Sunday, June 29, 2014

Salzburg Austria

Photos here:  Salzburg

Salzburg is the birthplace of Mozart.  Many tourists who come to Germany make the short two hour side trip here, seeking great music and a historic ambience.  After having straightened out my train ticketing earlier, I was ready for my day trip to Salzburg.  I planned on catching the 8:54 am train from Munich and gave myself plenty of time in leaving my hotel.  I ate a decent breakfast and was walking to the station by 8:15.  As it turned out, the train left from one of the remote tracks that took a lot more hoofing, so I actually didn’t give myself as much spare room as I thought.

Although I rode on a “commuter” train, I thought the seats were fine.  I spent most of the ride working on the laptop I lugged along in order to be productive.  The scenery was beautiful, especially once I hit the Alps.  As in Poland, my camera proved totally worthless in shooting from the train.  The scenery, however, actually did evoke the Sound of Music in me, as cheesy as it sounds.  I had forgotten how much I loved that movie as a kid.  I could picture that scene where Julie Andrews runs through the meadows twirling and singing.  But no, I did not burst out in song in the middle of the train, or at any time during my day trip.

The train arrived in Salzburg around 11 am.   I went immediately to the information center.  I had done some research the night before, and had decided start at Untersbergbahn, a mountain which sits just outside Salzburg.  Afterwards, I planned to head to the town and perhaps visit either the Mozart Residence or Mozart Birthplace, and then spend the remainder of my time exploring Old Town.  Most of the organized day tours from Munich to Salzburg allot about 5 hours in the city, so I gave myself 6 or 7 hours.  My ticket, however, gave me flexibility on the return time so I didn’t stress.

Most of Untersbergbahn’s reviewers had used the Salzburg Pass ticket to travel to the mountain.  The pass costs E26, so it wasn’t cheap, but offers discounts on many of Salzburg’s tourist sites.  I didn’t think I would use it much, so I inquired at the information center as to other ticket options to reach the mountain peak.  The staff informed me that the Untersbergbahn ticket alone would cost E28, so that made it an easy decision to buy the Salzburg Pass.  I left the station and hopped on the bus to the peak.  I had just arrived in Salzburg and I was already leaving it!

It was about a 40 minute bus ride to the base of Untersbergbahn, and then I had to wait for the cable car to leave for the peak.  By the time I exited the cable car, it was already past noon.  I didn’t care.  The views were marvelous, with Salzburg on one side, the Alps on another, and beautiful countryside and peaks in between.  I no longer heard the Sound of Music.  I was reminiscing about Heidi and felt like yodeling.

One can take various hikes around the mountain.  I chose the rather modest 1 hour hike.  The views along the trail were terrific, and I shot a lot of photos hoping my camera would function.  Just in case, I started to shoot duplicate photos on my phone.  I was glad to be wearing T-shirt and shorts in the warm day, and chuckled to notice that there was still snow on the ground in a few spots along the trail.

The trail ended atop another peak.  I wished I had packed a lunch as other smart travelers did.  The area was perfect for a picnic.  Instead, I sat down and took in the scenery, and shot more photos.  Eventually, I decided to head back down and continue my journey.

I had to wait a bit for the bus back toward Salzburg.  I had noticed that we passed Hellbrunn Palace on the way to the peak.  The positive reviews mentioned “trick fountains” and made it sound like a place more for kids, so I hadn’t originally planned to go.  But if the palace was actually on the way back, and admission was covered by the Salzburg Pass that I had bought, why not just peek in?  I hopped off the bus at the palace, making a note of when other buses would be coming by so I would know how to time my departure.

The palace was a nice diversion.  From a historical perspective, it was used by a fun loving archbishop with a quirky sense of taste and humor.  I toured the palace interior and found it kind of small with a couple of interesting stories, but not much more.  The key attraction of Hellbrunn, however, is the garden.  Here, the archbishop had installed a waterworks of sorts to create traditional beauty (such as fountains) as well as play pranks (spray his guests).  The tour guide obliged us by surprisingly squirting us as well during the tour, which was an effective way of demonstrating the archbishop’s humor.  The whole tour took a bit longer than I thought it would, but it was fun.

Salzburg is the home of Mozart, and I still wanted to check out his digs.  The problem was that many of the venues close at 5:30 pm, and it was already approaching 4 pm.  Using my Salzburg Pass, I hopped back on the bus and asked the driver which stop I needed for the Mozart Residence.  The driver was quite gruff and actually told me to get off at an earlier stop, so I had to walk a bit farther than I needed.  Admission to the Mozart Residence is normally E10, but it was covered by my pass, which was a good thing because the place was a boring bust.  The building is where Mozart grew up, and thus is a museum of sorts.  They also hold concerts there.

No one told me that you couldn’t take photos and I didn’t see any signs.  When I snapped a photo of a harpsichord, however, a brusque Austrian with a ridiculous goatee (I think he was seriously trying to be artisitic) snarled “No Photos!”  OK, no problem.  Just say so.  I then noticed that they had set up chairs in the room and some other visitors appeared to be waiting for some kind of performance, as a piano had been set up in the middle of the room.  I asked that same staff member whether there was a concert.  He sneered: “Only for a speshhhhhial group” and literally turned his nose up.  I kid you not.  I don’t know if he was being a drama queen but he literally lifted his nose to the sky as he said “speshhhial”.  Geez.

With that setting the tone, I went through the rest of the rooms.  I love Mozart, but frankly didn’t find this museum interesting.  It is small.  Good thing it was covered by my pass; I would have been a little upset at shelling out E10 for this crappy museum with staff members who are wearing their panties too tightly.

I started to wander through Old Town, which is quite small and can be covered in a couple hours.  The architecture was gorgeous, but more than other cities, Salzburg felt extremely touristy.  It’s difficult to explain, but it felt like the entire town was geared purely towards the tourist trade, hence making the buildings’ historical significance seem less prominent.

I noticed that I would be walking by the Mozart Birthplace, so decided to give this museum a shot since it, too, was covered by my pass.

This museum was much better than the first.  Although it, too, is small, the layout makes much more sense and the information is presented more clearly.  Plus no one yelled at me for taking photos.  I suspect that there is a bit of a competition between the two Mozart museums.  I had noticed that one large exhibit in the first museum had made a big deal about how many paintings of young Mozart may not be of Mozart at all, but some other child.  That ah-ha exhibit highlighted one particular painting, and yet, here in the second museum, that same painting was being touted as actually portraying Mozart!  Weird.

It was also a bit weird that the Birthplace museum also had a lock of Mozart’s hair on display.  But then again, I took a photo of it so maybe I am weird as well.

I next went to the fort which dominates the skyline.  I took the cable car up to the top of Hohensalzburg Fort, since it was covered by my pass.  The views from Hohensalzburg were beautiful.  If the Untersbergbahn mountain peak provided a macro lens view of the valley, the fort provided a close up look at the beauty of Salzburg and the surrounding countryside.  I snapped a ton of photos from various vantage points.

I did an audio tour of the interior of the fort, which had some good historical tidbits.  However, the fort itself isn’t as interesting as the views down from it.  By this time, I was getting very hungry since I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  It was already 7 pm.  I debated eating at the restaurant at the fort so I could linger with the views, but I could hear music from the city below and wanted to check that out.

The town squares were all jammed with people, and it appeared that a different band was playing raucous music in every square.  I tried to find a place to eat, but literally could not find an empty seat anywhere in about 40 minutes of wandering.  The crowd was getting drunker by the minute, but seemed to be having a great time.  I then noticed some fliers.  I was in Salzburg in the middle of a two day celebration, Kaiviertelfest!

The festive mood was contagious, and I had a good time.  Normally, I might have stuck around longer that evening but I also needed to get back to Munich and pack.

I checked the return train schedule and reluctantly headed back, thankful for at least having an open return ticket.  I actually couldn’t see the train station on the map, so had to ask somebody, which wasn’t easy since everybody was drunk.  The station seemed farther than I remembered, so I waited for a bus (using my Salzburg Pass) and got to the station with enough time to grab a sandwich and beer to go from a local store.  I boarded the 8:20 pm train back to Munich.

Many people visit Salzburg as a day trip, but I think it’s possible to spend two to three full days here and have enough fun and interesting things to keep one busy, depending on one’s interest.  The big positive is the beauty of the Alps.  The big caveat is the touristy nature of the Old Town area.  I personally have no particular desire to return here.  I love the mountains, but I would be just as happy in Colorado.  Having said that, I had fun and am glad I came to Salzburg to see it once.

Photos here:  Salzburg

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Munich Germany (four nights)

Photos here:


I had been to Germany many times, all on business.  And that’s not counting the number of times I connected through Frankfurt.  I never seriously considered traveling here as a tourist.  The whole German Teutonic thing just didn’t do it for me.  As for the food, I am not fond of boiled meat served with mushy potatoes and soggy vegetables.  True, I love beer, but I prefer wine.  If I had my European druthers, I’d pick Italy over Germany in a heartbeat.

Still, I had heard some great things about Munich and Berlin.  I vividly recall sitting in a bar in Bangkok a couple years ago with some friends of mine.  We were joined by Alan.  I don’t recall his real name, but he was a friend of Richard Gere’s.  But that’s not the real Richard Gere either.  My friend has a startling resemblance to Mayo from the movie Officer and a Gentleman.  Needless to say, he enjoys playing it up in the bars so we dubbed him after the actor.  Everybody he meets knows he isn’t the real actor, but many still stare and do a double take.

Anyway, Alan was a friend of Mayo’s.  As I said, I don’t recall Alan’s real name, but he was annoying in an ADHD/Rainman kind of way.  He also had a cell phone earpiece in one ear the whole time we were talking, so my other friend called him “Secret Agent”, especially when he refused to talk directly about his job, other than to say he had worked on many political campaigns but couldn’t divulge which ones.

I thought he was more of an eccentric clueless goof who couldn’t stay on topic, so I started calling him Alan, after the character in Hangover.  Alan didn’t get the reference, and kept correcting me as to his name.  But everyone else got it immediately and couldn’t stop laughing.  Yes, I can be a bit of an ass sometimes.  We were all extra careful not to let him “Roofie” us.

Anyway, we started talking about great tourist destinations in the world.  For some reason, Alan could not stop raving about Germany.  He became very animated, almost agitated, as he spoke of the glories of Germany.

I was dubious.  Since then, several other friends of mine encouraged me to visit, but I resisted until now.  I am travelling on a One World around-the-world ticket, and Air Berlin is the One World partner with the best intra-Europe travel options.  British Air also has routing, but their add-on fees make them uneconomical.  With Air Berlin ticketing, it made sense to spend some time in Germany.

I came to Germany with Alan’s comments in mind, but not much more than that.  I did a quick survey on the web, but that’s about it.  So I headed for Munich with little in the way of knowledge or expectations.

When I got to the Warsaw airport for departure, security was totally crazy.  President Obama was in town.  The guard patted me down very thoroughly, in the way that I wish my high school girlfriends had.  I felt like he should have at least asked me my name first.

Air Berlin didn’t have a direct flight from Warsaw to Munich; I would connect through Berlin.  It was a published, but tight connection, and Obama threatened to mess up my flight.  Sure enough, I departed 30 minutes late.

When I arrived in Munich, I ran to my connection and arrived with 8 minutes to spare.  Whew.  The stupid gate attendant, however, wouldn’t let me in.  I could tell she was wavering, but then for some reason she decided to close the gate.  Soon, several other Warsaw passengers arrived and none of us were pleased.  We could still see the other passengers on the gateway.  But Germans are a stubborn people.  Don’t forget, they attacked Russia in the winter twice.  There was no changing this woman’s mind.

Now stranded at the airport for a couple hours, I went to Burger King where I had the burger meal for $10, including the extra cost for ketchup.  Welcome to Germany, the great travel destination.  So far, Alan seemed like a big fat liar.  One thing for sure, cheap meals were now over for the rest of my trip.

I boarded my new connecting flight to Munich, but they made me check my bag this time.  Air Berlin used a narrow propeller plane on this flight, so I guess my roll on wouldn’t have fit in the overhead.

At least the German baggage handling is efficient.  I got my luggage on the other side fairly promptly.  One thing did drive me a little nuts.  This plane closed the gate early as well, but then took another 15 minutes or so for all the passengers to board and be seated on the plane.  Grrrr.  Why didn’t that lady let me on my original flight?

When I arrived in Munich, I purchased an S-bahn train ticket into central Munich from a kiosk.  I thought these tickets needed to be validated before boarding, but the stamping machines at the entrance kept rejecting it.  Some other travelers were having the same issues.  I knew that some tickets came prevalidated, and hoped that this was one of them so just went through and got on the S1 train.  For some reason, I thought I couldn’t take the earlier (and shorter routing) S8 train, so I unintentionally again lengthened my journey a bit more.

Ultimately, I lost almost the entire day to traveling.  I didn’t end up at my hotel until close to 6pm, whereas I originally expected to be there by 2:30pm at the latest.  A bit aggravating to be sure.

Pension Lindner is a different kind of hotel.  Run by a charming lady whom I had corresponded with during the booking process, the pension is very centrally located.  It’s only a five minute walk to Marionplatz, the main square of Munich’s Old Town.  The pension also serves one of the best hotel breakfasts.

Other than that, however, my single room was extremely small and very basic, with a shared bathroom out in the common hallway.  In resembled more a small single room in a hostel in a nondescript building.  Since Marion was the only staff and she was often not around, there wasn’t anyone really to help navigate the city as well.  At E60 per night (trade fair price), the hotel was a bit overpriced, but the location couldn’t be beat.

I decided to just do some random roaming around the main square Marionplatz for the evening.  Munich’s Old Town is filled with pedestrian only zones, and I had fun just rambling about.  I ended up venturing farther than I thought, as pretty sights captivated me.  With beer gardens and classic buildings everywhere, Munich was starting to grow on me.

For dinner, I picked a traditional Bavarian place with a high TA rating.  I ordered the “meatloaf”, but it was more like a chunk of bologna.  The meal wasn’t bad.  In fact, it was sort of what I expected.  As I said, German food doesn’t rank that high on my culinary hit list.  Dining outside in a small corner square was quite nice though.  It started getting a bit chilly as the night went on, so I didn’t linger at the table after my meal.  Still, I felt like I was getting settled into this new city.

After dinner, I roamed around a bit more.  Street performers were out in full force, and one particular band was really rocking the crowd with their renditions of pop songs, ranging from Barbie Girl to Michael Jackson’s greatest hits.  They encouraged the crowd to participate, and the audience enthusiastically complied, particularly a student group from Spain.  I killed a lot of time just watching various street performers.

Many beer gardens and beer clubs were still going strong.  Germans really love beer!  The most famous one is Hofbrauhaus, so I stopped by there.  The place rocked with a riotous atmosphere, as drunken crowds sang along to the Oompa Loopma land.  Since a fair number of them were clearly foreigners, knowing the lyrics was not a prerequisite for joining in.  It felt a bit touristy, but people were clearly having fun.

Groups of people had taken over the communal tables, and I didn’t see seating area that was good for a solo traveler.  I was in the mood for a cocktail rather than beer anyway, so I went across the street to the Hard Rock Café, where I had noticed a folk duo playing.

I sat down and waited for a waiter to come by to take my order, but no one ever came.  I hung around listening to the music for about 40 minutes, but then started getting tired so I headed back to the pension.  My first day in Germany had started out with a late, down note arrival, but I still considered it a good day.

The next morning I was off to an early start.  As I mentioned, the pension’s breakfast was really good.  I ate my fill because I wasn’t sure whether I would have time for lunch.  I had planned a full day, beginning with a walking tour I had found on line.  The walking tour suggested starting at karlsplatz, a big square at the edge of Old Town.

The tour itself wasn’t that great, but it was a really nice day to walk around, and I was able to put name and history to many of the buildings I came across.

The Michael Jackson tribute was a complete surprise, and I'm sure had nothing to do with the statue.

Munich’s version of Central Park is their huge English Gardens.  I had heard one dubious rumor about the place.  Apparently, people (well, mostly old men) walk around in the buff in many parts of the park.  Other rumors suggested they were either exhibitionists or trolling for a homosexual hook up.  I had never thought Germans as being hypersexed; I actually thought they were prudes.  I don’t know why I had such a conservative view of them, but clearly I was wrong.

The English Garden is actually quite nice.  At the entrance, storm drains flow under a bridge and feed small streams that flow through the park.  Adventurous surfers need not be frustrated in land-locked Munich.  They use these drains to practice.  It reminded me of those water parks where you can boogie board.  I never expected to encounter surfers blasting around in Munich, but here they were.

I strolled the park enjoying the beautiful day.  The park itself is nothing special.  Lots of open space, but I didn’t run across any interesting botanical gardens or sculptured greens or anything like that.  There were one or two interesting architectural displays, but nothing that really stood out.

What did stand out were the naked guys wandering around.  There was an occasional topless woman, but for the most part, the nudists were retired guys who showed no shyness about scratching their privates or “pointing” to other people.  It was really funny, but the novelty effect wore off quickly.

I headed back to the main square.  I found a Thai Place that was inside a shopping mall, but had outdoor sitting space.  I know that doesn’t make much sense, but many of these shopping malls have open air gardens.  Now that I think of it, this actually does make a lot of sense and more malls should do the same.  I ordered some red curry, ate and rested my tired feet.  The curry was nothing special, but it was a welcome change of pace.

Many people believe that Munich’s museums are underrated.  The crown jewel among the museums is Alte Pinakothek.  I walked over and inquired about tickets.  The price seemed OK so I bought one.  Only after she made the sale did the staff inform me that about half the museum was closed for renovation.  What??  Well, at least they had a free audio guide.  I walked around, and the whole thing didn’t take that long.  Those fans of Munich museums are dead wrong.  At least base on this single experience, Munich has crappy museums.

As the day wound down, I walked by the main train station.  I had thought about doing a day trip to Salzburg, Austria at some point, but had received a lot of conflicting info.  I also debated whether to do a group tour, and one of the more reputable companies has an office inside this main train station.  I went to the tour desk and got info, but then decided to nix it.  The group tour seemed too restrictive.  I decided just to buy my own train ticket, hoping to pay E19 each way which is the most discounted fare.  The kiosks were a bit confusing, so I went to the “Foreigner Help Desk.”

There, I met a helpful a German, surprise!  I knew about the Bayern Ticket, which offers unlimited travel on various regional public transport.  But this ticket is really set up for groups of people (very economical for groups of 5; so-so for solo travelers), and can’t be used until 9am at the earliest.  This meant that the earliest I could depart for Salzburg was about 10am.  I wanted to leave an hour or two earlier.

In any case, the helpful staff showed me how by paying E2.60 more, I could catch the 8:55 am regional train.  Moreover, I wouldn’t need to buy a return ticket.  So for a total of about E29, I was all set for my later trip to Salzburg, with flexibility on my return since the ticket was open ended.  Awesome.

Now it was time for dinner.  I wasn’t in the mood for Bavarian food, but there are lots of choices within Old Town so I wandered about.  One of my culinary rules is “Avoid All You Can Eat Sushi” joints.  The quality of the fish is likely to suck.  Even if one avoids food poisoning, one will almost surely regret the taste.

Well, I broke this rule.  I came across Tokyo that offered all you can eat sushi for E13.  It was a small place with less than a dozen seats run by Chinese staff.  They had a little conveyer system of small plates going around the seats.  I looked at the plates.  The raw fish itself didn’t look that great.  The color was a bit dull and they had cut the fish willy nilly.  However, most of the plates were not raw fish but izakaya type food, like Japanese salad and grilled asparagus and spring rolls.  I thought why not?

The food was barely passable.  Is it a good thing or bad thing that I ate “all I could eat” anyway?  One of my problems with these kinds of places is I will eat until I can’t any more.  I take the “all you can eat” promise quite literally, rather than stopping when I should.  Thankfully, my stomach felt fine afterwards so no real harm.  Still, why do I keep breaking my own culinary rules?

Rain began to fall as the evening passed.  The Hard Rock Café didn’t have any music today.  In fact, it seems that I had gotten lucky the night before.  The waiter said they have live music only 2-3 times per month so I left.  Earlier I had found on line a jazz place not too far away, Jazzbar Vogler.  Despite the increasing rain, I walked over as I really wanted to listen to live music.

The place was about half full, mostly consisting of Asian tourists.  The performer for the night was a piano player who kinda looked like Gerry Garcia.  I kept expecting him to breakout into Grateful Dead at any moment, but he stuck to the classics like Cole Porter.  The bar’s cocktails weren’t cheap, but they only charge a nominal E2 cover.   I had a decent evening of live music and bourbon for about E20.

The rain had stopped by the next morning.  I got a late start as I was fatigued.  All this walking around was definitely good exercise.  Having covered a lot of the Old Town already, I wanted to venture out to the Olympic Park Area.  The Munich Olympics were a tragedy given the act of terrorism, but remain historically important.  Also the BMW Museum as well as the BMW factory are just next door.

I was unsure exactly what kind of metro ticket I needed since I couldn’t decipher the zone based pricing.  The kiosk info was worthless.  I was about to buy the expensive ticket, but decided to see if I could find a help desk.  I managed to find an agent who spoke English, and she assured me that I only needed the most basic metro day pass.  Yay!  I saved some money.

I first went to the BMW Factory.  The reception area resembles more of a large auto dealership, other than the fact that a motorcycle stunt guy was zooming around indoors.

I checked out some of the cars, and started thinking how much more luxurious the current generation of convertibles are than my almost 20 year old rag top.  It was fun checking out the car and motorcycle models.  When I went to buy tickets for the factory tour, the only open spots were in the afternoon.  I have seen enough automobile plants in my (different) life, so I didn’t want to wait.  Instead, I headed directly next door to the BMW Museum.

I think most guys (yes, I am being sexist) will enjoy the BMW Museum.  It has a lot of historical information, with many vintage cars and motorcycles on display.  I had forgotten that BMW now owns Rolls Royce, but frankly, that part of the museum was kind of boring.

Afterwards, I wandered over to Olympic Park.  The park itself is nice but not great.  The highlight is the park peak with good views of the city below. Overall, I found Olympic Park a bit disappointing, especially since many of the arenas looked poorly maintained.

Heading back on the metro, I got off a couple stops earlier at University.  I don’t know much about the university, but I liked the area as it reminded me of the NYU neighborhood.  Students were out enjoying the nice day and they filled the many cafes, bars and restaurants.  I had two possible restaurants for lunch in the area, but both were closed for different reasons.  Argh.  Totally randomly, I found myself in front of a Korean restaurant.  I hadn’t had that cuisine in a while, so I ordered the denjang jigae for E6.  The food was fine, but felt kind of skimpy as they don’t include any side dishes.  In fact, the side dishes are quite expensive compared to the entrees.

I walked around a bit more, and came across a historical café. Konditorei Schneller 1884.  The staff was bored and unhelpful, but the cakes looked pretty good so I treated myself to dessert and a cappuccino.  I enjoyed sitting outdoors munching on the good cake, except for the pair of students next to me.  They spoke in English, oblivious in their private conversation that everyone seated nearby is probably educated enough to understand what they were saying.

The young lady may not even have been a student.  She was clearly an American princess, however, who was in Munich spending Daddy’s money while trying to be a movie star.  She was currently working on a set as an “extra.”  She had a vague resemblance to Reese Weatherspoon.  She kept complaining how hard it was to move up from just being an “extra”, and how her boss didn’t pay enough attention to her despite her training and obvious talent.  Her Italian, at least based on his accent, friend listened attentively.  He was sympathetic, and gave incredibly sage advice like “Oh, that sucks”, “Try to linger longer when they are shooting you”, and my favorite one which made me almost cough up my cake:  “You are too beautiful not to be a star soon.”

I gathered from their body posture that there was a romantic link between the two, but while he was very focused on her, she was more focused on complaining.  He tried to change the subject a couple times to their evening plans, and she would mutter something and then go back to complaining.  I bounced back from being amused to annoyed to amused by their conversation.  Who knows, maybe she will end up being a star someday, although Munich never struck me as the place to begin a movie career.

The sun was now beginning to set, cooling the weather.  I walked around a bit before heading to Asam Church, which is a tourist site I had not yet seen.  I hopped on the metro as I was getting tired (and I had a day metro pass anyway).  The church is different than most historic German churches, in that it is more art deco than Gothic.  The priest was just wrapping up the 5 pm mass, so I stayed a bit and then took some photos before leaving.

I looked at the map, debating whether to walk or take the metro back to my hotel.  I was really tired, but the main square didn’t seem that far away and I would need to walk in the opposite direction to get on the metro.  As I trudged toward the square, I noticed a familiar building a few minutes later.  Wait a minute, isn’t this the cross street with my hotel?  Yep.  My hotel was in fact quite close to the church.  If someone else had been reading the map, I would ridicule them relentlessly.

I had wanted to get a work out in today, as it had been awhile since anything other than my feet got exercise.  I was too tired, however, so chose to watch Youtube instead.  I just vegged out for awhile.  I might have even dozed briefly.

It was very late when I headed out for dinner.  I knew that the jazz joint from the prior night had a limited menu, so walked over there for some food and music.  As I left my hotel, however, I noticed some great music coming from the mall across the street.  I walked over, and discovered a different live music bar.  The place was absolutely packed and the lounge singer was terrific.  I couldn’t find an empty seat, however, and it appeared that most of the people there knew each other.  I then noticed that almost all of the guests were women.  I think I counted three men in a crowd of 60?  It didn’t seem like a closed party, but maybe I had crashed a lesbian event or something.  I debated staying, but decided to stick to my original plan and headed over to Vogler Jazz.

When I arrived, I ordered the spaghetinni with basil tomato sauce.  The good news was that they use really good olive oil.  The bad news: the sauce was pretty mediocre, as was the duo performing that evening.  I left early and went back to my hotel.  I felt tired from all that walking and was leaving for Salzburg in the morning.  I fell asleep immediately.

I spent the next entire day in Salzburg and really enjoyed the Austrian town.  (See separate blog entry.)  It was very late by the time I returned to Munich, but I noticed I had received an email about possible credit card fraud on my account.  I called my card company and they cancelled my card after discussion.  I wasn’t too concerned so long as it doesn’t happen again since this was my “backup” card for the trip.  I went right to bed afterwards.

On my final morning, I enjoyed my breakfast and then immediately headed for the airport to catch my flight to Berlin.

My stay in Munich had gone by like a whirlwind.  I liked the city quite a bit.  Munich’s combination of traditional Bavarian culture and approachable historic Old Town worked for me, especially because it still maintained the feel of a modern city.  I didn’t find the city “fun” per se, contrary to Alan’s praise.  For example, the nightlife, at least in the Old Town area, was fairly tame, limited and somewhat tourist oriented.  So Alan may have been wrong in some respects, but I still really enjoyed my stay here.  I looked forward to exploring more of Germany in Berlin.


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Monday, June 23, 2014

Warsaw Poland

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The train ride from Krakow to Warsaw was easy and uneventful.  One difference was that unlike the forward facing seats on my train to Krakow, this train had the more conventional six seat compartments.  My compartment mates included a German couple and a Polish businessman, but none of them were particularly chatty so I spent most of it on my laptop.

Once again, I thought the Polish farmland was quite pretty.  Once again, almost all of my attempts to photograph it turned out worthless, given my camera issues and the speed of the train.  At least it was once again a bright clear day, and the good weather continued all the way into Warsaw.

Warsaw is a funny city.  Many tourists never make it here, even though it is Poland’s capital.  Krakow has more historic charm, and is part of the Prague/Budapest tourist circle.  By contrast, Warsaw was almost entirely destroyed during World War II.  So even though they have an “Old Town”, for example, almost all of it consists of buildings that were rebuilt post war.  So much for historic significance.  This city of 2 million people remains important from a commerce standpoint, but gets the short shrift from a tourism angle.

I knew almost none of this when I originally made my flight schedule.  After reading a bit about the city, however, I set fairly low expectations for my two day stay here.  I looked forward most to staying at a “real” international hotel for the first time in this trip and enjoying the attendant modern conveniences.  I had booked myself into the Westin.  I looked forward to a real work out in a real gym, sleeping in a real luxurious bed, taking a real shower in a well-appointed real bathroom, drinking a proper cocktail in a real hotel bar, etc.

On that front, the Westin was a bit of a letdown.  It had many of the modern amenities, of course, but the level of service and infrastructure (whether the rooms, the gym, or the bar area) failed to measure up to the standard Westin hotel.  By contrast, I ended up enjoying Warsaw much more than expected.

Based on what I read, the three “touristy” things to do were Lazienki Park, Old Town, and the Warsaw Uprising Museum.  It was a gorgeous day, and I was tempted to go to Lazienki Park, but decided to save that for tomorrow. Warsaw has many parks, and I noticed that several were on the way to Old Town, so decided to walk there instead and kill two birds on my first day.

The parks were not particularly impressive, but the weather was nice and people were about enjoying themselves.

Old Town, as I mentioned, really isn’t that old since it was entirely rebuilt after the war.  Still, if you can ignore that particular piece of truth, the area actually has lots of charm, complete with rebuilt city walls and a castle.  Perhaps appropriately, it merges into “New Town” to the north, and the architectural changes are subtle.  I walked the entire area just enjoying the nice day.

As the day went on, the crowds kept getting larger, especially with families milling about.  There were several stages set up in one of the squares, but the only performers were children.  I thought that strange, even though they were good.

I later discovered that Poles were celebrating International Childrens’ Day.  Ahhh, now it all makes sense.  Old Town was clearly the touristy highlight of my short Warsaw soujourn.

I stopped at Bazpliszek for lunch.  Located in the heart of Market Square in Old Town, I picked this place because it was crowded and because it had an interesting dragon (?) at the restaurant entrance.  Given the weather, I chose to sit outside and asked for a “good traditional Polish dish.”

The waitress, who was dressed in costume, suggested the breaded pork chops.  Like much of the Polish food I ate, I found it OK.  I mean, I can’t really complain, but the food was basically too bland for my taste.  For example, everything basically tasted like boiled food, even the fried pork chops!  I concluded that Polish food, at least traditional Polish food, really wasn’t my thing.  I ate mostly other stuff during the remainder of my stay.

I roamed the area a bit more after lunch.  Did I learn in school that Marie Curie was a Pole?  It sounds right, but I wasn’t sure.  There is a museum dedicated to her regardless.

As I continued to wander the city, I was struck by how swiftly Warsaw was changing.  While most of the city is “new” from a post war sense, there is ugliness in the communist era buildings or the sculptures that make no sense.

By contrast, sleek new skyscrapers dominate the skyline and there is new construction everywhere.

I went back to the hotel afterwards until dinner time.  Checking on the Internet, many recommended an Italian place nearby.  The reviews kept emphasizing how it was owned by an “Italian.”  I don’t think that should make a difference, but wandered over.

L’Olive was crowded, and I think I was actually seated next to the owner’s family as they ate.  I ordered a large salad with cheese and pears, and a seafood pasta dish.  The good news was that the squid ink pasta was cooked perfectly el dente.  I was disappointed in everything else.  The food was OK, but hardly qualifies as “good” Italian.  The salad was chunky and unbalanced, while the seafood was overcooked and oversalted.  The bill was about $30, so not expensive but not worth it either.

I walked back to my hotel, planning to catch up on work for the remainder of the evening.  I decided to buy some beer to drink in my room.  I walked inside the local grocery store.  The interior of the two doors wouldn’t open, even though I could see people inside shopping.  I must have had a puzzled (or stupid) expression on my face because a young woman looked at me and explained in fluent, but accented English: “They just closed.”  I explained that I had just wanted to buy a beer.  It turned out that she just got shut out of buying milk as well.  She said she was going to another store a few blocks away and I could buy beer there.

We walked over.  It turned out that she wasn’t Polish, but a Ukrainian student attending university here.  We had quite an interesting, and surprisingly serious, conversation about world politics on the short walk over.  I was impressed by her rather strong (and well thought out) views about international affairs for someone still in college.  When we got to the second store, it too was closed!  Ahh, she explained it must be due to International Childrens’ Day.  That’s how I discovered why Old Town had been so festive today.

I was still in the mood for a beer, so we went to the bar right across the street and carried on our conversation.  It turned out that she is also supporting herself by being the hostess at one of the largest restaurants in Old Town, thanks to her multilingual language abilities.  In fact, she was still in uniform as she had just gotten out of work.  She impressed me with her maturity and drive.  After a long and interesting conversation about many things, we left the bar and said goodbye.

I guess Asia isn’t the only place where strangers can be nice.  I hadn’t had many meaningful adult conversations during my journey.  It was a pleasant surprise having one with a random thoughtful student of all people, and in Warsaw of all places.  I have no doubt that she will go on to a successful career.

When I awoke the next morning, the weather had changed.  Warsaw had changed back to the gloomy and dark city I first encountered.  I cancelled my plans to go to Lazienki Park and headed instead for the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which was only a short walk from the hotel.

I encountered a pleasant surprise on the way.  As I was I consulting my map, I saw a familiar face walking towards me, in a deep conversation with his colleague.  I shouted out his name.  Bobby and I had a summer job together while I was in grad school, and then started working together after graduation.  We had been great friends, but had drifted apart over the years.  I hadn’t seem him in a very long time.

We chatted on the streets.  He was in Warsaw on business and on his way to a meeting.  We exchanged contact info and promised to get reacquainted soon either in London or New York.  Like most things, however, other things will likely take priority and it will take another random encounter for us to reconnect.  Still, it was good to see him, on a small side street in Warsaw of all places.  What a small world.

I found the museum to be OK, but not great.  I gained little new information, and many of the original documents and the like were not translated.  The museum is purposefully noisy, to recreate the ambience of an uprising.  I didn’t find this particularly helpful.  If you are into weapons, however, they do have a nice collection of rifles, pistols, and other weapons used during the uprising.

For lunch, I tried Restro based on some web recommendations.  Finally!  Awesome food!  Local business people favor this place for lunch, and their set menu choices are both delicious and cheap.  I had the set of tomato bisque soup, and asparagus ravioli.  The bisque had the perfect amount of tang and creaminess, while the ravioli was fresh and had greater textural contrast with the crunchy asparagus.  This restaurant would succeed in New York.  Together with a Coke, the lunch set me back less than $10 including a healthy tip for very friendly service.

I spent the rainy afternoon back in the hotel.  I finally got I that proper gym workout and did some work.  For dinner, I headed back to Restro.  Unlike lunch time, the place was fairly empty.  Still feeling carnivorous, I ordered the steak.  The quality of the meat could have been better, but it was perfectly cooked medium-rare, and served with mushrooms and a side zesty salad.  The talented chef definitely has a creative flair, and I enjoyed this meal again very much, all for about $13.  I recommend this restaurant most highly.

I debated going to a bar for a drink afterwards, but I suddenly felt pretty tired.  Instead, I sat outside and smoked a cigar before heading to bed.   Warsaw proved that much of travel is about expectations.  I had a pleasant short stay here, but when I thought about the reasons why, I couldn’t quite pinpoint what made it so good.  Ultimately, I think my low expectations made everything a positive surprise, from the quaint Old Town, to meeting the random student and Bobby, to discovering Restro.  I am not sure that I want to return to Warsaw, but I am surely glad that I came.

The next misty morning, I headed to the airport for Munich.  I walked over to the Warsaw train station to catch the train to the airport.

Along the way, a waddling older Polish lady hogged the sidewalk.  I shouted excuse me, but she wouldn't move, so in typical NYC fashion I brushed past her.  When she caught up to me at the corner, she gave me some kind of lecture in Polish, which I couldn’t understand.  So I had a few choice words for her as well, which I am sure she found indecipherable.  I felt like I was back in NYC.

The city was a bit of a mess as Obama was coming into Warsaw this morning.  I faced tight security everywhere, including at the train station.  At the airport, I was given the most thorough body search ever.  I felt like cracking a joke, but knew that wasn’t wise and the burly guard probably wouldn’t understand it anyway.

The Presidents plane landed right before I was to take off.  Predictably, he delayed everyone else at the airport, and my flight left 30 minutes late.  How inconsiderate.

After buying a quick breakfast snack at the airport, I left Poland with less than 20 cents worth of Polish money.  I patted myself on the back for not being stranded with local currency.  So far on this trip, I had been very efficient.  While Cambodia is dollar based, I left Vietnam, Nepal, India, and Poland with less than $10 cumulatively of unused local currency.  I’m not sure why I felt so good about this accomplishment, but I did.

Most of all, however, I felt good about this trip.  I was approaching the half-way point in my journey, and overall this trip had exceeded my expectations.  The only downside was a bit of sensory overload.  For example, Halong Bay was only a few weeks ago but I felt I went there a long time ago.  But maybe this is part of the point of this blog.  Between jotting my thoughts in real time and having a good photo log, I feel like I can relive those pleasant memories.  For the time being, however, there are plenty of new exciting memories to create.


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