Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ask Wednesday: What did you do on your summer vacation?

We went to Europe

By Morris Dean

Early this year we purchased tickets to fly from Charlotte to Sofia (by way of Munich) to visit our son and take in the Rila Music Exchange 2014. As it transpired, our son wasn't going to be in Bulgaria for the event. What to do? Our air tickets were nonrefundable. I was okay with simply not using them. The money's spent, so cut your losses.
    But Carolyn hated to just throw the money away like that. Maybe we could use the to-Munich portion and visit some places in Germany. I wasn't keen on this – we would be doubling or tripling the total amount we'd have spent, for one thing.
    But Carolyn was eager and I tend to go along with what she wants to do. After all, she would plan everything and propose where we would go and what we would do – my own personal travel agent. Carolyn did a fine and thorough job making our hotel reservations and purchasing train tickets in advance. We had been going to rent a car (I had already made a reservation with Hertz), but Carolyn learned after some research that so much was different about driving in Germany (speed limits, traffic signs and signals, turning, passing, parking, accident rates), it might be prudent to use taxis and trains. My nephew Steve Glossin, who has lived in Bavaria for about 35 years, agreed that that was a wise choice:

The train is a smart move on your part, in my opinion. Driving on the autobahn has gotten worse since the wall went down and the European Union has made border crossings easier. Truck and car traffic has increased and it becomes a nightmare at times with construction and accidents. Our last trip to Switzerland was by train and we enjoyed it.
    Another reason I wasn't keen on using those air tickets was that I really dislike traveling, especially when long airplane flights are involved, so, as the weeks came and went and it got down to days before departure, it became harder and harder for me to remain calm about the impending trip. ​I imagined one of us having to be hospitalized. I imagined we might be mugged. I imagined one us might die over there and the survivor have to get the dead body home. I imagined these things, and feared them, even if I didn't actually expect them to happen.
    I was trying to remain upbeat about the trip, for Carolyn's sake, but I realized that my apprehensions were so strong I might not be able to contain my angst and maintain my role as cooperative traveling companion. I didn't expect to enjoy the trip, but I wanted my wife to enjoy it.
    And we both did look forward to connecting with our daughter, who found out a few weeks before our departure that she would be in Basel, Switzerland on business while we were in Europe. Carolyn changed the itinerary to include Basel.
    I can say now – now that the trip is over and two weeks later I'm trying to write about it – while the travel and the stress of hotels, restaurants, taxis, trains, etc. were painful, I mostly remember the good stuff, so the trip was okay, and I'm buoyed by the knowledge that my wife found delight it in.

Departure. On August 31, strapped into our non-refundable seats overlooking the left wing of our Lufthansa 7-something-7, which was due to leave the gate for takeoff to München, we heard the announcement that one passenger hadn't boarded and there would be a short delay while his two bags were found and removed from the airplane. Possible terrorist threat, I guessed, so the TSA wasn't going to say screw him, he may not be going to Germany but his bags are.
    The itinerary that Carolyn had worked out (and sought my formal agreement on) was four nights in Munich, three in Würzburg, three in Basel, then a final night in Munich before flying home on September 12.
    The following descriptions touch on only a few of the things we did and places we went. Like the trip itself, memory of it tends to be a blur, impressions all jumbled up, the painful parts thankfully mostly forgotten, the photos mostly conjuring up the "good stuff" that the trip did, in fact, include.

Munich for four nights. The worst disorientation and anxiety of the whole trip was naturally trying to get from the Munich airport to our hotel. We had three suitcases and my backpack. Picture two older people trying to get on the right train and pull and lug their bags through the door before it closed.
    Get on the right train we didn't. And the one we did get on stopped and refused to go on. So we got off and waited for a train going back to the airport. It came, Carolyn got on, but the shoelaces of one of my shoes came untied and got jumbled up worse than I'd ever seen. I bent down to try to straighten the mess, my mind becoming a buzz of hot confusion. On the one hand, I knew that I and the two bags I was pulling, and my backpack, were all about to get left behind. On the other, I was pretty confident that if I and most of our luggage did get left behind I could just stay there with it and Carolyn would probably be able to figure out how to come back to get us. But a young man on the train who had sized up the situation, forced the train doors back open and jumped out to help me. I didn't miss the train after all, but I was terribly shaken up and exhausted. I sat down in significant shame and self-mortification.
    Then when we emerged from the subway in the general vicinity of our hotel, we started off in a direction we only learned a half-hour later was away from the hotel....
    As I emailed my sister and two nieces I think five nights later,

the trip has been both better and worse than I anticipated. The expected bads have been even more irritating and insufferable than imagined. Initial disorientation and anxiety. Walking on cobblestones is very hard on my body (and on Carolyn's). City sewage smells. Noisy crowds – especially groups of women. Money flying away at restaurants (we each had two glasses of water at dinner last night [in Würzburg]; we were charged over 2.5 euros for each one – over $13 total). But some of the sights are thrillingly beautiful. The gardens. Some of the food – so beautifully presented. The orderliness of German society. Very few of the disrespectfully ill-behaved young people encountered in America....Those are some examples.
Rolf & Susan Dumke, Alps in the distance
    Our first full day in Germany we visited some friends in Rosenheim, about 40 minutes east of Munich by train. We had walked to Munich's Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) – less than half a mile from our hotel – our first evening to learn about buying a train ticket, so we felt confident we could do this. The Dumke's treated us cordially for eight hours, feeding us, regaling us with tales of their lives and professions, driving us around the countryside, showing us some sights. It was a very good day.
Munich's Hauptbahnhof main lobby (Carolyn, right, in purple coat)

Advertising near Munich's Rathaus (city government offices)

Viktualienmarkt near Hotel Louis (food market)

Maypole in Viktualienmarkt

Poster map of Englischer Garten [click to enlarge]

Locals sport in stream running into Englischer Garten

Pigeons navigated their vulnerable lives almost everywhere
    I said that one of the things I had imagined and feared was that we might be mugged. Well, our third night in Munich we talked with a fellow American in a restaurant who had been mugged, by a pair of men working together, one to distract him while the other man rushed by and off with one of the American's suitcases – the one with his laptop and cameras and documents, as it turned out. Unfortunately, he seemed to need to talk and talk and talk about this (I might have needed to talk about it too, if it had happened to us), so we left the restaurant as soon as we reasonably could to get away from him.
    Another thing I had been apprehensive about in visiting Germany was whether I'd find suitable vegetarian fare. Rolf Dumke had reassured me on that point and made some suggestions. We found the salads and breads excellent. Hotel Louis spoiled us for breakfast, which was included in the hotel rate. At 6:30 a.m. it started serving a large variety of breads, jams, juices, fruits, granolas, muesli. It had a lot more to choose from; I just mention the sorts of foods I myself would have.

Würzburg for three nights. Our train trip from Munich took only a little over two hours. We had treated ourselves to a taxi at 8:30 a.m. to go from the Hotel Louis to the Hauptbahnhof, boarded our train without incident, napped en route (I did anyway), and arrived in Würzburg precisely on schedule at 11:31. We walked the quarter-mile to the Novotel, checked in, walked a quarter-mile to a small cafe for lunch (we each had a vegetarian thin-crust pizza), visited the visitor's center, found a store to buy a liter bottle of water, took a 40-minute "train" ride tour of the city (the train had tires rather than ride on rails) – both of us nodding off during the tour – then stumbled "home" to the Novotel, where Carolyn took a serious nap.
    The sun shone more in Würzburg than it had in Munich and Rosenheim. Würzburg (c. 134,000 population) seemed very pleasant, a relief after busy Munich. It's a highly educated city; it boasts about 15 Nobel Prize winners (in physics, chemistry, & medicine – including Röentgen for the discovery of X-rays).
    Würzburg is the location of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Center Site Residence Palace, a "principal work of South German Baroque architecture, one of the most important castles in Europe, built from 1720-1744 based on the design by Balthasar Neumann." On our walk the first afternoon, we passed a house where Neumann lived while there.
Aboard train to tour Würzburg

Street from Novotel to Würzburg's central market area

Würzburg had pigeons too, and I was always drawn to them
    From a few days walking on crowded German streets, I was impressed how natives tended to walk right through me. I was frequently moving aside to avoid being collided with. But people otherwise seemed extraordinarily respectful of other people's right of way (and they probably wouldn't have walked through me if I had been as aggressive as they were). The evident reality is that Germany is extremely well-organized and orderly. Somehow, everyone has been effectively schooled in what behavior is acceptable and what is not. I liked this about their society and I think America might be a lot better off if it were more like Germany in this regard, and shedded its "fuck you" attitudes.
    Our tour of the Residence the next day was, simply put, outstanding, in no small part because our English-speaking guide was so informative and more professional a communicator and interlocutor than one can hope to have in a tour guide. He was magnificent. Unfortunately, photography was strictly forbidden inside the Residence, so I have nothing to show you of the place's Baroque perfection – most of it restored from being nearly obliterated by American bombing on March 16, 1945. Many of the precious contents had been removed to safety beforehand, even though, as our guide told us ironically, such precautions were against the law, because it betokened lack of faith in the German army's ultimate success in the war. (We had learned from Rolf Dumke that he had been a refugee from Germany following the war, which was how he ended up in America and became a classmate of mine at Yale.)

Poster map of Residenz grounds [click to enlarge]

Statue in Residenz garden (Zeus raping Europa, we surmised)

Residenz from garden behind
    Novotel's only option for breakfast would have cost us 18 euros ($24) apiece for the buffet, and restaurants were blocks away and didn't start serving until about 8:30.
    It became clear the evening after we visited the Residence that I had caught a cold virus or bug. After breakfast the next day, we walked back to the Novotel, and Carolyn proceeded alone to cross the River Main and visit the Marienberg Fortress. I tried to read, then went to sit and read outside in Novotel's courtyard while our room was cleaned.
    I spent part of the afternoon in bed while Carolyn returned to the Residence, but I walked to dinner with her (to the same restaurant we'd found for breakfast – Café Schönborn) and I had a wonderful apfelstrüdel with vanilla sauce for dessert.
Our favorite restaurant in Würzburg

Apfelstrudel at Café Schönborn (I almost forgot to photograph it)
    We also visited the cathedral in honor of St. Killian, an Irish Catholic missionary who was assassinated in Würzburg in about 682. Much of this and surrounding buildings were also more or less destroyed by American bombs on March 16, 1945. The historically prominent ones have been restored.

Cathedral in Würzburg

Cathedral's modernistic touch
    I thought I might be feeling better. Tomorrow would tell. Our train to Basel would leave at 10:30 a.m, and we expected to have dinner with Jennifer.
Board at Würzburg bahnhof showing train to Frankfurt

We waited an hour in Frankfurt for our train to Basel

Basel for three nights. After the S-bahns (trains) in Munich, we found the trams of Basel extremely convenient and ubiquitous. The Hotel Au Violon's printed instructions for getting there from the bahnhof were explicit and, with some directions from a fellow passenger, we found Au Violon easily.
    Even though the very friendly and helpful clerk gave us a pass to ride the trams as much as we wanted free, we decided to walk across the River Rhine to Jennifer's hotel. She had only arrived a short while earlier so wanted to shower before we went to dinner. Our train trip from Würzburg was about an hour and a half longer than scheduled, due to a long delay in the train we changed to in Frankfurt (a rare delay in orderly, well-organized Deutschland), so I had arrived fairly bushed, although I somehow felt better as far as my viral infection went. It was good to sit in Jennifer's hotel room for an hour.
    We happily followed Jennifer's lead to a nice Italian restaurant a block away, to a table on the sidewalk – very common, we were finding. I was too tired to say much during dinner. I remember that Carolyn and I had spaghetti, and Jennifer had prawns and French fries.
    Carolyn thought she was getting blisters on her feet, and I was exhausted, so we took Tram #6 back to Au Violon, which, like Munich's Hotel Louis, had two approaches. We took the approach this time that started with an elevator ride up about three floors from a steep alley near the tram stop. Most of Au Violon's rooms are located in a former prison (each cell having been paired with the one adjoining to make up a guest room), but our room, larger, was in the former police station. It was rustic and homey compared to the other hotels, and we had the best view of them all.

    It was fairly warm in Basel, with no air conditioning in the Hotel Au Violon. We had all our windows open the first night and the ceiling fan on. I slept fine almost naked on top of the covers. The sports bar cheering (for a soccer game with Manchester) didn't faze us; we slept very well. No birds came in (unless they departed without leaving any forensic evidence).
Jennifer & Carolyn on our stroll before dinner out last night in Basel
    We visited St. Elizabeth Church (early 19th century Protestant) the first morning (after a modest but quite satisfactory breakfast that was included in the room rate), then to the Münster Cathedral, which originated circa 1000 as Catholic, but reformed, with some desecration of Roman icons, in the 16th century. Then to the Marktplatz, where we had sandwiches from a vendor and visited the adjacent Rathaus (town hall), which is having a 500th centennial for something I didn't quite catch or understand. We rode Tram #6 back to the hotel – one stop away.
Interior St. Elizabeth Church

Mechanical fountain near St. Elizabeth Church (which is behind the camera)
    The Münster Cathedral is adjacent to the Rhine, which I estimate to be 500-800 feet wide at that point – very near the bridge we traversed to reach Jennifer's hotel.

Bridge across the Rhine from Big to Little Basel
(The Münster is roughly behind the camera)

Model of the Münster

Facade of the Münster with clocks

Inside the Münster

Paving in progress down from the Münster

    Basel is "cozy" – very narrow, curving, up-and-down streets. Pleasant and comfy. Our first morning, a young woman pushing her daughter in a stroller saw us consulting our map and volunteered assistance. She sounded American, so I asked her. She was from California and her husband works in the pharmaceutical industry; they had moved to Basel only this year.
    We ate at a McDonald's the second evening. I thought it was a must. The little we had to eat there cost almost $20. We didn't go to a McDonald's in Germany to compare prices, but food was definitely significantly more expensive in Switzerland than in Germany.

Birds lunching too in the market in front of Basel's Rathaus

The Rathaus

Inside the Rathaus

Public good the highest law

The vigor of youth

Munich for one more night. About all we did for our final day in Germany was return to the Englischer Garden to find the Chinese Tower, which we thought we had visited the first time, but learned later that the tower we had exulted in reaching that time hadn't been it after all. The walk from the Hotel Preysing was fairly long, almost two miles, and neither of us was in much of a shape to walk it quickly.
Crossing the Isar River toward the Englischer Gardens
    The only things I found rewarding about the Chinese Tower were that we actually found it and Carolyn seemed delighted to see it. I thought of our vacation as mostly hers, after all. She had wanted to come, and she had done all of the work planning it an building our itinerary.

The Chinese Tower

Poster map of the Chinese Tower area
    And she had been a consistently pleasant, upbeat travel companion, much better than I had been. I shall always treasure the memory of her smiles and encouragements.
    I only regret that we were unable to arrange to see my nephew & his wife while we were in Würzburg, which is near the city to which they are in the middle of moving their household. They were burdened with chores in the town they are leaving.

    There was a restaurant almost next door to the Chinese Tower, and already at shortly after 4:30 p.m. it was open for dinner. The dessert was photogenic, and as we sat there in the knowledge that this had been our last dinner of the trip, I found myself feeling nearly euphoric – the best I had felt on the whole trip: Tomorrow we were going home!
    But that night I was visited by new black thoughts about flying and, remembering that possible terrorist who hadn't boarded the flight from Charlotte, I fantasized our airplane crashing or being blown up, and that being the end.

Nothing. Nowhere. No here. No there. No sensations. No longings. No thoughts. No memories. No regrets. No needs. No future. No past. Black. Over and out.

Copyright © 2014 by Morris Dean


  1. You made it over and back in one piece - job done!!

    1. Penny, is that the most one can ever hope for with travel? I thought so!

  2. Well Morris it sounds like you really enjoyed yourself---kind of makes me want to go jump on a the next flight to hell and see if I can't one up you.

    Pictures were good, however, did Carolyn take them?

    1. Ed, thanks for attesting to the great literary power of my account.

  3. Enjoyed the post. Really sorry we couldn"t get together. Nice photos.


    1. Maybe next time, Steve, if Carolyn makes me return to your part of Europe....

  4. What an awesome trip, Morris! I would do what Carolyn said too! Have you noticed the color of her hair?! ha! Thanks so much for sharing your trip.

  5. Lovely pics and your narrative was great.

  6. Enjoyed the post and all the great pictures ! Thanks for sharing ! Glad you all are home safely !

    1. I'm glad we got home too! It isnt time yet for that description of death at the end to be applied in my case.

  7. Oh my! My apologies on Carolyn's hair color. I obviously didn't read the caption at the bottom of the pic to find out it was a pic of your friends and not you guys. Mercy! I'm so sorry. You must have been scratching your head for the past few days. I'm so sorry!

    1. No problem, Vic. I thought you were simply saying that her hair is DARKER than mine (whose isn't? - mine's silvery gray) and therefore she has a younger, more forceful personality that is not to be opposed by an old codger like me. <smile>