign country with no money or identification, so I was eternally thankful for the honesty of the cashier. That was the second time I had misplaced my passport on the trip, so lesson learned—I’ve used one of those around-the-neck portfolio wallets for every trip since then.

After dessert I made my way back to the hotel following a quick stroll through the underground pedestrian mall. After getting back to the hotel we had about an hour before dinner so I decided to take a walk along the other end of the lake taking more photos, with Amber and Sam tagging along:

Amber and me
Lake Lucerne
Amber and Sam looking over the lake
Sun setting over the lake

Dinner at the hotel that night was roast chicken with french fries and ice cream for dessert. I also had some white wine. That night the students decided that they didn’t feel like going out; they just wanted to hang out at the hotel, so I took Amber out and we walked around the town:

Lucerne at dusk

We stopped at a small bar off the beaten path and I bought Amber a radler, though when I ordered the drinks the waiter looked at me like I had two heads because they call it something different in Switzerland. At this point I still had 20 francs left and since it was our last night in Switzerland, I needed to blow through them. Sure, I could have exchanged them later, but where’s the fun in that? So I decided to take Amber to her first ever casino since the legal age there is 18.

We had to pay a cover charge to get in, which left us each with only five francs, but that was fine, because I’m not a gambler myself, and it was enough to give Amber a taste (and bragging rights to her friends who still had to wait three years to legally enter a casino in the States). We stuck to the slots, and needless to say, we lasted about 15 minutes before running out of money. A guy from the New York group named Mark had actually won $200 the night before, but no such luck for us.

After leaving the casino we went back to the hotel. Amber went to bed while I stopped in the hotel bar, where I bumped into Mark, and we hung out for about a half hour talking before I finally went up to bed myself. The next morning we would be heading back to Germany for the final leg of our trip, which will be covered in the next installment.

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