Europe – Week 2: Frankfurt, day trips and the Alps

Photos of our trip! “London”:, “Berlin”:, “Frankfurt Day Trips”:, “Munich”:, “Austrian Alps”:, “Florence”:, “Rome”:, NEW: “Vernazza”:, NEW:”Paris”: See also: “Europe – Week 1”:

With only a few dollars left and our ATM card lost somewhere in London, we arrived in Frankfurt. We still had a couple of credit cards, and made sure to get the Eurail pass validated at the train station before we left. I had contacted the bank before leaving Berlin and was able to get them to overnight a new card, so it was just a matter of waiting a day or two.

We were also able to save some money by staying with friends. Sarah’s “adopted parents” out in Ohio were stationed with the U.S. Air Force base there in Frankfurt. Jeff and his kids met us at the station and brought us back to their home in a sleepy suburb. After traveling for a week, they were a really welcome sight, and it was great to speak English again! They were able to spot us some Euro until our ATM card arrived.

Barb and Jeff played tour guides as we explored the German Rhineland. As we cruised Germany’s thoughtfully-designed autobahn highway system, we enjoyed rolling green hills (with alternating views of wind turbines and farms). The Rhineland is home to castles and folksy little towns, most notably St. Goar’s Rheinfels Castle and the town of Bacharach. The Rheinfels Castle is a trip with kids around. While we spent our time admiring the massive ruins of the 13th century castle, the girls found ways to keep themselves entertained. We climbed the towers and descended into the tunnels, at one point, splitting up and getting completely lost. The castle, once much larger than it is now, is still a labyrinthine network of passages and tunnels that came in handy for soldiers holding off a siege.

We eventually found our way out of the castle to drive out to Bacharach for shopping, hiking through vineyards, wine tasting and looking at really, really old buildings. We ate inside of an 700-year-old building at a restaurant called Altes Haus (not recommended). After dinner, we headed back home to regroup and relax. I spent some time repairing their wi-fi connection, which had ceased working after they moved their computer. A couple of hours later, the DSL modem and router were talking to each other like old friends, and I documented the entire setup in case they ever needed to redo the whole thing again. I was glad, after all the kindness they had shown us, to at least help out somehow.

The next morning, we headed out to Worms (pronounced Voems), where Martin Luther was tried and declared a heretic. Today, there’s a monument to Luther, but when we went it was under construction. Continuing past the monument, we admired the stained-glass windows .and sculptures of the Worms Cathedral. Worms also was once a center of Jewish culture; we visited the thousand-year-old Jewish cemetery in town. Later that day, Sarah and I ducked to the Gutenberg Museum forty-five minutes before closing while Barb and Jeff spent some quality time at a nearby café. The museum celebrates the invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenburg — it’s like a shrine to typography. We sprinted through the exhibits with less than an hour to see everything, and really would have liked to linger. I was able to snap a quick photo before I was politely and forcefully informed that no photography was allowed in the museum.

Back at the Longs’, I got in touch with the credit union. We were set to leave for Munich the next day, and the ATM card, which should have shipped “overnight” on Saturday, still hadn’t arrived. The banker kindly informed me that my ATM card was in her hand, and she was ready to ship it today, just could we please confirm the PIN number we’d like to use. Panic quietly made its presence known somewhere at the edge of my cognitive space, and I realized that we had two options. We could play international mail whack-a-mole: give them our schedule and hope that they manage to get our card to the right hotel, while we were staying there. Or, we could get our money some other way. Not really excited about the prospect of the former, I told the banker that I wanted to explore some alternatives. We could get the money sent via Western Union (for a fee), or we could take a cash advance against the credit card and transfer the balance the same day for little or no interest. We opted for the cash advance option.

The next morning, we said our goodbyes, and hopped a train for Munich for lunch with Anika, an old coworker of Sarah’s. What was supposed to be an hour-long stopover while we had lunch turned into a full day of…waiting. Anika was crazy busy at the university vet clinic and couldn’t meet us at 12 PM, “so let’s try 1 PM.” One o’clock became four o’clock, and four o’clock became “after work.” We spent the afternoon sleeping and reading magazines in the university park which we had the totally unexpected surprise of sharing with nude sunbathers (only a few, mostly men, and all over 50). We finally did meet up with Anika, who took us to the nearby biergarten for pretzels and — what else? — beer. With only a few hours left in the day, we headed back to the train station for the last train to Innsbruck, Austria.

From Innsbruck, it was a 20-minute cab ride to the adorable Hotel Bär in Patsch. We had booked it online with no real recommendations, and were glad to see that it was a quaint hotel nestled into the mountains. We were greeted cheerily by the staff and headed up to the room. We were grateful to find it clean and inviting, and amazed when we peeked out the back door to find a stunning view of the Austrian Alps (it was even better in the morning). The next day, at Sarah’s prompting, the concierge gave us some tips on hiking and directed us to nearby Patscherkofel Mountain. She had just climbed it the day before and it took her about two hours to reach the top. “For you, maybe three or four hours,” she said. We gathered some cheese, bread, apples and Nutella from our breakfast buffet, and headed out.

There’s no other way to put it: the hike was long. We followed a road back and forth up the
face of the mountain on an incline that just didn’t quit. At the start, we thought we would only need to go about four or five kilometers to reach the top, but by the time we reached Patscher Alm, we realized we were only maybe halfway. We considered turning back, but, in the end, decided we didn’t come to the Alps to climb halfway up a mountain, now did we? A few hours later, we made it to the peak. At the top, we found a little bit of snow, a broadcast antenna, a cross, and a breathtaking view of Innsbruck, a city that had twice hosted the Olympic Winter Games during the 20th century. We spent some time talking with a local Austrian — we had been passing each other all morning on the way up — who pointed out some of the highlights of the city and mountain range around us. When he was younger and living in Innsbruck, he told us, he would bike across town and up the mountain once a week, which sounded painful and fun.

While Sarah was totally fine on the way back down, I was really starting to feel the stress of a day’s worth of climbing (we later realized that this was actually signs of dehydration). Walking further really became pain management for me, but we were racing against the clock as the sun set behind the mountains. We had to move quickly: there weren’t any streetlights on the road, and visibility was dropping quickly. It took a couple of hours, but we made it to the hotel, just in time for dinner. Not wanting to have to leave our room once we got there, we decided to drag our weary bodies to dinner first. We actually met a couple that spoke English — he was from the States and she was from Australia. I did my best to be sociable despite wanting to just collapse over my salad.

The dehydration didn’t get much better (and, um, the beer I had with dinner didn’t exactly help), so we considered staying an extra night at the hotel. We weren’t excited about the prospect of losing a day, though, so I just drank water like it was going out of style and sat in a warm bath until the pain went away. Thankfully, by morning I was able to function again as a human being. We booked a hotel over wi-fi that morning and headed out for our next destination in Florence, Italy.

Europe – Week 1: London and Berlin

Update: We’re back to the grind, but writing takes time. In the meantime: photos! “London”:, “Berlin”:, “Frankfurt Day Trips”:, “Munich”:, “Austrian Alps”:, “Florence”:, “Rome”:

Our first week in Europe has been harrowing and exhilirating. The first two stops — London and Berlin — were vibrant cities rich with history that Sarah and I can relate to and even remember.

London is a bustling center of fashion and high finance, and we found ourselves right at home with the pace of the city that was very much like New York. While the only Londoners we met were people trying to sell us stuff (again, not too unlike NYC), many of the people we interacted with were kind. Our favorite person by far was Alan, our double-decker bus tour guide. With his microtirades on the “Gherkin” building and the Fergie’s pop video “London Bridge”, he was like Ricky Gervais on a bus — his occasionally sarcastic Tour Guide role played very much like David from the BBC comedy, The Office.

I have to admit that it took a while for London’s charms to set in, but it finally happened while we were standing in Trafalgar Square at dusk. Standing in front of the National Gallery as Big Ben lit up in the distance — just breathtaking. That same afternoon, we’d had a delicious High Tea at the historically frou-frou Fortnam & Mason hotel. Even the photos of our food makes me hungry for scones and Earl Grey.

We left London after a break-neck tour of the National Museum, seeing _the_ Rosetta Stone — used by archeologists to translate hieroglyphs and unlock 4000 years of ancient written culture — Assyrian stone tablets and gates, and the greek Elgin Marbles, which the Apostle Paul likely saw in the Acropolis when he arrived in Rome.

We’d run out of cash on the last of our three days in London, so I went to use the ATM. I should have known there was a problem with our card when I had tried to download an album from iTunes just the night before and the transaction was rejected. Sure enough, the ATM gobbled up our card, with no way of getting it back. We had a whole 20 GBP left to make it through the day in crazy-expensive London while we waited for an opportune time to call the bank.

After the museum, we grabbed a cheap lunch from a nearby supermarket, caught the tube to the airport and took a flight to Berlin.

Getting to Berlin is a story in itself as we flew into town at 10:30 PM — apparently past closing time for the ticket counter. With our Eurail pass yet to be validated, we risked having the pass confiscated or facing a 40 Euro fine. With 92 pence left in my pocket, we prayed as we rode the S-Bahn into town that we would be able to avoid either of these dire consequences. No one ever checked our pass.

Berlin is an amazing city with a short and dramatic history. Once the home of Hitler’s totalitarian regime only to become the site of American/USSR tensions during the Cold War, the city is now rebounding under unified Germany. Our efforts to get a new ATM card sent to our next stop killed half a day, sending me trolling around the city for free Wi-Fi. Later that afternoon, though, we were able to take in the sights as we walked through Rick Steves’ do-it-yourself tour on Bus #100. The bombed-out Wilhelm Memorial Church near Bahnhof Zoo and the shelling damage in the marble Victory Column in Tiergarten were not-so-subtle reminders of Berlin’s recent past, and it was eerie to stand there and imagine the sounds of air raid sirens and tanks as American forces bombarded the city during World War II.

Stranger still were the sights of Nazi sculptures nestled in the trees around the Victory Column — which was moved to the “Central Park” of Berlin by Hitler himself in anticipation of the victory marches following the defeat of the Allied forces. Further uptown we found the impressively large Reichstag parlimentary building. The proud hulk of a building stands as reminder of the hope of a unified Germany. Outside the building is the memorial to the early senators who were persecuted and killed because they opposed Hitler as he rose to power. We walked south of the Reichstag to find Brandenburg Gate and, beyond it, Pariser Square. The Berlin Wall once cut right past this gate and, as we crossed into what used to be East Berlin, we were astonished to find a Starbucks. We sat and had a latté from one of the most capitalist of institutions inside of what, only 40 years ago, was one of the most fortified communist strongholds.

From there, we toured Unter den Linden and strolled past fancy car dealerships, embassies, and historic landmarks (including the Hotel Adlom, where Michael Jackson dangled his child from the balcony). We took in the sights and made our way to what used to be known as Checkpoint Charlie, where a replica of the original gate stands alongside a new and bewildering museum remembering the stories of those daring enough to escape into West Berlin.

The next day, still strapped for cash, we stopped short of entering the Pergamon museum to see the Gates of Ischtar — an ancient Assyrian structure which we’d seen pieces of in the Metropolitan Museum of Art just the week before. Not able to pay the 10 Euro admittance for each of us, we settled instead on buying a small cardboard cut-out for our pastor, who is now preaching through the Book of Daniel.

Afterwards, we boarded a train for our next stop, Frankfurt, with a handful of small bills and cheese sandwiches we’d created from our hotel’s breakfast buffet.