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05.09.2009

Adventures in Bavaria 

After five days of travel, I’ve finally found a little stretch of time to get caught up with the journal.  I’ll have to squeeze every part of our trip to the Alps, as well as the brief visit to Oktoberfest and Regensburg afterwards, into one entry.  Four different towns and two very different types of activities (hiking vs. beer-drinking festival) but at least one common thread runs through all of them—they all took place in the area of Germany so distinct and unique in terms of culture and dialect that it’s practically its own country: Bavaria. 

1 – Garmisch-Partenkirchen (30.09 – 01.10) 

On our first day in the mountain town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we woke up at 6:45 with the intention of hitting the trail as soon as possible.  We got ourselves ready and took a bus to the nearest Information Center where we asked about possibilities for hiking that day, and picked the route that seemed to suit us best. 

We rode the bus to the Olympia Skistadion, where I suppose a part of some Winter Olympics many years ago was held.  Behind the stadium is where the trail began, beginning with several hundred meters of road and finally wandering into the Partnachklamm, a really beautiful gorge that you climb up and up and up until you’re looking down at the little mountain stream about a hundred meters below. 

We continued on and up, already feeling quite tired, until we reached a little clearing with a couple of houses on a big mountain field with goats grazing in a pen.  It looked like the trail only continued through their private property, we weren’t sure which way to go.  We ended up picking a direction that led us back down the gorge until we finally saw a sign pointing us back in the other direction.  We got right back to the clearing, but this time saw other hikers going along the trail that looked forbidden, so we followed them until reaching another intersection where we didn’t know which way to go.  Having just passed an old German lady who seemed nice enough, I went back and asked her in German which direction we should take to the ‘Partnach Alm’, the first little peak on our tour of several peaks to get to the top.  Due to my terrible accent, which I’d deliberately laid on quite thick as I often do in these situations, she answered in English and proceeded to bust out her hiking map and give us superb instructions on which route we should take.  Feeling extreme levels of gratitude to this mysterious old German lady who was apparently in amazing enough shape to go hiking alone, we continued on our journey. 

We reached ‘Bayern House’ shortly after that where we got our first good view of the village below, the continued on up to another little peak called the ‘Jochspitze’, which required lots of steep, strenuous hiking.  Finally we came to the first ‘major’ peak—the Kreuzeck, which had its own cable cars running up to the beer garden the Germans had put there.  As such, the trail got a lot more crowded now with people who don’t like to manually climb up to the top but instead just take the cable car and walk around.  We could have stopped there but we still had another hour and a half before the day’s final destination: the ‘Osterfeldkopf’ (literally ‘Eastern Field Head’) which required even longer stretches of steep, strenuous hiking. When we finally spotted the beer garden on the top of the hill it was still another good twenty minutes of extremely difficult walking, now even harder due to the relative thinness of the air. 

But we finally reached our goal, a beer garden 2 vertical kilometers up in the mountain, and we took our seat with a spectacular view and treated ourselves to a nice rewarding brew there on the mountain. 

After debating what to do next we finally decided to walk back down to the Kreuzeck along a different path and then take the cable car down.  We were a bit worried we might miss the last cable car because we thought the last was at 4:30 and it was already 3:00, but I figured we’d be able to make it considering it was all downhill.  But Krissi hates walking downhill because it hurts her toes and knees, so we didn’t make very good time, arriving at the cable car station just before 4:30, and I was so concerned by the time we were making that I barely appreciated the spectacular views (though I made sure to force myself to do so every few minutes). 

But when we got there it turned out that the cable cars would actually be running until 5:30, so we went and got ourselves another beer, then rode down the mountain at 5:00.  Unfortunately we missed the bus at the bottom of the mountain by just a couple of minutes and had to wait another 45 for the next one, but to make a long boring story short we got back to the hostel about an hour and a half later, then went to eat at the same Italian restaurant again before going back and passing out at around 11 p.m. 

The next day we asked the lady at the front desk for a bit of an easier hike, and she recommended we walk up Wank Mountain (it’s pronounced differently) so that’s what we did.  Of course this ‘easy’ hike turned out to be quite difficult as well, as we’d come to understand that when you’re talking about hiking the Alps there’s really no such thing as easy the way people used to the mountains of New Jersey or Santa Barbara might think of it.  We were so sore and out of breath even by the time we reached the half-way point that we considered riding the cable car the rest of the way to the top and then walking down like the rest of the cheaters do.  But after stopping for a little bit to eat some fruit and trail mix we got our energy back and decided to go for it.  Two hours later and lots and lots of zig-zagging up the side of the mountain, we finally reached the summit.  Unlike the other peaks, from this mountain you actually got a good 360˚ panoramic view of everything from Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1600 meters below to the Austrain alps in the other direction.  The only downside was that it was a particularly hazy day so things weren’t quite as crisp as they could have been. 

At any rate, we drank our obligatory mountain-top beer, then rode the cable-car back down into town.  We’d considered taking the car up to the Zugspitz, the highest peak in the German alps at just over 3 vertical kilometers, but it was such a hazy day and the peak was enshrouded in a cloud anyway so we figured the €47 it would cost to get us up there just wouldn’t be worth it.  Instead we took the bus back to the hostel, got ourselves packed and ready to go, then killed 45 minutes before the next bus to the train station came by playing ping-pong outside the hostel.  We reached the train stations just a few minutes after one train to Mittenwald had left so of course we had to wait an hour for the next one, which we spent walking around, buying a few random things at the drug store (sun-tan lotion and whatnot) then sitting on the train platform with our I-pods until the train came to get us. 

2 – Mittenwald (01.10 – 04.10) 

Unlike the hostel at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the place we were staying in Mittenwald was a little family-run bead & breakfast only 5 minutes from the train station.  Getting in was quick and painless, and another ten minute walk brought us into town where we stopped for an incredibly delicious meal at a little place called the “Kleine Kartoffelsack” (‘Little Potato Sack’).  Mittenwald is a much smaller town than Garmisch-Partenkirchen and I liked it a lot better, but I think Krissi prefers bigger towns as there was really absolutely nothing going on.  So we just got a bottle of cheap wine from the supermarket and brought it back to the bed & breakfast, sipping on it and watching the news on my computer followed by some German television which was in our room. 

This bed & breakfast, called the Schmuzerhof, was easily the best place I’ve ever stayed overnight in Germany.  For basically the same price as the hostel we got our own giant room with a TV, big bathroom, and the most comfortable beds and pillows I’ve ever slept on.  We’d had our own private room in the hostel in Garmisch as well, but it was much smaller and the beds had been extremely hard and uncomfortable.  On top of that there had been a huge group of 10-12 year old kids occupying our floor who were running around screaming and yelling all afternoon and evening.  At first I’d thought they were part of a tour group but after two nights I began to suspect that they all lived there, that they were orphans or something whom the government paid for them to live in that particular hostel. 

In any case, the Schmuzerhof was fantastic and getting out of that super-comfy bed in the morning was no easy task.  But we managed to get up at a reasonable time and head into town to find an information center for hiking recommendations.  We decided to do an easy hike the first day and a longer, more difficult one for the last day.  The woman at the tourism center sold us a map and sent us up a little ‘mountain’ to the southwest of town, which was actually more like a hill.  It was supposed to be an hour and a half climb to the top but we did it in 45 minutes, getting there shortly after noon.  That was the only time we reached the summit of our climb and didn’t stop for a beer, though we could have. 

From there we walked down the other side of the hill to a lake called the ‘Lautersee’ and walked around that for awhile, stopping at one edge for some more of our trail mix.  Another 30 minute walk brought us back to the village, and it still being relatively early we decided to go to the cable-car place to the Karwendel, the tallest peak reachable from Mittenwald.  It was the least clear day of the trip, and the top of the mountain had been enshrouded in cloud all day up until the time we actually were walking to the cable-car building.  But the cloud was back by the time we got there and we had to decided whether to spend the €16 for the round-trip ticket or wait until the next day when it was supposed to be clearer but when we knew we’d be on a longer hike and might not make it back in time.  Because we had nothing better to do we spent the money, then rode to the top of the mountain. 

It was a pretty spectacular ride, but by the time we reached the peak, a little over 2 vertical kilometers, we were literally inside a cloud in the sky.  As we walked out we felt the cold, thin air and the whole lifeless landscape shrouded in cloud looked awesome and other-worldly.  We walked out and to the edge of the mountain where you would just stare into the white abyss of nothingness, looking down as the side of the mountain and the cables to the cable car just disappeared into nothingness.  But if you looked long enough, occasionally there would be a break in the clouds and little patches of scenery would become visible for a moment, such as a few of the rooftops from the village or another part of the mountain, before disappearing again.  At one point it became clear enough to get a really good view of everything, but the clouds quickly thickened back up again and there was nothing to see.  Krissi seemed disappointed that the view was obstructed but I thought that in many ways this was even cooler than it would be on a clear day.  I mean, we were literally inside a fucking cloud in the sky.  Between me and Krissi standing five meters away you could actually see little cloud whisps blowing by. 

As we sat there in silence, I suddenly noticed my phone indicating a text message was being received.  How odd to get a text message at the moment like that, but when I opened it up I saw it was the automated message sent to your phone whenever you’re roaming.  “Wilkommen in Österriech!” it said.  Apparently we’d crossed the mountain-border to Austria, which was totally awesome because it meant we could technically add one more country to the list of where we’d been on our trip. 

Once we’d had enough of the cold we went inside and had our obligatory beer, listening to the pop-music station they had playing in there for some awfully non-atmosphere-appropriate music, and took the last cable car down. 

We dropped our stuff back off at the Schmuzerhof, then went out to dinner again, this time at a place for some spinach rizzoto which was good but a little too cheesy, not nearly as good as the potato sack.  We bought our cheap wine again and the fell asleep in much the same way as the first night. 

Krissi was up before me the next day, as I’d had a somewhat rough night due to what appeared to be allergies the night before giving way to an extremely dry and plegm-filled throat which was quite painful every time I woke up.  When I went downstairs to join Krissi for breakfast I learned she was having the same problem.  We figured it was allergies but we knew it might also be some kind of bug.  It definitely mitigated the enjoyment of the day somewhat, but it couldn’t ruin it completely. 

We were going to hike up to the ‘Hochlandhütte’ (High Land Hut) and back down again (there were no cable cars going there) and the woman at the tourism office had given us instructions for which bus to take and which stop to get off at.  We got off at the recommended stop but it looked nothing like what the map said it should look like.  We’d already gotten a late start so I was worried we might not have enough daylight for the five-hour hike if we had indeed screwed up. 

I asked a German guy walking along the trail to point out where we were on my hiking map, and he confirmed that we were in fact not where we wanted to be.  But he was an extremely helpful fellow, and gave me all kinds of advice on routes to take and which trails were more beautiful or more strenuous and whatnot.  He turned out to be more helpful than the woman at the tourism office. 

We ended up walking all the way to where we were supposed to have started, but then going up the mountain a different way than the woman had recommended, a way which turned out to be more strenuous but also way more beautiful and rewarding.  This was serious hiking, much moreso than any of our previous trails.  The path wasn’t a wide road with lots of steps built in and little benches all over the place, but genuine hardcore follow-the-marks-on-the-trees-or-you’ll-get-lost kind of hiking, where you had to consciously decide where to put your foot down at each and every step.  It was quite steep and intense, but your mind was occupied enough not to really feel it. 

And before we knew it we were at the highest elevation of the day.  It was only half-way to the Hochlandhütte but the second half was all along the edge of the mountain, some of it pretty sketchy, in that one false step would send you tumbling to your death, but all at pretty much the same elevation.  It was a really nice part of the walk in any case because you constantly had a good view, and we were extremely lucky that our last day there was also the clearest in terms of weather, and this was probably the nicest of all the trails we’d taken so we really had saved the best for last. 

We reached the hut without much difficulty, only taking it slow on some parts of the mountain where you had to hold on to the wire they’d hammered in there or risk slipping off the edge.  When we got to the hut I was shocked to find that they actually were serving beer there, as there were no cable cars or roads there to speak of.  Someone must have either walked up there with all that beer or else had it delivered by helicopter.  But leave it to Germans to have cold beer waiting for you in the middle of the fucking wilderness.  Apparently they’ll find a way. 

So we had our last mountain-top beer and then continued along the edge of the mountain to the next trail down.  It was a long grueling walk down, first with about a hundred little zig-zags through the woods and then along an actual road, which despite its straight-forwardness was actually the hardest on the legs due to the sustained downhill decline.  We were both in significant pain when we finally reached the base. 

From there we just walked straight into town where I found a pharmacy that was still selling allergy medicine.  I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get any because it was not only Saturday but a national holiday (Germany’s reuinification day) so everything was close including supermarkets.  But I got some allergy medicine and some cough-drops, then we went to the nearest restaurant, a Chinese place, so Krissi could try what German Chinese food was like.  I’d warned her that it wasn’t very good, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite delicious (though it may have had more to do with having just hiked for 6 and a half hours through the mountains with only some trail mix for nourishment) and it winded up being the best Chinese food I’ve ever had in Europe. 

Because the supermarkets were closed we couldn’t get our cheap wine again, so we went into a nearby sports bar (quite possibly the only bar like that in all of Mittenwald) and bought a few beer bottles to take back to the hostel with us.  We spent the night watching the German-dubbed version of “The Empire Strikes Back” on TV, which I helpfully translated for Krissi knowing both enough German and enough about the movie to allow her to follow the plot. 

The next morning we both felt a bit more sick, but it was less of a phlegm-in-the-throat thing than a full-on virus kind of thing so although the allergy medicine had helped me sleep better I was now unsure as to what the problem was exactly.  But I took two more allergy pills before we left, which might have been a mistake because it totally zonked me out.  In any case we said our goodbyes to the nice German lady who ran the bed & breakfast, took our five minute walk to the train station and boarded the train.  It had been four days of strenuous activity and our bodies were feeling it, but it had been an undeniably worthwhile experience. 

3 – Munich and Regensburg  (04.10-05.10) 

Neither of us were feeling particularly excited about going to Oktoberfest.  Every German I’ve ever talked to about it has been quite discouraging about going there, saying it’s extremely crowded and it’s mostly tourists and whatnot, but Krissi knew that her friends would never forgive her if she went to Germany during Oktoberfest and didn’t even go check it out.  Besides, I haven’t felt quite right about having spent so much of my life in Germany and not having been to one of the events that Germany is most famous for. 

So we got off the train in Munich and looked for a locker to store our very heavy and annoying backpacks.  But nearly every locker-section of the train station had been closed off by the police for some inexplicable reason.  The only room with any lockers left had a line outside that looked at least 30-minutes long, and we weren’t sure there were enough lockers there for everyone anyway.  So we decided to just take them with us. 

The line outside the tourist information center was also very long, so we just grabbed a map and walked the distance to the festival area ourselves.  As we approached we were stopped by police who told us our backpacks were too big and we’d have to let them search them if we wanted to go any further.  It’s a bitch to pack these bags so we weren’t too excited about having to unpack and re-pack again, and the police officer, who seemed like a nice enough guy, warned us that we would be checked again once inside.  I told him about the locker situation at the train station and he said that they normally had places for people to leave there bags but for some reason they didn’t have that option today.  But he told us not to worry—that after two beers everything would be fine. 

We managed to walk into the festival area without getting checked again, finding it very much like a carnival in the U.S. only with less rides and more beer-gardens, but we knew to get the real Oktoberfest experience you had to go in one of the giant tents and get served a “Maß Bier”, one of those giant glasses of beer you always picture when you think of Oktoberfest.  We went up to the first tent and approached the security guy, expecting him to search our bags and then let us in.  But he said they weren’t allowing any backpacks in the tent today, which immediately pissed us off to no end.  What the fuck, Munich?  First you don’t let us store our bags anywhere and then you don’t let us into a drinking tent with our bags? 

At that point, Krissi had her pictures and we were about ready to just get the fuck out of there and leave, but we figured we’d try another tent.  This time, the guy let us in after making me dispose of my water bottle and searching our bags.  So we got into a genuine Oktoberfest Beer Tent and found that it was everything we’d pictured.  A big band of men all clad in Lederhosen playing Bavarian brass music, waiters and waitresses also in the traditional garb carrying six to ten giant glass mugs of beer to any of hundreds of picnic tables, all packed to the brim with drunken people pounding back their beer, stuffing themselves with Bavarian food, and many smoking cigarettes. 

We’d been warned that you can’t buy a beer unless you have a seat, so we knew we had to find a table but it seemed at first like an impossible task.  We walked the whole length of the tent and didn’t spot so much as one free place.  Most of the tables had reservation slips on them.  But just as we were beginning to despair, a waiter pointed us in the direction of a table with a couple of open spots at the end and told us in German that it wasn’t reserved until 4:00.  That was three hours from then. 

So we took our seats, ordered a couple of beers, and breathed a sigh of relief that we’d actually made it and we were now going to get a taste of the genuine Oktoberfest experience.  Our beer came along, we toasted and drank, figuring we’d have one and maybe one more after that before getting the hell out of there.  As we drank, the people sitting next to us raised their glasses to toast about a hundred times before we finished the first glass.  So we ordered a second one as well as a giant pretzel and continued. 

About half-way through the second giant beer I noticed that I was now significantly buzzed.  The atmosphere, it seemed, had gotten to me.  Either that or it was the mixture of the alcohol and the allergy medicine, but soon enough I was feeling the whole jolly vibe of the place get ahold of me.  We started talking to our neighbors, some tourist from Thailand and some genuine Bavarian Germans from a nearby town.  They were amused that we were from New Jersey but the conversation didn’t really go much beyond that point.  But the band started playing again, everyone was singing and clinking their glasses together and it was all the clichés you envision it to be. 

Before I knew it we were having a third glass, and our first friends went away so we slid down to the center of the table and met the people on the other end, whom we’d be toasting with again and again from then on. Replacing us at the table was a German family of four, with two young kids, one too young for beer so he just drank soda out of a little mini-beer glass, but the other who only looked about 12 but apparently old enough for a genuine beer.  Both looked like they really didn’t want to be there, but after about 15 minutes the atmosphere seemed to envelop them as well and we were toasting with them just like everyone else. 

But after that third beer I was officially drunk, and we both knew it was time to go.  We stumbled out of the tent, snapped a few more pictures, then made our way out of the merry festival area and back to the train station, where we missed our train by about two fucking minutes and had to wait 45 more for the next one.  In my drunken state I was quite aggravated by this, so without a word I left Krissi on the platform, went and bought some water, then stumbled outside for a cigarette.  I don’t know how those two little tasks took up the whole 45 minutes but before I knew it I looked at the time on my phone and saw it was time to go.  I found Krissi again on the platform and we boarded the train. 

I was dozing off throughout the whole train ride, and I was so unsure of myself that I kept asking the ticket-checkers whether or not this train actually did go to Regensburg, the town where we had our hostel reservations for the night.  It seemed to take much longer than I expected, but we did eventually get there, and we managed to get to the hostel and get into our room in spite of the fact that there was no staff there.  It was actually the night-time security worker who showed us in and gave us our key, then a couple quick recommendations for a bite to eat and place to drink. 

We had our kebab dinner, then went to an Irish pub for one last beer.  I was ready to pass out, and had been for quite some time, but somehow Krissi was still going at it, and she stayed up for awhile doing shit online with my computer while I passed out as early as 10 p.m., only to wake up later at 2 a.m. with the worst headache of my life and tossed and turned for the next four hours attempting to get back to sleep. 

I still had the headache when I forced myself up at 9:00, got myself together and left the hostel with Krissi around 10:00.  We walked to the train station to drop off our stuff and buy the few remaining tickets we’d need for the rest of our journey through Germany (from Prague to Dresden, Dresden to Leipzig, and Leipzig to Hannover), then spent the next hour and a half just walking through the lovely little town of Regensburg, where I’d been once before with the exchange student crew.  Krissi and I didn’t do much—just walked along the Danube, checked out the nice cathedral they have, and wandered around the streets of the Old Town before getting back to the station and beginning our journey to the next destination on our tour, Prague, where I currently sit after a nice easy evening of dinner and non-alcoholic beverages (I needed a day of recovery), finally writing down this journal entry. 

There are five days left on this trip, and they should be quite enjoyable, assuming this annoying sickness, whatever it is, goes away.  Prague is a lovely and fun little town, and I’ve always wanted to see Dresden and Leipzig, so I’m looking forward to those as well.  But I don’t think anything will compare to Bavaria.  As I expected it might be, that was probably the best part of the trip, perhaps the highlight of this entire time I’ve spent with Krissi this Fall.