For Christmas break, we were lucky to have a pretty big break off work because of the Rolls-Royce shut-down. We were off work from December 22nd through January 1st without having to take any paid time off (PTO). Therefore, we planned a big trip through Germany and Austria. Here is what our itinerary looked like:
- Dec 22-25: Munich
- Dec 25-27: Salzburg
- Dec 27-28: Graz
- Dec 28-31: Vienna
- Dec 31 – Jan 1: London
I will be writing the post for Munich and Salzburg, and Doug is covering the rest, so be on the lookout for his post. Our travel between the cities were all on the train, besides a side trip to Neuschwanstein Castle which was both a train and a bus.
All of our trains were completely on time, which was a vast difference to the public transportation fiasco that we had in England prior to our trip. We had quite the experience getting to the airport, and I will attempt to retell the story here. If you don’t want to hear the entire almost-missed-the-flight story, just skip down until you see the “Munich” heading.
Our flight to Munich was out of Manchester, which is a couple hours away from Derby. We chose to fly out of Manchester for a couple different reasons. The most obvious reason was that it was a cheap flight. But not only did we get a pretty cheap flight, it was also on Lufthansa which meant that we could check a bag for free! Most of the discount airlines over here don’t allow you to check a bag unless you pay for it. Checking a bag typically costs more than the airline ticket itself, so we never check bags. We figured since we would be gone for such a long time, and also be doing some shopping at the famous Christmas markets, we definitely wanted to check a bag. And finally, the last reason we decided to book on Lufthansa was because Doug is a Star Alliance Gold Member, so that meant that we could hang out in the lounge before our flight! Yay for free drinks!
Our flight back to the UK from Vienna was actually into London Heathrow on British Airways, so we couldn’t drive to Manchester and leave our car at the airport. That left the train and the bus as our options for getting to the Manchester airport from Derby. After looking into the times and prices, we opted for the bus route because it was about half the price of the train and only took about an hour longer. We are cheap and like to save money wherever we can, so we booked the bus on National Express. Our journey was not ideal because we had to change buses in Birmingham, but it was scheduled to arrive at Manchester Airport at 3:05pm and our flight was at 5:25pm. That would be plenty of time to enjoy the lounge before our flight, or so we thought.
So our Christmas break journey began with our bus from Derby to Birmingham. This was scheduled to leave at 11am and arrive at noon. We actually were running behind schedule about 15 minutes because the driver was late, so we didn’t leave Derby until 11:15. No big deal though because we had a 45 minute wait in Birmingham, so now we would only have a 30 minute wait. Sure enough, we got to Birmingham around 12:15pm and checked the board for our 12:45 departure to Manchester. Guess what? It was delayed. The bus was coming from Devon, and there was flooding in Devon, so it wasn’t going to arrive until 1pm. We figured that was no big deal, if it arrived by 1, we could probably leave like 10 minutes later, and we would still make it to the airport in plenty of time to enjoy the lounge.
As we sat there waiting for our bus to arrive and anxiously watching the status board, the arrival time of our bus kept getting delayed by 1 minute more at a time. It would be arriving at 1:06… and then 1:07… and then 1:08. This painstaking delay went on for about 20 minutes, until finally the bus arrived at the station at 1:20! Doug and I were delighted because surely this meant we would be departing for Manchester by 1:30, right? We would still have time to get a free drink in the lounge if we left immediately!
You would think that since the bus was already 45 minutes late, they would hurry to board everyone and set off to Manchester airport. I mean, the destination was the airport, obviously people have flights to catch! But no, that did not happen. Instead, the driver got off the bus and proceeded to take a tea break! I’m serious, they announced that our bus would not board until 1:50 because of his 30 minute tea break! Wow, we were furious! At this point, I was starting to forget about the time I wanted to spend in the lounge, but simply started worrying about making the flight itself!
By 1:50, the entire bus was lined up by the doors waiting for the driver to come back from his tea break. He came moseying along at like 1:55 as if there was no hurry in the world. He took his time loading the bags and checking the tickets, and when Doug (not too nicely) asked if we could speed things up, he said, “Sir, I will not be rushed!” Ha, that was obvious!
The bus departed around 2:10pm. Since we were leaving almost an hour and a half late, and our original arrival time was 3:05, we were figuring we would get to the airport at 4:30pm. Not a lot of time for our 5:25 flight, but doable.
However, as the bus ride progressed, Doug and I were getting more and more worried. There was tons of traffic on the road, and the rain was really coming down. The journey was definitely going to take longer than expected. At one point, we had to leave the motorway because it was at a complete standstill. We traveled through a lot of side roads and by checking on our iPhones, we could tell that we were taking the long route. We could also tell that it was taking longer than expected.
We kept checking to see if our flight was delayed because maybe the rain and bad weather would delay it. I think this was the first time that I’ve ever HOPED for a flight delay, as opposed to cursing it. But nope, flight on time as scheduled.
After the most anxious bus ride of my life, we arrived at Manchester airport at 5pm! The bus doesn’t drop you off at a terminal, but instead at a spot in between all the terminals. We bypassed the bus driver who was slowly unloading all the bags, grabbed our luggage and sprinted to the check-in. That was one of the longest, hardest sprints of my life. It must have been like a mile long. I was definitely cursing the bag that I had previously been so happy to get to bring!
And when we thought it couldn’t get worse, it of course did. During our hectic sprint, we reached an escalator that went up about 3 flights of stairs. However, the up escalator wasn’t working and was completely roped off, and that was the one we needed. There were no stairs next to the escalator. Oh, and of course, the down escalator was working just fine. Some guy that worked there pointed us towards the lifts around the corner, but out of the two lifts, one was out of order, and the other was not moving from the 3rd floor. Finally we found the emergency exit staircase and had to sprint up 3 flights of stairs with our huge bags. Then another long sprint across a huge corridor with moving walkways and we finally made it to the check-in counter.
We went straight to the business line check-in and miraculously (although slightly rudely), they let us check-in. They telephoned the gate to make sure we could still board, and they said we had to run there. Oh, and that we had to drop our luggage off at this special luggage drop.
We again sprinted with our bags to the luggage drop, only to find a huge queue! We ran to the front and explained to the worker guy that we were about to miss our flight and to please let us skip the queue. He basically said no way were we cutting because everyone else had flights and we had to wait just like everyone else. At this point, I was so stressed and exhausted that I was about to cry. In fact, I probably did cry because the people at the front of the line told us to go in front of them, and pretty much everyone else in the line was also saying we could go in front of them. So we dropped our luggage off and ran to the security line.
We went in the fast lane, but of course we both got flagged for different things. Doug had to get his body patted down, while they had to go through the contents of my purse. Why do you always get chosen when you are in a hurry? I bet if we had gotten there in enough time to enjoy the lounge, we would have also easily made it through security. They found the tiny bottle of Bath and Body Works hand sanitizer (that I can only get in the states) in my purse and said that they could either throw the hand sanitizer away or they could rescan my bag. Obviously since we were in such a rush, I told them to throw it away and be done with it. So they threw it away and then guess what?! They rescanned my bag!! Ugh!! So annoyed!
After finally making it through security, we again sprinted through the airport. We had to sprint through all the duty free shopping and wind through the zig-zag of stores. They pretty much make you go through an entire mall before you get to the gates!!
And finally, in the end, we arrived at the gate, panting and sweating like mad underneath our coats and scarves. We were able to board the plane and somehow were off to Munich! However, Doug and I vowed to never again take a National Express bus! Wow, that was not the way to start off our vacation.
But alas, now I will start the blog about our trip. I just wanted to recount the horrible experience of English public transportation. In Germany and Austria, all of our public transportation was completely on time, so that was a nice change.
We arrived in Munich on Saturday evening, and after such a hectic traveling day, we didn’t do much that night. We got some food (and much needed drinks) and called it a day. Luckily, our hotel was amazing!! It was the Eurostars Book Hotel, and even though the area was a little sketchy (a lot of casino and erotic stores nearby), it was a really nice hotel. The breakfast was also incredible! It was loaded with everything you could want! You want an English breakfast with eggs, bacon, and mushrooms? Check! How about a German breakfast with sausages, pretzels, and mustard? You got it. Fruit, yogurt, breads, cereals, jams, and everything else that comes with a continental breakfast. It was delicious and a nice way to start off our site-seeing.
Our first adventure was to see the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein. This was a couple hour trip from Munich, so it occupied our whole day. The Neuschwanstein castle was built by the so-called “mad king Ludwig” because he was constantly trying to build the most amazing castles. In fact, he died a mysterious drowning death before the Neuschwanstein castle was even completed. It’s a mystery if he maybe committed suicide or was murdered or something else entirely. I think he was called the mad king because he thought he used to be some sort of Swan King in his past life, and the whole castle had swan paraphernalia decorating it.
King Ludwig II (mad king) built the castle actually pretty recently for as far as castle building goes, in the late 19th century. It’s the castle that inspired Disney’s castle, so enjoy the many pictures below.
In order to get the above and below amazing pictures, Doug ventured out onto Marie’s bridge that was closed to the public. There was a big barricade telling you not to enter, and then many more barricades along the path to the bridge. However, Doug could not be denied the perfect picture. He tried to get me to jump the barrier with him, but me being the good, law-abiding citizen, refused to go.
In order to tour the castle, you had to buy tickets for a guided tour at a specific time for your particular language. Luckily, there are a lot of English language tours. We didn’t have to wait too long for our tour, probably about an hour, but since it is an up-hill mile long walk to the castle, that hour passed pretty quickly.
The tour itself was just okay. Since the castle was never completed, you don’t get to see too many rooms. You see Ludwig’s bedroom and dressing room, complete with all his swan decorations. You also see the throne room, which doesn’t even have a thrown in it, but has a nice big, crown-shaped chandelier. You see the biggest room in the place (not sure if they called it the “Sinners” room or the “Singers” room because I couldn’t understand the guide). There is an audio visual thing at the end that I would recommend viewing because it shows some of Ludwig’s plans that were never completed, including another castle that was going to be even more magnificent.
As usual, you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside. Overall, I would say the castle was worth the trip, but the outside is more spectacular than the inside.
Nearby the Neuschwanstein Castle is the Hohenschwangau Castle, which was where Ludwig grew up as a kid. We decided that one castle was enough for us, so we didn’t tour that one, but did get some pictures from outside.
After the day exploring the castle, we made our way back to Munich. The scenery was beautiful by the way. Nice view of the Alps. It was great scenery along the whole train/bus ride there, so we didn’t mind the trip.
That evening we went to the famous Hofbrauhaus for dinner. This is your typical German beer hall with long tables where you sit with strangers who become friends, traditional German music, sausages and sauerkraut, and of course, huge liters of beer. Even though it was Sunday, Dec. 23rd, the place was packed! We eventually found an open spot at a table that we shared with some Germans and English. We chatted with them, and once they left, their spot was quickly filled by some Americans who also became our friends. The atmosphere was very friendly, and even though the place was huge, it somehow felt cozy. Even though it was a touristy place, I loved it! Here are some beer drinking pics.
On our way back to the hotel that evening we passed through the Christmas market, but as it was closing for the night, we saved our shopping for the next day. However, we snapped a few pictures of the lights.
Christmas Eve was the last day of the Munich Christmas market, so we did that first thing. The Germans are known for their Christmas markets, which consist of many stalls selling crafts, food, and mulled wine. Their markets are so popular that you can even find German Christmas markets in the UK. There is one in Birmingham, which is about an hour away from Derby, so I checked that out a couple weeks ago with my friend Megan. I wanted to see what that market was like so that I could compare it to the real thing in Germany. So now that I have been to both, I can say that the German market in Birmingham is actually a pretty good representation, although it is more expensive. The stalls were pretty similar, and most of them seemed to be selling the same goods. You could get the same ornaments at both places, and the same gingerbread, roasted chestnuts, sausages, and mulled wine. The only difference was that in Germany everything cost about half as much as it did in Birmingham. Additionally, the Munich market was a lot bigger, but most of the stalls were repeated. So I guess I’m saying that if you really want to experience a German Christmas market, you can get the idea of it by going to one in the UK, but you will just have to pay more for the goods.
At 11 o’clock, the famous clock tower in the New Town Hall rings and does this dancing thing. We made sure we were in a good position to see this amazing dance that all the guide books had told us to see. Wow, it was very disappointing. It seemed like it was just a very big cuckoo clock. The dancing figures just went around in a circle and I kept waiting for something more exciting to happen. At one point, there is some sort of jousting scene, and one of the dancing figures falls back on his horse, and I think that is supposed to be the climax. We were pretty disappointed by the dancing clock. I even have some video of it, but it’s too boring to put on here. Just youtube “Rathaus-Glockenspiel” and I’m sure you’ll find something if you are that interested.
After that we continued to shop and drink “Gluhwein” which is mulled wine.
After getting our fill of the Christmas market, we explored other parts of Munich. We went to the Viktualienmarkt, which is sort of like a farmers market with all sorts of fruits, meats, cheeses, etc. It was pretty cool and if we hadn’t just spent so much time at the Christmas market, I think I would have liked to stay there longer. We also found a Milka outlet store! Milka is a brand of chocolate that is made in Germany, along with some other European countries. I loaded up my basket with chocolate treats for us to bring home.
We also explored the “Englischer Garten” or English Garden, which is a huge park in the center of Munich. I forgot to mention that the weather in Munich was unseasonably warm. It was probably in the 50s(F) when we were exploring the park, and there were quite a few people out walking dogs and going for a run. I was a little disappointed with the weather because I was hoping for a white Christmas to make the markets seem more festive. Another guest that we met at the hotel said that he’s been coming to Munich every Christmas for as long as he can remember, and this is the first year it hasn’t snowed. Bad luck for us I guess. Or good luck so that walking around exploring wasn’t quite as cold. In the English Garden, there is this huge Chinese Tower which is some sort of beer garden, but it was already closed for Christmas when we got there.
We also saw the domed church of Frauenkirche, which is one of the landmarks of Munich. However, we didn’t even attempt to explore the inside. I think we are getting a little sick of churches. I thought the picture below was funny because the Christmas stall in front of it has a little model of the domes.
Christmas Eve is the traditional day in Germany where families have their Christmas meal together. This is different than in the UK (and the states) where most people have their Christmas meal on Christmas day. This meant that all the restaurants were closed on Christmas Eve. However, we knew this ahead of time and booked a meal at a nice Jewish restaurant called Cohen’s. We had an amazing, kosher meal as our Christmas dinner. And it’s a good thing we booked it because it got quite busy and we noticed that no other place was open, even the Asian restaurants were closed.
On Christmas Day, we took the train to Salzburg. The train ride was about 1.5 hours and very scenic. In Salzburg, we were staying at a B&B a little outside of the city, so we had to take a bus to get there. Our B&B was really nice, and the people were very friendly. We had a great scenic view of the mountains. They even had a pool, but we obviously didn’t get to take advantage of it at this time of the year.
That evening we checked out the Salzburg Christmas market, as it was actually open through Christmas. I liked this Christmas market more than the Munich one. It was laid out better and had a cozier, more Christmas-y feel to it. The Munich one was arranged in rows, and extended down many different streets. The Salzburg one was arranged in a more circular fashion and was confined to two central squares. We enjoyed the drinks and food and also bought some more goods to bring home.
The next day we spent exploring Salzburg. Salzburg is a very popular tourist city. It was the birthplace of Mozart and was also where the Sound of Music was filmed. There are many Sound of Music tours that you can go on, but we decided to do our own touring.
Unfortunately, the weather was not very great for touring around that day. It was really cold, but just barely above freezing, so that it was raining the whole day instead of snowing. This made our Rick Steve’s walking tour pretty miserable.
I could imagine the river going through the town being very beautiful, but it wasn’t that pleasant on our day exploring. One side of the river is considered the Old Town, while the other side is the more modern side. We spent our time in the Old Town.
We saw a sculpture of a man on a sphere (which we had also seen the night before), Hohensalzburg Castle, Mozart’s birthplace, and some pedestrian shopping streets.
Salzburg has two museums dedicated to Mozart: Mozart’s birthplace and Mozart’s residence. We didn’t go inside either of them… I guess we aren’t cultured enough to see the appeal.
We took the funicular up to the Hohensalzburg fortress/castle. It was a great way to get to the top instead of hiking up in the rain. And the funicular ticket included entrance into the fortress museum. This fortress was never actually used, I guess because it looked imposing enough that people didn’t try to attack it.
The view from the top is supposed to be one of the best views looking over Salzburg. Unfortunately, the weather made it a little less than impressive.
The museum in the castle was pretty much awful. I think the best part of it was that we got out of the rain for awhile. It seemed like there was no direction or focus of the museum. Some rooms had weapons of torture, others had chests of drawers, and others had old soldier’s outfits. There also wasn’t a lot of signage that was in English and since I can’t read German, maybe that made the museum worse.
Separate from the fortress museum was a Marionette (aka string puppets) museum, and since it was included with our ticket, we toured it as well. Also not too interesting, but at least we got to play with some puppets. Salzburg has a Marionette theatre, which is probably why they had this museum.
After the disappointing Hozensalzburg fortress, we continued our tour of the city. We went through a graveyard where there are some important people buried, and also down this pedestrian shopping street that has strict regulations on the type of signs that the stores can have.
We also went by a restaurant that was claiming it was the oldest restaurant in Europe. We thought that was pretty odd since we ate at the oldest restaurant in the world in Madrid, and last time I checked, Madrid was part of Europe.
After we had enough touring around in the rain, we rewarded ourselves with dinner at the Augustiner brewery, which is a really old brewery where apparently monks brew the beer. It was a unique beer hall where you actually walk in, grab a mug off the wall, wash the mug in a fountain, and then take it to get filled up at the beer filling station. Good thing we had read how this procedure worked beforehand because there was nothing explaining how it was done, and the people working were not overly friendly. It was still some good beer though.
And that about wraps up the visit of Salzburg. I think we were unlucky with the weather, otherwise it would have been a more beautiful city and the tour would have been more enjoyable. Still, at least we enjoyed the Christmas market on the first night.
Here are our souvenirs from the Christmas markets. We came home with multiple mugs, a nutcracker, a handmade pewter ornament (that says “Ingenieur” on it and has a picture of an engineer at a computer and with drawings), and another “Munich 2012″ glass ornament. Not bad!
Doug’s blog post will contain the rest of our trip to Graz and Vienna (and also New Year’s Eve in London). Happy new year!