Published on May 25th, 20176
Skipping Through The Balkans: #1 Germany
I’ve already pecked more than ELEVEN THOUSAND words here on my prep and some of my initial overall impressions of my marathon solo backpacking trek through Eastern Europe, a few of the Balkan countries, and my final cherry on the ice-cream sundae: Turkey. But there’s plenty more tales left to tell, so I’m determined to write a series of posts detailing each of the countries I skipped through.
It’s been more than 6 months since I returned from the other side of the globe to my adopted home here on this mountain-top in Ecuador, but trust that the memories of my Balkan odyssey remain crystal-clear in my mind. So let’s start with the first (of *8*) countries that I landed in: GERMANY.
Indeed, though I’d enjoyed a 6+ month amble around Western Europe several decades ago (going to school in France and Italy, and backpacking through Switzerland, Greece, et al with my then, 8 and 11 yr. old daughters), somehow our tiny band of nascent intrepids never made it to Germany – the homeland of one-half of my ancestry (Father: German; Mother: Italian). Which is why I was eager to at least take a peek at Deutschland and thus set my European arrival hub for Munich, in southern Germany.
So let’s get started here on my (astonishingly short, but nonetheless memorable) 3 night stay in Munich:
~ Munich Sleeps ~
Given the protracted flights from Ecuador to Munich (3 different planes, layovers in both Miami and Philadelphia), not to mention I was flying standby so couldn’t be sure I’d have a seat on the next leg – I wisely opted to pamper myself by pre-booking a private room at an upscale (for this budget traveler) hotel once I (finally, after nearly 28 hours in transit) landed in Munich:
And indeed, the Hotel Seibel did turn out to be an excellent choice for location (in a quiet residential neighborhood, just steps from the entrance to the Octoberfest grounds), and comfort (feather duvet/pillows, tres chic armoire, and a most lovely breakfast inclusive), but…
The wifi SUCKED!
Arghhh! The absolute BANE of travelers. I mean seriously. We’re in GERMANY here! We traveled more than SEVEN THOUSAND air miles from a *developing* country to one of the (allegedly) most modern high tech countries on the globe. And you mean to tell me – I’ve got no wifi juice for my smartphone? WTF???
Suffice… most aggravating. And the hotel staff weren’t the least bit helpful. And while (with so little time in Munich to begin with) I really wasn’t keen on taking the time to find/move to new quarters – I simply had to find a more tech-friendly bed for my additional 2 nts. in Munich. So the following morning, I headed to a nearby cafe to find a… um, you know – a wifi connection, and booked a room at the Hostal Haus International (which turned out to have fabulous wifi, at less than HALF the price of the uppity Seibel.)
~ Munich Eats ~
As is the norm for all my travels – sampling the local cuisine is a foremost priority wherever I land. And Munich did not disappoint in the foodie department. Indeed, the luscious array of Bavarian treats proved to be the favorite part of my brief visit. Within hours of my arrival in Munich, I was sampling the legendary Bavarian beers, and slurping a most delish German “goulash” (topped with a gob of sour cream, natch!) on the terrace of a large restaurant near my hotel.
And curiously, it was there, that I bumped into a (fortunately) long-gone artifact of my youth: a full-blown cigarette machine! I’d all but forgotten that such contraptions (dispensing more than a dozen different brands) were once ubiquitous all over my native land (and smoking on airplanes – good grief, what were we THINKING???) Clearly the U.S. has since come to its collective senses on the subject of tobacco, but alas – apparently not so among the Germans.
Ah but the Bavarian eats! The gelati, those lusciously soft (and huge!) German pretzels, along with a dizzying array of tasty sandwiches. Indeed, quite honestly I’m still drooling over perhaps THE most memorably delicious sandwich I’ve ever eaten in my entire life: an uber-fresh slice of raw herring (yes, raw – my fave – much like the fresh herring kiosks on every corner in Amsterdam) tucked with a gob of onion and pickle into a freshly baked, crispy-crusted roll. Seriously. Just 2 € at the train station, and I’m still dreaming of it!
~ Munich Wanderings ~
From the get-go, Munich was never meant to be a primary destination, but rather only a convenient embarkation point for my skip south through the Balkans. Thus, I had no expectation of “seeing the sights” such as Neuschwanstein castle (a.k.a. the prototype for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty), etc. To be honest, all I hoped to do in my brief visit was A. sample the Bavarian cuisine, and B. pay my respects at one of the WWII concentration camps. The eats we’ve covered briefly above, and the latter (Dachau) follows here shortly.
Nonetheless, after moving my baggage from the Hotel Seibel to Hostal Haus Int’l (a.k.a. “wifi-heaven”), I hopped on the nifty Munich S-Bahn and spent my first full day exploring the city:
~ Paying My Respects ~
On one hand it’s disconcerting to list a WWII concentration camp as one of the “highlights” of my travels, but the truth is… Traveling isn’t always about spectacular sights, breathtaking sunsets, and selfies. Rather, to me the privilege of being able to whiz to the globe’s many incredible corners comes with responsibility.
The responsibility to be open to learning new customs and to better understand cultures different from my own. To mingle with the locals and serve as a humble ambassador for my own native land (which, at the moment um, needs all the positive ambassadorship it can get). To respect the long history of other lands (oh so much more ancient than the measly 200+ years of my own country), and to honor both the proud and the tragic historical events that have shaped the countries I explore.
Needless to say, the latter all but required that I take the time to pay my respects at Dachau – the WWII concentration camp just outside of Munich.
I’d done plenty of research on the logistics of visiting the memorial, and it would have been very easy to get there on my own for little more than the cost of the train from Munich (entry to the memorial is free, and optional audio guides are just $3). But guided tours were both plentiful and economical ($22 for three hours incl. transport), and I felt a guide could better answer my questions about such a monumentally historical landmark.
So I opted to meet up with one of the guided tours at the main train station, and our small band of 4 hopped on a train for the 25 minute ride to the memorial site. Our guide proved most knowledgeable, and our time at the complex was – needless to say – most emotionally sobering. Indeed, unlike the many youngsters around me snapping selfies in front of cells that once held thousands of innocent men, women and children, I took but a single photo:
For starters – curiously, I didn’t experience any jet-lag symptoms – neither coming nor going. Not sure why, given that this marathon was headed east (which is said to be harder on one’s circadian rhythm than the reverse). But suffice, I’m nonetheless very grateful that I was able to arrive and hit the ground running.
And secondly, while I rarely presume to judge another country and its culture based on a ridiculously brief visit, nonetheless a couple of “first impressions” of Munich somewhat startled me:
Ughy vapors: As I mentioned above – unfortunately the affinity for public cigarette smoking (and the nauseating resulting vapor of second-hand smoke wherever I went) will ever predominate my impression of Germany. I once was an avid smoker myself, so I can empathize with the addiction (15+ years tobacco-free here – and quitting was the bar-none best thing I’ve ever done!) But it’s only when you’re nicotine-free do you really understand just how repugnant the smell can be.
Warm/Fuzzy Feelings? Perhaps because I’ve been living in Latin America for the past three years (which is noted for its warm and relaxed culture), my initial sense when I landed in Munich was… how much more reserved the locals seemed compared to my Ecuadorian neighbors. Granted, Munich is a much larger city than Cuenca, and like any large city, folks tend to be more rushed and less open to strangers. And I did find some folks to be helpful when I politely asked for directions (though generally it took 2 or 3 before someone took a moment to point me in the right direction). But coming from Ecuador, the difference in the friendly/openness temperature was palpable.
And coincidentally, I met a couple of (well-traveled) Germans on the train from Munich to Austria, and they too remarked on the conservative ambiance of Munich. When I told them that Munich was the first (and only) German city that I’d visited – they laughed and said: “Well think of it this way: Munich is to Germany, what Texas is to the United States.”
No doubt these stray impressions are but one lass’ subjective opinion based on a single, most fleeting visit to Munich. Merely minor blemishes in what was otherwise a truly lovely city – with wide, spotless avenues, ornate architecture, yummy street eats, and a public transport system to envy. Indeed, I very much enjoyed my uber-short stay in Munich, and hope to return for a broader explore of Germany one day.
lol – if for no other reason than to grab another one of those heavenly fresh herring sandwiches! 😉
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