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Thursday, July 18

dreams comes true in Switzerland

Visiting Switzerland has been a dream of my mother’s. It is one of those she thinks is magical. When my parents planned to visit in April (they were one of the guests in the midst of all the visitors), we agreed to visit Switzerland. My dad wanted to see the day to day European life and visit Italy but with a trip to Switzerland, Italy couldn’t be planned. Plus we had just visited Firenze and Pisa with other guests before my parents arrived.

With Indian (& some German) junk food on hand and playing cards packed, we drove. With couple mini breaks, we arrived in Interlaken that afternoon. The clouds were moving in with predicted storms but we trekked to the city to wonder around and eat dinner. Having had a long day in the car, we ate early and headed back to our Inn. We played cards for couple hours while it rained outside. Traveling or at home, we often played cards with the guests and it made all their visits fun.

The next morning the weather was better, especially on the peaks. We drove to couple waterfalls and learned because Interlaken and surrounding villages are in the Alps, there are plenty of waterfalls due to the melting snow. In the afternoon, we headed to Lauterbrunnen, a tiny village near Interlaken, to take the funicular to the top. Instead of Jungfrau, we chose Schilthorn because of its proximity. There are multiple changes on the funicular before arriving. Like true Indians, we brought food to eat at the top. For April, there were few visitors. To say the views were spectacular would be an understatement. No words can describe the scenery better than being there in person. More than any one of us, my mom was delighted. There is one café and one fancy restaurant but we opted to eat the food we brought. There were couple tables and chairs in café/souvenir shop and asked the woman behind the counter if we could eat our own food. Typical Indians. She was very nice and permitted; she suggested we buy drinks which we did. Indian food, beer and coffee and the Alps surrounding us was remarkable.

We took the funicular until Mürren and walked around the village. It was Sunday so everything was closed. I still loved photographing the homes and shops.

For dinner we ate a pizza restaurant in Interlaken, suggested by our Inn owner. As we walked around the city for the 2nd time, we noticed the surprisingly high number of Indian restaurants and Indian visitors. Having lived in Europe for 2 years now, I was not expecting to see so many Indians. We asked the restaurant owner (Sri Lankan) why there were so many brown people. And he explained since many Bollywood movies (especially in the 90s) were shot in Switzerland, some Swiss cities have developed partnership with Indian tour agencies to increase tourism. It makes sense; my mom fascination with Switzerland stems from seeing the Bollywood movies. Like my mom, these Indians were fulfilling their dream. There are also tons of watch stores selling Swiss watches and shops selling chocolates.

We left Interlaken the next morning and stopped at Lake Brienz for an hour. It’s a gorgeous lake divided in two. We didn’t walk around the lake but it seems possible. Heading to Lake Constance, Bodensee, on the back roads we saw signs for cheese and braked at one. When we pulled up, a man in overalls waved us in. We asked if he was selling cheese and he greeted us with a big smile. We entered a small room in the farm house where he told us to wait. He brought his young toddler and offered us cheeses to try. Having tried various aged cheese, we bought half kilo of the cheeses. We loved seeing the young toddler plead for more cheese. In Europe, they start eating delectable food young! Then he offered to try Apple schnapps which we did and after the first tasting we declined. It was too early to keep drinking shots of schnapps. If you ever see an Alpkäse sign, stop and buy some cheese. It is worth it!

We arrived to Lake Constance where we stayed at a unique bed and breakfast near the lake. The Romantik Hotel die Krone (in Gottlieben) is a restored and modernized to fit today’s wishes. It even boasts a small theater room. And the rooms are named after European kings and royalty, clever. For lunch we ate at the restaurant in the B&B. The selection consisted of local meats, fish from the lake with sides of seasonal vegetables. The wine options include local and international wine.

We dedicated half day to Lake Constance and the city, which is adequate to see the sights and walk in old town. It’s a university town with some sights. There are Roman ruins near the Constance Cathedral. To our surprise, we were yelled at by an older woman in the Cathedral's square. The husband was looking for a restaurant for dinner and an older woman approached us and lectured us for using our phone in an historic area of the city. She said she was offended we were being rude and didn’t appreciate the city and its history. It makes sense (if you're living in 19th century) but we laughed it off when she left. We found a fantastic Italian restaurant nearby, thank you technology. Pinocchio serves pizza and pasta and we all opted for the pasta.  Simple and tasty. 

We stopped at a busy chocolatier shop in the city to buy chocolates. Both mom and I were happy to have chocolates for the road.

When we were walking around Constance, we saw information for Burg Meersburg (Alte Burg) so of course we had to go! Before heading home, I was happy to make the trek to Meersburg because we found a wine store in the city that makes its own wine in a vineyard nearby. The day we went, the castle was closed to tours so we walked around the gardens. And the view of the lake from the castle grounds was spectacular, even with the clouds.

Swizterland is exactly as we imagined; beautiful rolling hills with manicured grass and waterfalls in the foreground and the snow covered Alps in the back. Jersey cows and sheep grazing. This was a picture perfect trip with many memories.

Monday, July 8

Budapest, Hungary

I’ve long waited to write this post. I contemplated skipping it all together but that didn’t seem fair. I didn’t want to write it because the night before we left, I was sick. Stomach bug or ill and I had to go to the bathroom every couple hours. We chose to rent a car for this journey, a 7 hour car ride. Imagine the horror on my face that morning when I didn’t know if I could sit for more than 2 hours at a time without using the bathroom. Instead of 7 hours, it was closer to 8.5 hours with multiple breaks.

So here it is, one of the first trips we took after moving to Germany.
Budapest is divided by the Danube. Budapest is two cities: Buda and Pest. Buda is quieter and residential while Pest is the busy, party area of the town. We are no party animals but we stayed in Pest and found it very convenient. There are bars on the river boardwalk that were crowded in the evenings, sadly we didn’t make it out to hang with the cool kids.

The most impressive sight is the parliament. They offer tours in Hungarian and English but be prepared to wait in long lines. We arrived early for the 10am tour, not early enough, because that tour was booked; the security told us to keep waiting. An hour later we were. The waiting que and admittance is haphazard, some individuals were allowed to enter for unknown reasons and some were sent to the back of the line. (Obviously, people in group tours with prepaid tickets were admitted first.) The building is something of a monstrosity from inside and out. Since it is the 3rd largest parliament building in Europe, the tour covers only 10% of the interiors. The rooms and furniture are preserved with the country’s history in mind. The tour was 30- 45 minutes and worth the price.
I highly recommend a boat cruise on the Danube; seeing many of the city’s sights from the water is breathtaking. The hike up to Castle Hill in Buda is rewarding with spectacular views of the parliament and city of Pest. Same can be said for the steps to the top of St. Peter’s basilica.

Budapest is like a forgotten stepchild of the European uncle. A city once suppressed and the voices of its people silenced, Budapest is suspended in pre-iron curtain days and trying to recover. It is part of the European Union but the needs time to repair. It has more graffiti than we had ever seen in public space. (That opinion is altered because we’ve visited other European cities.)

Although we drove we used public transportation around the city. Some street trams were dated while few were modernized. The wires on the older tram lines had electric sparks, a sign of much needed upgrade. When we tried to buy tickets for the tram, the dated machine took our money and didn’t print a ticket. There are certainly signs of the city’s resiliency and of people ready to embrace the modern times.

Speaking of people, they are some of the nicest people we encountered. For instance, when we asked for clarification on various Hungarian paprika sold in the Central Market, the vendors were eager to answer our queries. One morning we ate Langos for breakfast at the Market and the locals eating at the same stall were generous and friendly. The vendor explained in her broken English what toppings are preferred by Hungarians. Langos is deep fried bread dough topped with sour cream and cheese. It is the perfect for breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack! Having traveled in Europe, we’ve experienced snooty Western European cities (and people) while Budapest (and Prague) offered memorable hospitality and customer service.

At the market, we bought 1/2 kilo each of Hungarian sweet paprika and smoked paprika. They made great gifts. And on shopping, everything was much cheaper comparatively to Germany. I don’t know the reason, but we were delighted with the low prices on food, shopping and hotels.

However I was disappointed in a restaurant recommendation from a taxi driver. The restaurant was upscale and geared to the high spending tourists especially because the food was average. There we tried Goulash. I was equipped with a list of places the locals frequent but it didn’t work in our favor to try any of them.

I am glad that we went to Budapest; it is a true eastern European city. If we had more time here, I would go back to try the amazing food it has to offer. And hopefully the 2nd time around, I won’t be sick.

Tuesday, July 2

Salzburg, Austria

The last few months have been a little bit insane, a little bit overwhelming and a whole lot of fun. We had a long line of guests from March until June. In addition to hosting and entertaining, we also traveled with the guests. There are so many wonderful trips I plan to write about.

After my parents in law left in June, we visited Salzburg Austria. It was a city high on our list because of its closeness and charm.

We used a Bayern ticket to get to Salzburg; the city is one stop after crossing the (German) border. That is normally how it is supposed to be. The Friday we visited, it was a different story. Few stops before the border, the train conductor announced everyone depart the train at the next stop. Puzzled, we asked another passenger for clarification and she confirmed our suspicions. At the station, we, along with all the other passengers, boarded busses. For the next 40 minutes, we traveled through small towns and villages on the German back roads. With clouds moving through the sky and the sun setting, it was a scenic drive, even in a packed bus. Arriving in Freilassing, we were herded off the bus and told to wait for a train. After 25 minutes of waiting, everyone boarded the train to Salzburg. And 7 minutes later, we arrived at our station, Salzburg Hauptbahnhof. Why such a hassle for a trip that normally takes 4- 5 hours on a train? Our trip was after the rainostrophe of Europe which caused the floodcalypse. Parts of Eastern Europe and some Southeastern German towns were flooded and the rail tracks were under water.

Saturday was packed with sightseeing and a tour. We visited some key sights on our own in the morning. At noon, we joined a English city tour. The best part was we were the only visitors in the group so we had a private tour. The guide was born and brought up in Salzburg so we couldn’t have had a more knowledgeable guide. He was smug about being an Austrian but it was entertaining. For instance we asked him why many women were dressed in their dirndls and the men in their lederhosen, inquiring if there was a festival we should know about? And his answer was simple, “because the weather is nice people are dressed up in their traditional clothes”. Puzzled, we said, we live in Nürnberg and have yet to see people dressed up on beautiful summer days. His response, we’re not in Germany, we are in Austria.” Well that cleared up that. We walked by the oldest restaurant in Europe. He didn’t seem thrilled about the place so we didn’t bother trying the food. We learned about Mozart’s history and impact on Salzburg. The guide recommended Mozart’s home but we chose not to, because there were a long line of tourists. Japanese tourists, apparently Japanese tourists are big Mozart, Wagner and other European composers’ fans. Another fact was Mozart was his sister. She was a remarkable musician, but overshadowed by her brother’s accomplishments. She has a memorial in Salzburg.

On Sunday we did the Sound of Music tour on bicycles. It was neat to see the sights that were part of the movie and hear the history. We both learned that Sound of Music was loosely based on a true story of Maria von Trapp and the family. Remarkably the family toured as musical acts before they were known as the Von Trapp family from Sound of Music. Sadly, Maria accepted a contract with the Hollywood producer that compensated very little in royalties for selling her story. Hollywood selling out families for entertainment, of course. Our bicycle tour guide was okay but we both enjoyed the 4 hour ride. There is one steep hill to climb but otherwise the ride is comfortable and moderately-paced.

My favorite visit was to the Fortress, better known as Festung Hohensalzburg. To reach the fortress, you can hike up or take the funicular for 9.80 euros. The ticket includes admission to the museum and audio guide inside the fortress. The history is impressive; construction was first started in 11th century and has been expanded and restored since. The views of the city and the mountains surrounding are breathtaking. The guide at the fortress was an Ohioan temporarily living in Salzburg. He was so excited to meet us, he took a photo with us to show his Austrian friends that we Ohioans do exist.

The meals were acceptable. Saturday’s lunch was at a spot recommended by the guide and it was German food. Dinner was at Augustiner Bräu with a liter of beer and half chicken and some sausages. It is local brew (not connected to the Munich Augustiner) in a spacious beer garden. We wanted to try a highly raved restaurant on Sunday but it was closed. It was German fare in Austria. I was hoping to try something new but didn’t see something non-German.

The return trip was also tricky because of the flooding. We departed Salzburg hauptbahnhof and arrived at Landschut, Germany for a train transfer. Instead of taking another German train, we took a Czech train towards Prague. I must say how superbly nice the train personnel were on the Czech train. Before boarding the train, we asked if we could board with German Bayer ticket and the woman approved. She explained due to the floods they weren’t checking tickets and allowing exceptions. Once on the train, she reseated us to train cars that were heading in the direction we needed to go. Had she not done this, we probably would’ve ended up elsewhere. We enjoyed few, very inexpensive Czech, beers in the dining car until our next and final transfer station, Schwandorf. From there we took a German train home. Although confusing and very uninteresting, it was nice to arrive at a reasonable hour.