Laura's Vacation Blog

Monday, October 01, 2012

Oktoberfest and Spa-mania 2012

Two weeks abroad and we slept in 6 cities on a quest for R&R and the hype of Oktoberfest.

Saturday, September 15: In route to Iceland
Sunday, September 16: Good morning Iceland

Our first day in Iceland was spent living it up at this amazing spa called the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a giant man-made pool that uses the outflow water from the geo-thermal power plant which is likely just a few degrees below boiling when it leaves the plant. There are steam rooms, saunas, waterfalls, silica mud masks and hot soaks to be had to leave you relaxed. We arrived in Reykjavik in the early morning; too early to check into our hotel which was a bit of a bummer since that meant postponing our naps but also forced us to try out "Plan B": a day at the spa. A day at the spa is really the proper cure for jet lag.

Here we are looking refreshed after 5+ hours at the lagoon trying out all of the amenities. My head is mostly blocking the big power plant in the background but you can see a little of the steam coming out of the stacks.

 As we drove into the city we stopped at the Perlan, a giant watertower/conference facility with outstanding 360 degree views. Here we are looking northeast to downtown Reykjavik.

Monday, September 17: The Golden Circle/Green Triangle

One of the major tours marketed to tourist takes you a few hours further inland to see the site of the first parliament which is now in a national park, a geyser and a colossal waterfall. We decided to do this tour but on our own with a rental car.

The site of the first parliament was mostly an opportunity to get out and about in a national park and see the scenery. On the coasts and for several miles inland, Iceland looks like what I imagine the face of the moon looks like but with moss. It is rugged terrain from all of the volcanic rock everywhere but there are no trees of significance and the terrain is mostly flat. The national park, Thingvellir, has a little more altitude and a great vista of the inland mountains.

Here's a bucolic view of the area where the oldest parliament in the world first settled over 1000 years ago.

In Iceland there is a non-precise unit of measure called the "ell" which was the distance from the elbow to the tip of one's middle finger. Justin's frame was a perfect fit for the ell that was measured on this double ell stick (it must be his Nordic heritage).

The geyser wasn't that spectacular, just a smaller version of Old Faithful. It did spout off about 5 times while we were there so that was kind of fun.

Our final stop on the tour was to the Gullfoss waterfall which is one of the largest waterfalls in Europe, although not the largest. Niagara Falls has this one beat too but it was nonetheless very impressive.
There was once a plan to put hydroelectric turbines on this waterfall for power production but there was a successful protest that preserved its natural state. (This was probably around the time that folks realized there was enough geothermal activity on Iceland to power and heat the country.)

Tuesday, September 18:  A history lesson

We spent the last day in Iceland walking about and visiting their National Museum where we learned about their savage beginnings and how Christianity made it's way to the island, once an island of pagans. Justin bought a wool sweater (with an unfortunate miscalculation of the exchange rate) and we lunched on some Icelandic cheeses.

Wednesday, September 19: Heidelberg Ho!

We made or first Germany destination Heidelberg because of the many recommendations to visit the castle there. We didn't arrive late afternoon so we poked around the Alstadt (old town) and made sure Justin got a good sampling of the local beer. Justin had already started chronicling each beer he drank so he was eager to add his first German beers which turned out to be the best of the trip in Heidelberg.

Brass monkey, that funky monkey.  This is a famous statute that was directly across from our hotel. We had a great location, although the room was nothing to get excited about.

Thursday, September 20: Schloss

We had come to Heidelberg to see the castle and we woke early enough to get up to the site before the tour groups swamped the schloss. Still, there were plenty of people but I think our technique of getting to a site at opening hours has been pretty successful for avoiding the crowds; we often have the place to ourselves for a while. The castle was under some major repair with lots of scaffolding. it was a trick to take a photo and avoid capturing the scaffolds.

 The inside courtyard of the Schloss at Heidelberg. We didn't have the opportunity to tour the inside although we did see the giant cask in the basement from a bygone era.

 A view of the castle, the town and the Nectar River.

We packed up our bags after touring the castle and caught a train to Baden-Baden for an afternoon at the spa, our second in a week. The Caracalla spa in Baden-Baden plays second fiddle to the Friedrichsbad baths but I was too chicken to bare it all in a coed bath so we opted for the place next door that lets you keep your suit on. And it was just fine. The pools are all spring-fed and have a high mineral composition. There are all sorts of fancy jets to massage you as you move around. And they have all of these interesting steam rooms with special aromatherapy. I wish I  had a picture to share because the facility was really beautiful, much like the city of Baden-Baden.  After the spa, we went for dinner at the Löwen Brauhaus and ordered way too much food. Those Germans like big servings! This meal encouraged both Justin and I to split a single entree and nearly every meal thereafter.

 Here's Justin with his pork knuckle before digging in.

 Here's the requisite "after" shot. We had dessert too.

Friday, September 21: On the road again...

 A lovely old building (theatre/auditorium I believe) with a beautiful annual garden in the Alstadt of Baden-Baden.

At this point in the trip, my sweet tooth was doing the talking. Schwartzwälder Kirschtorte (upper left cake in photo) was the dessert of choice but the others look pretty good too.

I actually figured that the first week might be a little tedious from all of the travel from one place to the next but I was kind of enjoying the faster pace and getting to move onto the next exciting thing. We rented a car in Baden-Baden so we'd have the opportunity to get out and about in the Black Forest. On Friday, we left Baden-Baden and headed south to the University town of Freiburg.  We spent the afternoon poking around in the little shops that dotted the cobblestone streets in the Alstadt. The weather was perfect and we were really enjoying the late afternoon walking about.

Saturday, September 22: In the crapper

We woke up to beating rain--the kind of weather that provides zero motivation for going out but we didn't want to lose a day to sitting inside. Instead, we decided to hike up to the viewing platform above the city in the pelting rain for a mediocre vista due to the cloudy/foggy weather. On the hike down we decided to do a little more poking around in the Alstadt because we spotted a farmer's market, but we only spent about an hour before our wet hair and clothes had us turning back to the hotel.

A view of the Munster in Freiberg, towering above the rest of the town. Note the farmer's market tents on the ground all around the Munster. 

Look at these lovely artichoke flowers and beautiful pumpkins!

 There were lots of stands selling fresh cuts of meat, cheeses, imported olives and of course food trucks selling wursts; of course we got in on the bratwurst for lunch!

For the afternoon, we decided that we'd seen enough of the city in the rain so we hopped into our rental car and took a drive out to Triberg and Hornberg. The guidebook had a little side bar suggesting we stop to see the giant loo in Hornberg at the Duravit headquarters. We couldn't resist a tour of a fixture factory! They had lots of information on the history of their company and how their products are made so it was kind of fun to walk through their displays. On the top floor of the facility, they had about 5 demo bathrooms, complete with fancy bathtubs, showers, some with a sauna that you could actually try out if you were so inclined. They had a locker room, towels, hairdryers and everything. Justin wasn't interested but I did convince him to take a dip in the toilet:


We stopped at one of the giant cuckoo clocks in Black Forest country, just in time for it to do its thing.

Sunday, September 23: A hike in the hills en route to Konstanz

We left Freiberg pretty early on Sunday morning to start our journey to Konstanz. We planned to do a little hiking in the Black Forest and then continue onward to Konstanz. We didn't have much to go on so we just picked an exit on the autobahn and drove into a small town in search of a trailhead. Luckily, we found one pretty quickly--a whole trail system that starts in this park right outside of the town square. I have no idea what town we were in. We hiked around a bit, getting a little confused by the trail markings but eventually making our way back to the car. There were tons of mushrooms along the path; we probably spotted 8 different types.

Here's Justin with his sporty Peugeot at the trailhead.

The drive to Konstanz was pretty quick and uneventful. We stopped at the visitor center for the Bodensee area on the way in and got some tips on what to see and do in the area. We started out by walking around the harbor in Konstanz and getting familiar with the surroundings.

Here's the famous Imperia statue, a rotating statue that has this giant, well endowed woman holding the naked pope and emperor in her hands.

We walked up the length of the harbor and then crossed back into the cobblestone streets of the city where we stumbled upon a Suserfest celebrating the new wine of the season. There was a brass band playing festive music and rows of picnic tables for patrons to sit down with a glass of suser. Suser is a freshly pressed grape wine that is slightly effervescent and cloudy with yeast. It tastes more like a juice than a wine but there's alcohol in there. We met a woman and her mother at the event and they gave us tips on the highlights to check out in Konstanz and around.

 Here we are enjoying a glass of suser in both the red (rot) and white (weiß) varieties.We both loved how they served the wine in glasses and just required a deposit to get them back. We hope more places in the US adopt this approach.

Monday, September 24: The island of Mainau

The host at the visitor center and the women we met at the Suserfest both recommended a visit to the island of Mainau which is a beautiful botanical garden island. The island was about 5 miles from our hotel so we decided to rent bicycles for the day and bike out there. This would have been an awesome decision if it hadn't started raining about 1 mile into our ride. By the time we made it to the island, I was like a drowned rat! We hung out near the entrance for 20 minutes while we dried out and warmed up a bit. In the meantime, I scoped out the indoor activities that were available on the island (butterflies, chocolate tasting and palace).  Luckily, the rain mostly subsided while we were on the island and the sun even peeked out later in the afternoon.

 Seriously, is there anything more beautiful? This water feature and accompanying garden were just spectacular.

The dahlias were in full bloom and putting on quite a show.

Tuesday, September 25: Meersburg

Again, we took the advice of the women we met at Suserfest and took a daytrip over to the city of Meersberg. We had originally planned on a daytrip to Friedrichshafen but we heard Meersburg was a better choice. The ferry across the lake was a quick trip and gave a great view of what we had in store in Meersburg.  Once there, we hiked up the hill and took a tour of the big castle in the town center. We wandered around a bit a visited some of the souvenir shops in the area and then found a little restaurant for lunch. I had currywurst which had been talked up in something I had read but really wasn't much to get excited about: a chopped up hotdog with a cloyingly sweet barbeque sauce and a sprinkle of curry powder over the top.  We spotted many of the waterfront cafes offering suser wine and onion cakes so we decided to top off our meal with a little snack and a beverage. It was a really nice afternoon. We got back to Konstanz in the mid-afternoon and packed up our swimsuits (at least I did--Justin forgot his and had to go back for it) for a visit to the Bodensee Therme, another spa that we had scoped out on our bike ride the day before. We spent the next 2 hours at the pool getting the last of our European water jet massages.

 A view of the town of Meersburg with the castle on the hill and lots of vineyards surrounding the area.

Wednesday, September 26: Bavaria!

On Wednesday, we hopped a train to Munich for the final leg of our Germany trip. At this point, we were getting serious about our focus on beer. (At least I was. I think Justin was serious about it before he left the US). This was the first time I had rented an apartment through a home sharing website (Homeaway.com) so I was a little nervous about what to expect but the whole thing worked out really well and we saved a little money because the traditional accommodations like hotels and B&Bs were really expensive during the Oktoberfest. The only downside was that the apartment was in a suburb about 30 minutes by train from the heart of downtown Munich. 

As soon as we ditched the luggage at the apartment, we headed into town to check out the Oktoberfest. There were Germans everywhere in their lederhosen and dirndls anxious to get down to the fairgrounds for the festivities. Now, let me say that I didn't do much research to set my expectations on Munich's Oktoberfest. I sort of pictured a big field of tables, maybe a stage upfront and lots of beer. I really only got the "lots of beer" part right in my picture. This event is colossal! There are around a dozen humungous tents (two stories in many cases) host around 5000 patrons at a time and they were packed! All of these tents are smack dab in the middle of a county fair complete with carnival rides, livestock shows and popcorn stalls. We had no idea it would be so hard to find a seat in the tents on a Wednesday evening. After a little investigation, we realized that most people reserve a 10-seater table for themselves and their friends and camp out all night. For the unreserved tables, folks show up in the morning when the tents open and stake out their spot for the day. Unfortunately, we missed out on the beer on the first night but certainly got a good look around.
Here is one busy tent we went into. The people standing are on the tables. 

 The traditional costume, available from the Tommy Hilfiger store (regardless of where you buy this outfit, it will still set you back at least 100€ for the dirndl and around 200-300€ for the men's outfit).

Thursday, September 27: A mini tour of Munich

We checked out a few of the main sites in Munich on Thursday. We visited the Rathaus (town hall) and saw the glockenspiel in action with 1000 of our fellow tourists. The city was hoping with people! Around the corner from the Rathaus was the big outdoor market: Viktualienmarkt. We stopped for lunch and then plotted our dinner and planned to pick up some of the amazing foods later in the day to bring back to the apartment for dinner. We spent the afternoon strolling around in the English garden before we stopped back at the market for our dinner and headed out to the 'burbs. 

The alte Rathaus in Munich

Friday, September 28: Oktoberfest

Disappointed from our visit to the 'fest on Wednesday night, Justin started looking for a way to get in on an existing reservation in one of the tents and Craigslist was the ticket. Apparently Germans aren't really big on using Craigslist but folks from the US use it. We connected with a group of ex-pats living in England who had extra seats at their table in one of the tents. The reservation was from 11:30-3:30 so we spent the bulk of the day at the festival. Justin really tied one on so we spent the late afternoon in the apartment with Justin sleeping off the damage he had done.

 Even the little ones sport the traditional costumes at the Oktoberfest.

 Justin enjoying his first liter of beer in the Käfers Wiesen Schänke tent.

Saturday, September 29: Departure day

On Saturday, we had a few hours to kill before our afternoon flight so we headed downtown to the Residenz for a final cultural experience. The Residenz was the palace for all of the Bavarian monarchs. While it was heavily damaged in WWII, Germany has rebuilt much of it to it's previous glory. We got to see how the kings and queens lived--even their silver dinner service was on display.

The Hall of Antiquities at the Residenz

And that was it...back to Seattle in the afternoon.

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