5 Hotels – 5 Cities – all different – all definitely European!


In Europe, the price you pay and the value you get seem quite independent – I say this because we’ve been in Germany and Switzerland for 4 weeks now – and stayed in 5 quite different hotels. All except the last have been ‘middle’ of the road quality – not brand names – not super spectacular – just well located.

Our needs were simple – in each of the cities we visited – Munich, Zürich, Nuremberg, Leipzig, and Berlin – we wanted the best possible location at a reasonable price.

In Nuremberg, Zürich and Leipzig – we had one further requirement – we needed parking.

We used only 2 ways to get our reservations – Hotwire (Berlin) and Booking.com (all the others). The rates we paid varied considerably – and were definitely not in line with the quality of the hotel! I’m guessing it’s more a question of the city and maybe timing than the hotel itself. In any case – despite staying in really quite similar properties for size, location relative to featured attractions, double rooms in all cases with bathroom en-suite – the prices actually doubled from our lowest price option to our most expensive night stay. Amazing.

And in several of the hotels – namely the Atlanta in Leipzig, the Goethe in Munich, and the St. Gotthard in Zürich – our bathroom didn’t even have a tub – just a shower! An acceptable one in all cases though – and I have to say often I prefer a shower to a tub. Easier to get in and out of if you are seriously tired!

Our least expensive hotel is the Eurostar in Berlin. This is a fabulous hotel – 4 stars, with a breakfast price point to match (17.50 Euro – per person). But over priced breakfast buffet aside, the hotel is extremely well located – right next to the haufbanhof (Main train station), and a 5 minute walk to Museum Island in one direction and the Brandenburg Gate in the other. Ideal for exploring Berlin – although restaurant options – while plentiful, are hardly cheap. In fact – that’s probably my biggest complaint! Our room is on the top floor – with a glorious view of the city. The front desk is extremely pleasant and easy to deal with – and the spa – while lacking a whirlpool, has a lovely indoor swimming pool and 2 – count’m 2 – saunas. Both are clothing optional if you must know. I’d definitely rate this the best hotel we’ve stayed at – and it’s by far the least expensive. Under $100 a night. Go figure. Internet is free – although fussy – you have to sign in separtely for all devices, and repeat the sign-in everytime the device goes to sleep. Bottom Line – 5 Stars and a Definitely Stay here.

Next lowest price – the Hotel Atlanta in Leipzig. In this case – I’m not surprised at the price – just surprised we could get it that cheap since we stayed there during the Battle of Nations celebration. Everything was full! I suspect our great rate is more due to the length of our stay (4 nights) than anything special we did. And it included breakfast – which was absolutely perfect. Unlimited coffee, cereal, fruit, meat, cheese, lots of different breads and rolls and cakes, crepes, sausages, bacon, meatballs, and boiled eggs. I particularly liked the cheese selection – from Baby Bel’s to herbed cream cheese to traditional sliced cheeses. It was yummy. The location for our purposes was perfect. There was a free parking lot – and the hotel was just a 7 minute drive from the bivouac area for our re-enacting group. The spa offered a whirlpool bath (lukewarm – not hot), and a sauna – definitely clothing optional. But the spa had a nice sized resting area – and a lovely view. Room was nice and large – I could have used a fridge with more space – I had to remove their ‘charge’ items to put in my bread and fruit. And if I had to be fussy – the fact that you had to know to ask for bathrobe was weird. We only found out the hard way – went to the hot tub area – and everyone had one but us! Internet was an additional 17.50 Euro’s a week – but at least we only paid once for all our devices. And TV was additional too – if you wanted more than the basic channels. Bottom line here – 5 Stars – and a definitely Stay Here.

Next up – and it’s a big jump – (175 Euro a night) was the Hotel Agneshof in Nuremberg. But location, location! It was a wonderful location – off a quite side street – right under the eves of the Nuremberg castle, and right around the corner from a great antique shop selling discounted pewter mugs. Oh did I enjoy that shop! The Agneshof also offered parking – at 15 Euro a day – but an essential if you drove into Nuremberg with a car and no assigned parking place. Breakfast was a reasonable 7 Euro per person – and quite ample. They even offered my Cafe Macchiato – my favorite. The Spa was in the basement – rather cool whirlpool, but nice and clean, and a glorious sauna. Oddly the fitness equipment was in the same space – hard to exercise in a room full of steam and clorine. We spent every day out on the town – and quite enjoyed our stay. Bottom line – another 5 stars, and a definitely stay there again – but try for a better rate.

Top dollar prizes (Over 220 Euro a night) go to the hotels in Munich and Zürich. And I have to say – the hotel in Zürich was clearly worth the price – of the hotel in Munich – I’m not so sure. I’ll bet other people were staying there for a whole lot less.

In Munich we stayed at the hotel Goethe – picked because it was a middle of the road price – which says something about the prices of hotels around Octoberfest time if over 200 Euros is middle of the road! It was located in a very ‘mixed’ neighborhood, right by the main train station. I call the neighborhood mixed because our neighbors were either Casinos or shops selling sex toys. Walking the streets was an experience as well – there were ladies in full burka with only their eyes visible walking slowly past the bums and homeless you’d expect to see next to a train station. And most annoying – particularly for the price – the hotel is doing a major renovation – so there was no elevator. The front desk clerk had to carry our suitcases upstairs – thank goodness we were only on the first floor! Plus there was scaffolding outside our window – blocking both the view and the breeze. Most annoying – the light in the bathroom was on a movement sensitive switch. If you didn’t move enough while sitting on the toilet – the light went off! Quite a surprise the first time, let me tell you. No Spa, No fitness center, No Whirlpool. Just a tiny sitting area near the front desk, and an equally tiny breakfast area. Speaking of breakfast – at 7.50 Euro per person per day – it was quite a bargain. No fancy coffee – but there was fruit, meats, cheeses, eggs, sausages, and a selection of rolls and sweet breads. I particularly like the Stollen. I know it’s a Christmas Cake – but hey – you cut it, I’ll eat it! Thank goodness we didn’t have a car. Because of the construction – which took out the garden of the hotel, not to mention the entire front of the building – there was barely room to drive by the hotel, let along park. I certainly would have expected a better price given the challenges we had – but I suppose they charge even more when not in the midst of reconstruction. At least the internet was free. Not very powerful, but free. Bottom line – 3 stars and I’d definitely look for somewhere else next time I’m in Munich.

In Zürich we stayed in the Hotel Gotthard. Breakfast not included – and at 32 SF (about $32 per person) not happening for me. I just don’t eat that much food. Awkwardly – the first morning we walked the wrong way – and were in the ‘expensive’ part of town – no breakfast spots to be found. We ended up at the breakfast buffet of a ‘lesser’ hotel – and paid 22 SF ($22 per person) for breakfast. It became my personal goal to locate a better option. Eventually we walked the right way – into the train station – and for just 10 SF ($10) found a lovely breakfast place – they even included my cafe Macchiato for no extra charge. I love you for that! The hotel is an older grande dame – rooms aren’t huge – but they are comfortable, and for our purposes the location and car parking option, which while pricy, totally worked. I won’t say it’s the nicest hotel we stayed in (That definitely goes to the Eurostar in Berlin) but it was comfortable, had 2 elevators, and the staff was very nice. Internet was free – a nice bonus. So a clear recommendation – just try to get a better deal on the price!

So – not a terrible place in the lot, even the Hotel Goethe had its location going for it – but some clear favorites. And I’ve learned something I didn’t know about German’s and Austrians – Clothing is definitely optional in whirlpools and Saunas. So come prepared!

Picture below is our room in the Eurostar –

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The Madness Continues – Another stunning castle, another wasted 3 years


Ludwig II continued… Or where he really lived…

Ludwig never lived in Neuschwanstein. He did spend some time overseeing the construction work from the Gate House. So where was he living while his dream castle was being built?

Linderhof Castle – our stop after a quick visit to the glorious pilgrimage Church at Wies.

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You can read all about it – and its miraculous statue of Christ here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wieskirche

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The Church boggles the mind – it’s a whirlwind of Rocco madness. If you’ve seen one cherub – you’ve seen a hundred. After our walk thru, and hungry for lunch, we popped into the restaurant just opposite the door to the church. Surprisingly yummy – I opted for dessert – HexenStrudel – and I had the best meal! Oh it delcious. Color me content if there a nice sweet cake to enjoy.

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Tummy happy – it’s on to the Linderhof.

Linderhof Castle is located in an isolated area – a short distance as the crow flies from the drop dead splendor fo Neuschwanstein – but if the crow is driving a gear shift car – it’s an hour on curvy country roads. Worth the trip though – this is a wonderful castle to see – made more interesting by the fact that Ludwig II actually lived here in almost absolute isolation for the last 3 years of his life.

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Linderhof, unlike Neuschwanstein, is located on rolling grounds that lend themselves nicely to some serious landscape gardening. Opposite the front door is a large pool – with a highly decorative and very attractive fountain that ‘erupts’ every 15 minutes. Ludwig II had been to the worlds fair in Paris (1867) – and had seen Versailles – so he decorated Linderhof to honor the Sun King – Louis XV. It’s filled with gifts given Ludwig from various monarch, and planned so that Ludwig could live here without seeing his servants.

For example – his dining room features a table that sinks into the kitchen so it can be set and served – then ropes pulled to raise the table in front of the king. No servants to ignore. Perfect.

Like Neuschwanstein, you must take a guided tour. Unlike Neuschwanstein, the out-of-the-way location and less dramatic appearance keeps the crowds away. In our tour group there were just 7 people – the guide, us (English), our friends (German), and a couple of Russians. So our guide handed out printed books to our friends and the Russians – and gave us the best tour ever. She showed us hidden cabinets and staircases that the servants used to hide from Ludwig. She pointed out details on paintings and explained Ludwig II’s fascination with the Sun King and his mistresses. And most importantly – made sure we knew to go visit the ‘Venus Grotto’.

Following her directions, we wandered into the extensive gardens, admired the arbors and various planting – including the magnificent waterfall system framed to perfection by the windows of Ludwig II bedroom. You can see it behind the Castle in the picture taken from the top of the landscaped buildings in front of the castle.

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Eventually we make it to the Venus Grotto – and again must wait for a tour group. Well worth the wait I have to tell you! Ludwig II was enraptured by Richard Wagner’s operas – and the fact that scene painters not architects were asked to design Neuswanstein is well know. Less well-known is that he had the same person design for him a personal grotto. The place is huge – completely artificial of course – with a oversided rough shaped pool and a swan boat for the king to relax in while singers and the chorus performed Wagner’s operas from ‘shore’. All for an audience of exactly one. The hight of extravagance – a 25′ waterfall that turns on and off on command.

Futher foolishness – while at the Worlds Fair in 1867, Ludwig saw the Moroccan exhibit – and bought it! It now sits proudly in the garden of Linderhof.

Magnificat decor, beautiful furniture, and a fascinating back history. The Linderhof is worth driving out-of-the-way for.

Ludwig II – Never envy the life of the rich and bored!


In 1868, at age 18, Ludwig II became the king of Bavaria. But the times they were a-changing! He could never be an absolute ruler as he wished – instead he had to tread a very careful path around Bismark – a task for which he was apparently ill prepared. The result – a war that ended badly, and a rank of king only in name.

But he had money – and nothing really to do. So he retreated into a life of fairy tales and Wagner inspired Grand gestures. Friendless at the end, but surrounded by servants – his cause of death in 1886 remains a mystery – although the ill minded might wonder about his uncle, who became regent upon Ludwig II death and ruled for quite some time.

Sad life aside – Ludwig II wanted to build things – things that people would remember. And build he certainly did. We visited only 2 of his 8 palaces, one of which I’ll chat about today – the other tomorrow.

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We also saw a third (Hohenschwangau) from a distance. That was more than enough to get the general idea- this was a king that loved the ornate, the over-the-top, the extreme. And he had the money to make it happen.

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Neuschwanstein Castle is the stuff of picture books and Disney fairy tale fame. It’s not hard to imagine that Disney used Neuschwanstein as his model for Cinderella’s castle – even the guide books admit that this is one of the most famous buildings in the world.

But Ludwig II only spent about 8 nights here – by all accounts he visited during the multi-year construction, but there were never any parties, any balls, any sparkling lights and magnificently dressed people – not in reality. But on the walls – Ludwig fished his wish. Heros of Wagner Operas are everywhere – proud, glorious, and for many – insane. The tour (it’s required that you take a tour – no self touring) needs to be reserved ahead – but if you are aware of that – the reservation is free, and the time you will save is counted in multiple hours. We walked in, walked up to the booth, paid and left. Others were less lucky – and dealt with snaky lines that looped and curled. Don’t do that – reserve your tour!

Just a note – I don’t think you actually reserve a time – just a date. I’m not sure – but I typed in 11:00 as my desired time – and when we arrived – our tour ticket was 11:30. Not completely sure how that happened – I wasn’t the one who paid for the tickets. On the other hand – since we had 2 German speakers and 2 English speakers – they may have decided the only good choice was the tour with audio guides!

Anyway – cars are not allowed on the access road – only horse-drawn carriages and people walking.

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Shuttle buses take a completely different route. We thought we’d take the carriages – realized that the line was seriously long – and opted to walk. Good thing. No carriages passed us on the entire walk up. And it was a very easy walk, along a paved road through a forest. About 3/4 of the way up is the ‘carriage’ stop – and from there the views just get better and better.

It’s a completely beautiful castle. No wonder it’s one of the top tourist spots in Germany. I get it. Totally get it!

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We had plenty of time to wander around the outside and take pictures – if the tour starts at 11:30 – it’s going to start at 11:30. This is Germany you know. There are normally so many tourists – they have a loading now – and a pre-loading line. And still the wait without reservations can be hours. Part of the reason – it’s not that horribly expensive. Combine relatively inexpensive with seriously famous and you have a winner.

I carefully read the tripadvisor reviews before hand – and while the advice to get reservations is a winner – along with the advice to come early – the occasional complaint about the number of rooms you can see is completely unfounded. The issue isn’t the number of rooms you visit – it’s the number of rooms that were completed! And the rooms are huge. confiding that Ludwig was effectively hermit – it makes the castle even more amazing.

Ludwig II had two floors completely done when he fled here in an attempt to escape the government representatives who were coming to put him in an insane asylum. But those 2 floors are wonderful. The life-size murals telling the legends that Wagner immortalized in his opera are simply stunning.

The only sad thing is the speed that you must move thru in order to stay with your group. I actually ended up with the group after mine – caught between locked doors. No matter – that guide just waved a smile and continued on with their explanations.

You are not allowed to take pictures inside (they want to sell those postcards) – but you can take pictures in the kitchen. Got to love copper pans, eh?

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One of the best parts of the tour is one not often mentioned in the reviews. After you tour the castle, you end up at the restaurant. Decent prices, and standard German food awaits there. But across the hall is a stellar exhibit – a video subtitled in at least 3 languages that shows using animated sequences the history of the building of the castle. it shows the original medieval forts that determined the shape of the foundation, it showed the castle being built step by step – and most importantly it showed what was on the original plans, but never brought to fruition.

Ludwig had planned on a Knight’s bath – effectively a private hot tub just for him. He’d also imagined a huge secondary terrace and overview on the Western side of the castle – the one overlooking his childhood home, the Schloss Hohenschwanagau. That’s the castle we saw from a distance, but never visited.

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After seeing the castle and watching the video, I was so impressed by the beauty of the paintings – not to mention the gold and gilt and ornamentation – I actually bought a story book that summarized the legends emblazoned on the walls.

Bottom line – worth the trip!

Atelier – the Ultimate Dinner – Ignoring the price of course!


There’s a 2 Michelin Star Restaurant in Munich – the Dallmayr. It’s extremely small – extremely famous – and naturally – it’s very hard to get reservations. For some reason we’d thought we could sneak in at the last minute. Nope. But the very sweet Matre d’ asked if he could find another option for us – and suggested the Atelier. He even called and got us reservations.

So that’s how we ended up there – personal reference!

You’d never find it on Tripadvisor – 2 year ago someone reviewed it – in German, and gave it a 98 out of 100 – but blew it on the overall rating. Instead of a 5 – he gave it 2 – thinking Michelin stars. So the restaurant is ranked about 50th in Munich – instead of the first or second place it deserves. How do I know – after I ate there I emailed him to ask why the 2 stars!

Anyway – The restaurant is located in a tiny space (10 tables max – although all were large – at least double sized normal tables, with generous aisles and plenty of room for the serving staff). The tiny space is located in one of Munich’s don’t ask the price – you can’t afford it – upscale hotels. There were 2 other restaurants (at least) in the same hotel – the Garden which shared chefs and maitre d’ with the Atelier, although not the menu or wait staff, and rather surprisingly – a Trader Vic’s on a lower level. I haven’t seen a Trader Vic’s in at least 30 years. I didn’t get to see inside this one either!

But the layout was such that once in the Atelier – you didn’t hear or see or know anything about the other restaurants – it was a private space, set up to impress, comfort, and clearly feed you.

Huge round stone platters marked each place, and the salt and butter service was pink sea salt, unsalted local butter, and a house made spread.

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I felt very under-dressed in my blue jeans and bright blue ski sweater, but the extremely well-trained staff didn’t bat an eyelid. If I came recommended by the maitre d’ at Dallmayr – I was ok!

There are only 2 main options – a tasting menu of 5 courses, or a tasting menu of 7 courses. But our talented, knowledgeable, and very pretty head waitress assured us that the kitchen was extremely flexible – we could pick and choose as we wished.

So my husband ordered the 7 course menu with wine pairings, I opted for the 5 course meal. In my opinion – I was the clear winner on this deal. My menu included unlimited selections from the cheese cart featuring raw milk cheeses from Maitre Affineur Waltmann.

Restaurants of this caliber offer additional surprise courses – delivered to the table and described as ‘gifts’ from the kitchen. At the Atelier – there were at least 4 or 5 such gifts – and the first one had 2 separate bites – both served on the same plate, I loved the mixture of crunch and soft in both the fish puree and mini ravioli. That distinctive combination of soft and crunch was a theme that niftily was repeated in most of the other offerings.

My 5 courses went from a lovely Duck breast dish with a side dim-sum of duck confit to a delightful fish slice delicately placed in a chinese lettuce and false flax oil puree. (Don’t ask me what that means – I’m just quoting from the copy of the menu they gave us when we left). What made the fish special was that they had quick fried the skin (crunchy) and properly cooked the fish (still soft and flaky – and delightfully seasoned. Yum.

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I didn’t much care for one of my courses – but Victor was glad to help me out. My lemon and we think lime and/or mint sorbet cleanser was delightful too.

The cheese course was as perfect as it could be.

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The offerings ranged from cow to sheep to goat, from mild to strong to stronger. I opted for 6 different cheeses, and they were properly sliced and placed in order of complexity of flavor on a plate.

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In addition there were 6 homemade jams – I asked to try all 6. And they had very lightly toasted and still soft nut bread.

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One of the cheese I’d picked was called Trappe Echourgnac – according to the staff – it made with a walnut liquor that we thought was exceptional. When we asked for the name – they not only provided that – they gave us a second, larger, piece to enjoy. Such an elegant way of dealing with a guest.

Desert – ah desert. Not just one, or two, but 3 deserts were presented. The first was a pre-desert, my main desert was a carmel butterscotch wonder with again that signature contrast of crunch and soft. In this case – the soft was home-made ice cream. After that they served a mini-desert of home-made truffle and marshmallow – followed by a box of truffles and nougat – pick however many as you want – when they presented the bill.

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Sigh

Meanwhile – Vic was enjoying his 7 courses – again each better than the last. His cheese course was particularly special – a goat cheese that had been bruleed on top. I didn’t taste it – but he loved it. They called it Clacbitou – and described it simply as cheese with eggplant and sesame. It was anything but simple.

His favorite main course was the Fillet of veal and calf’s tongue with brown mushroom and Savoy cabbage. Again much more flavor and style than the description or picture could possibly could convey.

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Bottom line – at the Atelier you definitely get what you pay for – and if you can afford it – then it’s definitely worth the money and time! It took almost 4 hours to eat dinner – and yet we never waited for a course. There are just so many courses to enjoy, discuss, and share.

One note – Victor ordered the wine pairing – and for each course they OPENED a bottle for him, and left it available for him to enjoy as much or as little as he wanted. The same happened at the other tables – no sharing of wine. What do they do with the half-finished bottles we wondered, but didn’t ask. My guess – they become wine by the glass for the Garden restaurant next door. But if other restaurants of this type have done that in the past – I didn’t notice it. Sure made me feel special! Wine was good too.

Close up and Personal – Life in a village in Bavaria


Living the nice life in Bavaria – ever wonder what it would be like to live in a village of 450 souls? Well – that’s where my German friends live – and like most dreams – the reality is always a bit unexpected.

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Their village is about an hour outside of Munich – but almost directly off the auto-bahn – so it’s a fairly easy drive into the city. There’s no public bus system to speak of in that area – but BMW, being the good employer that it is, provides bus service for their employees on demand. Nice, eh? So getting to and from work is not as challenging as one might imagine.

What is challenging is the lack of shopping. There are no shops of any kind in the village – if you want even a container of milk, you must drive to the next village to get it. It’s only about 5 minutes driving – but for those of us who live in the city – that’s a long way. Apparently there was a shop – but it closed. Just not enough business to be viable.

Another challenge – and this is one of those good/bad things – they know everyone. Really well. And they have a strong group of really good friends within walking distance. That’s nice – I don’t know my neighbors – so the idea of having friends so close is incredibly appealing.

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And they party hardy! Birthdays are a cause for huge celebrations – so large that one of the farmers actually built a room for everyone to use when they have a get-together. And they gather months prior to the party to plan the entertainment. They’ve done Can-Can numbers, written songs based on popular music – We totally cracked up on their version of ‘In the Navy’ – which had much to do with potatoes… Since it was in German, I’m sure we missed most of the jokes – but the recurring theme of potatoes was very obvious. And seriously funny.

Of course – you don’t get along with everyone – and in a village of 450 – it’s hard to avoid seeing someone who perhaps you are not that fond of. I guess avoidance is a skill you learn when you live in each others faces – all the time!

Because they live far from the city – they have a back yard. It’s small by North American standards – but fairly large by European Standards. There’s a vegetable garden, a flower garden – and a wonderful pond. Helmut has built the pond himself. It’s complete with a 4 foot high water bubbler/fall, countless frogs in season, and 20 fish. There are several sections to the pond – the 10 or so smaller fish tend to live in one part, the very large fish in the deeper portion. The pond freezes over in the winter – but Helmut assured us that the fish have no problem surviving, the water is deep enough for them to keep it from freezing completely.

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Like any pet – the fish respond to Helmut – and come when he calls – probably because he’s got the food!

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Their home is lovely – and we were lucky to be invited to stay with them. The home is new by European standards – built around 1970. It has 3 floors – a full basement, the main floor with a tiny kitchen, huge living and dining area, and the top floor with 3 bedrooms and another bathroom. What makes it distinctly different from what we’d expect in North America are the windows – that open at the top or at the sides depending on how you turn the handle. Another surprise – the size of the kitchen – they don’t even have a full-sized fridge – just a 1/2 size one. The full size fridge is in the basement. Because shopping requires planning – they also have a freezer in the basement. I would guess that farm houses would be larger – but this is more of city home, just located in the country.

About the food – being Eiser’s – we travel from meal to meal. And breakfast at Andrea and Helmut’s was great. And based on what we’ve been having at hotels since then – completely normal for this part of Germany. Eggs are offered, there’s at least 2 kinds of breads (it’s Octoberfest – at least one is a pretzel), jam, butter, meat slices and cheese. I visited a market and picked up fruit to add to the meals – fresh Strawberries, Figs, and pears. For dinner – if we’ve eaten in – we had wurst. Different kinds of wurst – but awesomely good. And one night we just had bread and cheese – naturally at least 4 different cheeses of course. And Beer. Lots of Beer. And Liquor. Can’t complain about the food.

Andrea is a great decorator – and unlike me – for her less is more. So each room reflects their love of Adventure travel – that is how we met them of course – with simple yet beautiful displays of all the wonderful things they have collected on their trips here and there. My favorites were the memories of Africa – an adventure we shared with them.

Because it’s a village – walking around is expected – but sidewalks are not provided. No need – there are hardly any cars. In fact, the only moving vehicle we saw in our hour or so tour was a tractor!

Their village has a church, a May pole, a lovely cemetery, and a huge farm – owned by one of Helmut’s very good friends. We were able to get a great tour of a working farm – by the farmer. Cool.

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It turns out that our friends live in the Hops growing area of Bavaria. I didn’t know this prior to our visit – but 70% or more of the hops grown to make beer in Germany is grown right near their home. We arrived just after the hops harvest had been completed. So we didn’t get to see the hops on the vines – they had been harvested, separated from the stems, and packed for shipping. But we did get to see the equipment they use today to harvest the hops – and we toured a Hops Museum.

Germany controls the stuff that goes into their beer – in a big way. A law passed in 1516 restricted what can go into German beer – just water, barley and hops! The newest research in the ‘Hops’ field is on how to naturally get the hops to have different flavors. No joke – apparently the hot new thing is raspberry Hops.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinheitsgebot

As you can easily imagine – having a law this strict – and given the amount of beer brewed and consumed in Germany alone – makes Hops growing a very big deal! Hops farmers do very well financially – despite the intense effort involved. And apparently the quality of the hops is key to the flavor of the beer. There is a lot of competition among the growers as to whose hops is the best. It’s a bit like growing grapes for wine – but without the cachet!

Hops are vines that grow vertically – up to about 30 feet high. So hops farms look a bit like telephone pole farms – there are poles stuck in the ground about every 10 feet – and between the poles are strung wires.

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In the fall, the farmers tie down wires about a foot apart – these wires are then tied to the hops plants. As the hops plants grow in the spring, the farmers manually train the plants to run up these wires. In the fall – machines cut down the wires, shake the hops seeds off the stems, grind up the stems and wires – and spit out the hop seeds into huge bags. These bags then go to the breweries to be further processed on their way to becoming beer.

This picture – taken at the Hops Museum – shows the old-fashioned way of getting the seeds off vine. Today of course they use a huge machine.

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Our friends told us that most hops farms are still family owned and operated, and providing good incomes. The major concern – hops from China of course.

What made our stay with Helmut and Andrea so special – in addition to the great conversations and wonderful tours they took us on – was the chance to see how other people really live. Too often our visits to other countries are restricted to museums, hotels, and restaurants. We were lucky to spend 4 days and 4 very alcohol fueled nights enjoying a life style very different from our own. Truly a wonderful part of our trip to Germany.

A special personal thanks to Helmut and Andrea – who as you can tell – went way, way, way out of their ways to make our stay with them – and in Germany so very special. Leslie and Victor

3 Museums – One Day – Don’t do it!


Only the foolish would try for 3 world class museums in one day – well color me foolish!

One of the big reasons I stopped doing group tours was the rush rush wait kind of thing. The tour leader would have a huge long list of things that we must see that day – and his job was to carol the rest of us into going along – regardless of what we’d miss along the way.

So I wasn’t too keen to discover that we were going to attempt the same crazy stunt – but without a tour leader! In Munich – there are 4 major museums – all art museums – within about 1 minute walk of each other. Alte Pinakothek, Neue Pinakothek, the Museum of Modern Art and the Brandhorst. We’d picked the 2 Pinakotheks and the Museum of Modern art as our targets of the day – and got a good start, arriving at the front of door of the Alte Pinakothek at about 9:30. Unfortunately – it doesn’t open till 10:00. Sigh.

I’m not keen on sitting or standing around in the cold and wet – under any circumstances – so naturally we opted to stroll the neighborhood. Which put us back at the Alte Pinakothek at about 10:15. So much for that early start. Bathroom, ticket purchase, ear phone instructions – and we’re off. The Alte Pinakothek was built by Ludwig I around 1800 for one purpose and one purpose only – to house the most amazing painting by Rubens you’ve every seen. It’s huge – its stunning – and its in a room filled with other examples of his (Peter Paul Rubens) work. I loved that part of the museum the absolute best. There were seats, the explanations were interesting, and the art incredible. There is something so emotional about the works – you can feel the tensions of the damned and glee of the demons without even understanding the story.

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Also on display are a group of Rembrandt’s. The best to my mind is his rendition of the story of Jacob and Issac on the mountain. Jacob has bent back the neck of his favorite son in preparation for the sacrifice – and is literally saved by the bell. Stunningly beautiful.

There were lots of other paintings to gauk at of course – but the work of those 2 artists is reason enough to go to Munich!

Next up – a smuggled in lunch and the Neue Pinoteck. This museum was set up by Ludwig II – and takes up where the other leaves off – starting around 1810 or so. The highlight here are the two Vincent Van Gogh paintings. The sunflower series is known world-wide, it’s iconic – and here is one of them – close enough to touch if the museum guards turn their backs. There is also one of his from the late Arles period – gay to look at quickly, emotionally depressed and isolated you feel as you identify the details – the water separating the viewer from safety and warmth, the lone peasant hunched against a cold wind only he can see. Glorious.

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Third – there’s the Modern Art Museum. We scored free tickets – not sure how that happened – got our ear phone sets and started to Explore. This gigantic space (are all Modern Art Museums huge?) is sub-divided into 5 sections – A special exhibit with art collected by one gentleman – Theo Wormland – consisting of mostly Max Ernst and Rene Magritte paintings, there’s the collection of the museum, there was another special exhibit of prints by Andy Warhol, there is the ‘Architecture’ Space, and final there is the Museum of Design. Each could stand on its own – as a group they are overwhelming and exhausting. Wouldn’t miss seeing it – but boy was I tried afterwards.

My clear favorites – some of the drawings – simple lines, yet so much emotion. I loved the collection called Dream Scapes. While Max Ernst’s work leaves you feeling depressed and unhappy – I have always loved the work of Magritte and Dali. What leaves you stunned is the thought that this one man would have the foresight to invest in this art when all the rest of the world thought these artists were completely crazy.

At closing time we drag ourselves out – we have dinner reservations at 7:00 (check out my review of the Atelier – it was dynamite) – but before that we must pay homage to the tomb of Josephine’s son from her first marriage and Napoleon’s Step-son – Eugene de Beauharnais. He’s buried in the Church of St. Michael – and we arrive just as services begin. Organ playing, lights on – beautiful. After the service ends, we check out the tomb. Victor is quite disappointed – they’ve dressed Eugene in a toga. Whatever for – he was in charge of the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Imperial Guard – surely a Chasseur uniform would have been better? But if it’s your tomb – you can do what you want.

We walk quietly back towards the restaurant – I’m thinking about my cold wet feet – Vic is still mad that Eugene is wearing a toga for all eternity.

12 Surprising Things about Munich


1: Escalators can go both ways – and they stop when no one is using them. This is so cool. You walk up to an escalator that isn’t working (reminds me of Concordia – for those in the know) – and when your foot hits the bottom pad – it starts. Like Magic. And it can be a foot race – winner hits the pad first! If it’s the person going down – then either you take the stairs – or wait till the escalator stops!

2. Outdoor cafes provide blankets on their chairs. Is that not the smartest thing? You can use the blanket as a seat – or drap it over your shoulders. Upscale cafes go for the fux fur look – exactly what you’d expect of course!

3. The city controls where Cafe’s can put their chairs – in a very subtle way. On the sidewalk outside of every food supply house are carefully painted, very subtle white circles. These paint splotches mark the limit of chairs and tables. You don’t have to put out any chairs – but if you do – don’t put them past that invisible line.

4. There are a lot types of BMW’s and Audi’s then we see in North America. I’m not just talking about the smaller cars – I mean options are different. The most suprising difference, and one I can’t figure out for the life of me – BMW owners can choose to not put the version of the car on the car. IE: you can’t tell a 350 from a 750 by the label. Odd, eh?

5. Bread can be beautiful. There are zillions of bakeries in Munich, so the competition must be fierce beyond belief. The solution – make yourself unique – and it helps if your bread looks pretty. Bow’s on pretzels, Gnomes in shop windows, Wedding cakes made from loaves of bread. If the imagination can think of it – the shop keepers will try it!

6. Grocery stores aren’t all the same. In Montreal, and most other cities in North America that I’ve visited, if you go into a Metro, a Piggy Wiggly, a Grand Union, a Price Chopper, or an IGA – the layout will look different – but the contents will be mostly the same. The same brands, the same sizes, the same selection – and sometimes even the same layouts. Some of the more unique Grocery Stores – Trader Joe’s say – make their mark by being unique and different – but those are few and far between. In Munich – all the grocery stores I walked into, even if the ‘brand’ was the same – had different layouts, different selections, different products. Amazing.

7. There are easily at least 15 different sizes/shapes/brands of Advent calendars. Not all stores have their Christmas goods on display – but in the ones that have gone Noel – the selection of Advent calendars simply blew me away. I don’t think I’m making out of Germany with out at least one.

8. The sidewalks are a lot cleaner than I remember. The last time I was in Germany there was dog poo all over the sidewalks – you literally couldn’t walk with your head up – it was head down and feet dodging all the time. That has totally changed. The sidewalks are completely clean. How neat is that.

9. Beware the Munich bike riders. Unlike Montreal, where bike lanes are carved out of streets – resulting in less room for cars – In Munich, the huge sidewalks have been subdivided clearly by lanes for bikes. And there are lots of bikes. And they go fast. And if you walk on the sidewalk and stray into their space – it’s not pretty. I’ve dodged the bullet several times – and Vic is getting very good at pulling me out-of-the-way of speeding bikes. The nice thing – the bike riders don’t yell at you – they might run you down – but they would be smiling while they did it!

10. The cheapest food is around the HautBanHof – that’s the main train station. Well, it might not be totally the cheapest – but the turn over is so fast – it’s clearly the freshest. Yum.

11: You have to pay to go to the bathroom. In one place – they actually had turnstiles set-up. Put in a Euro – or no pee-pee for you! At least they gave you a coupon good for .5 Euro off your next cup of coffee. Sort of feeding the system don’t you think. Even if they havent gone ‘mechanical’ – toilets almost always have a lady with her omnipresent tip plate. Often they use a coin to knock on the plate to remind you that it’s not there for food. In one toilet, there was even a conductor – she told you which stall to use, and walked in before you to wipe the seat – and hold her hand out for money.

12: Even king size beds have separate duvets – This has to be the oddest thing. You walk into a hotel room – there’s a king size bed. But on top are 2 duvets – one for him, one for her. It’s like having 2 sleeping bags on a king size air mattress. You only think you are sleeping together. But they are warm and cozy – and it’s so cold – I’ll settle for warm on cozy. In one hotel – I actually used 2 duvets!

Deutsches Museum in Munich – less than the sum of it’s parts


Don’t get me wrong – the biggest ‘Technology’ and ‘Science’ Museum in Germany is well worth visiting – it’s just that the parts are so large – it’s hard to focus.

The Deutsches Museum is all about ‘size matters’. Unlike most museums that are content with models, or electronic aids – this Museum wants the real thing. So there’s a life-size section of a Lufthansa Passenger jet showing the typical 2 – 4 – 2 seating- with the luggage containers below. There’s a real U-boat – the last of its kind, saved from destruction in 1919 by the founder of the museum, and sliced open so visitors can see the insides – from stem to stern. There are full-sized water wheels, running of course – even a full-sized sail boat used for fishing off the North Atlantic sea. At one point, you walk into the staterooms and then onto the deck of a cross Atlantic steamer – circa 1950.

It would be impossible to list all the stuff crammed into the museum – let alone see it all. But I did have one favorite part – and it’s wasn’t even on the must see sections!

To me the highlight of the museum was the Mining section. Why – because they devoted basically 1/2 the basement to full-sized, walk thru, mines. Dark, dripping with water, dirt or wooden floored as appropriate – these ‘mines’ felt like the real thing. And since I’ve been in the real thing several times – I feel justified in saying that.

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To trace the changes in mining technology over the past 200 years – they have created mines worked by hand, complete with miners using lamps to claw coal from the earth. Exit that mine – and you are in a salt mine – with life-sized miners using pick-axes to cut salt ‘cubes’ from the walls. Walk a bit further, and you are in more mechanized times – horse-drawn sleds, tracks running beneath your feet, electric lights. Just a bit further – and you are face to face with gigantic mining machines with bits larger than a human. This is a truly impressive bit of display work – it would be hard to leave without a feeling of pity for anyone who would have to earn their living under the earth!

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Another truly fascinating section dealt with nano-technologies. This section used the very latest in museum technologies – you passed your hand over an object – and in German and English the object was explained in quite significant detail. Neat technology – but not the best at conveying information. Because you had to pick what to learn about – it was easy to by-pass important things, and get intrigued by something less critical. Basically a confusing exhibit – but very cool technology.

Another exhibit that couldn’t help but admire – but have to admit that the designers went so far – and then dropped the ball – was in the Pharmaceutical section. There you see a picture of a naked woman (this is Europe – no clothing, no problems), are forced to focus on her eye, from there to a piece of skin above her eye, and from there to a skin cell. You then turn right – and actually enter the cell – blown up 10000 times to make room for probably 30 visitors at once. So far – so cool – but then the designers ran out of ideas. Once in the cell – it’s back to basic explanation – mostly in German. Oh well. I did like that one section of floor looked like cell wall – I think the entire floor should have been made like that – it would have been far more impressive.

There’s also a model train layout – huge of course – HO scale – that is ‘animated’ 3 times a day. When animated, the cameras on the front of the trains are turned on – and you see the scene from the perspective of the engineer. A very neat effect.

Under the – scare the wits out of people heading – they have a huge exhibit on static electricity – which ends with a house bursting into flames from a lightning strike. Very noisy – but not something I haven’t seen before.

The very highly reviewed Physics section has every mechanical advantage demonstration tool I’ve ever seen – very hands on – very fun – but limited explanations. I was left thinking that kids probably press the buttons – pull the levers – and roll the balls – and then walk out – none the wiser.

Bottom line – Do go. It’s way cool to see the full-sized planes, boats, power tools, printing presses, telephone exchanges, even an old IBM 360 – the computer I learned to program on in 1966. Be sure to visit the Mining section – you’ll have to hike down stairs quite a bit – and then gradually work your way up thru the various exhibits – but it’s truly amazing. Don’t be surprised at the lack of English – some sections are well labeled, others have nary a word of English. And Don’t expect an audio guide. You will be disappointed. But I’d rate the Mining section alone a must see in Munich. I’ve never seen anything better anywhere – and that includes really coal and silver mines!

All the Beer you can drink – and delicious food – I love Munich!


I’ve been short on talking about restaurants – partly because we spent the first 4 days with friends – mostly eating at their house. Our meals with them were at the Octoberfest (delicious – with tons of beer), or quick snacks here and there.

Now that we’re on our own in Munich, we’ve been able to pick and choose our own places to eat – and tonight was our first out on the town.

We started with dessert. There’s an amazing food shop located right behind the DOM in Munich – called Dallmayr, and we wandered in yesterday. The options are completely stunning – magnificent looking hor d’ourves, chocolate truffles, a massive cheese counter with literally hundreds of options, a cold-cut section that was even larger, plus 3 ‘eating’ establishments. The first is a 2-Star Restaurant – open only for dinner – and unavailable for reservations on the 2 nights we were in Munich, a Bistro/Cafe where we enjoyed wonderful coffee and an Apple Strudel to write home about, and a seafood bar featuring fresh oysters. Dessert was wonderful – probably the best Strudel I’ve ever had. And I had to share it. Oh well.

We were in the Cafe because we were hoping to score a meal at the restaurant – but no such luck. Booked solid, so sorry. However the kind Matre d’ offered to find us somewhere else to eat – and got us reservations at one of his favorite restaurants for tomorrow night. We’ll see how that goes.

Left to our own devices, we went back to a place we’d past early in the day – Paulaner Im Tal. That means Paulander (it’s a brand of beer here in Munich) on Tal (one of the major streets leading to the Dom. Your basic Bavarian meal was on offer – schnitzels – both pork and veal, a pretzel soup (beef soup broth, sliced pretzel pieces), and a variety of other ‘low calorie’ options.

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I opted for the Weiner Wurst (German hot dogs) served on a fabulous hot potato salad made with super thin cucumber slices. It was yum. Victor had a Jager Schnitzel – not a deep-fried thing at all – it was a thin slice of pork topped with cheese and mushrooms and then baked under a broiler. Surprisingly good actually. We both had beer (when in Munich – do like the locals) – and it was naturally good.

Definitely a place I’d recommend to my friends – very typical, not very touristy, but able to deal with English-speaking strangers. And a lot bigger than it looks from the door. On my way to the bathroom – I must have gone thru 4 large rooms, and filled with Germans enjoying a meal before heading home.

BMW Welt (World) – It’s all about the Cars!


Our friend Helmut works for BMW – so a visit to their house was definitely going to include a plant visit. What I didn’t expect to find was an organized touring schedule – replete with packaged video’s, museum quality audio projection system for the tour guide, and naturally – a up close and personal visit with your friendly robots! But BMW sees plant tours as a marketing tour – and packages them accordingly. Unlike Porsche, which wanted over $700 to do a plant tour – the BMW tours are reasonable, which explains why they were complete booked the day we went. Thank goodness for reservations.

Anyway – the tour. You begin at the BMW welt – a specially designed massive building part of which is shaped like 2 stacked cones.

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Inside the glass doors are several huge areas devoted to various BMW product lines – there’s a section for the mini, there’s a ‘junior’ world exhibit to keep kids entertained (and informed), and on the 2nd floor – the personal car pick-up zone. If you come to Munich to take possession of your new car – you can expect only the best! A private dining room, your car presented on its own rotating platform, and then a personal ‘road’ out of the Welt and onto the streets of Munich. Nice.

For the average Soup Lady and friends – there’s a cafe offering drinks and light meals, a BMW life-style shop, a motorcycle demo which had the helmeted rider going up and down huge staircases, and the plant tour. The tour starts with a nicely produced video of the history of BMW, including an apology for using forced labor during WWII. Then a quick safety lecture (no walking outside the yellow lines, no pictures, no cell phones, no leaving the group), and we’re off.

The sprawling plant was originally built far from the city center, but the city of Munich has grown around it. There’s now a metro station right at the entrance – and across the street are the left-over buildings of the 1972 Olympics. Surrounded on all sides by housing, shops, and streets, the BMW plant blends into its surroundings, hidden in plain view.

Our tour takes us into the starting point of every BMW vehicle – the press room. Huge automated presses take flat steel and create the frames of the cars. These frames are then transported to huge rooms filled with Robots that pick up each piece, identify the type of car to be built, and then glue or bolt or spot weld the frames together.

The Munich plant only makes 3 types of BMW cars – the 3 series coupe and wagon, and the 4 series coupe. That means only 2 basic body types – but lots of options for paint color, engine, and interior. And every car is pre-sold! So each car – starting at the press room – is already pre-defined for its final look. The task is to make this happen without stopping between the steps.

Once the humanoid acting robots do the spot welding, the frames go to the body shop for their paint jobs. Robot ‘artists’ open the doors, spray on the multiple coats of paint, all while the cars are slowly moving continuously thru the plant. Attached to each frame is a transponder telling the robots what type of car, what color, what finishing needs to be done. The robots just follow the directions.

After painting, the cars spend several hours drying before the electronics, the seats, the dashboards, the chrome is carefully attached. As each car is pulled from the drying room – it joins an endless parade of cars – each being assembled. In the electronics section, there is a human ballet happening. Co-workers are assigned multi-function positions, and they rotate around the cars, standing on the conveyor belt so that they are standing still relative to the moving cars. The gas tanks are added, the padding inserted, the electronics attached. After each group of steps, a photograph is taken, and compared by both human and computer to the ‘model’. Any variation from the model is flagged – and the car removed from the assembly line for ‘repair’. Our guide explains that the system is so good that days can go by without a single car flagged for a ‘fix’.

We couldn’t tour the engine assembly room (the tour section is under renovation), but we did get to watch seats being assembled and put into moving baskets that would join up with the car assembly line just as the car for which they were intended made its appearance. Cool, eh?

It takes approximately 40 hours from rolled steel to finished car – as long as there is no problem on the line. When the cars roll off the line they are either loaded onto a train, or onto a truck for ‘local’ delivery. ‘Local’ includes the personal pick-up – but a truck is required because the cars must cross a road – and there would be too many individual cars.

We end up back where we started – having walked about 3 km around the plant.

Awesome tour – great robots – and naturally – now I really want to buy a BMW. Guess the marketing worked!