Sunday, July 29, 2012

Eins, zwei, drei, BAVARIA!

Home of awesome beer, great food, fairytale castles, and a party so EPIC it's still being celebrated a couple hundred years later. Yes, my friends, its the Bavarian region of Germany.

Bavaria Photos

This photo of Bavaria is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Headed by it's crowning glory, Munich, Bavaria is a wealth of European history at all parts. Home to many Germanic tribes of millenia past, Bavaria was part of the subjugation of Europe by the Romans. After they finally retreated, Bavaria was ruled by alternating tribes, like the Lombards, Franks and Carolingians, it established its own identity with its distinct culture and language.
When most people think of Germany, they think of stereotypes that are actually unique to the Bavarian region: Oktoberfest, lederhosen, and strong beer. The Bavaria region even speaks German with a distinct sound and style. So now that you've chosen to holiday in Bavaria, what are you going to do?
The best starting point would be flying into Munich (Muenchen for the Deutsch speakers!). I specifically picked a two week time frame that includes Oktoberfest (last week Sept thru first week of Oct). If you're flying round trip from LAX, its going to cost you about $1120. From NYC you'll pay about $965, and from London its 163 GBP (You lucky Brits!). Now the British even have the option to train tour to Munich for 108 GBP, which is about 17 hours. I think seeing mainland Europe this way would be kinda cool. But then, I like road trips and not many people do.
All right, we've landed in Munich (Wilkommen!). The first thing you'll notice is the airport is one of the best rated in Europe. Germany's rail system is also top notch. The Germans also run a website for looking at all of Europe's rail systems, in case you'd like to make this region your base point for parts unknown.
The picture above is actually Munich. Notice all the classical and baroque architecture along the skyline. Take the s-bahn from the airport right into the city center at Marienplatz.

Munich Photos

This photo of Munich is courtesy of TripAdvisor

That building on the right is the city hall, called Neus Rathaus, with the giant glockenspiel that everyone stops to stare at. The large building to the left is the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). A couple blocks north is the Residenz, where the former royal families of Bavaria lived. Visit all the museums, see the zoo, see an opera, and eat! My mother comes from a Germanic background so when I was growing up, along with the Italian food she cooked for my dad, we also had fried potatoes and onions, bratwurst, weisswurst, and her homemade strudel. HECK YEAH! Throw in some weinerschnitzel and sauerbraten and I'm a happy girl. I never got into saurkraut, though. And beer. Oh yes, Bavarian beer. Which leads me to.....
Oktoberfest. Americans in particular think the whole of Germany is one big party zone the entire month of October. Not so much, ya'll. It actually starts the last week in September and goes for about two weeks. It's also pretty specific to Bavaria in particular. You see, this whole tradition started with a royal wedding in 1810 that the residents of Munich were invited to celebrate with the happy couple. The festivities ended with horse races and a festival to celebrate all of Bavaria. Nowadays the two week long festival also encompasses the holiday for German unification (Oct 3), and generates big business and massive crowds in the beirgartens of Munich. Think you're up to it? Try a mass of beer. That's a full litre of beer, just in case you didn't know. And we here in America are sort of amateurs compared to the Germans when it comes to this. I think one is my limit!
Well we've seen the pretty city of Munich, so what's next? Let's get in the car and drive! First on the list is a rather somber site. The remains of the concentration camp of Dachau sit not too far, about 45 minutes. Its 18 euro fee to enter the site and is open every day except Monday. The site is a memorial to the people who suffered here through its use from 1933-1945. Its well signed in English but you may want to grab a tour for some extra insights.
Munich PhotosAnother popular destination outside of Munich are the fairytale castles of "crazy" King Ludwig II. Neuschwanstein castle is about one hour on the autobahn from Munich. (And really, who doesn't want to drive on the autobahn!) This castle was the inspiration for Disney's Sleeping Beauty Castle. The views out from the castle across sitting at the edge of the hills going into the Alps are dramatic. There is also a day hike opportunity to see all natural beauty surrounding it. You can buy tickets to the castle from the village of Hohenschwangau and even take a horse drawn carriage to the castle for 6 euro. How awesome! They also have a museum all about the Bavarian king who built the castles in Schwangau. Its worth a look!   This photo of Munich is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Now that we're back in the car, it's back on the "Romantic Road" , which is a 261 mile road through Bavaria, including wine country and the German Alps. There are many places to stop on the way, including the towns of Rothenberg ob der Tauber, which is in the Franconia wine district. This little Bavarian town is 1200 years old, and has many gothic buildings to check out, mainly churches.You can also stop for the night in Colmberg and spend the night in a 1000 year old castle. All right, Germany, you're speaking my language now!
Back on the road we can also stop in Wurzburg, also in the Frankonia wine region. There is also a Residenz palace here and a couple of nice churches. Keep in mind if your goal is to drive the entire Romantic Road, then you should fly into Frankfurt and rent a car from there. Click on this link for a driving plan and more information.
If you've had your fill of yummy German food, tasty fresh Riesling and Gerwurztraminer wines (who can get enough of that stuff, not me!), and decadent chocolate, then it's time to come home.
Auf weidersehen!!!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

By Request: Croatia!

Most people I know who would to travel focus on the most obvious: Hawaii, New York, Paris, London. I'm always looking for my travel bug to be inspired by reading articles in European media or listening to Rick Steves' radio show. Today I threw a pitch out on my Facebook page asking for inspiration. Where do my friends want to go? My friend Gen threw back a gem: Croatia. And since we Americans don't really think of Eastern Europe as a vacation destination, it was an absolute joy to research! So this is for Gen, TJ, and Isabel!

Croatia Photos

This photo of Croatia is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Croatia seems to have all the things I'm in to: gorgeous beaches, lots of nature, wine, good food and let's not forget: a ton of Roman and medieval history. Let's go ya'll!
Our journey starts by landing in over-the-top beautiful Dubrovnik (pictured above). This lively port city on the most southern tip of Croatia is an old medieval town which still retains is old defensive city walls. Known as the "Pearl of the Adriatic", it was once a maritime city-state that rivaled Venice in its power of trade routes during the middle ages. The city of Dubrovnik has plenty of buildings dating back to this time, the Old Town section of the city is a registered World Heritage Site worth seeing. Buy a ticket to see the City Wall and you'll get to also see Lovrijenac, the medieval fort that overlooks the harbor and Old Town. Beware, its a bit of a climb on the stairs but worth the views.If you're looking for beaches to relax after you arrive, look no further as the Dalmation Coast where Dubrovnik is located. Dubrovnik's cuisine tends to be on the Mediterranean scale, which is awesome for me because I love that style of food!
Dubrovnik Images

This photo of Dubrovnik is courtesy of TripAdvisor

After Dubrovnik we board the train north (or drive, however you wish) to the coastal town of Split. One of the greatest things Split is known for is it's wealth of Roman ruins, which include the many buildings of Diocletian's palace that are still standing and being used as homes and businesses. What better way to to imagine the daily life of the Roman Republic? Split also has a medieval Old Town and a harbor. For a great view of the city, climb the bell tower at St. Domnius church and don't forget your camera! Split has beaches as well, and also sits right next to a collection of small islands off the coast. Which leads me to our next destination.....
The island of Hvar.
Hvar Island Photos
  This photo of Hvar Island is courtesy of TripAdvisor

The little island of Hvar, just a short ferry ride away from Split, is a microcosm of European relaxation. Beaches, shopping, food, party boats, and old public squares filled with shops and cafes. Hvar is a major exporter of lavender, so you purple herb junkies can pick up all you like here. ha ha... I'm not a fan of lavender but I can understand where some would be.
Hvar Island Photos

This photo of Hvar Island is courtesy of TripAdvisor

After a ferry ride back to the mainland we board a flight at Split's airport for a short jaunt to the capital city of Zagreb. You could also take a train, but for me even though the place ticket is twice the price of the train, the time difference is worth it. A flight to Zagreb is only 45 minutes vs six and half hours on a train. Thank you Croatia Airlines!Zagreb is great old city full of classic architecture, like its National Theater. It has a zoo, botanical gardens and close to a couple national parks if you fancy a sojourn through the woods. Zagreb is also home to one of the oddest yet poignant museums I've ever heard of: The Museum of Broken Relationships. The museum isn't so much an art exhibit by one artist, as it is submissions by people who send in something commemorating the demise of a relationship. I've never heard of such a thing, but after reading the press material on their website, it kind of started to make sense. You can purchase things there too, but I think that would probably weird me out a little. If you want to get your nerd on, there's also an archeology museum featuring many artifacts from the Greek and Roman periods in Croatia's history, back when it was known as Ragusium, and not Croatia.
Pula Photos
This photo of Pula is courtesy of TripAdvisor 
Our next stop in Croatia is the Istria region which is has wine, truffles, and even makes olive oil. Not too shabby considering it was once a Roman colony. Roman ruins abound this region, with the cities of Pula and Porec offering medieval buildings galore. Porec also has the Baredine Cave to explore. There are fabulous churches all over the region but one of the best is the church of St. Blaise in Vodnjan, which is purported to have the largest collection of saint relics outside of Rome.

One of the best things about visiting Croatia, besides its temperate weather, is that its currency is not euro. Croatia is still on the kuna, which as today gets you 6.19 kuna for $1. A deal! Airfare is still a push for Americans, and it's going to average you about $1600 to fly into Dubrovnik and out of Zagreb to go home. Flying to and home out of Zagreb is a few hundred dollars cheaper, but then if you're going to rent a car it will be nearly equal. Be sure to consult rail maps before making your plan to Croatia, and consult TripAdvisor and for hotels. 

Let's go stimulate the economy!

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Wales Photos

This photo of Wales is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Ok I admit it. I derailed myself by listening to too much Rick Steves. (Darn you and your Celtic people radio show piece!) So even though I tend to plan in the long term when picking places for my annual European jaunt, I changed my mind yesterday. Those who know me in real life know how infrequently this happens.. ha ha. However, in light of the 2014 trip locale still being in play, I decided instead of Germany/Austria/Denmark/Holland that I’m going to drive around Wales for 13 days with my pal Maggie D.

Caernarfon Castle, northwest Wales
           Wales was part of the Roman invasion of Brittania in the first century AD. It only took the Romans about 30 years to conquer it. After the Romans, it was the Saxon invasion. For all this conquering, and after hundreds of years, its kind of neat to note that the Welsh still retain their own language. Along comes the rise of neighboring England, with King Edward going on a caste building spree through Wales in 13th century. Shockingly, many of these castles still stand today, and are a testament to the skill of the stonemasons who built them. Not bad for men who were mostly illiterate and a far cry from our modern day heavily educated architects, no?

           Wales became part of Great Britain in the early 18th century and officially part of the United Kingdom in the early 19th century. Even though its part of one of the most powerful dominions in recent history, Wales retains much of its rural atmosphere. Sure it has and international airport in Cardiff, but you're most likely to encounter ten times as many sheep as a McDonald's while driving down the road. So what are the benefits to taking a holiday in Wales anyway? Well for one, it’s a bit more on the slow side of life. Lots of beautiful country to see, quaint little villages to visit, and a totally odd language to figure out (please Welsh-folk, don’t get mad. To our Latin-Saxon language based eyes, it looks pretty freaky-deaky with entirely too many consonants!). I immediately started Googling the major tourist attractions and was amazed at what I saw. I love road trips, and there seems to no end to all the beauty in this place. It’s really not just sheep, even though I seem to remember someone mentioning that to me once. Castles, rolling hills, adorable border collies, old churches, and lots of myth and legend. It’s a history geek’s dream come true! Did I mention the Doctor Who exhibition in Cardiff? That’s just icing on the cake! Wales even has beaches, and Snowdonia national park to explore.
         Right now if you're flying to Cardiff from Los Angeles, its going to cost you only about $1150 round trip. I haven't spent that little since I went to Ireland a few years ago. The best part is, I don't want to stay in hotels on this trip. Maggie D has this obsession with the countryside, and on one of my previous trips to Scotland, I used an accommodation index of B&B's. A little googling, and hallelujah, there's one for Wales too! Hooray for Stay in Wales! I found so many cool places to stay on this website with very reasonable prices, I just had to pass it along. Look, a lot of these aren't fancy hotels with all the bells and whistles, but that wasn't what I was going for. One of the properties we found to stay at is a 750 year old fortified manor. Can you get any more awesome! Ok, maybe if it's haunted... ha ha. For my British readers, I'm certainly hoping you're taking advantage of the close proximity. Those flying in from Europe can fly into Cardiff, or nearby Bristol (over the English "border"). 
Who has been to Wales? Drop a comment and let me know!