Sunday, March 29, 2015

Garmisch Part Three: Neuschwanstein Castle and the Zugsptize

Recently Cody won a free 2 night stay in a hotel in Garmisch, so we took an all too short weekend road trip up to Germany. Emily is finally old enough to have real fun there, so we all found things we enjoyed. Our hotel was extremely child friendly, so even though we had 3 hours to kill before check in, Emily had a ball with coin-op games and a little theater set up for children in the lobby. When that got dull, we took a walk downtown for rides and time to run around the pedestrian zone.

Saturday morning we set out for Neuschwanstein Castle. This is the unfinished work of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. With limited powers and a total disinterest in state duties, he spent his time as king immersed in the operas of Wagner and built fanciful palaces far from the reaches official life. He was by all accounts was extremely introverted, preferring a world of creativity where he could be the king he imagined himself to be, one of romantic days gone by. He never married, therefore never produced an heir, and stopped attending official functions. At 40 years old, he was declared insane and thoroughly unfit to remain in power. He was arrested and taken to Munich. The king was found dead in Lake Starnberg one day later. The cause of death remains a mystery. The castle was opened as a museum six weeks after Ludwig's death.

I'm not real happy with these shots-harsh sunlight and no time to hike over to the foot bridge for the full sidelong view.

Walt Disney is said to have been inspired by Neuschwanstein. When we first reached the castle walls, and certainly when we began the tour, it felt like I was in a Fantasyland castle. Something about the idealized version of the past, and bold, bright decoration lend itself to Disney's brand of theme park experiences and storytelling. Here's a picture of the Singer's Hall, where the tour ended. It is still used for live performances every year.

photo credit

We took a horse and carriage ride down the hill where we stopped for lunch in the town of Hohenschwangau. The shuttles weren't running, and sometimes you just have to make sacrifices.

We hopped in the car and drove toward the Zugspitze, Germany's highest peak. The Garmisch area had snow as recently as Friday, and we were excited to take the seilbahn up to the top. Ever fearless, Cody and Emily stood right in front to watch the cable car fly so high it shot up at a 90 degree angle to reach the summit.

The frozen Eibsee to the left.

I liked this more than I thought I would. The snowy peaks go on as far as you can see. Halfway across the observation deck you can cross the border into Tirol, Austria. Peaceful and very beautiful.

On the way down we took a different seilbahn to connect with the train that runs up and down the mountain at a very steep incline mostly through a tunnel. It took a little longer, but it was fun for Emily.

We ended the day at our favorite Bavarian restaurant. It ended up being an interesting night to be there. The back room had a party booked for a large group of traditionally dressed Alpine men, some with beards curled up on each side in huge loops you could hold a tin can in. This is something I really like about Bavaria. Every time we pass through we always see people in dirndls and lederhosen and it isn't necessarily for the sake of tourists. On our drive out this morning, we came across a Bavarian band walking down a road toward a small church. Another group was outside it, each holding a long pole of bound flowers and grasses for some springtime tradition. This was in an area with no tourist presence, just a quiet Sunday morning. Tradition is still alive here.

Dinner and a show with music and dancing. You can't beat that. Plus the apfelstrudel mit eis is killer.

At one point yesterday, Emily looked up at me and asked, "Is this the fairy tale land, where magic comes from?"

"Yes, it is."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Athens

Athens.

This was a real learning experience. I read a few travel blogs leading up to this trip, but there are some things you have to experience firsthand.

Athens is a city of millions. The streets are compact, narrow, crowded with people living on top of each other. Stray dogs wander and sleep where they like. Cats pop their heads up in the strangest places. Orange trees line the sidewalks. From the highest points, it is absolutely beautiful. From the ground it is overwhelming. In the center of the city is the Acropolis, and it feels, and certainly is, a world away.

Athens is also the capital of the most economically depressed country in Europe. A family like us, obviously foreign tourists, look like easy marks. There is no blending in, especially with a talkative three year old and any number of mannerisms particular to Americans. I read all the petty theft and scam warnings for Greece, and while that kind of crime is everywhere this is the first time we had any problems.

So let me tell you about our trip.

We arrived in the evening, and hopped on the metro to meet our airbnb host. As we maneuvered the stroller into a tiny elevator at the Acropolis stop, an old man pushed his way inside just before the door closed. We exited on the street, and he tapped Cody on the shoulder, handed him his car keys and walked away. Cody looked at his backpack. The front pockets were unzipped. All the old man was able to grab was worthless to him, so he gave it back. Welcome to Athens!

In the morning we ventured out to pick up supplies with our very simple walking directions. The signs are written in Greek and a more phonetic alphabetical spelling. And still, we got lost on a five minute walk. Finally giving up, we stopped at this little place for Greek coffee and feta filled pastries. Greek coffee is nice, but gritty at the end, basically the same as Turkish style. Best not to bring that part up, though.

The Acropolis

We hiked up the street towards the Parthenon. As soon as the street ended to meet the wide cobblestone footpath that circles the ruins, the energy around us changed. Music from a street performer carried on the cool breeze. Olive trees rustled. A few other people were gathered to see the old theater before us, and all was peaceful. We found a shortcut through the trees for Emily to happily scramble through and made our way to the entrance.

This is on a high marble peak near the old gate. Great views but not easy to navigate in Converse.

The Parthenon was built in the 5th century BC. Over time it has been burned, pillaged, and exploded, but its bones still stand with the help of preservation efforts. There is a good history here.

The view, you guys:

Emily: "There's glitter on it! There's glitter on it!"

The Erechtheion is next to the Parthenon. It was built between 421 and 406 BC, and dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena. Like many temples of antiquity, it remains, if just in ruins, due to conversion to a church, and later palaces. The most striking feature, that remains in tact...elsewhere, is the porch of the Caryatids. These are replicas, but still other worldy beautiful. One of the statues was pilfered and sold to the British Museum in the 19th century by Lord Elgin. He was responsible for a considerable amount of the Parthenon's decorative pieces removal as well. You know, for protection. The others are preserved in the New Acropolis Museum.

He are a few more pictures before we headed down the hill for frozen lemonade.

Petting a pampered stray kitty.

Next stop was a walk down to the Ancient Agora. The trail took us out to the street, down and around to the entrance. By the time we took a lunch break and showed our ticket, Emily was crashed out.

The Agora

This was the center of civic life in Athens. There was a concert hall, a courthouse, temples, everything important to the culture and running of the city-state.

Today though, many of the original structures are gone, with some notable exceptions of statues and the beautiful Temple of Hephaestus, situated high above the foundations and very much intact. We only had about 45 minutes and a sleeping kid in a stroller, so we took turns hiking up to the temple. While Cody did that, I parked Emily under an olive tree and sat back to take in the quiet in the center of a crowded tourist zone. The cool breeze, birds singing in the trees, the presence of the past all around us made this my favorite part of Athens. I can imagine Socrates walking through here when the Agora was less open space and more thriving public space.

Temple of Hephaestus. Its use as a Christian church all the way the early 19th century kept it in good shape until it was finally deemed an official landmark.

We ended the afternoon with a short walk through the Plaka area, one of the older parts of Athens. It was pretty crowded and we really didn't feel too comfortable walking around with the stroller.

Yes, there were lovely old buildings and a few small ruins, but I think we also saw the worst of it when we came to the busy square. Men were in our faces every few steps pushing friendship bracelets (We learned our lesson in Milan, thank you!), or a fist bump "for peace and love from Jamaica," which one can only assume was the intro to some new and interesting scam and kept walking, walking, walking until we found some quieter streets, and then back up the trail between the Agora and Acropolis, out to the wide cobbled path, and back eventually to our room for cartoons and cereal.

The next morning we walked up to the New Acropolis Museum. We hadn't meant to go there at all, but google maps...bah. The tram stop that was supposed to be next to the metro and museum isn't there at all, and well, maybe this place at least has an information desk to get us to our next point. Emily, who refused to eat breakfast, and is well aware museums usually have snacks, asked if we could get something while we were there. And well, if we're going to do that we might as well buy tickets and see the exhibits. In the end it was a great place and well worth the stop in. We had a nice coffee break with a view of the Parthenon, saw the original Caryatids, ancient underground foundations below the glass flooring, and the Parthenon Frieze.

We went back to the metro. Emily was not happy to be back in her stroller and couldn't understand why we wouldn't let her run free around the station. She screamed, hard. When we boarded a lady offered her some candy to try to calm her down. The train jolted forward. She screamed louder and louder, and Cody, myself and nosy helpful lady all tried to talk her down. A few more minutes! Sit tight! Two stops later we walked off the train. As we left I saw all of Cody's backpack pockets were opened. He had his cash secured-we only had it for jackets and water-but that was it. I had it. Shaken and angry, I looked back at the train. The pickpocket looked back with a studied passivity. The lady though had the smuggest look on her face. They were working together. A stranger's attention on Emily means we have to watch both of them. The jolt of the train made it easy to grab the backpack without being detected. The screaming child was just luck on their part. We stick out, backpack or not. As the doors began to shut I shouted some choice words at all of them, and the train rolled out of sight.

Ancient Artifacts

Our next stop was the National Archaeological Museum. We had a wonderful time there. The collections span the whole of Greek art, and it was absolutely fascinating to see how Greek sculptures change over time. There is a great walk through here.

The Cab Ride

After we left, Emily wanted to chase pigeons in the garden in front of the museum. It was kind of run down and the area wasn't great and given our experiences so far, I was not extremely relaxed and wanted to get to our next stop NOW. She got some energy out while we looked over the bus route I scribbled out to Mt Lycabettus. Okay, so, where is the bus stop? Nowhere to be found? Great. Before we had a chance to get lost an older man approached us. Here we go. Oh no, this will take us to the wrong part of town! Of course. And who is this man? A cab driver. Tired, we threw our hands up, agreed to a reasonable enough flat price which is not even a little legal and piled in. He then started in verbatim the classic spiel I read about on a travel blog and annoyingly can't find to link to. It goes like this: Where are you from? I have a cousin from there! Do you like seafood? I will wait for you at the top of the hill. You only need a little time, then I will take you Piraeus for the best seafood of your life! You don't want to eat at the restaurant on Lycabettus, it is the most expensive in Greece, Greeks would never eat there. Cody politely declined, insisted yes we really did want to take the little train to the top, AND eat there, not clear across the city, but thanks. Still on the hunt for more cash from the dumb foreigners, he paused and asked what hotel we were at. When we said it was an apartment, he tried to get us to stay at a whatever hotel he gets kickbacks from for the next night. We told him we were leaving the next day. He looked crushed, but not down for the count. Then he tried a weird made up story to gain our confidence about a customer who went to his house and ate the food his wife cooked and loved this shifty cab driver so much he offered him a house and a car to drive anytime he made it to the States. We pulled up to the Teleferik entrance, gave him the fare and dashed. Cody shrugged. "Still worth it to get here in ten minutes."

Mount Lycabettus

This is the highest point in Athens, and affords the most spectacular views of the city. You can take the Teleferik train up through a tunnel in a few minutes, or hike in less than an hour. At the very top is a nice and completely affordable restaurant complete with cats (Seriously, cats are everywhere. Athens is cat lady heaven). A few stairs up is St George's Chapel, a tiny, heavily painted Orthodox sanctuary.

The final draw is the view, all the way to the sea.

For what little time we had, I think we saw the important highlights, but that sometimes comes with some tourist hell situations-I think we saw all those on this trip. But we weren't here for anything else on this trip but to learn about Classical Greece and the root of western governance and culture, and that's a once in a lifetime privilege I can't believe we experienced. The Acropolis is probably the biggest tourism draw in the world, and therefore a big crime draw. I know we didn't get anywhere close to a feel for the true Athens, the one that keeps 4 million people and growing living here, that other nations have been trying to claim for themselves for millennia. I hope to return someday, to take our time really getting to know what Athens and the rest of Greece is truly all about. For now, I'm happy we went, learned more than we expected, and got to show Emily one of the most important places in history. For that we are lucky.

Just for fun, I pulled up some pictures of the Parthenon replica in Nashville, the Athens of the South (and one of my favorite cities anywhere-so long as it's far from the tourist hell streets, of course).

Studying foreign policy in the park 5 years earlier, almost to the day.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Murano and Burano

Having been to Venice a few times now, we decided to shake things up and check out the islands of Murano and Burano. They are accessible by water bus, and I highly recommend planning your travel times around off hours to avoid getting crammed on the boat like a sardine.

Murano

Murano is famous for it's glass works. Here you can find bright, compressed, rainbow colored floral designs on jewelry, plates, and frames. Bold, swirling glass chandeliers hang in shops. Bottle toppers, public art, and figurines abound. Alas, I left with nothing. Anything definitely hand made was out of my budget, while the affordable stuff was imported from China. In the end I didn't know enough to make a smart purchase.

Emily was a handful today, so our time on Murano was pretty short, though we did have a nice picnic lunch in a quiet piazza.

Burano

I loved Burano. The island is known for its lace making and brightly painted buildings. Lime green, lavender, canary yellow, cerulean blue. Covered passageways off the canal lead to houses looking out on the sea. Shops overflow with linens and souvenirs. A great place to wander with a gelato.

I mean, come on! So pretty!

I wish we had more time to do the islands right and see everything. If I had any recommendation, it's give yourself a half day on each to soak it all in.