Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Vienna: Austria

This is (potentially) the fourth last blog in the JeTZ Worldwide Adventure series. It doesn't promise to be anything flashy but it has worth in its own right. Vienna was to mark the end of our European leg and stand as a semi-convenient, somewhat sentimental meeting point for the JeTZ to meet up with Jeremy's sister Jessica. You might remember Jess from such blogs as The Cow Incident where she made a cameo performance as the vet who gave advice about appropriate actions to take if being attacked by a cow. She also starred in the Spaghetti Western Spain: El Bueno, El Mal y El Feo as a cowgirl which the producers thought could be rather useful given her specialist knowledge of bovine self-defence. But Vienna was a whole different kettle of herring. Jess had planned to meet her friend Jake here and together they would have no problem fitting into one of the world's most vibrant and culturally sophisticated cities.

The JeTZ on the other hand...well we had to try a little harder.

Eventually we gave up the pretences and settled in to our new home - the Wombat Lodge. It's not that we were desperately home sick that we insisted on staying here - more like we were desperately missing a black (some would argue dark brown) sandwich spread which is 2 parts yeast extract, 1 part salt, 100% Australian (and Kosher by the way) and about as popular as thrush. That said, we so enjoy being catered for and happily support anyone who will do so. Although we're not sure if the great Viennese innovators were being creative by putting Vegemite in a vending machine or if they  were trying to extricate themselves from actually selling the product over the counter?

So having come from all corners of the globe to meet up, we wasted no time getting over jet lag. We immediately set out into the old town for dinner at an Israeli kebab shop which ended rather badly  when a trace of chickpea found its way into Jeremy's shawama. Sadly, chickpea is to Jeremy as chocolate is to dog - yummy but a very bad idea. Icecream on the other hand never fails to deliver and  - as we all know - is the second greatest panacea after tiger balm known to man!

The following day we were all in fine fettle and ready for an academic experience (read: museum time.) 

The museum we visited paid homage to the beautiful and highly celebrated Empress, Elizabeth of Bavaria. Sisy, as she was affectionately known, was somewhat of a cult figure well known for her obsession with being slim (she had a 20 inch waste line!), her bouts of depression, her love of poetry, her abhorrence of court etiquette and her tragic ending which saw her being assassinated by an anarchist who fatally stabbed her in the heart. She might have been considered an emo by today's standards except that hardcore punk, tight jeans and bright pink had not yet been invented.

Sisy was ahead of her time in other ways too having a home (or palace) gym erected in her bedroom. These days you can buy such things off the shopping channel for 10 easy payments of $29.95 and yet, they haven't really evolved that much since the 19th century...

After the museum, we needed a bit of outside-time and headed for the Ratheusplatz where we waited 3 hours to experience something truly Viennese - an outdoor concert. It was not that dissimilar to watching TV at home except that this big screen put our 46inch wide screen Sony Bravia to shame, the seats were less comfortable than our couch and instead of screening Seinfeld, we were watching a famous violist. But that my friends, is what differentiates culture vultures from couch potatoes.

Inspired by our new icon Sisy, we decided to get some exercise and do a bicycle tour around the city. This turned out to be a very bad idea much in the same way that dancing the hora in stilettos is a bad idea. Conditions need to be suitable. Cycling tours in the pouring rain are not fun particularly the bits where you are standing around a main square listening to the significance of the monuments surrounding you when you really should in a cosy little cafe having a Vienna coffee and Princess cake.

The weather improved the following day where the JeTZ broke away from Jess and Jake to try and learn to be a little more sophisticated. So naturally that began with a visit to the Opera house and ended with a walk around some rather elaborate palace gardens.

That turned out to be a dismal failure...perhaps sophistication is something you are born with and cannot be learnt?

To that end, we hung up our fancy scarves and dress pants, had a quick 'what the??' moment in front of this shop below, said our farewells to Jake and headed east where bakalava, shishas and whirling dirvishes anxiously awaited our arrival.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Berchtesgaden: The Eagle's Nest

Legend has it that the angels who were given the responsibility of distributing the Earth's wonders were ordered to do so hastily. In their panic, they dropped them all in one place - Berchtesgaden.
That may be one of the reasons that Hitler chose to have his second headquarters here.

There is a more practical reason though - Hitler was an Austrian by birth. By residing in a Bavarian town on the boarder of Austria, no one would think it odd he lacked an authentic German accent. 

Which brings us to one of the reasons the JeTZ found themselves drawn to this now morose and mist-laden municipality which lies sleepily in the Bavarian Alps.

We wanted to see some authentic Bavarian culture. Yes folks, we were  itching to see men in Lederhosen and women in Dirndl.

We wanted to see  weisswurt (white sausage) and entrails on menus. TZ wanted to order Apfel Strudel although her German wasn't good enough...

 Jez in particular wanted a decent sampling of the  region's finest Beer. Actually this photo is not about capturing Jez in his element.
If you look behind him, there's a Dirndl-clad woman. We were secretly photographing her. Moments after that, our dreams would be shattered.

People don't dress this way here! These people were here to celebrate Tartan Day!

Having now been educated about the frailties of stereotyping other cultures, we pressed on to the real reason we were here..

Hitler was in some ways a lucky man. He had some rather generous friends in the SS. So liberal was their gift to the Führer on his 50th birthday, that the angels who threw the Earth's wonders here would have wept. It was a holiday home perched some 1,834 meters high on the Kehlsein mountain. Nicknamed the "Eagle's Nest", it took 3000 people to build. The workers would hike 2.5 hours up the mountain side in the bitter cold carrying all the materials themselves. No horses or transport were used. They worked 24 hours a day to construct the most expensive building  in Germany (A$216 Million) since Neuschwanstein.  Is it any coincidence that these two constructions were built in times of mad rulers?

Anyway, it was pretty much a big waste of time and money. Hitler was not exactly what you'd call a 'fearless' leader. On the contrary, the Führer had many phobias - claustrophobia, acrophobia, atrophobia (fear of lightning) and did you know, a fear of early death? Makes you wonder if his SS friends were being just a little bit ironic?

See to actually get up there, one needs to travel up a steep mountain, through an underground tunnel and up a shiny brass elevator...

Is it any wonder Hitler only visited his nest 14 times and for never more than half an hour...when this was the view from the top!

As it seemed rather innocous to the allies, the Eagle's Nest was saved from destruction and today is a restaurant which donates its profits to charity.

Coming up (sooner or later...) The JeTZ hop over the boarder into Austria to pick up two very precious items...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

South Germany: Fussen

Before the JeTZ embarked on their two year world adventure, TZ had a couple of requests.

Request one: Jeremy must promise to ensure she was always warm.
Request two: Jeremy must promise to take her to as many castles as possible.

Well TZ doesn't always get her own way...Patagonia and Switzerland weren't exactly hot spots. In this case however, instead of enjoying the beer halls of Munich as most people do when they find themselves in Bavaria, the JeTZ went to Fussen to see a castle. But not any old castle. Rather a palatial wonderland so fairytale in character that Walt Disney bore its love child - The Sleeping Beauty castle. And that, dear readers, was the primary reason for our visit. However, there is a lot more to this Romanesque fortress than meets the eye....

 Schloss Neuschwanstein, Fussen                             The Sleeping Beauty Castle, Disneyland

Schloss Neuschwanstein (New Swan Stone), was commissioned by a visionary, an eccentric, a music lover...a madman (or so they say). Ludwig II had this castle built not only as his personal retreat but also, would you believe, as a tribute to his favourite composer, Richard Wagner. So instead of employing an architect to help realise his dream, he hired a theatrical set designer! Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos inside the most photographed castle in the world so you'll have to imagine what it was like.

Picture elaborately decorated rooms with legendary figures and stories, a hall used by performers and musicians AND of course for Wagner himself to compose his music. Imagine Ludwig's four-poster bed with a canopy carved from wood depicting every cathedral built in Bavaria. His room alone took 10 years to complete. He had one room that was made to look like a cavern and a very sophisticated kitchen with heated cupboards. Impressive considering the times! Although declared (without examination) insane, he really should be remembered for introducing electricity to the plebs. However, perhaps it's more fun to be remembered as the flamboyant crazy man whose impressive castle was still not finished 20 years later and having spent all that time (and money from his own pocket!) on it, only living in it for a few days.

But all that is yesterday's news...moving forward 1 and half centuries, our own Jewish princess had some unreasonable demands of her own...

After being denied the castle of her dreams, Jeremy promised he would at least take photos of her with it.
TZ agreed to this on the condition that her hair was perfect for the photo shoot....

You may be wondering what this yellowish building is behind TZ, it's actually another castle called Hohenschwanstein. Ludwig II grew up in this neo-Gothic style castle and garnered inspiration for his dream home here.

Nice for some! We had to settle for having breakfast outside it.

And for those that are not interested in castles, you might like to know
that Steve McQueen filmed many of his motorcycle stunts around the town of Fussen for The Great Escape...

Coming up, the JeTZ head further east to visit Hitler's 50th birthday present and make some ironic discoveries about the dictator's phobias...

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Switzerland: Ilanz, Surselva Region

You may recall Heidi and Ursin as our cabin mates on the Navimag boat in Patagonia or as the couple that kept appearing along our travels at the most bizarre moments. This time however, our meeting was no accident. Given that we were already travelling along the Rhine in Germany, we couldn't help but pole vault over the border and exchange sauerkraut for Swiss cheese, Kolsch for Kluge and Audis for Mercedes...we wish! We still had to make do with public transport...and when that failed us, we had other means. More on that later.

On our first day Heidi was at work. Much to our disappointment, it appears not everyone can be on holidays at the same time as us. Luckily though Ursin had taken time off and had great plans for the JeTZ. A hike up the Cassons.

Being an experienced hiker, Ursin packed all sorts of snacks and drinks, but unfortunately he neglected to mention that at 2700m above sea level, it would be a chilly 5°C on top of the mountain.
We began our trek post haste and were quickly rewarded by the appearance of the sun.
Ursin led the way across the mountain top, to where the spring flowers gave way to the unmelted snow falls of late winter.
Jez was wearing the same shoes that he had worn to the super posh casino in Baden-Baden. All of a sudden he started to feel that leaving his hiking boots in South America hadn't been such a great idea. The path that TZ is following below was made by Ursin. The the wider path in the lower right of the photo was made by Jez's tush when he slipped and slid down the snow. Jez began to wish he had renewed his travel insurance for the European leg of the grand adventure.
It wasn't all hard work though. When we reached this picturesque valley, we whiled away our lunch break marveling at the scenery and tucking into our picnic.

The "quick touch" test, bravely performed by Ursin, revealed that this electric fence was switched off.
We were a little concerned about what would have happened had the "quick touch" test failed. Ursin reassured us by demonstrating a strange Swiss remedy for electrical shock which involves licking a particular type of tree that only grows in the Surselva region...

Here TZ faces bravely faces her fear of walking through a cow paddock. Loyal readers will recall how she was attacked by a cow in Cambridge more than a year earlier rendering her completely fearful of charging bovines. But she proves gallant remembering the important lesson of not discussing Hungry Jacks in front of them.

Later that afternoon Ursin brought us to this spectacular lake. Unlike the tepid waters we were used to swimming in, Swiss lakes are somewhat colder. 

Ok, that's an outrageous understatement. These lakes are so cold even Jez refused to go in naked opting instead to wear his boardies. How did he cope in water? In his words; "you think you are going to die...and so you forget about the water".

That evening Heidi came up to see us. She came bearing gifts of the most exquisite kind called Luxenburgi...or something to that affect.

Whatever they were called though, they sure were yummy. However, the JeTZ follow a strict balanced diet. So the next day we went hiking again to work those sweet things off. Three train stops from Ilanz and we were once again in a pristine wilderness...
...full of flowers and insects...
...and shameless displays of public affection!

Inspired by carion eating birds feasting on some sort of Swiss chipmunk, we began to hunt for a place to retire for lunch.
In Switzerland camping provides no excuse to get messy. Fresh water is provided to wash, wood can be found neatly stacked...
P1000591 P1000586
...and the fireplace looks like it comes from Ikea!
For dessert we picked wild strawberries from the forest.
P1000618  P1000596
We thought the Swiss gorge was a geological feature. Ursin demonstrated that it is in fact a technique for devouring wild strawberries.
As was now becoming typical, the hike ended with a swim in an icy Swiss lake. Jez threw himself at the mercy of the cold water whilst Ursin took a more measured approach. Either way, the boys were a lot braver than the girls. They had won that round...

Later in the day though, we went to a fine Swiss pub enjoying what Jez now calls the 'holy trinity': Beer, pretzels and mustard.

We were having such a good time that by the time we left, there was no public transport - including taxis - to take us home. It was up to the girls to flex their muscles...or their thumbs.

The plan was as follows: The girls would hitch a ride home whilst the boys hid behind the bushes. With the boys out of sight, a pick-up was almost guaranteed. We thought we were safe when the car that finally stopped for us showcased a baby seat in the back. However it turned out the driver was a divorcee and was sorely disappointed when he found out neither of us were available. Meanwhile, Ursin took a photo of the car's number plate as it drove off...just in case.

This would be the last time the Swiss and Aussies would cross paths on our travels.
As we said our goodbyes, we promised that if they visited us in Australia we'd match their gracious hospitality. The offer still stands!

Coming up, the JeTZ sneak back into Germany to visit the castle that inspired Walt Disney and turned TZ into a spoilt brat....