Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bustling London

Parliament Building
September 22: We left Augsburg bright and early at 6:30am to catch the train to Munich airport. We actually bought the flight from Munich to London before we booked a place to stay. So a 10:45am flight didn't seem so early, until it occurred to us that we were staying two hours from the airport. Ugh.

The flight was easy and only an hour and a half. We arrived to the London Gadwick airport, got our bags and train tickets with ease and were off to East Croyden where our hotel was. As soon as we got to the East Croyden train station, we knew we weren't exactly in London. Actually, it was a pretty sketchy place. However, the Hampton Inn was only a five minute walk from the station and it's really very nice, so that's a plus! We ate a late lunch at about 3pm and then went back to the hotel to start planning our itinerary for our exciting four full days in London!

Kensington Palace
September 23: Our day was planned around our dinner plans with Dorothy Mackenzie and her husband. Dorothy is a cousin of my mother and lives in London. Not wanting to venture too far away, our first stop was Kensington Palace. Rather expensive to tour, and the online reviews said it wasn't worth it, we decided to forego the tour. Instead we went in and looked around the rather large gift shop which I really enjoyed, and we toured the gardens.

Our next stop was the world famous Harrods department store. And wow, it didn't disappoint! Top of the line luxury brands we could not afford from clothing and jewelry to home goods and accessories. The actual department store was beautiful in itself. I very much enjoyed looking at everything and soaking in the high class London atmosphere!

We made a quick stop for lunch on a park bench before heading down the street in search of our next stop. We stumbled across the Victoria and Albert museum. Being government owned it was free which always makes for a more fun experience. It was basically a huge gallery of things from sculptures, pottery and paintings to fashion exhibits displaying clothes through the ages.

Scene from the park
From the museum, it was time to start heading in the direction of Dorothy's office which acted as our meeting point. With 45 minutes left to kill, we got off the subway and sat on a bench in Hyde Park. The day had turned out beautiful as the sun had come out so it was nice to just enjoy the day.

At 5:30pm we walked and met up with Dorothy. I have had some email correspondence with her but we have never met in person. We walked with her to the train that would take us to her home in Ealing. Once we got on the train I asked her about East Croyden and her reaction was hilarious! She said that Croyden is kind of a joke amongst London'ites. She wondered how we ended up there and I told her "an flash hotel deal and a lack of London geographical knowledge." We had a good laugh about it anyhow. Ealing is a lovely London suburb and it was nice to see where people actually live. She cooked us a delicious meal and we had a really nice time chatting with her and her husband as well as gaining a lot of insight on things to see and do during our stay.

It was a great first full day in London and so amazing to meet relatives I've never met before!

Buckingham Palace! Gorgeous!
September 24: Buckingham Palace day!! We arrived and bought our tickets to see the palace staterooms as well as the Royal Mews where they keep the horses and stagecoaches used in various processionals. I’ll be honest, the tickets are WAY overpriced but it is Buckingham Palace and if I had any chance of being invited to tea with the Queen, I had to pay the high admission fee. HA!

Touring the palace was so much fun! The audio guide did a great job of explaining the state rooms with just enough detail to keep things interesting. The rooms are of course so beautiful and over the top. I just kept “playing princess” and day dreaming about what it would be like to live there or to be invited to a state dinner or something. It’s all part of the fun experience.! I wish we could have seen more or been given a guided tour by the Duchess of Cambridge herself, but I guess she’s a little busy with baby Prince George. A girl can dream…  (pictures were not permitted inside the palace, that’s why I didn’t post any.)

Golden carriage used during coronations. 
Sadly, we weren’t invited to tea by Her Majesty the Queen, so we headed to the Mews. This exhibit was not worth the extra nine pounds each that we paid. Actually it was really disappointing. We saw a few carriages, and two horses but nothing that really wowed me except for the golden carriage, that one was pretty neat to see.

We left the mews and grabbed a bite to eat before continuing down Victoria street to see a few more historical sites. We first went into Westminster Cathedral which was free, SCORE! Next we saw Westminster Abbey. We decided not to wait in line or pay the $20 each to go inside. Instead, we took some photos from the outside, and went into the gift shop where we flipped through a Westminster Abbey souvenir book to see what the inside looked like.  We have been in so many gorgeous churches this trip, that we decided to opt out of the high admission price and just view this from the outside.

Next we saw  the London Eye, Big Ben and the parliament building. Sadly, we could not go inside the parliament building as they are sitting at the moment, but it is a beautiful and really neat site to see. We took a rest and sat on a bench overlooking the river reliving all the sites we saw today. 

September 25: Today we made our way to The Tower of London. Built in 1078, it’s a historical castle on the north bank of the River Thames. The name is confusing, but The Tower of London is actually a mini complex made up of several buildings. Again, the admission fee was outrageous but we paid it and went in. We lucked out and joined up with a short tour with a truly fantastic guide. It's quite an honor to be a tour guide of the Tower of London. You have to have served in the Queens army for at least 21 years, and had a perfect record for 18 of them. You also had to have been awarded a special honor and then you can be appointed as a tour guide. Anyways, he was so enthusiastic and really told us a lot of great info, I wish it would have lasted longer.

After the tour we walked around for about two and a half more hours. Of course my favorite site was the crown jewels. We saw about eight crowns which were adorned in huge diamond and gems. Sadly they were not letting the public try them on...who would have thought?! We also saw the coronation staff that tops out with a 500 carat DIAMOND! Gorgeous! I was hoping to see necklaces, rings, bracelets and tiaras all belonging to past queens, but they must lock them up someplace else. I was a little bummed. We continued walking around looking at old suits of armor and brick towers. We also had a stunning view of London Bridge. I didn't realize how pretty the bridge actually is!

Leaving the Tower we headed to Trafalgar Square, a public space and tourist attraction. We listened to a group of boys playing they own music which was actually really good, the we made a few laps inside the National Gallery. I literally mean a few laps. It's this massive art gallery full of hundreds of paintings and we could not find our way out. We saw some of the same paintings three times!

We left and began to head towards the London Apollo Theater where we had tickets to see Wicked! On the way, we decided to stop in a local pub for a beer and an appetizer. It was a cliche British Pub and we loved the atmosphere. Bellies full of beer, we made our way to the show. I had high expectations I admit. Everyone raves about this musical. And let me confirm, it was truly amazing! The script was pure genius, and such a creative way to tell the story of the wicked witch of the west as well as Glenda. I will never look at The Wizard of Oz the same. Such world class talent they had. The singing, and costumes and stage sets were perfection! Amazing, amazing, amazing!!! Well worth the super expensive, four rows from the
top, had to use binoculars at times, tickets! Woah.

Made it back to East Croyden at 11 to rest up for an early start to get to Windsor Castle.

September 26: It was a bit earlier of a start today as we were making our way to Windsor to see Windsor Castle. It cost us $80 just to travel the hour to get there…sheesh. I told you London was expensive!

We arrived and met up with Dorothy’s daughter Sarah, who is actually living on the castle grounds serving as an aupair to children of one of the choir singers at the chapel. There are about 150 people that live on the grounds besides the royal family which is an interesting fact I did not know. Because of her employment, she was able to get us two free tickets to actually tour the castle which was so sweet of her and such a savings. We got there in time to see the famous changing of the guards ceremony, so that was fun to see in person.

We then collected our audio guides and toured the castle. Since it’s still an inhabited castle by the royal family, mainly their winter home, much of it is blocked off to the public. We were able to walk around and see some of the staterooms which were obviously beautiful and impressive. After we finished our official tour, we met back up with Sarah to take her dog for a walk on the famous ‘Long Walk’ which is a beautiful walking path just behind the castle. After the walk we parted ways and Andrew and I took a stroll around the adorable town of Windsor before stopping for lunch at the “Duchess of Cambridge” pub where we had London’s most famous dish, Fish and Chips. Delicious! If I couldn’t see the real Duchess of Cambridge, Kate, then the next best thing is eating lunch at a pub named after her!

Trying on the virtual crown jewels!

I didn’t meet my goal of drinking tea with a royal, which only means one thing, we are going to have to return to London!!
As close to Kate as I could get!

In front of our future residence; Buckingham Palace!
Obligatory guard photo!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Celebratory Germany

Outside the gates to Oktoberfest

September 17: We boarded a 9:51am train from Salzburg to Augsburg, Germany. The two-hour and 15 minute drive was beautiful. If I could speak German I might just move to the Austrian/German boarder. The scenery is so stunning and the houses are picturesque. Why Augsburg and not Munich you ask? Because the price of even staying in a dirty hostel is outrageous!!! Everyone jacks up their prices so much around the time of Oktoberfest. So we searched for cities near Munich with easy access to the Munich’s city center. Augsburg kept showing up in our search results so we looked into it. It’s located about a 35 minute train ride northeast of Munich and seemed like the best option. We found a great apartment, for under $100/night. I think a best kept secret to staying cheap during Oktoberfest.

We arrived about 12:15 and walked about 25 minutes to the apartment  (because we had horrible directions) we were staying in. It started pouring right as we were approaching the apartment building, so we managed to get only a little wet. Due to a miscommunication and lack of wi-fi, we sat in the lobby waiting on our host for over an hour before leaving in search of food, a bathroom and an internet connection. Well, we found food but none of the places would take a credit card and we were down to only a few euro. So we split a piece of apple cake but the café had no bathroom and no wi-fi. FAIL. 

Needless to say, at this point we were tired, wet, hungry, and extremely frustrated with the situation.
We walked out and found a pay phone (yes, they still exist) to call the host, for the second time, and yet again no answer. This was my breaking point. We walked back to the apartment and FINALLY after two hours she showed up. Ugh. The apartment is nice and will work great, but it doesn’t excuse the lack of promptness on the hosts’ side.

View from out apartment balcony
Still hungry, and without cash, we ventured out to find a grocery store and a bank. TWO HOURS of walking later, and several (yes, more than two) grocery stores later that DID NOT accept credit cards, our energy was drained. We dragged ourselves to the city center and FOUND A BANK! We’re saved!! Andrew plops his debit card in the slot, enters his pin number and….NOTHING! “Incorrect pin.” My wonderful husband CAN’T REMEMBER HIS FOUR-DIGIT PIN NUMBER!!!! So, we left and headed to a kebab place. With tears in my eyes, Andrew asks if they take credit card, “No.” Let the waterworks begin. I break down. I’m tired, thirsty and ‘hangry’ (hungry and angry) and just want a damn kebab!

Andrew spots a Subway sandwich shop so we head there literally praying they take plastic. Right next to the Subway is a German pub with a VISA sticker on the outside. Without hesitation we go in. SCORE! It’s confirmed, they take VISA! We look at the entire German menu. The waiter comes by, I literally just say “Beer.” He smiles and brings two out along with an English menu. I LOVE THIS PLACE. We enjoyed a mix of American and German foods, delicious beer and the smile begins to return to my face.

Augsburg has not gotten off to a good start. Let’s see if our day trip to Munich tomorrow goes a bit smoother.

September 18: We woke up to the sound of blowing rain and hollowing winds. Ugh. Our plan was to travel about 45 minutes to the city of Dachau, and visit the concentration camp memorial, however, the weather had another plan. Doing anything outside was no longer an option and sometimes the weather can alter travel plans. We decided to stay in Augsburg and make it a productive “tie-up-loose-ends” day. We still had a few tickets to book as well as finding a place to stay in Dublin.

We went to the train station again, to find an ATM now that Andrew was given a new pin number, thanks to his mom’s help. Yeah, we have money! On our way back to the apartment, in the sideways rain, we spotted a bowling alley! Thinking that would be a fun indoor activity, we headed into this small indoor shopping area to find it. And, much to our surprise, we found a grocery store too! Score! Well, go figure, the bowling alley was closed, so we bought some groceries and headed back to the apartment. That is as exciting as it’s get for these two travelers in the rain!

Gate to Dachau: 'Work Sets You Free'
September 19: Ok, once again we planned to make the trip to Dachau. We woke up to sun and headed for the train station to catch the 9:06am train. Well, it took longer than expected, so we bought the tickets and sprinted to the train which we could see had not yet left. We made it in time to hit the open door button, twice…but it wouldn’t open and IT LEFT US! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! So we had to wait 30 minutes to catch the next one.

The trip was an easy one, we only had to make two changes which is always nice.  We arrived to Dachau and the mood was a somber one as you can imagine. We both related the uneasy feeling to that of our visit to the Killing Fields in Cambodia back in 2010. Dachau concentration camp was opened in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler as the first of the Nazi concentration camps. It was originally built to hold political prisoners but its purpose grew to also include forced labor and the imprisonment of anyone the regime deemed necessary: Jews, criminals, foreign nationals etc.

The camp was originally built to hold 6,000 prisoners, and towards the end of the war, the camp was housing more than 30,000 at one time. The barracks we toured (rebuilt replicas as you can imagine why) were built to hold 200 people in a 100 meter X 10 meter area, were at times, holding 2,000 people! The facts our audio guide was telling us were so unbelievable. I’ve read books on the subject, seen documentaries, learned about them in school, but when I was standing right there, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that this all really existed. The inhumanity that took place right where I was standing was unfathomable. Many of the original buildings that we went in, the main one housed the museum, were the actual buildings used during the time the camp was in use. The prison barracks had since been torn down for obvious reasons, but they are marked off so you can see exactly how they were lined up.

Where the barracks once stood
The whole site was eerie and so sad. The part that disturbed me the most were the crematoriums. There were over 31,000 documented deaths in Dachau and thousands that were undocumented. Some due to starvation, others to torture or execution. The crematoriums we walked through were the ones that were actually used to dispose of the deceased. Towards the end of the war when they ran out of coal, they would just stack the bodies in the neighboring cement rooms which we also toured. It was so hard to stand there, in that cold empty room. I can’t imagine what it was like when it was in use.
Dachau also had gas chambers disguised as showers. There are no reports however, that they were actually used to execute prisoners. But there is also no proof that they weren’t. We toured the gas chambers as well.

Dachau was liberated by the Americans in 1945. Administration recorded the intake of 206, 206 prisoners. Wow. It’s just so hard to imagine such horror existed, and even exists today all over the world.

View of the BMW Welt
After spending nearly three-hours touring this memorial we decided to head back to Munich to visit the BMW museum as well and the BMW Welt. I guess I got to have my moment during the Sound of Music tour so it was Andrew’s turn. I personally thought the BMW museum was way overpriced, but it was cool to see such old Rolls Royce’s as well as BMW’s that dated back to the early 20s. There were also a lot of motorcycles and models on engines. I started laughing out loud at one point. I just took a step back and looked around. I noticed that all the men, every single one of them, had their smart phones out taking pictures while the women with them were just following behind them. Hilarious!

Such a cute little BMW!
After the museum, we walked across to the Welt, which is free to enter. It’s more like a really fancy car dealership. They had a bunch of BMW’s and Mini’s where you could sit in them and take pictures. I think Andrew and I both found ourselves new cars! They also had some video games as well as driving simulation which Andrew and I were terrible at. All in all, it was a fun uplifting last activity of the day!

September 20: Today we made our way back to Munich to explore the city center. We were armed with an hour and a half Rick Steves walking tour podcast and ready to pound the pavement…er…cobblestone. He had us walking all around, going in and out of churches, famous stores and restaurants, a wonderful open air market and filled our heads with all sorts of Munich and WWII facts. Most of the city center of Munich has been rebuilt to look like the original as the majority of it was bombed and destroyed during the war. It was a great example of old meeting new as the old looking buildings are lined with pedestrian only streets and popular shops.

One of the most fun stops was Hofbrauhaus. It’s the ultimate cliché of a Munich beer hall and it is MASSIVE! It is lined with wooden tables, tourists drinking liters of beer listening to a live German band and eating massive amounts of meat! It was also a place where Hitler used to give speeches. Sadly, we arrived around lunchtime so it was completely packed with no place to sit. So we walked around, took some pictures and left.

Munich City Center
We ate some lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon just walking around enjoying the sites and sounds of this historic city. Colder than expected and my little jacket just wasn’t cutting it, I bought a cheesy ‘Oktoberfest’ sweatshirt which I love but Andrew isn’t too excited about. My first souvenir of the entire trip! We hopped on the train back to Augsburg, did some laundry and anticipated our last full day in Germany AND the first day of Oktoberfest!

September 21: We boarded the 10:06am train headed to Munich for the first day of Oktoberfest and all the festivities that entailed! Honestly, we haven’t had internet for two days at this point so we really weren’t able to look anything up. Our plan was to just follow the dirndl and lederhosen wearing festival goers and we knew we’d end up in the right place. Our plan was successful! At 11am, the parade began and the streets were lined with people. Honestly, I couldn’t see anything as we were about 15 people deep, but Andrew managed to raise the camera above his head and snap some good pictures. The parade ended at the opening gates to Oktoberfest and at noon, the mayor tapped the first keg and day one of the festival officially began!

End of the parade
The amount of people was insane. Oktoberfest really wasn’t at all like I had pictured. I thought it was a green space just lined with white tents where people sit and drink liters of beer all day. In reality, it’s very family friendly and looks a lot like a large state fair with all kinds of rides, booths selling souvenirs, carnival games, and food vendors. Of course, beer is a big part of it and the six major breweries in Germany have huge drinking halls “tents” set up. However, this is where the lack of research bit us in the butt. It seems that if you aren’t the first into the festival, or have a ‘reservation’ then it’s pretty much impossible to get into one of the huge tents. People make the table reservations months and months in advance. So we pushed out way through the crowd to try to get our bearings.
We lucked out on the weather because had it been raining, the day would have been pretty miserable as there is no place to take refuge, or even sit down if you aren’t in one of the coveted tents. 

State Fair-ish
Determined to get our liters of beer Andrew and I began walking around to see what the next best option was. We stopped to get two bratwurst sandwiches and scoped it out. We noticed some people standing outside one of the tents and they had beer! So we walked in and kind of just stood there trying to find out where they bought them. I saw a man walking with about ten steins in his hand and I told Andrew to follow him. Turns out, that’s how you get a beer. He put them down and people just flocked to him trying to get one.

With beer in hand, and brats in our bellies we were ready to fully experience Oktoberfest! Again, I can’t reiterate enough how crowded this place was. Part of it we think is because it was the first day, and the other part was that it was Saturday. Both situations worked against us.  The beer was good, but then another problem quickly arose. Bathrooms. Now, in my mind I thought with this many people, there must just be an area lined with hundreds of port-a-potty’s. Well, not the case. At the back of each ‘tent’ there was a men’s and women’s restroom with enormous lines as you can imagine. And with all of these women dressed in their dirndl’s, that means pantyhose, which means EVEN MORE TIME in the bathroom! Ugh….I stopped drinking any liquids at this point because there was no way I was going to be able to find a bathroom line that I wouldn’t be in for an hour. Terrible.

And this was just the crowd in front of us!
After conversing with two guys from Ohio, and finishing our beers, Andrew and I began walking around and enjoying the atmosphere. I bought a gingerbread cookie necklace, a must for all the women, and we spilt a nice big pretzel.  We spent four hours there before heading back to Augsburg. We tried to get into the back of a tent one more time to enjoy one last beer in Germany, but by this time, there were even long lines to get back to where we drank before. Bummer.

All in all, it was a really fun experience. If we ever get the chance to return to Oktoberfest, we will for sure look into this whole tent reservation thing, because it’s a must.
Germany has been a fun stop aside from mostly rainy weather. We enjoyed the history, seeing people in traditional clothing, and all the excitement surrounding the Oktoberfest festivities! Tomorrow we head to London. English speaking countries from here on out!! Yiiiiiiippppppeeeeee!!
Bellies full of beer and brats!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Quaint Austria


September 12: We left a wet and dreary Paris bright and early at 6am to catch our flight to Vienna. Originally, we were flying directly into Salzburg, but all flights routed through Vienna anyways that we decided to make it a quick two-day stop over. We arrived at about 11am, collected our bags, and again, with directions in hand found our way to yet another rented apartment. However, this one far exceeds the rest! The pictures on the site didn’t do it justice! Erich, the owner, must do this full time because he does it right! It was spotless, well decorated, and everything a nice hotel suite would have is available to us. I mean, I haven’t had a shower this nice….in about 13 months!

We dropped our bags off and headed to the city center which is conveniently only a 12 minute walk away. We were both starving, so where did we eat our first Austrian meal? An Asian buffet of course! Ha! Actually, it was close to the apartment, well priced (compared the insane prices of Paris) and delicious. The palate change was refreshing as well. I was getting a little tired of eating pizza and sandwiches all the time. And I LOVE pizza and sandwiches!

After lunch we just decided to scope out the city center. It’s lined with historic buildings, shops, restaurants and cafes. We went in and out of a few places, people watched and enjoyed the warmer weather. Double layers were not needed. It was sunny, then it rained a bit, then it was sunny again, so I hope the sun can pull through tomorrow.

We headed to the grocery store to buy some things for breakfast and purchased a salad, a wrap, and some couscous to share for dinner. Being that we are only here for two days, we wanted to go back to the apartment early and plan out our full day tomorrow!

September 13: The weather was not very cooperative today; it rained on and off all day long. We started our day at the Hofburg Palace, home to some of the most powerful people in Austrian and European history and perhaps most importantly; the Habsburg dynasty. From 1438-1583 and then from 1612-1806 it was the seat of kings and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and then the seat of the Emperor of Austria until 1918.

Hofburg Palace
For the cost of admission, we saw the imperial collection of  dinnerware (the silver collection), the Sisi Museum, and the living quarters of the royal family. Also included in the cost was an audio tour which was great since we didn’t have a free Rick Steves one for this.
The collection of flatware, dinnerware, drink ware, and center pieces were quite extravagant. I mean, they were given their own museum! The places settings ranged from solid gold to meticulously hand painted and absolutely beautiful and over the top. I walked through, just day dreaming what it must have been like to sit in a fancy ball gown, in an elaborate dinning hall, eating off of plates made of gold! Talk about living like a queen.

Next was the Sisi museum, dedicated to Elisabeth of Austria. Married to Emperor Franz Joseph I, at age 16, she was….ummm…interesting. The museum was actually quite dark and depressing, but I think that was the point. She struggled with her public role and was not very liked by the people because of her reclusiveness. She went though several bouts of depression, would go away for years at a time, and was obsessive about her weight. In today’s, terms, she would have been called bulimic. She was later assassinated at the age of 61.

Last on the palace tour were the rooms and private quarters of the emperor and empress. Sadly, no pictures were allowed in both the Sisi museum and the apartments. Much like the palace of Versailles, but these rooms were furnished with more original furniture which was cool to see. The audio guide was really helpful. I learned so much about the history of this royal family. Super interesting!

St. Stephens
Our next stop was St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We had a Rick Steves podcast to accompany our visit which enables us to get so much more out of the site. Built between 1339-1365, it stands at the very center of Vienna. A gothic styled cathedral, it had a very similar look and feel to that of Notre Dame. It was pretty to walk around, but I’m not really into that dark type of architecture. It’s not a “warm and welcoming, let’s thank God for all our blessings” kind of places. But I was gald we went in, we leaned a lot from the podcast.

Our last stop was yet another podcast. It was a walking tour of Vienna’s city center. We made started at the famous opera house and ended at the palace where we started our day. It was nice because things were pointed out to us along the way we never would have noticed or stopped in. Once place we visited was Demel Chocolate. Founded in 1786; but it has been at it’s current location since 1857. They use to provide chocolate to the Emperor and Empress! So of course, we went in, bought a chocolate bar and a slice of carrot cake!

It started pouring again, so we grabbed some food from the grocery store and headed back to our apartment. It was such an educational and low-key stop off. We felt like we were in a small city (even though 1.8 million people live in Vienna) and really enjoyed our time just walking the streets.


September 14: “The hills are alive, with the sound of muuuuuusic!” No scratch that, “with the sight of heavy fog.”

We left Vienna at 10:56 via train to Salzburg. We made it to the train just fine, but it was a bit confusing once we arrived. With like no one working there, we didn’t know where we were supposed to sit. All we knew that that we had a second class ticket, but weren’t sure if it was free seating after that.  After just getting on and looking like confused tourists, another passenger cleared things up for us. So frustrating when there is no one at the information booth! Anyways, it was a quick three-hour train ride with lovely views of German style houses, beautiful farmland, and mountains.

Mozart's Pedestrian Bridge
Salzburg is simply just the most charming little city of 150,000 people. Our hotel is not in the city center, we have to take a bus about 10 minutes to get there, but it’s nice none the less. We dropped our bags off and then ventured out. We wanted to start this leg of the trip getting oriented so we headed to the beginning of yet another free Rick Steves city walking tour. However, about five minutes in, the rain just got too comical to continue. It was pouring and blowing in sideways. Our clothes were getting soaked and there really weren’t many places to take cover. So after a light lunch, we headed back to the hotel.

At 6:30pm we headed to the grocery store right behind the hotel (the only thing near us) but to our shock it was closed! They close at 6pm on Saturdays! Well, that was our dinner plan, so now we had to search for something else….in the rain. Besides the grocery store, the only thing close to us food wise is a McDonald’s. Ugh, we had no other choice. We ate our burgers and then returned to the hotel to watch the ‘Sound of Music’ so we were ready for tomorrow! Fingers crossed that the weather tomorrow is a little bit more cooperative!

 September15: Today is the day! We took a gamble on the weather and booked a four-hour Sound of Music tour for 9:30am. We were picked up at our hotel at 9am and collected a few more tour-goers on the way to the large charter bus covered in an obnoxious scene from the movie and the worlds” The Official Sound of Music Tour” pasted along the sides. So cheesy, but I loved it! Our tour guide, Natasha, was fantastic and so animated. It made the whole experience even that more enjoyable.
Along the way, between stops, we were given not only movie facts, but also a great tour and history of the real Von Trapp family as well as Salzburg itself.  It felt like a two for one tour!

Our fist stop was the beautiful “Von Trapp house” in the movie, (it was not actually the Von Trapp
home). The backyard of this house was used in the film, but filming was not allowed to take place inside the house, and the house itself wasn’t supposed to be recognizable. It’s now the Leopoldskron Palace and was once the home of a famous Jewish Austrian that had to flee during the Nazi overtake. The sensitivity of the matter and the timing of the movie made it not possible to film in the house. The pond however, where the children and Maria fall out of the little canoe, is government owned and therefore they were allowed to film in it. The shots of the outside of the house from the front, remember it’s yellow, was a totally different house which we were able to see from across another street. Sadly, we could not go in as it’s privately owned. Any scenes filmed in the inside of the house were actually filmed in a studio in California. But the rooms were modeled after the Leopoldskron Palace. There is so much more info I’d love to share, but this blog post would be WAY too long. Regardless, the palace was absolutely stunning and the scenery was breathtaking!

Me 'leaping'!
The next stop was the gazebo. Where “I am 16 going on 17”, and “Must Have Done Something Good” were sung. It was not actually a part of the gardens of the Leopoldskron Palace, the producers brought it in. It has since been removed from the garden and passed around. No one wanted it because of how many tourists flocked to it. It ended up in the corner of another palace which we got to see. Sadly it’s locked and we learned that the dancing scene in it was once again, filmed in a studio, in a mock gazebo. But it was still so fun to see!

Along the drive we were able to see Nonnberg Abbey, where Maria was practicing to be a nun. The drive itself was so gorgeous. Nonnbery Abbey allowed them to film some scenes there but not the wedding scene. That was filmed at a different church in a different city. Mondsee Church was another site we drove to and were allowed to go in. The town it’s in was having a harvest festival so it was fun to see the residents walking around in traditional dress. Andrew and I bought two brats and apple strudel for lunch after touring the church. I can’t describe the beauty of this city and our pictures just don’t do it justice.

We also walked through the Mirabell Gardens where much of the “Do Re Mi” song was filmed. Mirabell garden is so beautiful filled with perfectly manicured trees, flowers and fountains. No wonder they shot some of the scenes there! We walked across the Motzart pedestrian bridge, saw where they filmed the kids playing in the trees, where they sang as a family at the festival before escaping, as well as several other little memorable scenes.  We even had a sing-along on the bus as the movie soundtrack was played! Seriously so cheesy and so much fun! I loved every minute of this tour!!
Mirabell Gardens - Can you picture "Do-Re-Mi?!"

After the tour, Andrew and I decided to finish the Rick Steves audio walking tour that yesterday’s weather did not allow. It led us all around the old city and into two different beautiful churches and a graveyard. We even got to see the house where Motzart grew up. We really lucked out on the
weather and were so thankful for that. It was such a great day and we learned SO MUCH about Salzburg and The Sound of Music!

September 16: Rain, rain go away! Our plan today was to tour the fortress that looks down over all of Salzburg, Festung Hohensalzburg. Built in 1077, it housed many prince-archbishops. It’s also the largest, most intact castle in all of Europe. It took us about 15 minutes to walk to the top, in the pouring rain. Honestly, it was a huge bust. Part of it was the weather and part of it was the poorly marked fortress itself. Being that it’s one of the biggest tour attractions in Salzburg, you’d think there would be direction signs telling you where to go and things labeled in English. Not the case at all. We moseyed around, went into a few disappointing ‘museums’ and climbed the tour to get a full view of Salzburg while listening to the audio tour. I’ll admit that the view was pretty great and would have been so much better had it not been so cloudy and rainy.  I thankful for the perspective the tower gave us on the town but if we ever make it back to Salzburg, it’s a site I would skip. the rain.
All in all, Salzburg has been one of my favorite stops. Its charm, gorgeous sites and small town feel make it a place I would love to come back to. I love the laidback lifestyle and I could never get sick of the views! My ONE complaint is that there are seriously no restaurants. It’s very hard to find a place to eat that isn’t a café serving only café foods. We got a little tired of eating Weiner schnitzel’s and kebabs.

We will be returning to Austria, mark my words!

"I have confidence in ME!" --On her way to the Von Trapps
Wedding Cathedral 

"Do-Re-Mi" --They ride their bikes through this tunnel!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

'LOVE'-ly Paris

September 7: Paris!! Today we flew from Venice to Paris via EasyJet.; cheap, no frills, transportation and nothing exciting to report there. We landed, and once again, with email directions in hand and Magellan by my side, we made our way through the Paris public transport system to get to yet another rented apartment via Wimdu. It took us just about an hour to get there but we made it with no issues! This apartment is much smaller than Venice, but it’s in a great location right next to the metro station with is always key when booking a place.

Today was also the day that we were waiting to find out if we had a new niece or nephew so the first thing we did was connect to the internet to find out what was going on with Allison. Poor, sweet Allison was in labor a long time and we were waiting with bated breath all through the night so we both didn’t get much sleep. But I’m ecstatic to report that she delivered a perfectly beautiful baby girl, Claire!!

View from the tower
September 8: Our first full day in Paris and we decided to tour Notre Dame Cathedral first. We waited in line for about 45 minutes for what we thought was the line to get in. Well, rookie mistake, it wasn’t. We were actually in the line to buy tickets for the 400 stair climb to the top of the towers! We had already waited that long, so we bought the tickets and began the climb. Talk about tight spaces! It was the narrowest, most spiraled staircase I had ever been in and we both started feeling a bit queezy looking down and just walking up for so long. But the view was stunning! We saw a panoramic view of all of Paris and got a front row seat to the bell tower that chimed the most beautiful song! We snapped our pictures and then made our decent to what we thought was the sanctuary. Wrong again! Our travel sensors were off today.
Inside Notre Dame
We had to wait in another line to enter the cathedral where morning mass was actually going on. It was yet another stunning European church with gorgeous stained glass windows. So beautiful!
We decided to walk around a bit and found out selves at the Lock bridge. A famous bridge in Paris where lovers write their names on a pad lock, and then throw the key into the river symbolizing their love lasting forever. There were so many locks it was pretty incredible. We didn’t leave one, but we still have a few days! 

We walked a bit more just enjoying the beautiful buildings that line the streets of Paris. Every building is so pretty and historic looking it looks like a bunch of fancy museums everywhere! We made our way to the last stop of the day which was Saint-Chapelle.  Built by orders from King Louis XI between 1242 to 1248, it was to house the relics of the Passion of Christ. It’s not too big but it’s lined with 14 huge, floor to ceiling stained glass windows that depict biblical scenes from creation through the resurrection of Christ. A theme similar to the Sistine Chapel, but instead of paint, it was done in stained glass. Breathtaking!!

For dinner, we went to Chipotle! Being deprived of it for 13 months, Andrew was so excited when he found out there was one in Paris. So we skipped out on a lavish Parisian dinner and indulged our Mexican food craving by toasting burritos!  Fabulous day in Paris!

September 9: We have been so lucky with weather on this trip that I knew that luck would have to run out sometime. We started our day at the Arc de Triomphe, one of the most famous monuments in Paris. It honors all those who fought and died for France in both the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Just beneath the arc lies the tomb of the unknown soldier from World War I. You can pay to go up to the top, but we decided against it so we just took some pictures around it.

We then made our way down the famous Champs-Elysees Avenue. It is lined with expensive shops and cafes and is said to be the most famous and one of the most expensive strips of real estate in the world! Well, just as we began our window shopping it started to downpour! We immediately took cover in a café, which was a huge mistake. Did I mention it’s one of the most expensive streets in the world?! Ya, we paid entirely too much for two crepes, tea and a hot chocolate, but we enjoyed staying dry.
Arc de Triomphe

When it was time to leave, we bared the sideways rain for a few minutes before ducking into an overhang.  We continued this cycle for about twenty minutes before we decided that it was nuts and took the subway the two stops to the famous Louvre Museum.  EVERYONE else had the same idea, so we had to wait in a line for about 45 minutes to purchase the tickets. As the world’s most visited museum, it houses nearly 35,000 artifacts from prehistory to the 21st century, and covers more that 60,600 square meters! It’s super overwhelming! We decided to take the Rick Steves downloaded pod cast and walked around for about an hour and a half.  From statues to jewels, to tapestry and paintings, I have never seen so much art! And of course, the finale is the Mona Lisa. Pretty fun to see in person! I wish we would have been able to take some better pictures outside with the glass pyramid because the courtyard to the museum is really beautiful but it was still raining. Boo!

We made our way back to the area of our apartment, grabbed a bite to eat at a local café and called it day.

Inside the Louvre listening to a podcast.
September 10: The sun was out but it was still very chilly. I forgot to mention that Paris has been unusually cold since we got here. We came from sweaty shorts and t-shirts at the beginning of our European adventure and have now been wearing jeans and jackets the whole time. We weren’t quite ready for such a drastic change in temperature.

Anyways, we decided to go back to Champs-Elysees Avenue since we weren’t really able to take it all in yesterday. We just walked around, ventured into a few shops and enjoyed the people watching scene. At about 3:00pm we made our way to the climatic event in Paris; the Eiffel Tower! Scared of the line that awaited us, we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of people! I mean, there were tons of people, but we ended up only waiting about 25 minutes! It was perfect because we had an 18 minute podcast on the history of the tower to listen to.

It was erected in 1889 as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair. The French people actually loathed the tower and wanted it to come down after the fair. The French government told the engineer, Gustave Eiffel, that it could stay up for 20 years so that he could make back his investment from the ticket sales. He actually made his money back by the time the fair ended!! Not wanting to see the tower destroyed, Gustave attached a radio tower to the top and sold the idea to the French government who could use it for military purposes. And well, the rest is history! More than 250 million people have ascended to the top!

There are two line options when you get to the tower. The first line is for a ticket to take the elevator directly to the top. The second, is to buy tickets to take the elevator from the second floor, a 600 step climb up to the elevator. We chose the latter.

Yes, Andrew and I huffed and puffed and butt burned our way 600 stairs up. Honestly, it didn’t look that high until we started to climb! We took some photos from the second floor platform and then rode to the top. Andrew isn’t the biggest fan of heights, so I was so proud when we decided to join me to the top after some serious contemplation. He even managed to stand on the ledge for a few seconds to take a picture with me! What a good sport! After we walked the circumference of the peak, taking more pictures it began to rain! We made our way down to the enclosed area and waited it out a bit. I wasn’t about to descend 600 metal stairs in the rain. When it finally let up, we rode the elevator to the second floor and then took the stairs the rest of the way.

At the windy top!
Honestly, I got a little emotional when we were at the top. It’s so cheesy I know, but it was just one of those moments that you dream about experiencing, and you never really know if you will. And I was lucky enough to do it with Andrew by my side. Sheesh, life doesn’t get much better!

We walked around for a little while trying to find a reasonable place to eat and kill some time before 9pm and they tower lights up. We found a little café, not really very reasonable but it was good. After we finished we made our way back to the courtyard of the tower, enjoyed a crepe and waited for the sparkly lights to begin. As if the Eiffel Tower isn’t magical enough, the sight of the sparkling lights for five minutes really capped off such a memorable day!

(**For whatever reason, our computer won't load any photos after the daytime Eiffel Tower pictures. We will try to figure out the issue before the next blog. Sorry no gorgeous night pictures of the tower or Versailles. )

September 11: I am sitting on the bed in our rented apartment, drinking cheap and delicious champagne out of an ‘I love Paris’ coffee mug, in denial that this is our last night in the city of  love. These last few days have been so dreamlike, I can’t explain it. Paris has a feeling about it that makes you forget that any other place in the world exists.

For our final day in France, we took the short 30 minute train ride to The Palace of Versailles. We weren’t sure the weather would hold out as it was cloudy, cold, and starting to spit but it was our last day and a ‘must see’ while in Paris.  We hit a little speed bump trying to get there. You see, Paris as two systems; the metro and the RER. The metro is what we used to get around the city, and some metro stations will take you to the RER trains. These trains take commuters further out of the city than the metro. Confused? Ya, we were a little bit too. Especially when you look at the public transport map and all the lines look the same.

Anyways, we made it to the correct RER station and needed to purchase a ticket to Versailles. Well, the ticket machine would not take our credit card (all the other machines had) and didn’t accept cash; only coins. The problem with this is that now we were stuck. There was no place to make change inside this ticket purchasing area and the help desk person was out. Annoyed, I went around asking several people if they could give me coin change for a five Euro bill. FINALLY, after 20 minutes of searching we found someone. It just amazes me that that situation even exists. Why don’t they just put a change machine by the ticket booth? There were several other people while we were there with the same problem…super annoying!

Everyone must have thought the weather was not going to hold out because we waited in absolutely no lines at all! And it wasn't even that crowded. So lucky!The kingdom of Versailles was the center of power in France from 1682 until the royal family was forced back to Pairs in 1789 during the French Revolution. Built by Louis XIV this palace is nothing short of spectacular! The palace itself is gorgeous, but the gardens are just massive and perfectly manicured. I’m sure the site is even more beautiful in the spring and summer when everything is in bloom, but we still got quite the eye full. Too bad it was so chilly and windy. We would have loved to explored more by renting bikes and going all around. But our ears were already too cold that we didn’t really feel up for a bike ride. We spent the whole afternoon on the grounds of the palace. Listening to a pod cast tour, snapping pictures and imagining what it must have been like to live there. Such a fun outing!

We feel so lucky to have toured this beautiful city for four full days. There is so much more to do that someday, we will have to return. Tomorrow we head back east for a quick two day stop in Vienna, Austria. Sausage anyone?

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Dreamlike Venice

September 3: Today we left our Roman apartment at 9:15am to catch the train to the main train station in Rome, where we would catch a different train to Venice. We got there in what we thought was plenty of time. Went into the little grocery store to buy some sandwiches, chips, and water for lunch during the six hour train ride and then took a seat. When the board finally showed which platform our train was taking off from, we realized that we were on the total opposite side of the station! With 10 minutes before the train departed, we hustled to the other end trying to find how to get to platform six! The train station was so poorly marked and there was no one to ask for help! With only two minutes to spare, we made it on the train; thank goodness there was a five-minute delay!

The six hour train ride was actually quite pleasant. The seats were comfortable and it was great to get to see a lot of the country out of the windows! We arrived and once again were staying in a rented apartment. With Google translated directions in hand, we walked 20 minutes to the apartment. To our surprise, the place was fantastic! Two bedrooms, large bathroom, living room and a full kitchen all to ourselves! The host was very sweet. She didn’t speak English, so when she was giving us instructions, Andrew and I put our charade skills to use. Italian is pretty similar to Spanish, and with our combined knowledge, we were able to communicate ok. The only downside to this place, no wi-fi. Boo.
She left and we went to the grocery store to buy a few things. We decided to cook dinner because I was craving some protein. I mean, I adore my carbohydrates, but enough is enough! We decided to make a chicken and spinach salad and sip on some $2.00 wine!

September 4: The apartment is located just outside of Venice. It’s in a quiet, non-touristy neighborhood that makes us really feel like locals! We are only a ten-minute walk from the bus stop and an easy ten-minute bus ride into the heart of Venice.
Our romantic gondola ride!

Venice is just like in the movies! A dreamlike city built around canals. Instead of cars, there are boats and gondolas, and the streets are lined with souvenir shops and cafes. Love, love, love! We had read that Venice is very difficult to navigate even with a map. Well, leave it to Magellan. We had a crappy photocopied map but he got us around just fine. We spent the day just walking around soaking it all in. We hit the famous Piazza San Marco and it’s beautiful Basilica. We ate a real Italian lunch consisting of pizza and lasagna and then of course, we had to have gelato.

When you think of Venice what’s the first thing you think of? A romantic gondola ride through the canals looking up at colorful apartment buildings lined with beautiful flower beds? Well, that’s what we think of too and that’s what we did! For way too much money, we took a wonderful ride through the canals and under the bridges. It was such a beautiful perspective of the city. I wish it would have lasted all day! Such a dream! After the gondola ride finished, we made our way back to the main entrance to catch the bus back to our apartment.  It was truly a beautiful day!

September 5: On our way out of Venice yesterday, we went to the information counter to ask a few questions and we ended up booking a tour for today! For a very reasonable price, we booked a half-day islands tour. It’s important to remember that Venice is actually an island its self surrounded by other little islands! Our 4.5 hour tour began at 2:30pm from San Marco. So we spent the few hours before walking around Venice and eating the most delicious pizza lunch until it was time to disembark. We boarded the boat with about 75 other tourists and headed to our first island of Murano. Murano is home to the famous Venetian glass blowers. We got off the boat and immediately ushered into a glass blowers shop for a demonstration. It’s truly amazing how they heat and cool and shape the glass into
 anything they can imagine. We saw them create a vase as well as a small horse. Sadly, we didn’t end up buying anything as it would be too hard to make the journey and not break. We were then given about 30 minutes to mosey around before having to board the boat again. The next stop on our tour was the island of Torcello. Torcello was actually the first of all the islands to be inhabited and was once the home of more than 20,000 people. Today, it’s home to only 16! Honestly, there was nothing to see on this small little island but I’m sure it was a bustling little town in it’s prime.

The last stop on the tour was Burano. And wow…it looked straight out of a movie set! An adorable little island known for it’s beautiful lace and different, brightly colored homes. We stopped at a specific shop and met with Olga, the owner of the lace shop. We were given a short demonstration and then were given a chance to look around the store. Such beautiful lace pieces (and for those of you who don’t know, I LOVE LACE!) We spent the next 30 minutes walking the movieesque’ island taking in the beautiful site!

At the end of the tour, we left Venice and caught the bus back to our little town for a bite to eat before calling it a night!

September 6: A “local day,” is what we called it. We spent our last day in Italy living like the locals. We took advantage of the washing machine in our apartment and did all our laundry. We went to the market and picked up ingredients for a picnic lunch. We sat on sheet in the nearby park eating our lunch and playing cards. It was just what we needed! After almost two weeks of being on the move, we took the time to just have no agenda. It’s important to us to build days like this into our travels. Or else the trip just seems to flash by in the blink of an eye it’s hard to truly appreciate all that we’ve seen and experienced. We ended the day by cooking a delicious dinner and preparing ourselves for what Paris has to offer!