Meandering through Munich

Munich – Prost! (Cheers)

(For more pictures from Munich, scroll through the slideshow at the bottom of this post)

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It took me a day (plus a stein or two) to warm up to Munich. After breathing in the fresh air of Austria’s alps for three days, it was disappointing to walk out of the Munich train station and find myself in a smelly, flat city. I wanted to hop the next train back to Austria, but I was booked in Munich for five nights, more time than I had allotted for any other city. On top of that, I was developing a case of end-of-trip blues. Munich was my last major stop. I had to find a way to make the most of it.

So I did what all good tourists do in Munich. I went to the beer hall. In my defense, I went on a historical walking tour, met a crowd of fellow backpackers, and then went to the beer hall.

Mini history lesson on Munich

  • Munich, or Munchen, translates to “by the monks” in old German
  • When the city was taken over by the Swedish army in the 1600s, it didn’t have enough gold to purchase its freedom. Instead, officials paid the Swedish army in beer
  • Modern day Oktoberfest began in the 1800s, as a celebration of prince Ludwig’s marriage to princess Theresa (Ironically, Ludwig was the guy no one liked because he taxed beer to build opera houses)

Our eight person beer hall crew (three Australians, two Canadians, an American, a Colombian and a girl from Taiwan) toured four different beer halls, including the famous Hofbrauhaus. Hofbrauhaus is a magical place where even locals wear lederhosen, waiters cart four steins of beer in each hand, and visitors belt German drinking songs and “prost!” (cheers) with complete strangers.

Beautiful Bavaria

Neuschwanstein Castle, my new place

Neuschwanstein Castle, my new place

At this point in my trip I had seen my share of old town squares and Gothic architecture, so after visiting Munich’s main sites such as Marienplatz, St. Peter’s Church and the English Garden, I spent my remaining time day-tripping to the Bavarian alps. My first day-trip was a no-brainer. I had been planning on visiting Neuschwanstein Castle in the outlying town of Fussen since I first decided to backpack Europe.

Ludwig II built Neuschwanstein in the 1800s but didn’t finish the inside of the castle before he died. The outside is impressive enough. Neuschwanstein was the inspiration behind the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland. Basically, it’s the ultimate princess castle. After seeing pictures of it on the Internet for so long, it was pretty spectacular to gaze up at its turrets in person.

I was really torn about what to do on my last day in Munich. I almost stayed in the city and went to the BMW museum, but I knew it was my last chance to see the alps. So following a suggestion on my hostel map, I hopped a train to the unpronounceable town of Garmisch Partenkirchen, alp central and site of the 1936 Winter Olympics.

Day-tripping to Bavaria is worth it just for the train rides. You basically spend an hour and a half with your face stuck up against the window, rolling through tiny German towns with wooden cottages and cows grazing out front. And then out of nowhere, the alps pop up in the background. The view is stunning.

The big attraction in Garmisch Partenkirchen is the Zugspite. At 2962 metres, it’s Germany’s highest mountain. I wasn’t quite equipped to scale it in my suede boots and pea coat, so I opted for the more touristy hike to the Partnach gorge, followed by a climb up the smaller Eckbauer mountain.

Hiking in Bavaria actually reminds me of hiking New Brunswick’s Fundy Trail. Except the hills are mountains and the water is aqua green because it’s rushing down stream from a glacier. So basically, it’s like the Fundy Trail on steroids. I definitely made the right decision to spend my last day in Munich in the alps. Cities are great, but I could stare at the snow-capped peaks of the alps forever.

Munich Favourites:

HOFBRAUHAUS: The best way to experience Oktoberfest culture outside of Oktoberfest. Beer is served by the litre. You’ll never want to leave.

THE BAVARIAN ALPS: Only one or two hours from Munich by train, depending on where you go. You can buy a Bavarian ticket for 22 euros that gets you unlimited travel in the region (including local buses) after 9am.

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NEXT STOP: Frankfurt, Germany

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Singing for Salzburg

Salzburg – “The hills are alive…”

(For more pictures from Salzburg, scroll through the slide show at the bottom of this post)

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It’s official. I love being up high. You get the best pictures, and it’s the best place to make the rest of the world fall away. So when I got to Salzburg, an old Austrian city at the base of the alps, I headed for the hills.

Most people know Salzburg as Mozart’s birthplace, and as the backdrop for The Sound of Music, but the city’s history is actually based in salt mining. Salzburg translates to “salt castle.” Salt was shipped down the Salzach River on barges as early as the eighth century.

I confess I didn’t pay as much attention to the city’s history as I normally do. I did tour the iconic Hohensalzburg Fortress with an audio guide, but I was too pre-occupied with the view to take in anything else. Not only could you see the city and the river stretched across the rolling green hills of Austria’s country-side, but from the back of the fortress you could see the snow-capped alps. It was morning, and the tip of one mountain was still hidden behind a fluffy white cloud. That was all it took for me to want to run singing across the mountainside channeling Fraulein Maria.

So after forcing myself down the hill to visit Mozart’s birthplace and Getreidegasse, Salzburg’s famous shopping lane, I hiked back up just to gaze longingly at the alps. There are walking paths all over Salzburg. I hiked to a lookout area, sat on a bench and soaked in the scene.

What really got to me was the air. It was the most fresh, crisp fall air I have ever inhaled. I felt like an oxygen pump had been attached to my lungs. I just wanted to stay up there forever and breathe.

The art of the self-guided tour

The hostel I stayed at played The Sound of Music every night at 7PM. I may have watched it two nights in a row. And I was all set to board the tacky Sound of Music bus for the guided tour, until I read the brochure and realized I had already visited half the sites while walking around the city. For 40 euros, I figured I might as well visit something I hadn’t seen.

The problem is I’m a horrible decision maker. Should I visit the famous salt mines, the picturesque lake district, or Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest? I wanted to see everything, but the combination tours were 75 euros. Way out of my price range.

So I started researching, and through the holy grail that is Trip Advisor, I learned I could use public transit to get to the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden. From there, I could visit the salt mines and catch a bus to the Eagle’s Nest for half the price of a guided tour. Backpacking win.

Posing with the Eagle's Nest

Posing with the Eagle’s Nest

So that’s what I did. The salt mine was so-so. I was accidentally given a German audio guide and spent the first half of the tour completely clueless until they were able to switch it. But the Eagle’s Nest is a must-see because of the view. Hitler’s old headquarters (now a restaurant) is 1,834 metres above sea level. The bus ride up is a nail-biting, “oh-my-goodness-the-bus-is-about-to-roll-off-the-side-of-this-mountain-and-we’re-all-going-to-die” kind of ride. But it’s worth the panic attack once you’re at the top. There’s something about being up that high. It’s impossible to worry or stress about anything. It’s just you, the snow-capped mountain and the view.

Normally I try to include a range of photos in my blog posts, including pictures of buildings, city landmarks, food, etc. But in Salzburg that didn’t happen because all I did was climb mountains. So I apologize in advance for the landscape spam.

Salzburg Favourites:

THE HILLS: The city is great, but the real appeal of Salzburg lies in its stunning views. Pick a walking path and start climbing!

THE EAGLE’S NEST: No need for a guided tour, you can get there using public transit. But read about the history before you go, Hitler’s headquarters is now a restaurant catering to tourists, not a museum.

***Indicates landmark from The Sound of Music

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NEXT STOP: Munich, Germany