The last time I flew out of San Diego on an early morning flight, I almost missed the flight because the lines to check in and through security were so long. When 200 pair of eyes stare at you when you’re the third to last person to step on the plane, you remember what that’s like and vow not to let it happen again.
This time I arrived at the airport almost 3 hours in advance of my flight hoping to avoid the previous experience, and, wouldn’t you know it, I breezed through check-in and security in about 20 minutes. So I began the trip with over two hours of early morning thumb-twiddling.
The flights from San Diego to Atlanta, and from Atlanta to Frankfurt were great; both arrived ahead of schedule. It’s funny how, as soon as the wheels hit the ground, all the cell phones come on and people check for messages or emails.
On the overseas flight from Atlanta to Frankfurt, I had a lay-flat seat which was great. It wasn’t exactly the most comfortable in terms of the cushions on the seat, but the ability to go completely horizontal for part of the 8.5 hour flight was amazing.
While on the ground at Frankfurt, I got my first glimpse of the new Airbus A380 megaplane–the one with two decks of passenger seating for the entire length of the plane. As I recall, it holds nearly 525 people in a three class configuration or up to 853 in a single class configuration. (Okay, I just Googled those numbers.) Huge.
I used a German auto rental company, SIXT, for the first time because they were about 2/3 the cost of Hertz (which I normally use), and was on the road to my grandfather’s hometown of Schöntal my little VW Golf by mid-morning.
On the way to Schöntal, there was some rain and even a little light snow, so I didn’t try to get my Golf up to 160 km/hr (100 mph) on the Autobahn. Played it safe at about 140 km/hr.
I arrived at the family guest house and met Wolfram and Gudrun right around 12:30 PM (I told them I’d be there between 12:00 PM and 1:00 PM.) It was good to see them again and get caught up over a lunch of wurst, lentils, and spatzles.
My jet lag was kicking in a little, so in mid-afternoon I took an hour-long siesta in my room.
Later in the afternoon, Wolfram had a few errands to run and then wanted to go to the opening ceremony of the Christmas markets in nearby Schwäbisch-Hall.
We stopped in a home improvement store along the way to pick up some parts that he needed for repairs around the guest house. Think Home Depot, but only a bit smaller.
Schwäbisch-Hall has been around for over a thousand years, and its town center is where the Christmas market was set up. Wolfram introduced me to my first Gluhwein (warm mulled wine with spices), which was quiet tasty. We also bought a bratwurst from one of the vendors as an evening snack.
There was a cute fife and drum corps of kids that came parading into the square and played a few Christmas carols. Afterwards, there was a group of men and women who played Alphorns which was quite interesting. Alphorns always sound so mournful when they play.
We got back to the guest house around 8:00 PM and stayed up talking until nearly 10:30 PM. It really was the first time since I began visiting them in 2007 where we had time to talk through the day and evening. They had only one other guest that they had to take care of this time; usually, they’re so busy running the guest house that we never had time to talk before.
Friday, 30 November – Schöntal to Würzburg
Before leaving Schöntal, I took a walk into the abbey and stopped at the little bakery to buy some Wibele (little sweet cookie/cracker thingies) to take to Daniel, Martina, and the girls in Würzburg.
Wolfram and Gudrun had me stay for lunch (soup, more wurst, and potato dumplings), and then I was off to Würzburg.
I checked into the hotel (not using a word of English!) and then hopped onto the tram to downtown Würzburg to check out the Christmas market there.
Christmas markets are much better seen at night with the lights, but they’re still fun in the daytime, too. Each seems to have a collection of stands or huts that has a vendor selling something. I saw everything from ornaments, to sweets, to Gluhwein and punsch (that’s the German way of spelling it), to wood carvings, to leather goods, to hats, scarves, gloves, and even socks. Oh. Of course, there’s the wurst, too.
Daniel and Martina have two daughters, Madita (5) and Annika (3), and they just moved into their new house a week earlier because they were pregnant again (due a week later on 7 December) and needed more room. I felt bad that I was disrupting their unpacking and getting settled, but they insisted it wouldn’t be a problem.
We just had a very relaxing and enjoyable evening in their new home, having a dinner of Raclette cheese on potatoes with the sides that go with it.
I had fun practicing my German with Annika and Madita… I feel I’m at about the same level as them. (You know how you can see a toddler wanting to express himself but just doesn’t know the right word yet–that’s me with my German much of the time.)
Saturday, 1 December – Würzburg to Munich
After a nice European style breakfast in the hotel, I checked out and went to take my little Golf to the train station to turn it in before taking the train to Munich. But, after living in San Diego for a while now, I forgot about a little something called frost.
My little Golf was covered in a thick layer of frost. Fortunately, there was a tiny little ice scraper in the car, and it took me about ten minutes to scrape the white stuff from all of the windows. Fun.
Once again, I erred on the side of caution on two fronts. First, I arrived at the car rental office around 9:15 AM. It didn’t open until 10 AM. More thumb-twiddling in a cold car.
Second, when I made the reservations for the car rental, they said that the office at the train station normally doesn’t handle rentals and drop offs; there’s a service branch where the cars are stored about 2 miles from the train station. Not knowing whether that would cause a problem, I planned two hours to figure out how to turn my car in and booked my train to leave at 12:05 PM.
When the office at the train station opened at 10 AM, the clerk took my keys and I was done in about 30 seconds. Gee. Two more hours of thumb-twiddling.
The train ride to Munich lasted about 3 hours and there was a lot of frost, ice fog, and some snow along the route.
My friend, Sigrid, met me at the train platform, and we decided to drop my bags off back at her home rather than try to tour Munich with them.
We talked for a little while and Sigrid decided to fix dinner of–you guessed it–wurst, spätzle, and roasted onions and tomatoes. (Are you picking up a recurring theme here??)
After dinner, we took the tram back to Marienplatz where one of the Christmas markets was set up. It was much larger than the one in Würzburg with many more people wandering through it.
Sunday, 2 December – Munich
In the morning, we headed off to see the Deutsches Museum. The Deutsches Museum is a collection of most everything technology, science, transportation, engineering, or astronomy related (and then some).
We spent the better part of five hours wandering through the museum and never saw it all. It’s probably not a place that’s for everyone, but I really enjoyed it.
In the evening, we returned to Sigrid’s home, had dinner (chicken–yea!) and talked into the night.
With Wolfrum and Gudrun, Daniel and Martina, and Sigrid, about half of the time they would speak in German and I was able to follow along about 80% of the time, which thrilled me. (I can understand more than I speak simply because I’ve listened to more over the Internet and don’t have the opportunity to speak here in the U.S.)
Monday, 3 December – Munich to Vienna
After breakfast, Sigrid took me back to the train station for my four-hour trip to Vienna.
One good thing about Europe is how interconnected everything is. It was just a matter of walking a few steps to the subway (U-bahn), buying a week-long transit pass, and hopping on the subway to within a couple of blocks of my hotel.
In the center of old Vienna is St. Stephens Cathedral (Stephansdom), and when I came up from the subway, you’re standing near the center of the city and near the cathedral on Kartner Strasse, a major pedestrian-only shopping district. It was just getting dark, and all of the Christmas lights were coming on, and all I could say was “Wow!”
I found my hotel pretty easily, checked in, and unpacked for my four nights there. Afterwards, I went to find someplace to eat, and came across a little local brew pub place that looked inviting.
The waiter was Czech but had lived in Chicago for a number of years and had just returned to Europe. He recommended the special which was a chicken breast stuffed with gorgonzola cheese and mushrooms, and it was delicious. So was the Weihnachtsbock beer.
After dinner, I just wandered the streets of central Vienna, taking it all in. Magical.
Tuesday, 4 December – Vienna
The morning was spent checking out the practice session of the Spanish Riding School, home of the famous Lippizaner horses. It would have been nice to have seen a show, but none was scheduled during my time in Vienna, so I had to settle for the practice session.
Even though the practice wasn’t as intense as I expected it to be (only 5 horses at a time), it was still very interesting to watch those amazing animals perform some of their special steps. One disappointing thing was that no photography was allowed, so just imagine a big white horse here:
Afterwards, I wandered over to one of the larger Christmas markets in Vienna at the city hall (Rathaus). Lots of good booths and one, in particular, that sold landjägers, a sort of dried salami stick.
The afternoon was the Vienna Boys Choir Advent Concert at the Musikverein music hall. (I got all dressed up in coat and tie for it.)
The hall itself was stunning, but once again, photography was prohibited (in theory), so I left my camera at the hotel. When I looked around, the only lighting in the entire room was the 10 chandeliers suspended from the ceiling and 8 large sconces on each side of the hall. There was no stage lighting or spotlights for the performers on stage.
The Vienna Boys Choir was smaller than I expected; there were only 24 boys on stage for their performance. Even though they were small in number, they were big in sound and purity of voice. Heavenly.
But there were some disappointments with the concert. Even though photography was prohibited, I think I was one of two people without a camera. People were snapping photos all night long. One guy, seated on the stage, even got up out of his seat, walked to within 10 feet of the choir, and started taking pics. Needless to say, I was a bit miffed.
The other thing was that people were talking throughout the performance, and that annoyed me even more. The choir sang with a piano accompaniment or a cappella, and hearing someone two seats away trying to blend in was just wrong.
That evening, I went for dinner for some Wienerschnitzel and then went back to the hotel and cranked out some postcards (at $2.75 a pop for postcard and postage, sorry if you didn’t get one!).
(Here’s some useless trivia for you… The name for Vienna in German in Wien (pronounced VEEN), and someone or something that comes from Wien is a Wiener (like someone from New York is a New Yorker). So Wienerschnitzel is schnitzel from Vienna. Sleep better tonight knowing that.)
Wednesday, 5 December – Vienna
Early in the day, I hopped on the U4 subway out to Schönbrunn Palace. Schönbrunn was the summer hunting palace of the Habsburgs (they ruled pretty much a good chunk of Europe for nearly 600 years up until World War I). The tour I went on covered 40 of the palace’s 1,440 rooms, and it was all very nicely done.
Outside, there’s a huge back yard for barbecues and free summer concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra every June. I didn’t hang out there too long, because it was about 38 degrees and drizzling.
In the front, there was a small Christmas market going on where I bought a pretzel and a mug of Amaretto-Kirsch Punsch (Amaretto-cherry punch). The punch was pretty tasty and warmed me up nicely. It was on the way back to the subway, though, that I learned the punsch had quite the punch to it–I was half drunk at 11:30 AM. Okay, maybe not half-drunk, but a good buzz was going on…
When I got off the subway near my hotel, I figured I’d hop on the tram that circles the city center and just see the city from the tram. Apparently, still under the influence of the punsch, I got on the wrong tram and was on my way to Bratislava or some other unknown point. After realizing I wasn’t going in a circle, I got of the tram and found my way back to my hotel for a nice little post-punsch nap.
Refreshed and in need of some healing, I went to St. Stephans Cathedral later in the afternoon. It’s a huge cathedral and was rather dark inside.
As I walked past a woman lighting a candle in prayer, I noticed that she dropped some bills from her wallet as she put some coins in the box for the candle. I picked up the 50 euro and 20 euro notes and returned them to her. She was a) shocked that she had dropped them and, b) shocked that I returned them. (Taking the equivalent of $91 from someone in the house of the Big Guy Upstairs is probably not the wisest of moves.)
That evening, I returned to the Rathaus Christmas market and had–you guessed it–a bratwurst in a bun for dinner. Yum.
Thursday, 6 December – Vienna
For some reason, I’ve learned to like European style open-air food markets, and Vienna has its own, called Naschmarkt. I started the day with a stroll through the market, looking at all of the different things that are available, even in the dead of winter.
One thing that I learned was how culturally diverse Vienna is, with a lot of influence from the Turkish, Czechs and Hungarians.
After the Naschmarkt, I stopped at the Treasury at the Hofburg Palace (the main home of the Habsburgs) to see some of the crown jewels that were used during the Habsburg reign. Impressive.
Nearby the palace was another, smaller Christmas market where I just had to try some Käsenockerl–a spätzle-like noodle, fried, and served with cheese. Yum.
No longer under the influence of Amaretto-Kirsch punsch, I was able to figure out the Ring Tram ride and did a full circle around the historic part of Vienna, stopping to get off to see a canal that’s part of the Danube River.
At the end of the ride, I stopped at the Globe Museum (yes, there really is a museum with just globes in it). They had globes from the 1600’s and it was interesting to see how they perceived the world before the days of satellite imagery.
Dinner was back at the Stadtbraueri where I had my first meal in Vienna, and my last meal there was roast pork, sauerkraut, and potato dumplings. Yum.
Friday, 7 December – Vienna to Frankfurt
I checked out of the hotel after breakfast and paid for my room in cash (their preferred payment method), and took the subway back to the train station where I had another hour and a half of thumb-twiddling before my train.
The ride took about 7.5 hours, but I got to see some pretty nice scenery along the way. (The bad things about traveling by train is that you can’t ask the engineer to stop every time you want to take a picture and you can’t hold the camera steady enough to take a clear picture.)
About halfway through the trip, I went to the bistro car for a lunch of–c’mon, say it with me–wurst and potato salad.
Two hours before my train passed through Würzburg on the way to Frankfurt, Martina gave birth to their new son, Simon. He’s a man after my own heart–punctual. He was due on the 7th and he was born just after noon on the 7th. Can’t get any more on-time than that. Mom and baby were doing fine.
I checked into my Holiday Inn Express near the airport around 7 PM and called it a night.
Saturday, 8 December – Frankfurt to San Diego
I left my hotel at 6:30 AM for my 10:15 AM scheduled departure and, once again, found short check-in and security lines, and had plenty of time for thumb-twiddling. As I wandered the gate area aimlessly, I ran across a guy wearing a t-shirt from my alma mater, Iowa State University. We chatted for a while and then went our separate ways.
There was a bit of turbulence on the way back, but all in all, the flight from Frankfurt to Atlanta was a good one. Clearing Customs and Border Patrol took less than half an hour.
When I had to go back through security after clearing Customs, I went to remove my belt and the buckle separated from the leather. Too much schnitzel, wurst, and dumplings, I’m sure.
I walked through my door here a mere 23 hours after leaving the hotel in Frankfurt. Yippee!
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