Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas in the Bavarian Alps

Lance and I just got back from spending our Christmas holiday in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which is the largest resort area in the Bavarian Alps, and site of the 1936 Winter Olympic Games. Garmisch and Partenkirchen are separate towns that were joined together by the Olympics...the Partnach River serves as the boundary between the two towns. We stayed in Garmisch, right by the train station, which is very close to the river, so we were in good proximity to both towns - easy walking distance.

There's been a snow shortage in Germany, and from what we heard, the Alpine region was no exception. But there was enough snow in the Alps to satisfy us, and it was a nearly perfect holiday in one of the most beautiful areas we've ever seen.

Friday, December 22

The day started out well enough. We had three trains to ride - from Geilenkirchen to Dusseldorf, then the ICE (high-speed train) from Dusseldorf to Munich, then another train from Munich to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It was during the Dusseldorf to Munich leg that we ran into a problem. A conductor came by…the third to check our tickets since we boarded that train. He asked to see my BahnCard, since I had a 25% BahnCard discount on the ticket. Even though we paid our BahnCard dues for this year, we never got renewal cards…so far, this hadn't been a problem…nobody ever questioned it. But he told me that my BahnCard account was not valid (even though it was) and he charged us $200 on the spot. He also confiscated my BahnCard. (We're going to start the process of filing a complaint and a claim to get our $200 back…we're in their computer system as valid BahnCard holders…we checked before we left to come home.)

Anyway, we arrived in Garmisch around 3 pm or so, checked into our hotel by the train station…and we weren't exactly sure how to spend what was left of the day. Lance thought we should walk to the American resort (Edelweiss Lodge…a military facility), just to see how far it was from our hotel. It was a 35 minute walk. We got there around dinner time, so we decided to just eat there. They have 3 restaurants…we chose Zuggy's Base Camp, which is a hamburger and pizza joint. So we both got the base camp burger (quarter pound burger) with fries, cheesecake for dessert.

After that, there wasn't much left for us to do there, so we decided to go back to our hotel. We had received visitor's cards when we checked into our hotel that allowed us various freebies and discounts around town, including free unlimited use of public transportation, so we took the bus back to the train station and retired to our hotel room for the night, where we found German musical variety shows on TV. One of them we watched for 45 minutes, and they were singing the same song for the entire time we were watching it (something like 156 verses…it lasted FOREVER!). We just laughed and laughed, because it was like a German version of something you would see at the Grand Ole Opry, and the audience was looking half dead by the time the song ended. It was hilarious.

Saturday, December 23

After the generous buffet breakfast at the hotel, we decided to spend the day at the Zugspitze, which is the tallest mountain in Germany (almost 10,000 feet). To get there, we had to take a cogwheel train called the Zugspitzbahn, and it takes about an hour to reach the top of the Zugspitze. It was a really nice trip…the train makes several stops on the way up in villages that are at higher elevations, and there is some gorgeous scenery, particularly going past the scenic lake at the foot of the Zugspitze - the Eibsee. Once the train ended, we were not yet at the summit of the Zugspitze…we were at the area where the skiers take the slopes. From that station, we took a cable car up to the observation deck at the top of the Zugspitze. We spent a bit of time up there, but it was colder and windy…it was a clear day, so we could see Italy, Switzerland, and Austria, although I didn't know exactly what we were looking at…all the Alps look the same. Then Lance discovered an area of the observation deck that said "Welcome to Tirol" and had a little walkway…this took us to the Austrian side of the Zugspitze, so we were able to visit Austria! We spent maybe 5 minutes in Tirol, and then went back to the Bavarian side of the Zugspitze. We took the cable car back down to the first station, and Lance decided we should get something to eat.

But before we did that, there was a little chapel up there (the Maria Himmelfahrt Chapel - the highest chapel in Germany)…not sure why…perhaps the skiers stop there beforehand to say a little prayer against injury or avalanches or something. But it was a cute little chapel and I wanted to explore that before we did anything else. Once that was done, we headed inside to the cafeteria to get a light lunch - some potato soup for me, and some French fries for Lance.

But it wasn't meant to be. As Lance was carrying our tray to a table, his camera bag came off his shoulder and collided with the tray, sending its contents to the floor and breaking the plate with the French fries on it. So he cleaned up what he could, we put the tray and the broken dish on the tray return, and left as quickly as possible. Problem was, the cogwheel train leaves once an hour on the half hour, so we had to wait about 45 minutes for it to come and pick us up. Finally it arrived, and we spent the next hour descending the mountain (I should note that we also had the option of taking a cable car from the top of the Zugspitze down to the Eibsee, but since it is winter, I couldn't imagine there would be anything to do down at the lake, so we decided against it).

We got back to Garmisch mid-afternoon…I was pretty hungry by that point, but it was only a couple of hours until dinner. We stopped at a grocery store by the Zugspitzbahn and got some snacks to keep in our room, then went back to the hotel for a bit. I ate a little something to tide me over until dinner, and we just hung out a bit until we felt ready to go out in search of dinner.

The night before, on the bus, we had passed the area (I guess you could consider it to be "downtown" Garmisch, for all the downtown that a small town has) where the Christmas market was being held. So before we ate, we stopped by there to check it out. It was tiny and not worth our time, so we moved on. We walked for awhile until we found the restaurant where we wanted to eat. I've heard from more than one person that Renzo's (Italian) was good, so that's where we went. I had bowtie pasta with salmon in a creamy tomato sauce…Lance had this absolutely monstrous 4 cheese pizza. The food was really good.

After that, we walked back to our hotel and were done for the night.

Sunday, December 24

If you could consider any day to be absolute perfection, this would probably be it. Again, we had a nice breakfast at our hotel. We decided that we would try ice skating at the Olympic ice stadium, which was only open for public skating until noon. The ice skating, unfortunately, didn't last long. My rental skates were painful. Lance's were too loose around the ankles. And the ice was pretty choppy. Lance is a much more experienced skater than I am, but even he was having trouble. I did two laps around the rink and couldn't do any more…he did 4. We spent maybe a half hour there and gave up.

Those were not our only plans for the day, and the plans we had for after skating ended up turning out better than I could have ever anticipated.

There's this area known as Partnach Gorge - one of the most beautiful sights in the area, particularly in the winter. There are various ways of getting there, and I was a bit confused by the tourist information as to the best way to go about it. I know we had to go to the Olympic Ski Stadium…we took the bus through Partenkirchen to get there. Once there, we can either go to the right, and walk to Partnach Gorge (I had no idea how long we would have to walk), or we could take this old, rickety chairlift called the Eckbauerbahn. I asked the guy at the Eckbauerbahn station, and didn't quite understand what he said…but we grabbed a brochure and figured out that the Eckbauerbahn takes us up to the top of this mountain. From there, we hike 45 minutes to this remote mountain inn, and from there, we take another chairlift down to Partnach Gorge. When we're done with Partnach Gorge, we either walk back to the ski stadium, or take a horse and carriage back. Sounded good to us. So we bought our tickets.

The Eckbauerbahn was kind of scary. Like I said, it was old and rickety…it made a lot of noise. It was very high. That was a bit nerve-racking…but we got to the top, and all was well. We began our descent down the mountain. The sun was out and it actually felt quite balmy at the top…there was hardly any wind, and there was a bit of snow and ice, but the path was sometimes clear. There was an estimated 45 minute hike…probably more of a summer estimate than a winter estimate, since we had to navigate slippery trails at times…but we were there in about an hour, anyway. The hotel where we ended up was called Forsthaus Graseck, and this place is so remote that you can't even drive there. You have to park at the base of the mountain and take their cable car up to the hotel. Anyway, it was a lovely hotel…and it was about lunch time, as it happened, so we decided to eat lunch there before moving on. The food was great. Lance had a huge meal of schnitzel cordon bleu with fries and creamed peas and carrots. I wasn't very hungry, so I had a bowl of pumpkin cream soup topped with croutons and pumpkin seed oil, served with a side of bread. Very very good. Lance had me help him with the fries and he didn't want the peas, so I had a few bites of his food. It was all tasty. I got some apple strudel with ice cream for dessert (Lance was stuffed, so he didn't have anything), and then we took the Graseckbahn (named after the hotel) down to the area where Partnach Gorge is located.

Once there, we had a bit of walking still to do to get to the gorge. Not too much though. Believe me, it was worth it. I've never seen anything like this in my life…simply breathtaking. In the summer, I imagine that the gorge has waterfalls everywhere, but they are all frozen over in the winter, and the ice formations are just spectacular. We had to hurry through it a bit…it takes about 15 minutes to get from one end to the other, and then you have to turn around and walk through it again to get back to where you started…and we would have to worry about the waning daylight soon. So I didn't spend as much time there as I wanted, but we got pictures and some video. Once we got back to where we started, we looked for a horse and carriage (there was one waiting there when we started the gorge), but there wasn't one available, so we walked back to the ski stadium so we could make sure to catch the last bus of the day. It took about half an hour to walk back…the day would've only been made better by having that horse and buggy ride.

We went back to the hotel for awhile after that. I wanted to warm up a bit…it got colder the further down the mountain we went because we were in the shade. So we warmed up, only to have to bundle up again later and go out in search of dinner (but we spent a couple of hours first watching the German versions of funniest home videos and planet's funniest animals). Christmas Eve is actually the big holiday in Germany…bigger than Christmas. Many of the restaurants had special menus that required reservations, and we didn't want any part of that. Luckily, the Greek restaurant around the corner from our hotel (El Greco) was open, so we had dinner there - baked feta for Lance, and stuffed cabbage rolls for me (stuffed with rice and ground beef and smothered in a lemon sauce…Mmmmmmm good!). It was a nice end to a pretty darn good day.

Oh, and I almost forgot…when the room attendant cleaned our room that morning, she left us a bottle of honey liquor (compliments of hotel management) that is made at Ettal Monastery not far from Garmisch - 40% alcohol by volume (no, we haven't tried it yet).

Christmas Day

Not much to do on Christmas Day in Garmisch or Partenkirchen, unless you're a skier. The souvenir shops and some restaurants were open, and the ice stadium was offering a performance of Moscow Circus on Ice (it was a running joke between us for the entire trip that I was going to make Lance take me to that or die of boredom). We had the breakfast buffet as usual in the hotel restaurant, and they put out some special stuff for Christmas - white sausages (which I didn't eat), and Belgian waffles with real maple syrup (which I did). Since we figured there would be little to do in town, we came back upstairs and flipped through the TV channels. Lance actually found an episode of "The Joy of Painting" on a German channel, but in English (they usually dub over EVERYTHING), so we watched that for an hour…they actually showed TWO episodes…wheeeee! We could've made a drinking game of it and took a swig every time Bob Ross mentioned "Van Dyke brown," but we didn't want to get wasted that early in the morning.

We wandered out briefly to see what was open…I was surprised that I could buy a bottle of Cola Light in the bakery inside the train station…everything was open there. So I got my Coke and we hung out in the room some more. I read a bit. Lance watched various things on television. When we got really bored…around 1:30 or so…we took a walk. I decided that I wanted to go to "downtown" Partenkirchen, which is a bit different from Garmisch. We went through it on the bus out to the ski stadium, and I wanted to take a closer look. So we walked out there, and then decided to see if the bowling center was open so we could perhaps play a couple of games. But the bowling center (called kugelbahn in Germany) was closed, after we took the bus pretty far to check it out. So we waited for another bus to come and went back to the hotel. We had some munchies in our room, and then made a couple of phone calls home, until Lance's calling card ran out. More reading, more television…around 7 pm, we went around the corner to Asia City (which is next to the Greek place where we ate the night before) and had Chinese for dinner. Lance ordered sweet and sour chicken, and I ordered sweet and sour crispy duck, which was a bit more sour than sweet, and I would assume Lance's was as well (I personally like the sweet better than the sour). Still, it was okay.

I actually went to bed early…I was pretty tired. Neither of us slept well on that hotel bed…the mattress was really hard and the pillow way too soft and squishy (all German hotel pillows are that way…they do not support your head AT ALL) and the down comforter on the bed (which was the only covering we had) was way too hot. So we were both pretty exhausted, actually, although our last night there was just as fitfully slept as the other three nights.

Tuesday, December 26 - Going Home

We left the hotel about an hour before our train was scheduled to leave. We wanted to talk to someone at the Deutsche Bahn office about what happened to us on the way there. The guy didn't speak English very well, but he was at least able to show us that our BahnCards were indeed valid, and that we should not have been fined, nor should I have had my card confiscated. He promised us that we would not be fined again on the return trip, and indeed, we weren't. He gave us a number to call, so hopefully we can get our money back and I can get a new BahnCard.

The trip back was the opposite of the way there…and decidedly more crowded and noisier. But it was rather uneventful, and we're glad to be home.

I'm anxious to go back to Garmisch before we leave here next December. There is so much more to do there than what we had the chance to do (Innsbruck, Austria is a stone's throw from there…the world famous Neuschwanstein Castle is also in the area)…there is also really good summer hiking and white water rafting and all kinds of fun stuff in the warmer months. Lance and I hope to go back in September or thereabouts.

Besides, we still need to get Lance some lederhosen.


For those of you who plan to go…helpful links:
Garmisch-Partenkirchen Tourism
Garmisch-Partenkirchen Travel Guide
Eckbauerbahn/Forsthaus Graseck

Finally, an interesting link about Garmisch and the Third Reich -