Eastern Europe I

    We began this momentous trip when our flight touched down in Frankfurt, Germany. We immediately picked up our car at the airport and got onto the Autobahn, heading south then east to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, at the base of the Alps. We made only one stop, in the delightful town of Heidelberg to briefly check out this University town, with its unusual city gates (Photo #1), Medieval architecture and imposing Schloss (castle). Driving the Autobahn was not as challenging as I expected. We actually hit numerous pockets of heavy traffic and really did not make very good time (partially due to the heavy rain we experienced on the road).
    The scenery became noticeably more beautiful as we reached Bavaria and was positively gorgeous when we reached the Alps. We had made reservations at the Edelweiss Resort (photo #2, a US military-owned establishment, which was very new, extremely attractive, and set picturesquesly at the base of the Alps (this is one of the best perks available to Active and Retired Military — there are other facilities like this in Disney World and on Waikiki Beach). We used the resort as our base for several day trips into the surrounding countryside.
    The next morning we left for Linderhof (Photos 3 & 4), one of Mad King Ludwig’s remarkable and elaborate castles.  Linderhof is his smallest castle, but is gilded to the nines — the rooms have painted ceilings, tapestries, huge, intricate chandeliers, etc. and the grounds are just as elaborate, with fountains, gardens, statues, etc. Of special note is the Grotto (Photo #5)(a make-believe cave, with its own pool, containing a shell-boat, similar to the one in Wagner’s Lohengrin). Ludwig was especially obsessed with Wagner.
    From here we drove to Ettal to see the famous Ettal Monastery (Photos 6,7,&8), a beautiful Rococco edifice. The interior was stunning and we wandered around the church, fascinated with the intricate artwork.
    Next we drove to Mittenwald (Photo #9), a small village near the Austrian border, which is famous for its painted houses — the facades of the buildings are painted with bright and interesting scenes. Even the church bell tower was painted! We strolled the streets admiring this unusual and charming place.
    Then we crossed the Austrian border in order to visit Innsbruck, the quintessential Tyrolean town, nestled in the Alps. We absolutely loved Innsbruck. The Old Town (Photo #10) is beautiful with its striking architecture (the Golden Roof and the Heilbing House) and its setting is to die for! It definitely caters to tourists, with its hundreds of shops lining both sides of the streets. We stopped in at the Hofkirche (Town Church) which contains the elaborately decorated mausoleum of Maximillian I (Photo #11), flanked by 28 bronze, life-size statues representing his real and legendary ancestors. Check out the view from St Anne’s Column looking back toward the Golden Roof, with the backdrop of snow-covered mountains — spectacular!
     From Innsbruck, we decided to check out a town mentioned in Rick Steves’ book, Hall im Tyrol (Photo #12) — Rick suggests that this town can replace Innsbruck on an itinerary since it is similar, but much less crowded. The second part is definitely correct. Innsbruck had hordes of people and Hall has many fewer. The first part of his statement, however, in our estimation, is totally false. Hall does not compare with Innsbruck with regard to architecture, variety, or setting. It does have a certain charm, and we walked the streets in and around its main square in an attempt to appreciate this, but it pales next to Innsbruck. Leaving Hall, we had an unfortunate incident — we were stopped by the Austrian police for not having a sticker allowing us to travel the highways. We eventually paid the fine, but were upset with our rental company for not informing us (see lessons learned).
     The next day was our exploration of the lower part of the Romantic Road, a series of quaint Medieval towns which run, basically north to south from Upper Bavaria to the Austrian border. We decided to begin with a visit to Hohenschwangau (Photo #14) and Neuschwanstein (Photo #18), two elaborate castles associated with Mad King Ludwig. On the way we stopped at a charming little village nestled in the Austrian Alps, known as Lermoos (Photo #13), just to take a picture.
     When we reached the Konigschlossen (King’s Castles), our guided tour brought us first to Hohenschwangau, Ludwig’s boyhood home. We were informed about the future king’s childhood and about some of the reasons for his break with reality. Then we took a shuttle bus to St Mary’s Bridge (Photo #15), which offers a breathtaking view of Neuschwanstein, across a gorge. The path from here to the castle is mostly downhill, so we walked and then waited a few minutes for our tour to begin.
    This tour was great! The castle, even though never completely finished, is extremely impressive — Ludwig certainly had a flair! Especially noteworthy were his bedroom (the intricate woodwork took a number of craftsmen several years to complete), the Throne Room (with no throne because it was never finished) and the Theater/Music Room (Photo #16), designed for Arts Performances.  He also built a cave next to his bedroom, similar to the Grotto at Linderhof. Our visit required climbing a considerable number of stairs, so beware if you are not in shape.
    Our next stop was the lovely village of Fussen (Photo #17) where we strolled the pedestrian-only streets and had a short lunch. Then we traveled north to Wies to see the incredible, UNESCO World Heritage-recognized Wieskirche, considered the most beautiful Baroque masterpiece of ornate splendor (Photos 19 & 20).
    The Romantic Road village of Oberammergau (Photo #21) was next on our itinerary, another charming German village with painted houses. This town is famous for its Passion Play,performed every ten years since the 1600’s — because of a promise made by the townspeople for being spared from the Plague. It is also known for its wood-carving, and this is where we purchased our lovely cuckoo clock.
   We left Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the morning and headed for Salzburg, Austria, famous for Mozart and The Sound of Music, and our next destination. During the afternoon, we took our self-guided walking tour of the Old Town, checking out Mozart’s Birthplace, Mozartplatz (Photo #23), Hohensalzburg (Photo #22), the white fortress on the hill above the city, and the lovely Mirabell Gardens (Photo #24), one of the locales made famous by the movie, based on the Von Trapp’s. We loved the view of the city from the footbridge over the Salzbach River.
    We left Salzburg, wishing we had more time to spend here, and headed first to Melk to tour the famous Melk Abbey (Photo #25). This is a positively beautiful place — even the museum was cool. The Library is exquisite, with over 80,000 volumes in a two-storey room with painted ceilings and other decorations. The Abbey Church is breath-taking, another Baroque masterpiece of gold and paint. We drove down into the town to see if we could get a photo of the Abbey from afar, high on its ridge above the city. We found the perfect view right on the Rhine River, on the edge of town.
    Vienna was next, and here was our opportunity to settle in for a while — we were staying in the Marriott for a full week, and although I had planned several all day excursions, we would have several days to do little or nothing. We upgraded our exchange and got access to the Executive Lounge which provides food and drink over the course of each day — this actually saved us quite a bit of money since we ate breakfast every day and dinner occasionally in the lounge.
    OUr first foray into the city was a walking tour down Kartnerstrasse, the main, pedestrian-only thoroughfare in the Altstadt (Old City). We marveled at Stephansdom (photo #26), the beautiful Gothic cathedral, which is surprisingly ornate inside, and were fascinated with its distinctive mosaic tile roof.
    Before returning to the hotel, we strolled through Stadtpark, right across from the Marriott, and took pictures in front of the golden statue of Johann Strauss Jr ("The Waltz King") (Photo #27).
       On our first full day in Vienna we decided to see the elegant city’s sights. We began by taking the U-bahn to Schonnbrunn Palace (Photo #28), the summer palace of Austrian monarchs since 1700. This stately, magnificent residence was built originally as a hunting lodge and expanded over the years. It now has 1,441 rooms and beautiful gardens and grounds. We decided to take the Audiotour which was very thorough although somewhat long. The Neptune Fountain and Gloriette were impressive, although views of the palace from the grounds were spoiled by scaffolding due to construction on the rear of the palace.

    As part of our tour, we were treated to a demonstration of strudel-making in the palace kitchen. It was extremely interesting, especially to Lee, and we got to sample some of the product at the end of the show — delicious!
    Then we headed back to the Altstadt to visit the city palace, Hofburg (Photo #29) which is a huge complex of buildings. We toured the Royal Apartments and the Imperial Silver Collection (once again, the audiotour was much too long and detailed).
    After a small dinner at the Executive Lounge, we headed to Golden Hall (also known as the Musikverein) (Photos 30 & 31), Vienna’s very famous concert hall, for our Mozart concert which we booked well in advance of our trip. The concert was fabulous in this beautiful venue (billed as one of the four best acoustical halls in the world). Besides the orchestra, there were several opera singers who performed selections from Mozart’s operas (Figaro, Zauberflute, Don Giovanni).  Lee’s night was made when they played Strauss’ Tales From the Vienna Woods as one of their encores.
    Our first excursion from Vienna was to Budapest, Hungary, a drive of only about 150 miles. As we entered the city, the parking issue was made much more difficult by the language barrier. However, we stumbled on a parking lot which, miraculously, was very close to the beginning of our planned walking tour.
    Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube River. We began in Pest, strolling along several pedestrian-only streets, and made our way to the river. The majority of tourist sights are in the Buda hills, so we crossed the famous Chain Bridge and took the funicular up to Buda Castle (Photos 32 & 35), a very imposing edifice which dominates the Buda landscape.   
    Across the square from the castle we found St Matthias’ Church, St Stephen’s Statue, and the fascinating Fisherman’s Bastion (Photos 33 & 34), an elevate walkway looking out over the river which is punctuated by several conical towers. We paid the admission to walk the walls and were rewarded with great views of Pest, the Danube, and Hungary’s impressive Parliament Building (Photo #36).
    We wandered the charming, narrow, cobblestone streets of the Castle district, shopped a bit at an outdoor crafts market across from the castle, and lingered over a beer and a snack at the Cafe Sisi, on Tarnok Utca. The beer (Aldersbacher) was great and the dessert, an incredible concoction called a Somlo Dumpling was postively "to die for"!
    After walking back to the river, we strolled down the river a bit to get a better view of the Parliament complex. Then we crossed back over to Pest, had dinner at a restaurant on the major pedestrian thoroughfare, Vaci Utca, then left the city and returned to Vienna.


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