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 cafĂ© 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 clichĂ© 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!

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