28 February 2009

Southwest in March

During the last semester break in Eichstätt I spent two months traveling through eastern, southern, northern, and central Europe. As you already know, another semester break has rolled around, and, as you may have expected, another lengthy trip is about to begin.

For the month of March I will journey through the last basic region of the continent in which I have yet to step: the Southwest. Though my time on the road will be about half of that as my Odyssey in 2007, I still have ambtions to pack in a trove of exciting destinations.

The trip begins this Monday with an early train ride to Milan, Italy. Here I will stay for most of the week with a friend I made during my first year in Eichstätt. Next I will head to the western coast of Italy and to a region known as the Cinque Terre. These five isolated villages are suspended over the Mediterranean on seaside cliffs. The terrain is so difficult that modern roads did not reach the villages until the later decades of the twentieth century.

After a few days spent in this beautiful landscape, I'll find my way to the French Riveria. My main stops here will be Monaco and Nice.

Then, the rails will carry me to the Iberian Peninsula, specifically first in Barcelona, Spain. I will spend a few days experiencing some of the notable peices of architecture and tireless lifestyle of this famous city. Eventually I will go to southern Spain, to the cities of Granada, Cordoba, and Seville. Each of these communities is famous for its splendid old town and remnants of Moorish architecture.

I will push on essentially as far west as one can go in Europe to Lisbon, Portugal. The capital of this country is often overlooked by tourists heading to Europe's cultural heavyweights more to the east, but supposedly offers just as coloful of an experience. If time permits, I will check out the city of Porto.

Likely though, I will head directly from Lisbon back into Spain and to Madrid. I plan to stay in Spain's capital for several days in order to fully appreciate its many offerings: fantastic art museums, tapas bars, boisterous food markets, bull fights, and so on.

At some point, and likely with a hint of regret to leave Madrid, I will board an overnight train to Paris. I will stay with a friend who lives near this iconic city and take a number of days to relax and better soak in the French culture and lifestyle.

When all goes well and as planned, I will arrive back in Eichstätt on April 2nd, but my fun and travels will not end. The next day my parents will arrive for an extended visit, but more will be written on that later.

Similar to last time, I do not know how often I will be able to make posts while traveling. Those that I do make will likely be short and sweet in order to keep my bill in internet cafes as low as possible. Likewise, please don't expect many photographs to be posted during my travels. Once it is all said and done though, I will post my favorite shots and stories as I did after my Odyssey.

As winter seems to finally be on its death knell here is Eichstätt, I'm ready to head south and warm up a little quicker. Monday can't come soon enough.


This past Monday marked Rosenmontag, the second to last day of Fasching but, oddly enough, the largest day of celebration. The name could be translated to Rose Monday, but this would be wrong. I learned that Rosen, in this instance, derives itself from an older word of a regional German dialect that meant something along the line of running amok. Therefore, it was not Rose Monday, rather Running Amok Monday.

The most famous of German cities for Fasching celebrations, especially for Rosenmontag, is Cologne. Supposedly the parties continue on the streets of that city throughout the day and into the night. In Eichstätt, however, the parties were not quite so dynamic.

The festivities started in the early afternoon on the Marktplatz and in fron of the city hall. A large crowd had gathered to watch the several Fasching guards from Eichstätt and the area perform skits and dances on a stage. A view of the spectators, several in costume, is provided below.

Though it did drizzle from time to time, the performers continued with the show. A couple shots of the dancers are below. One group had an American theme, hence the flags and impersonation of the Statue of Liberty.

As the dancers performed on stage and the audience enjoyed drinks and hot snacks, a few men on a side street were having their own fun. I have been told that cracking whips and competing for the loudest sounds is somewhat of a tradition around Eichstätt. The video clip below shows the men in action. This was the second time I had come across this activity in all of my time in Eichstätt. Supposedly though, cracking whips in public places is illegal because of the potential danger to passers-by. The other time I saw men cracking whips was a late night in the McDonald's parking lot. A police car drove by, performed a quick u-turn in the otherwise empty street, and drove up the group of men to talk with them. This time around no police came.

After the performances on stage ended in the midafternoon, I spent the rest of the day and night with Annabel and some of her friends. Several parties took place around town, both inside and out on the streets and squares. Annabel and her friends had a fairy tale theme for their custumes. As seen in the first picture below, Annabel dressed as the frog from the storyof the Frog Prince. I had little to work with and did the best I could with a makeshift pirate costume.

Tuesday was quiet in comparison, and the season of Lent started on Wednesday. Since then I have spent my days planning for an upcoming trip, which I will write about in one more brief post to conclude the week.

27 February 2009

Birthday in Ingolstadt

Last Thursday, after Dylan and I arrived in Eichstätt from Salzburg the day before, we celebrated Steffi's birthday. The three of us plus Ana, a Brazilian student still in Eichstätt from last semester, spent most of the day in Ingolstadt.

This Thursday also happened to be the first day of the Carnival season in Germany. Known by different names around the world, the celebrations of these days before Lent all have the same origins. In Bavaria this season is known known as Fasching. Each day has its own name, and while the names change from region to region in Germany, my favorite for this Thursday is Unsinnigerdonnerstag, basically translated as Absurd Thursday. Wearing costums out in public is a normal way to celebrate this and other days of Fasching.

We left Eichstätt a little after noon on a train bound for Ingolstadt. In the picture below you can see Steffi and Ana.

Most of the day was spent simply wandering around Ingolstadt, going into stores, and seeing the sites. In one department store we paused to act out a tradition of Unsinnigerdonnerstag, which can be seen in the next photograph. On this day, if a man chooses to include a necktie in his outfit he'll likely regret it, because women have the right to cut it off. Another name for this day of Fasching is Weiberfasching, something like Women's Fasching. Needless to say, few men out on the streets of Ingolstadt could be seen with a tie on.

Along the main shopping street of Ingolstadt one can find several pieces of playground equipment for the young or young at heart. These included a trampoline, as seen in the next two shots.

There was also this version of a merry-go-round. Riders could either spin themselves or be spun by friends.

Our stomachs cried for attention at some point, and we searched for a bakery to partake in another Fasching tradtion. Before that though, Dylan and I found amusement at the type of pastry called an Amerikaner. Neither of us had ever know that we were collectively worth €1.98.

During and leading up to Fasching, bakeries across Germany fill their shelves with what Bavarians call Krapfen. In America we would know these as simple jelly-filled doughnuts, but in Germany they're a pastry traditionally associated with this brief season of celebration. Cheaper versions are filled with jellies and dusted with powdered sugar, while others are filled with rich creams of various flavours and drizzled with chocolate or caramel syrup.

While the girls continued shopping, Dylan and I explored a little more of the city. We came across several of Ingolstadt's obsolete fortifications.

We eventually met back up with Steffi and Ana and searched for a restaurant for dinner. Steffi knew of an establishment that served traditional Bavarian food. Past the entrance doors were stairs that led to the dinning areas, but why take those when a slide was also provided?

The promise of traditional Bavarian food was not unfulfilled. My meal consisted of roasted pork, potato dumplings, and a creamy sauerkraut. The menu also mentioned a salad, but I would consider the few green vegetables on my plate more of garnish.

As we ate, dozens of Fasching revelers complete with costums poured into the restaurant. In the first image below is a view of three of them arriving to the party. The second photo shows Ana, Steffi, and Dylan.

After dinner we returned to the train station and to Eichstätt for some final birthday celebrations with additional friends.

Dylan returned to Salzburg on Saturday afternoon. For the rest of that day and on Sunday not much took place in Eichstätt. Now, in the depths of the semester break, Eichstätt has been left to the actual Eichstätters. Students and with them student life will return in April. For the rest of my weekend I could only wait until Monday, the next important day of Fasching.

26 February 2009

One and a Half Hours in Lichtenstein

Leaving Sargans, the bus crossed the border into the Principality of Lichtenstein, one of Europe's tiny microstates. At roughly 60 square miles, Lichtenstein is comparable in size with the city of Springfield, Illinois. With 35,000 citizens, it has about a third of Springfield's population. The country is wedged between Switzerland to the west and Austria to the east, and if one is not paying attention he'll drive through Lichtenstein without realizing it.

In many ways Lichtenstein is closely connected with its neighbor to the west. The microstate uses the Swiss Franc for its currency, speaks a version of German similar to the Swiss dialect, and depends on Switzerland to represent the country abroad. Do not be fooled though, the principality is legally soverign. The constitutional monarchy is currently ruled by Prince Hans-Adam II. There was a well-reported incident that occurred a couple years ago when Swiss troops on marching drills took a wrong turn and walked into Lichtenstein, accidentally invading the country. The government of Switzerland was forced to issue an official apology on the world's stage for this failure in orientation.

Today Lichtenstein is known as a winter sports destination and, due to its light taxes, a corporate destination. A major export from the country is false teeth.

I would normally never consider one and a half hours spent in a country as an actual visit to that country. With Lichtenstein, however, I think I can make an exception. More than a full day could be overkill. Exactly what can one do with one and a half hours in Lichtenstein? That's what I wanted to find out.

The bus dropped me off in front of the post office of the capital city, Vaduz. Although, with 5,ooo inhabitants, it would be a more accurate description to write capital village. To illustrate the capital's diminutive size, the image below shows a bird's-eye-view map of Vaduz.

After stepping off the bus my first task was to find a place store my backpack. I approached a woman standing at what I suppose could be called Vaduz's central bus terminal, complete with its bus shelter and two benches, to ask about luggage lockers. Surprisingly, she started talking to me in Spanish. Not knowing the word for locker in that language, and not even wanting to try comunicating that with my hands, I started walking down the sidewalk. As snow flurries fell on my face, I wondered how many other travelers had had the same problem while walking the streets of Vaduz, Lichtenstein.

After passing a couple buildings and a maybe a fourth of the town, I reached a parking lot for tourist buses. In the middle was a stand of luggage lockers. From here I turned around, took some steps, and found myself on the main shopping street of Vaduz, seen in the two photographs below. The pedestrian-only street looked like it would be a lively place in the summer, but on this day offered little acitivity.

I started walking down the street. The clouds parted briefly enough for me to see the Prince's castle nestled on a hill above Vaduz. The picture belows offers a blurry view of the castle where the monarch resides.

Most shops along the street seemed closed, but the tourist office and post office had life inside. Considering that the tourist office might be the highlight of the visit though, I continued walking to save it for the end of my stay. The post office did offer Lichtenstein stamps, but I passed. There were also two museums that I could visit, one for art and one for the country's history, but with time down to less than hour I decided to stay outdoors and explore the rest of the capital.

I started walking to the northside of Vaduz and came to a vineyard, seen below. After some sign reading I learned that this was in fact the royal vineyard, property of the Prince. Tasting a grape from such a vineyard would have been nice, but, as you can see, it wasn't really the right time of year for that.

Slightly past the vineyard I reached the end of Vaduz. The next photo shows my view from that point. Not wanting to try to squeeze another city into my stay, I turned around. Back at the center of Vaduz I crossed what seemed to be the capital's busiest intersection, seen in the second photo below.

I continued walking until I came close to the southern end of Vaduz. Along the way I passed the governement building for the country, the previously mentioned art museum, and again the post office. From there I returned to the tourist office and received a souvenir entry stamp from Lichtenstein in my passport; real ones are no longer given at the border crossings. With less than half an hour to spare, I walked over to a grocery store for some cheap lunch, retrieved my backpack, and then returned to the bus stop.

I left Vaduz a little before noon, and soon after the country of Lichtenstein--a brief stay fit for a tiny land.

In the Austrian town of Feldkirch, I boarded a train bound for Salzburg. In this larger city I met up with Dylan. That night we enjoyed a hearty dinner representing the cuisine from this Austrian region heavly influenced by Bavaria.

My meal, pictured below, came with potatoes, sauerkraut, and three types of sausages. Ignore the three sausages on the left of the photo, they were not that special, and notice the last, dark and blunt sausage on the right. The shiny ends to it are metal staples that held it together. This was a type of sausage more common in certain regions of Germany, and one that I'd been wanting to try for some time. It's called Blutwurst. Blood sausage.

The name is an accurate and true-to-reality description. I'm not familiar with the production process, but the sausage is some how made from blood. I expected a taste similar to, well, blood, like the taste that lingers in one's month after he has accidentally bit his tongue or cut his lip. Oddly enough, it didn't taste like that at all. The taste was familiar but I couldn't place it. Unlike a normal sausage, the Blutwurst could not be cut and sliced with a knife. After cutting through the casing, the filling was too loose and had to be scooped out. While it did not necessarily taste bad, it also did not become a new favorite food of mine.

The next morning Dylan and I left Salzburg for Eichstätt. He was coming to stay with me for a few days and help celebrate a friend's birthday.

My short trip came to an end. In the last six days I had been in the four main countries of the world where German is the principal language. From this perspective, you could say that it was a very brief tour through the Germanic world.

Expect a few more posts to appear before the week is over.

25 February 2009

A Swiss Tour

As my train continued its journey it glided through the rolling terrain of northern Switzerland. Surprising to me, this part of the country was not the rocky, sky-piercing mountains of Swiss fame. These foothills of the Alps resembled the Applachians more than the Rockies. As the train pulled into Bern it crossed an arch bridge that towered high over a narrow river valley. Along both sides of the valley the Swiss capital city spread. Several bridges at differing heights over the river connected the steep city. That view alone was enough to convince me to stay and explore the city, but the train pushed on to the Alps. I also raced to snap a picture of the view from my window, but by the time my camera was in hand it was too late.

In the midafternoon I reached the town of Interlaken, in south central Switzwerland. This community of around 5,ooo is the base camp for many an adventure-minded traveler, as it is the largest town in the ever so attractive Berner Oberland and Jungfrau regions. This is the part of Switzerland that exists in your imagination. This is the Switzerland of Heidi and cow bells, the Switzerland of snow-capped peaks and Alpine meadows. This was my destination.

From Interlaken I transfered to a cog railway to carry me farther. From here on the grade of the tracks becomes too steep for a normal train to safely pull itself up the incline. These special trains employ a third wheel, a cog wheel, that travels along a third grooved rail, essentially a gear along a track. This allows the train to slowly but surely travel up and down the slopes. This train took me to the smaller town of Lauterbrunnen, my place of rest for the next two days or so.

Lauterbrunnen sits deep in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, a narrow gorge between mountains composed of colossal sheer rock faces that reach several hundred feet from the valley floor. When the weather is warmer, supposedly over a hundred waterfalls cascade into the valley, but for the extent of my stay, and surely many more weeks to come, the waterfalls remained in a frozen state clinging to the valley's walls.

Though the weather at my arrival was less than ideal, clouds and fog concealed the natural behemoths of rock that I knew loomed around and above me, I stored my backpack and rode a bus to the end of the valley. From here I boarded a cable car that lifted off of the valley floor and brought me to the charming village of Gimmelwald.

Since first hearing of this tiny village I had wanted to visit it. Gimmelwald is home to around 100 people, and in the popular Jungfrau region of ski resorts and vacation towns is largely ignored by the average visitor; case in point, all but one of the other passegners on the cable car continued on to the higher stops and ski slopes. The village is perched on the edge of the valley, but the spectacular views were impossible for me to see on the first day of my visit. Though, as you can see in the photo below, what I could see was still not entirely dissapointing.

Gimmelwald likely would have reached the same fate as the nearby towns of Mürren, Grindelwald, or Wegen by becoming over-developed ski and tourist destinations, with their own one-time charm and quaintness lost, were it not for the village school master. He led the village to unite behind a special request to the regional authorities. This request was granted, and the entire village of Gimmelwald received the label of avalanche zone, thereby legally preventing the construction of hotels and tourist infrastructure.

Today the community consists largely of wooden homes and sevearal barns. A couple small bed and breakfasts and one hostel exist. There is one bar and a couple stores that mostly only sell items that cater to the relatively few visitors: fresh Alpine milk, cheese, and yougurt, pasteries, homemade beef jerky (some of the finest I've ever had), and so on. Below is a view of the village's fire department, complete with hoses.

I walked along the one path that could be considered a street, though its blanket of snow made it impossible for me to know if it was paved or not. In the next image you can see one of the two cars I saw in the village. What roads the driver takes to get down from Gimmelwald and into the valley, and how long that drive takes is beyond me. Along the way I passed several of the village cows and sheep. More often than not, the cows remained in there barns, but I could hear the clinging of their bells from far away.

I took a path that had signs marking the way to the larger village of Mürren. The heavy layer of clouds remained, but the foreground views of frosted forests were enjoyable in their own right. Mostly the only other people I passed during this walk and also actually in Gimmelwald, were the occasional skiers or sledders drifting down the gently sloping trail.

After reaching Mürren I turned around and walked back to Gimmelwald. With the sun setting, I boarded the cable car and started the return trip back to Lauterbrunnen. For the next day I hoped for clear skies, as they were critical for my plans.

While looking out the window the next morning, a crisp blue sky hung above. For the first time, I could actually see and appreciate the natural beauty that surrouned me. I soon boarded another cog train that would take me higher into the mountains, as high as any train in Europe could take me actually.

My destination was the Jungfraujoch, a dip between the summits of the Jungfrau and Mönch mountains. The Jungfrau is one of Switzerland's most visited and popular mountains. A couple thousand feet below its summit, at around 11,300 above sea level, rests a research station, obersvatory, and viewing area for the public. The train staion is actually below all of this, buried in the mountain rock, but is still the highest train station in all of Europe.

The trip from Lauterbrunnen lasted about two hours, including brief stops at other ski towns along the way. At these stops several skiers would board only to get off one or two stops later in order to ride the snowy slopes back down. After the Kleine Schneidegg stop though, and after switching to another train, only passengers to the end of the line remained. Not long after, the train entered a tunnel into the mountain, not to emerge again until its return trip. At two points during the subterranean portion of the trip the train stopped so that passengers could stretch their legs and enjoy the views from windows blasted into the side of the mountain. One of these windows is seen first below. In the second view is the train parked at the Jungfraujoch station.

Reaching the final station, I quickly made my way through the tunnels of the visitor complex and to the viewing platform below the Sphinx Observatory. I had taken the second train of the morning, and through most of the tunnels I walked alone. After an elevator ride and a few extra stairs, I arrived at the door to the viewing platform. A sign near the door displayed the current temperature and wind speed outside: -20 degrees celsius and 40 kilometers per hour. I bundled up and stepped into the freezing breeze.

In front of me was the summit of the Jungfrau, as seen in the first photo below. To my right, and in the next image, was the Aletsch Glacier, Europe's largest. In the summer one can even leave the visitor's complex to walk on part of the glacier, but wintry conditions made that too dangerous during my visit. Other than the sound of the wind, I could hear only silence, at least until someone else stepped out onto the platform. For a better sense of what it looked and sounded like, play the video clip below. I'll title the footage "Working at the Top of Europe," you'll see why and who joined me on the platform towards the end.

Next I returned to the warm confines of the visitor complex and walked through what's called the Ice Palace, a series of tunnels carved into the glacier's ice. Along the way permanent ice sculptures decorated the path. A view down one of the tunnels is below.

I eventually rode the train back down to Lauterbrunnen. In the following photographs one can see the several skiers on vacation loitering around the Kleine Scheidegg station, and riding the lift to the slopes. The area seemed very popular with Europeans on vacation, especially several Brits on winter holiday.

Back in Lauterbrunnen, I immediately headed again to Gimmelwald. My second visit rewarded me with even more enchanting views. With the first image below one can gain a better understanding of how the village really does rest on the edge of the valley.

With the whole afternoon to use up, I set out on several hiking trails. The snow became deeper and deeper and I quickly found myself wishing for a pair of snow shoes. Eventually the trail disappeared on a slope at the edge of some woods. A sound drew nearer. Four or five skiers and snowboarders suddenly emerged from the trees and acted quickly to avoid me. I questioned my presence there but carried on anyway. I came to an obvious trail and continued up to a switchback. Pausing to allow some more skiers to pass, I stood slightly off the trail on the outer end of the bend. One skier came down the path with great speed, couldn't turn quick enough, either becuase of his great speed or because of me standing there, and tumbled off into the snow. After that I decided that it might be best to return to my original trail and to Gimmelwald. Incidentally, the skier only laughed, brushed off the snow, and continued back down the trail.

Almost back in Gimmelwald, and on a trail safe from on-coming skiers, I stopped to savor the views of the village and the Alps. Here is a video clip from that spot. Watch for the cows to walk out from a barn in the village foreground.

The next morning I left Lauterbrunnen and the Alpine wonderland to see two of Switzerland's most visited cities. I first stopped in Lucerne, and explored the city for a couple of hours. As with many of Switzerland's largest cities, Lucerne sits on a lake and at the mouth of a river emptying into that lake. The city is most well-known for its historical center still well preserved. Here are a couple views of the city. In the first one you can see Lucerne's main landmark, the Kapellbrücke, or Chaple Bridge.

Finally, I boarded a train to Zurich, the largest city of Switzerland. Slightly less than 400,000 residents call this city home. Known for global finance and banking, the city also possesses a vibrant street life and attractive old town. The main shopping street of Zurich is seen below, and the legend is that gold lines the bank vaults below it.

Along the street I stopped at Sprüngli, reportedly the city's best for chocolates. I couldn't miss the opportuntiy to taste some real Swiss chocolate. The sweet treats did not let me down. Sprüngli's window disaplay is seen in the following picture. Remember that the confectionary is competing for attention with the other high-priced stores along the street.

In Switzerland there are four official languages, German, French, Italian, and Romansh, but most of the population speaks German as its first language. The German-speaking region of Switzerland is in the north, east, and central parts of the country. For the most part I did not have any problems communicating with the locals, but the Swiss do speak a dialect of German that, when spoken between Swiss, was difficult for me and is difficult for most Germans to clearly understand. Most of the time it was entertaing to hear, as to my ears their dialect of German sounded a little like standard German being sung.

I only spent one night in Zurich, but I wouldn't mind returning some day to better experience the medieval center that captivated my curiosity. Here are two views of the city.

On Tuesday morning I started my journey out of Switzerland. The ride to the border eastward from Zurich would only take about an hour. I had only spent a handful of days in the country, but my stay was enjoyable. I got off the train in the town of Sargans and boarded a bus that would take me to the next country on my itinerary, a country that most will likely never visit, and a country that's existence is perhaps forgotten to some, if not many.