Day One: June 28, 2008
Mom and I arrived at Orlando International Airport to check into our flight, only to discover that Lufthansa was holding my ticket for ransom and wouldn't release it to be printed. We stood there for an hour while Mom was quietly panicking. The problem was our first flight was from Florida to North Carolina, and then to Germany. US Airways computers wouldn't talk with Lufthansa's computers, but somehow the ticket was finally "released" and we went along our merry way (only to be plagued by further Lufthansa/US Airways problems upon leaving...).
Well, the Lufthansa plane was pretty awesome at first, I thought. The coach seats were fairly comfortable and they had little feather pillows for everyone. I ended up stealing about three of them to try and sleep with, though. Feather pillows aren't my thing, really. They had a nice entertainment system and I listened to Indipop for three hours. All the bathrooms were down a flight of stairs! I've never been in a plane like that. But I ate the chicken dinner and things went downhill from there with my stomach trying to kill me for the next seven hours. Note to self: eat the pasta on the return flight.
We left America on Friday evening and arrived into Munich International Saturday morning. When we arrived, Mom and I met up with my cousin, Hallie, and my Aunt, and we picked up the rental vehicle. I just about died inside when I saw it; a large, brick of a blue Volkswagen van that could seat up to nine people and all their luggage. The thing was MASSIVE. Originally, my sister was going to be on this trip with us, so having all that space made a little more sense. Unfortunately, she could only come for one week now, instead of two, so we were stuck with Big Blue. Getting out of the parking garage and onto the Autobahn was certainly full of little exciting moments: "You're going to hit that car!" and "Check to see if there's anyone behind me!" and "Is there anyone in my blindspot!?". Once we were on the road, it was quite exciting! Mercedes and BMWs and Volkswagens were passing by us in a blur. The road was smooth, with no pot holes in sight, and extremely well maintained. Nothing in America is quite like it, honestly. Next time, I'm renting something fast and taking to the road myself. Instead, I got to take in how incredible the design of the Autobahn really is.
The first stop was Dachau, a concentration camp just outside of Munich and not exactly one of the things I wanted to see on this trip. But it's important to see, to walk in that kind of place, and understand for just a moment how frightening people really can be. While driving towards the camp, my Aunt was cracking all sorts of Hitler jokes, it was really mortifying! Thankfully, she didn't make the same remarks when she asked for directions to the "historical camp".
Once at Dachau, I felt vaguely sick. But it wasn't as overwhelming, standing there in the place were so many people actually died, as the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. was. It was just oddly still. Most of the block houses were gone, but they had reconstructed some of the buildings including the one that housed the "showers" and the ovens. I walked through one of the ovens and through the shower room, which wasn't at all scary, as I thought it would be. Since they were just reconstructions, after all. I think the most alarming part was the tangled up statue in the center of the place. While walking around, I thought it was some kind of disfigured tree, but when we got closer it was actually thin, gangly bodies. It was more disturbing to look at that statue than walking around the place had been.
It was afternoon now, so we checked into the hotel in Munich. We were on the top floor and it had a great view! Next up was downtown Munich, to see the Rathaus-Glockenspiel in Marienplatz (plaza) and find something to eat for dinner. We crashed early for the night, tired from the long flight over and from walking around all day.
Day Two: June 29, 2008
The next day we set out from Munich in the direction of Praha (Prague). The drive was wonderful, as usual on the Autobahn. There was a surprising amount of speed limits on the Autobahn, but some people still whizzed past at 200kmh. Mom, bravely driving Big Blue for the entire part of our stay in Germany, only got the van to go about 130kmh (or around 80-85ish). Transitioning from Germany to the Czech Republic was smooth, as their roads were much newer and maintained just as well as the German Autobahns. We pulled off to find a restroom break and found some kind of Asian marketplace, which reminded me an awful lot of Mexico...only with more asains sitting at the booths. We didn't get out, but found a McDonald's to stop at. Now, the Czech Republic doesn't use Euros yet (but some places were accepting Euros), so trying to figure out the prices inside was kind of different. I decided to try a McToast and some coffee. The McToast was quite interesting; two pieces of bread with melted cheese and ham. They also had McDonuts, but Europeans aren't as sold out on sweets as we are (thankfully) and they had excellent coffee. It felt weird to have traveled all this way only to stop into a McDonald's, but actually it was quite fun to see the difference between our McDonald's and theirs (I liked theirs a whole lot better!).
We continued driving and after awhile my Aunt spied a large castle just hanging out on the side of the highway. So we stopped off and finally found it. It was quite the hike up to the castle but well worth it! The place was called Točník, a castle built in the 14th century. It's only been partially restored, but it was an incredible site! And while we were meandering about, people in costumes were running to and fro. My Mom and I figured they were reenactors or something, but there was tons of them camped out in the castle and the nearby woods. Eventually, my Aunt asked about one of the bowls they had out on a table, to which the girl replied, "You can't buy it, it's for the game!" These people were live action role-players! In a real castle! How cool is that? I got some clips of them engaging in battle that I'll upload soon. Most of them were students on summer break, and spoke pretty good english, in fact.
We found another castle shortly after we departed from Točník; Karlštejn (Karlstein). The signs were on the highway, but getting to the castle was half the adventure! We kept driving through these small towns, so small that if you blinked, you'd miss them. We asked for directions from a police officer who said, "Only 5km that way!". Well, the castle might have been 5km from that point, but the parking was another 5km past that! The only way to get to it was take a taxi or go by horse carriage. It was another 14th century castle that was in much better condition than Točník, but you could only go inside by taking a tour. The girl who gave us the tour was very knowledgeable and was learning to speak english so she had a heavy accent. But the tour was wonderful, we got to see the knight's wardrobes, paintings of the people who had lived there, furniture and personal items from the period. Another cool castle just sprinkled off the main road. Europe is just so cool that way.
That night we were in Prague. Mom and my Aunt had visited once before when Eastern Europe was still under the Iron Curtain. Mom said she had been scared while they were in Prague, and my Aunt said the people were beaten down and the buildings were drab and dingy. That was not the Prague we visited. The entire city was clean and vibrant. I really wish I had taken the camera with me that night, because everywhere we looked there was something interesting to look at; statues, churches, and people bustling everywhere. I did get a nice watercolor while crossing a bridge that was being carefully restored to its former glory. There's a reason why people in the area said Prague was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and a definite must-see. My only regret was not having my camera on me!
Day Three: June 30, 2008
We left Prague and returned once again to the Autobahns of Germany. Along the way, banished to the last row of seats in the van, I obsessively filmed gigantic windmills that dominated the countryside. The fans on these things were at least 75 feet long! It was rather inspiring, seeing so many of the mills. I really wish this was something we'd bring over to America.
Here we arrived at the only place I requested to go while on this trip; Wittenberg. The reason for my wanting to see this place was two-fold. One was highly selfish and admittedly a little geeky. My main character, Lucas, from the ever-in-planning story I have, was born in Wittenberg. Oddly, we discovered that Wittenberg had its own Lucas; Lucas Cranach the Elder who was a famous painter and printmaker. But mostly my reason was the historical importance of the town; the place where Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to All Saints' Church doors. I felt very happy just standing in that place, after looking at photos on the internet there was nothing quite like just standing there and taking it all in.
We traveled onward from Wittenberg, our next stop was Berlin. Mom's directions were nothing once we entered the city, as it seemed that the straße (streets) in German cities change names quite frequently! One street had about six or seven names! Needless to say, we got ourselves horribly lost and my Aunt hung out the window asking other drivers for directions as we went. It was hopeless after awhile and my Mom's nerves were quite frayed. My aunt jumped out and asked a bus driver where to go, but then decided to hire a taxi instead. She, and my cousin, went in the taxi and explained the situation. The taxi driver was extremely considerate and was so very careful not to lose my Mom and I still in Big Blue. In fact, every time we got into a city we got lost on this trip, but we found everyone extremely helpful and patient with us, it was a refreshing change of pace. We checked into the hotel and Mom still wanted to go see a few things, so we all piled into a taxi. This guy didn't speak english and didn't seemed amused by our odd request; we wanted to find some Birkenstocks, go see the Brandenburg Gate, and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. My Aunt tried to explain this, asking him repeatedly to wait for us between stops, but she's a New Yorker at heart and can be quite frustrating to deal with even if you do speak the same language she does! We found the Birkenstock store and my Aunt grabbed the nearest person on the street to explain to the taxi driver what we wanted to do. Once he realized we wanted him to drive us around to these places, he perked up immediately. I mean, he really got into it! He not only drove us around to those places but he also took us on a small "city tour" speaking in broken english and simple German to my Mom. He was laughing the entire time - crazy Americans!
The museum was another one of those places that you visit because it stands as a reminder to the horrors one person can cause to another. It was somber, and uplifting; filled with stories of people who made it across the wall to freedom and those who didn't - becoming a symbol of the cause. Most of the wall is gone now, but we did see sections still standing. The main difference was the east side had newer buildings, but my Aunt kept asking the taxi driver (a different one) who took us back to the hotel where we were in reference to the wall. He'd often point to the left and say, "15 meters that way" or "1km that way". She just kept asking, though, which was highly irritating. After all, it's one Berlin now! But this guy was patient and even said "God Bless America" after we got out. We got that alot while traveling in Germany, actually, mostly from the older people we met. Mom said they're still very thankful for America's role in World War II, but it was quite touching none-the-less.
WHEW. Three days down...many more to go. I'll write another post continuing on Day Four of the trip later tonight!