Sunday, September 30, 2007


A couple of weeks ago, Lance, his sister and I traveled down to Garmisch. Now of course, Lance and I were there last Christmas. I won't talk much about Garmisch itself. But we took some tours out of Edelweiss Lodge and Resort, which I will write about in a bit more detail.

Anyway, we arrived on Monday the 17th, really too late in the day to do much. We just settled into our hotel room, had dinner at Zuggy's Base Camp, and relaxed a bit.

Tuesday, Sept. 18
Our tours didn't start until Wednesday, so we decided to spend this day sightseeing in Garmisch. Unfortunately, this was not a good day for it. It was very cloudy and rainy, and we got tickets to go to the top of the Zugspitze (which are expensive), only to find the weather conditions too murky to see anything. A cloud was directly below us, obscuring our view, and it was snowing and sleeting on the mountain.

So that was a wash.

We were planning to follow that with a trip to Partnach Gorge, including lunch at Forsthaus Graseck, where Lance and I had eaten before, but the city busses were crammed full of people at lunch time. So we decided to wait awhile and opted instead to have lunch at El Greco and then walk around a bit. Lunch at El Greco was delicious. Lance and I had eaten there last Christmas Eve and liked it. I just had tomato soup and pita with tzatziki...something simple and light, but Lance shared some of his Greek cheese pie with me, which was also very good.

We followed up lunch with a walk through the main shopping district in Garmisch. It was raining buckets and very chilly, but it was really nothing compared to what we were about to experience at Partnach Gorge.

So once the lunch rush cleared, we took a bus out to the Olympic Ski Stadium, to walk to Partnach Gorge from there. On the way, we enjoyed the delightful chorus of the sheep's bells as they grazed in the pastures. Lance and I had been out to the gorge in winter, so everything was frozen over then. This time, there were waterfalls everywhere. We were all soaked by the time we left the gorge, and the trip through the gorge very nearly ruined my camera.

From there, we took the Graseck Bahn up to Forsthaus Graseck for an early dinner. Problem is, German restaurants don't serve dinner that early. They had a snack menu, and snacks are generally pretty ample. We had the restaurant all to ourselves. Lance and his sister shared a Bavarian cheese plate with a basket of bread. I got weissewurst (white sausages) that come with their own special mustard and a giant Bavarian pretzel. The wurst is kind of gross looking, but very tasty (if you ever have some, be sure to take off the casing...some servers neglect to tell people this if they order it!).

After warming up and drying off there a little, we made our way back into town and called it a night. Our clothes were still soaked, and I ran downstairs to the Starbucks in the basement of our hotel to get a hot chocolate to help warm me up.

Wednesday, Sept. 19

The first of our tours was this day - Berchtesgaden and the Eagle's Nest. We had this tiny, elfin German woman as our guide...she was absolutely hilarious. She kept calling us "Gaaaaaaawmish Gwoup"...a term we would end up repeating throughout the rest of our trip.

Anyway, the drive to Berchtesgaden took almost 3 hours (and this was the longest tour of all the ones we took because of the distance). It's near Salzburg, Austria. In fact, Hitler's Eagle's Nest overlooks Salzburg...not that it mattered. The weather up there was similar to what we had on the Zugspitze the day before. We had treacherous drives over curvy mountain roads, so it felt a bit daring and scary.

If the weather is bad at the Eagle's Nest, the tour goes instead to some nearby salt mines. But we were approved for the Eagle's Nest, so we had to get off our bus below the mountain and then take another bus up to a point high up the mountain. From there, we walk through a tunnel, get on an elevator, and go up directly into Hitler's residence.

I was surprised to find it so uninteresting. It's not preserved to look like it did when Hitler lived there. The largest room is now a restaurant and the other rooms sit empty. The fireplace was the only thing of interest, as it has some historical significance, which is explained on the tour. And, as I said before, the view from up there was obscured by clouds.

We didn't stay up there too long. We took the elevator back down and waited for the bus that would take us back down to our starting point. At that point, some of the clouds dissipated and we got a bit of a view of the valley below.

Eventually, we made our way into the town of Berchtesgaden, where we had a group lunch at The Golden Bear. I had a very delicious meal of meatloaf smothered in mushroom gravy with spaetzle on the side. Fantastic. The weather in Berchtesgaden was actually pretty nice, and we had some time to walk around the town a bit and poke into the shops. It's a cute little town.

Overall, unless you are guaranteed gorgeous weather, skip this tour. This was my least favorite of all of them. And Berchtesgaden, while adorable, wasn't as pretty as other Bavarian towns we saw on the other tours.

Thursday, Sept. 20

Our tour guide, Andrea, came to get us around 8:30 or so, I think. The drive to Neuschwanstein wasn't long...probably around an hour. It looked to be a gorgeous day.

On the way toward Neuschwanstein, we drove past the town of Fuessen, on which I had written a travel guide but had never seen. It looked like such a pretty town, but I wasn't able to photograph it, sadly. A few minutes later, we arrived in Schwangau, which sits below Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles.

Neuschwanstein is probably the most famous castle in Germany. Built by mad King Ludwig II, it was never finished before his mysterious death. This castle is the inspiration for the castle at Disney World. His parents' castle, Hohenschwangau, is very nearby, and can be seen from Neuschwanstein.

Our tour of the castle was to start at 11:15, and we had 3 ways to get up there: by foot, by bus, or by horse and carriage. We opted to walk, which takes about half an hour. It's a pretty steep climb, but we were game for it. Once the castle tour started, it lasted about 30 minutes. There are only a handful of completed rooms in the castle, so it doesn't take long to see them. And the rooms are nice, but I've seen nicer. Photographs aren't allowed inside, so unfortunately, I don't have pictures.

After the castle tour, we walked to the nearby Marienbrucke - a rickety bridge over a ravine that gives you an amazing view of the castle. Since we were running short on time, we took the bus back down into town. We grabbed some fast food at a German snack stand and did some shopping.

On the way back from Neuschwanstein, we stopped in the town of Wies to visit the famous Wieskirche. This church was built to house a statue of Jesus Christ in chains, which was the subject of a miracle in the 18th century, since the statue was said to have shed real tears. The statue was originally housed in a small chapel (which is next to the church), but so many pilgrims came to see it that a church had to be constructed.

The church is unusual because it's pretty much out in the middle of nowhere...yet it's huge and magnificent.

After our detour there, we drove for a while longer before we stopped at a shop that sold wood handicrafts and carvings. It is a pretty large shop and has a wide variety of objects to buy, but it seemed to specialize in nativity pieces. Things there ran in price from very inexpensive to stuff that requires a lottery win in order to buy. Overall, an interesting little diversion, and I'm glad we went there. The items were crafted by various artisans, so we got to see many different examples of woodworking.

Because we had a little extra time, the bus driver suggested that we drive through Oberammergau, a town that is mostly famous for its Passion play, which is put on every 10 years and features local actors. We drove past the theatre where this play is performed and the bus stopped so Andrea could point out some interesting paintings on some of the local buildings - fairy tales depicted on the houses! There was Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretel.

We also drove through Ettal on the way back to Garmisch, a town primarily known for its monastery. Edelweiss has a new tour that goes to the cheese-making shop there.

I would really recommend this Neuschwanstein tour. The little towns we drove through were just unbelievably beautiful.

Okay...more tomorrow (Innsbruck and South Tyrol). I also have Oktoberfest, but that almost deserves its own post.

Here are pictures. There are about 60 of them. I had to delete a lot because the weather made them turn out badly. But these things happen. The pictures that I thought were really important turned out well, which is good. There are also 3 photos of Fort St. Pieter from our Maastricht trip on the 16th.

Photos - Klicken Sie hier!

I Interrupt This Blog for a Very Important Announcement

In December, Lance and I will be moving to the Seattle area. We originally had orders for Tinker AFB (just outside Oklahoma City) and it wasn't the most ideal situation for him job-wise. But it was our great good fortune that a position opened up for an Air Force liaison for Boeing...he applied, and yesterday received word that the job is his. We are very excited. It's a tremendous opportunity for him, and will possibly set us up for life outside the military (when that glorious day finally comes).

This is great for me too. The travel and tourism industry is huge in Seattle, and I've already found a few great job prospects that would allow me to continue travel writing full-time and with excellent pay. Only I wouldn't be a freelancer. I would have gainful, steady employment with a company. I need that kind of security right now. There's one position in particular that I'm really excited's right up my alley. I just don't want to get my hopes up too much, but it's such a perfect job for me and so exactly what I've been looking for, that I can't help but get worked up about it.

(By the way, if you see anything in that area that you think might be of interest to me, please direct me to it. Or, if you are an employer who is looking for a travel writer...well, hi!) :)

This means too, of course, that I will be writing a lot of Pacific Northwest posts from now on. This is an area of the US that I have not explored, and I'm really looking forward to getting to know it. Everyone who is familiar with that area, and with Seattle in particular, proclaims it to be very I expect to fit right in and feel quite comfy there.

For now, we have a world of chaos to attend to, and I still have hundreds of photos from our travels in Bavaria and Venice. Look for these in the coming days. I will try to get those posted in the midst of all this resume tweaking and cover letter writing and house hunting.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Final Trip Report Series (for awhile)

We just completed our last major trip here in Europe. I doubt we'll even have time for any day trips now, although I am interested in the Da Vinci Expo in Brussels, and there's an MWR trip going there in November. And I would still love to go to Den Haag to see one of my favorite paintings, Vermeer's "The Girl With the Pearl Earring".

Trip reports and photos are forthcoming (I used up nearly 2 memory cards). I've been to a couple of these places before: Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Venice, but there were a few new-to-me places: Berchtesgaden, Schwangau (Neuschwanstein Castle), Innsbruck, Vipiteno (Sterzing) and Bressanone (Brixen) Italy, and Oktoberfest (sadly, no actual sightseeing in Munich, as I couldn't care less about beer and that whole Oktoberfest thing).

Some parts of this trip were fraught with disaster (if you also read my Live Journal, you have seen some posts about this). But it's the kind of stuff that I can look on someday and laugh's all part of what makes travel so interesting. Of course, you can't expect everything to go smoothly. And you learn from all the things that go wrong. It only helps you become more organized and makes you a better traveler.

Before I get into the trip reports, just a run-down of a few companies we dealt with:

Germanwings and TUIfly: I've talked about them before briefly. All of these low-cost airlines are more or less the same (although I hear more complaints about Ryanair than anything else), but I very much liked the service we got from both of these airlines. TUIfly was the best of the two though. Even though our flight was delayed out of Venice on TUIfly (they had to change a tire on our jet prior to its departure for Venice), they offered the best service, and gave us free chocolates and gum on the flight. And we got a good laugh from the air sick bags that had a smiley face on them (the TUIfly logo) and the words "Take it with a smile." My sister-in-law took one for a souvenir. Hehe. If TUIfly is unfamiliar to you, it's because it's relatively new. It used to operate under the Hapag-Lloyd name.

Edelweiss Lodge and Resort: Of course, most GK-area folks who have been out to Garmisch have stayed here. If you haven't, it will serve your purposes just fine while you're in Garmisch. We stayed there mainly to take the day trips that they offer through Alpine Adventures (you can only take these trips if you're staying at Edelweiss). I thought the bed was horribly uncomfortable though (especially the pillows) and we could not control the temperature in our room and the room was too hot. The muzak in the hallways and public areas grated on my nerves (and was loud enough to hear in our room)...I heard other people complain about it too, so it wasn't just me.

I loved that Edelweiss had a laundry room (very important, considering the length of our stay), but it's usually very busy, so be prepared to wait! Also, Alpine Adventures has a nice store. My sunglasses broke the day we were in Innsbruck, and instead of buying another pair at the shop there, I managed to find an eyeglass repair kit that they had in stock. Sunglasses fixed!

As far as eating at the Edelweiss, I'd advise against it. Zuggy's Base Camp is merely average. We ate at the buffet on Bavarian night (why is that even necessary when the town is filled with Bavarian restaurants?) and the food was okay, but not nearly as good as the authentic stuff. Breakfast is not included in your room rate, so bring some extra can eat at the buffet or at the snack bar (the Starbucks place), but the costs add up quickly.

As far as the tours...these were actually pretty good. The tour guides were great (especially Andrea; she was AWESOME and so much fun...we had her twice as our tour guide) - knowledgeable and organized - and they also offer a bit of flexibility (we drove through Oberammergau on one tour, for example, just because it was wasn't part of the itinerary).

Edelweiss runs a special Oktoberfest shuttle - no tour guide, just dropping you off there and picking you up - which I would only recommend if you REALLY REALLY must go to Oktoberfest. Just be prepared to spend the trip home dealing with very drunk and possibly sick people (a preview to my Oktoberfest trip report).

Hotel Cristallo - Lido de Venezia: Staying on the Venetian island of Lido was about half the price of what we would pay to stay on the mainland. We just got 72-hour vaporetto (water bus) tickets in order to get around. The hotel is a 2 star - pretty basic. Very clean (beds and pillows are kind of firm though), friendly staff, nice breakfast spread (included in the price). Two nights in a spacious triple room (double bed and one trundle bed) was 240 euros. Split 3 ways, it's not bad at all. When we checked out, they allowed us to keep our luggage in the lobby for several hours while we went sightseeing, and since it was raining, they allowed me to borrow one of their umbrellas (which was destroyed by wind, but we bought a new one to replace it).

Lido is pretty touristy, but it has a beach you can enjoy in hot weather. Plenty of restaurants and shopping there too. Visit the bakery in the same building as Hotel Cristallo. Best. Tiramisu. Ever. Just try to look past the fact that the staff there is kind of rude.

By the way, I found this hotel via, which is a nice hotel booking service. I thought the reviews of Cristallo on the site were pretty spot on.

Vaporetto (ACTV): the cheapest way to get public transportation around Venice, as cars are not allowed in the city. If you get seasick, don't bother. The boats are old and rusty, although they seem to work well. They are kind of slow, and the crew will sometimes change routes on you without warning, which is how we ended up on our way to Murano one night when we were trying to get back to Lido from the mainland. So we were taken out of our way quite a bit and wasted a bit of time. I wouldn't advise you to ONLY stay on the mainland though...Venice's islands have a lot of offer. The routes are pretty easy to figure out, and unless you like pounding a lot of pavement, the vaporetto is a good way to get around the Grand Canal (although I still prefer walking).

Venice Walks & Tours (Avventure Bellissime): picked up a brochure for this in the lobby at our hotel. Apparently recommended by Rick Steves, Lonely Planet, and a variety of other reputable people and companies. Well, we didn't like it. Our tour guide was difficult to hear and his microphone kept crapping out. The tour occurred during high tide, which limited public access to St. Mark's Basilica (the highlight of the tour), so we couldn't even go in, even though the brochure advertises that the tour takes you past all the queues waiting to get in (we were given the option of waiting in a very long queue and doing the tour in there, or skipping it altogether...we all agreed to skip it and go back later on our own). The rest of the tour didn't really take us anywhere, except the square where Marco Polo lived and the Rialto Bridge (which can be easily found without a tour guide). Big thumbs down from me. There is a variety of other tour companies operating in Venice.


I am so excited at the moment, I can barely contain myself.

Okay, some of you who know me know about the project that I've been working on over the past 6 months. The project is for, which had Frommer's travel guides on their site and decided that they wanted their own original travel guides. And thus, they hired a team of writers.

Including yours truly.

And now, after 6 months of work...some of my travel guides are finally on the site!!! Eeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!! I am so so freaking excited! This is by far the largest writing project I have worked on since becoming a professional writer, and the people at SideStep are absolutely fabulous to work with.

Anyway, here are a couple my guides. I'll add more as they appear on the site. These two were written in the early days of this project - Berlin was actually my first assignment for them. Hopefully you can use them for planning your trips and you find them helpful.



Sunday, September 16, 2007


My sister-in-law is visiting and today is her first full day here. We leave for Bavaria in the morning. She decided that she wanted to go to Maastricht today, since it wasn't far away.

Of course, I've been there at least half a dozen times, but I did a couple things today that were new even for me.

St. Pietersberg Caves Tour
If you don't mind a good walk, I would highly suggest walking to the St. Pietersberg caves, which are just outside of town. If you stop at the VVV first, they will show you a map so you can see where it is...or follow the signs for "Grotten Noord". It took us about half an hour to walk there.

If you don't want to walk, you can also take a boat there.

Anyway, English tours are offered at 2:00 PM. We got there a little early. So we went to the cafe at the midget golf place nearby. It was okay...your standard Dutch fare. I had kroketten with fries (I intended to share with my sister-in-law, but she took one bite of the kroketten and decided she didn't care for it)...Lance had pannekoeken.

St. Pietersberg also has a fort. I don't think we could explore that today. It looked like the fort was closed.

We purchased tickets for the cave tour, and I thought that was well worth it. It was about an hour. If you've been to the Valkenburg caves, you might like the ones in Valkenburg better. St. Pietersberg doesn't have as much art. But it's interesting all the same.

My least favorite part of the tour was when our tour guide left us alone in pitch blackness and told us to keep our right hands on the cave wall and just walk for 2 minutes until we found her again. I was trying to stay calm, but everything in me wanted to panic. Once we could see some light again, I realized that I had actually gotten way behind the person in front of me (and Kim and Lance were behind me and we linked ourselves together - Kim had her left hand on my shoulder, and Lance had his hand on her was literally the blind leading the blind).

Anyway, that particular part of the tour is optional. I would recommend the tour overall.

Maas River Cruise

You can opt to take a Maas River Cruise if you want, but be careful which one you take. We took the 50 minute round-trip Maas River cruise, and I was unimpressed. Once you actually leave Maastricht's city center, there isn't much to see. And in our case, there were several kids who were running amok and screaming at the tops of their lungs and being generally annoying, and their parents were choosing to ignore them. So that spoiled the entire experience for us.

If we had had the time, I would've done the cruise to Liege. There are several different cruises offered. If you have the time, do one of the longer ones. The 50 minute one just isn't worth it.

Anyway, we're leaving for Bavaria in the morning: Garmisch, Berchtesgaden, Neuschwanstein, Munich (Oktoberfest), Innsbruck (Austria) and Brixen/Vipiteno (Italy)...we'll follow this up with a 3 day trip to Venice.

Longer trip report to come. And photos too, of course.

Friday, September 7, 2007

A Small Confession

This should hardly come as a surprise to some of you, but I haven't been keeping this blog just for fun.

In some ways, it has performed a public service, since people have told me that they've used the advice that I've given here, and it's helped them. And that's good. And that's what keeps me motivated to make these posts, especially when I'm exhausted and just plain don't feel like it (all the posts about the cruise in particular were extremely time-consuming and tedious, so thanks to those of you who let me know that you actually read them).

But I digress. The main reason for this blog? Well, these are rough notes for the book I hope to write about my experiences here in Germany.

Surprised? Probably not, if you know me.

Now that we have only 3 more months to go, I've been reflecting a lot on my time here - particularly those first months when my world felt so confusing and out of sorts - and how these experiences have changed and shaped me over the past 4 years.

Those of you who have been following my Live Journal should by now have figured out the working title for this book. It was the title of my Live Journal until very recently, and it's been there right before your eyes all this time.

Losing America, Finding Myself: Adventures of an American Living Abroad

As for when I'm actually going to start compiling these notes into something resembling a book - well, that is yet to be determined. In order for me to write about a place, I generally have to be far removed from it. Once I feel distanced from Germany physically and emotionally, I think I can start putting everything together.

This blog has also allowed me to determine if there is an audience for my words. And yes, I guess there is (despite the few comments I actually get on Blogger itself, I get a fair amount on Live Journal and in emails). I've gotten so much encouragement to put my experiences together into a book, even though that was pretty much my plan all along.

Will it sell? Gee, I don't know. I'm not THAT confident, although I obviously think I have *some* writing talent, or I wouldn't have bothered to keep this blog and spend so much time on it.

There is a market out there for these types of books. I should know. I read them. I *AM* part of the market for these types of books. In fact, at this moment I am reading Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month is Enchanted, by Annie Hawes. It's research, I guess.

The difference is, a lot of these books tend to focus on one place. And while I have spent the majority of my time in Germany, obviously, the book won't just be about that. It will be about my travels in general, with an emphasis on Germany as home. some of you are probably wondering what ever happened to the novel that I started.

It still exists. And I have every intention of finishing it...someday. But this book, this memoir, just happens to be the book I want to write first. And hey, I've already been working on it for almost 4 years!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

TUIfly Update

I mentioned in my last post that we had a little issue with our airline bookings on Germanwings and TUIfly. Well, we resolved things just fine with Germanwings, but we were awaiting a response from TUIfly.

We waited long enough, methinks. So Lance just called them.

Well, it's all fixed. TUIfly resolved the issue for us this evening, and we only paid for the cost of the phone call.

Great customer service!!

However, let this be a cautionary tale - ALWAYS BOOK PLANE TICKETS IN A NAME THAT MATCHES WHAT IS ON THE PASSPORT!!! We were lucky, because we didn't have to pay for the mistake. Other airlines are not so nice.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Itinerant Writer's Seal of Approval

Not that my opinion counts for anything, but I have to give a shout out to Germanwings. They did Lance and I a tremendous favor this evening.

See, Lance's sister is coming to visit in 2 weeks. We're spending a week down at Garmisch, where we'll use that as a base for sightseeing in the Bavarian Alps, Austria, and Italy. Then we'll fly from Munich to Venice. Then from Venice back up here to NRW (Cologne-Bonn, to be specific). This involves a lot of airline bookings, train tickets, etc. etc.

(Apropos of nothing, but we'll finally be making our way to Munich just in time for Oktoberfest.)

Anyway, we have a Germanwings booking from Cologne to Munich. Then we fly TUIfly from Munich to Venice. Then TUIfly again from Venice to Cologne.

Lance made the bookings several weeks ago. Only now did he realize that he booked his sister's plane tickets under the shortened version of her name, rather than her full name.

Of course, this happens. It's a common mistake to make, and most airlines aren't very forgiving. If you call to change, they'll generally charge you a fee or penalty. Sometimes they'll even make you rebook the ticket and pay the full fare.

But we got lucky with Germanwings. They didn't charge us. Lance called them (at a UK phone number, so he could speak to an English-speaking operator), and not only did he immediately get a customer service rep., but he was done with the call in less than 5 minutes. It could not have been easier, and they could not have been more courteous.

TUIfly has been contacted (via email, as we're hoping to resolve this issue through that means). But we have yet to hear back from them. I'll let you know what happens with them.

For now, I only have good things to say about Germanwings.

Out of all the low-cost airlines I have flown, Germanwings, Air Berlin and Easy Jet have earned my enthusiastic endorsement.