Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Mountains and the Sea

Saturday, October 27, 2007

It doesn't really matter where you are in the Seattle area, on a good weather day, you can see Mt. Rainier looming over everything. At over 14,000 feet, it's rather formidable, and certainly the highest mountain I've ever seen. But let's also not forget that it's an active volcano.

We admired Mt. Rainier from afar on a few occasions during our whirlwind week of house hunting. We had some downtime on Saturday, so we decided to give it a closer look. Lance plugged Mt. Rainier National Park into his tomtom GPS, and off we went in our rented Subaru Forester. From McChord AFB, it was less than 2 hours.

It's a nice drive, which takes you past scenic overlooks (none of which we stopped at, unfortunately), a petrified forest, and adorable little backwoods towns. One of these towns is Elbe, where we stopped for a couple of photo ops.

As much as I don't relish spending time in cars, I actually very much enjoyed this drive. There is a lot to see. But we finally arrived at Mt. Rainier National Park. It's $15 per car to get in, or you can buy a yearly pass for $30 (which we will probably do next time we go.) The $15 pass gets you admittance for a week. (We asked, but they don't offer military discounts.)

The park ranger gave us a map, which revealed to me that the park is much more massive than I imagined. He told us that we could only go as far as Paradise, which is maybe 1/4 of the way through the park. But that was okay, because we hadn't planned on making an entire day of it. We just wanted to spend a couple of hours. And it took about that long to make it out to Paradise and back, stopping at a few other points along the way. Since we hadn't planned on doing any sightseeing at all during this trip, we didn't exactly pack hiking boots and appropriate outdoors gear.

I can tell you that if you're just there for a picnic, it's a great place to do it. We didn't picnic there (although we did eat at the grill restaurant at the visitors' center), but there are plenty of scenic areas to enjoy al fresco eating. And it should go without saying that there are numerous hiking trails of various lengths and difficulty levels. You can camp, if you like roughing it...but there are also several inns within the park's borders, if you prefer more civilized accommodation.

It actually took us about an hour or so to drive to Paradise (stopping at a waterfall and a couple of scenic overlooks on the way). The visitors' center there is one of the two main ones in the park, and it was packed. It took us ages to find a parking spot, and we almost gave up. But persistence pays off. One finally came available, and we parked and went inside.

There, you will find a bookstore/gift shop, an expensive grill/snack bar with surprisingly good cheeseburgers, and a museum. We spent roughly an hour there. I bought a postcard at the bookstore, and was surprised to see the woman behind the counter wearing an Ohio State shirt. So I asked her where she was from, and she said she relocated to Washington from Worthington, OH!! That's very close to where I'm from (it's all the Columbus area, anyway). So we chatted about what a small world it was and talked about the Ohio State Buckeyes for a bit. It was really a thrill to meet someone from my hometown there in Washington.

But I digress...

After we got a thorough look around Paradise, we decided to call it a day. It still took some time yet for us to get out of the park, so our total time there was about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

And we got back to McChord just in time to stop at the commissary for items to make dinner (our lodgings while we were there were basically like a 1 bedroom apartment) and watch Ohio State pound Penn State...woohoo!! :)


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Again, we had most of the day free, so we decided to explore some sights along Puget Sound. Lance talked to our real estate agent that day, who recommended some specific areas. So from Tacoma, we made our way out to Dash Point State Park, a park that really isn't that far from where we will be living. But we took the scenic route to get there, which was nice, and got to look at some of the real estate along the Sound...yowza! I can't even imagine how much those homes cost, even the ones that are in really poor shape. The view is incredible!

We got to Dash Point, which doesn't seem to have much to it except for picnic areas and a small, but rather nice beach that has an amazing view. There is a little stream flowing through the park that runs over the beach and into the ocean. This was, believe it or not, my first up close look at the Pacific.

We didn't stay there long. We hopped back in the car and drove up to the town of Des Moines (where we had some houses picked out, but never made it there to look at them). Des Moines is a nice little town, but most of the houses there are under the flight path of SeaTac Airport (guess we dodged that bullet, didn't we?). By the way, locals pronounced Des Moines with an S at the end, not like the Des Moines in Iowa. Des Moines has a public marina with a long fishing pier. So we stopped there to take in the views.

At that was it for our tour of Puget Sound. We were fortunate in that the weather was so nice during our entire stay in Washington, except for one day when the weather was very typical of the area. We had especially nice weather on the weekend for our two sightseeing excursions.

Anyway, we both really like what we see so far of Washington state, and we expect to live there quite contentedly. Everyone is so friendly, the scenery is beautiful, and I love both the mountains and the ocean, so I'm getting the best of both worlds.

For pictures,
click here!

Getting Acquainted with Kent (Washington, That Is)

This is the first of what is to be several Pacific Northwest posts. We just returned from a house hunting trip to the Seattle area, where we managed to find and buy a house in the span of about 3 days. Our house is located in Kent, a southeast suburb of Seattle. And we spent most of our time in the city of Kent. So first, a few tidbits about this city, before I post about some more touristy things in Washington state...

Kent is undergoing a renaissance. The downtown area is being revitalized, although you still see a fair number of older, more run-down buildings along with the new. So far, some of my favorite places:

* Kent Station: this is where one catches the commuter rail into Seattle. But it's not just a rail station, it's also a large, upscale shopping and dining center. Our realtor (Coldwell Banker Bain) has an office here, which is why we spent so much time here. But we got well-acquainted with a lot of Kent Station's offerings, including Panera Bread (our "office," since we made frequent use of their free WiFi), Pizzeria Fondi (the most awesome pizza I have ever tasted, hand-tossed crust and baked in a brick oven…they even make their own mozzarella cheese!), and See's Candies (free samples!). We also ate at the Johnny Rockets here. There is an AMC Theater as well, although sadly, we had no time for the movies. The main thing missing from Kent Station (and from Kent in general) is a large bookstore. But since there is still a lot of unoccupied space in Kent Station, I will bet every euro in my wallet that a Borders or Barnes & Noble will be occupying one of those spaces within the next few years. It would be a crying shame if Kent Station didn't have a bookstore (Kent has small, independently owned ones, but I refer to a huge, well-known bookstore). (Incidently, it also lacks a Starbucks, but there is one right down the street...and who needs it when you can get the same drinks at Panera?)

Kent Station -
Pizzeria Fondi -
See's Candies -

And I want to thank the awesome people at Panera Bread who saw us pretty much every day while we were there. One employee was sweet enough to give me extra chai because she made too much and another employee gave me 3 stamps on my espresso club card, because I got the card on our last visit there and hadn't gotten credit for all the previous chai I ordered.

* Paolo's Italian Restaurant: Kent has a VAST number of Mexican and Asian restaurants and pizza joints, but we were hard pressed to find an Italian place amongst them. While getting acquainted with our new neighborhood on East Hill, we happened upon this place right around lunch time. And boy, are we glad we did! The food is really fresh and tasty. Lance had lasagna and I had the "Fettuccine Paolo," which is fettuccine noodles tossed with chicken, artichoke hearts, bell pepper and sundried tomatoes, coated in a sauce of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and herbs. And don't get me started on their desserts. My lemon cheesecake was insanely good and Lance had the chocolate mousse pie, which was amazing. And the service was exceptional. Paolo's will become one of our favorite places to eat out. The atmosphere is laidback, but the food just knocks you out! I was impressed in every way.

* Chair & Trellis (or what should be called "Look at the Pretty!"): This store right across from Kent Station caught my eye, but we couldn't go in for the first several days we were there because it was closed while they decorated the store for Christmas. But last Friday, it reopened, and we went inside. So much gorgeous in one place! It's like a Pier 1 or a World Market, although quite a bit more upscale. They have furniture, decor, candles, bath stuff, linens...just a huge potpourri of pretty for you and your home. Granted, it's not cheap stuff. But it's a fun place to browse, and it smells nice.

* Stupid Prices: Honestly, I'm joking about this being one of my favorite places, but I'm not joking about it being real. There really is a chain of stores up there called Stupid Prices. It's hilarious, and we happened to drive by one on our first full day there…our real estate broker went past it as he was taking us around to show us houses. The banner hanging outside said something about no sales tax, but that's not really true…the sales tax is included in the price (just like here in Europe). So what you see on the price tag is exactly what you pay. It's like a Big Lots, but the prices didn't seem all that stupid…they were about on par with what you'd pay at other stores for similar items. We went there to look at appliances for the house, but Home Depot has a better selection, and they deliver and install. And the prices are about the same.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Day Trip to Delft

(Note: I originally wrote this short piece for the American Newsletter that's published by the Airman & Family Readiness Center on base. They have asked me several times to contribute articles to them, so when I have the time, I do a quick write-up. This one was never used, so I'm posting it here.)

A Day Trip to Delft

Those of you who have traveled around the Netherlands have surely seen copious quantities of blue and white Delftware in nearly every souvenir shop. While some of that stuff is decidedly not genuine Delft, there are still plenty of places where you can get the real thing. Obviously, the best place to do that is in the town of Delft itself. I feel that it's very much worth the trip, as it's one of the prettiest towns I have seen yet in Holland. It seemed like a quieter, more provincial version of Amsterdam.

I recently accompanied my aunt and cousins on a day trip to this town. My aunt, an artist, was much more interested in Johannes Vermeer - the famous Delft painter who rendered "Girl with a Pearl Earring" - than she was in blue and white porcelain. My cousins, having only seen Delftware in photos, thought it looked pretty staid and boring, and didn't know what treasures would unfold on this trip. We were all pleasantly surprised, not just at the variety of Delftware, but at the city of Delft itself.

The first thing that greeted us when we entered the town was pretty music from the carillon bells at the Nieuwe Kerk, which is located in the market square. While we didn't visit this church (we opted to visit the Oude Kerk in order to see Vermeer's grave), I know that William of Orange's crypt is in the Nieuwe Kerk, which is the main attraction. You can also climb the tower to get panoramic views of the city.

As I said, we skipped the Nieuwe Kerk in favor of seeing Vermeer's grave at the Oude Kerk. There are over six hundred people buried under the church floor, so you're likely to walk on graves (something I really hate doing, but could not be avoided), but the church is definitely worth exploring. Vermeer's grave seems unworthy of him, as it's only engraved with his name and year of birth and death. But as with most artists, his fame came long after he departed this Earth.

After our visit to the Oude Kerk, we continued our search for Vermeer. Unfortunately, none of his paintings are still in Delft (at least to my knowledge). You can go to nearby Den Haag to see two of his most famous paintings (including the aforementioned "Girl with a Pearl Earring"). But Delft just recently opened The Vermeer Center, an interactive museum located in the building that once housed his painters' guild, where you can learn what little is known about his life and work. This museum is so new that they were still working on it when we visited, but I'm sure it's probably completed by now. It gives you a good idea of what life in 17th century Delft was like, and you also learn about some of Vermeer's contemporaries. Facsimiles of his paintings are all lined up next to each other, and you can begin to see some interesting similarities between them.

Since we were in Delft, we also had to spend some time looking at Delftware. It's hard to know where to look, because there are just so many places to buy it. Here's a tip though: do not buy it at the two main factories! They have a special agreement with tour companies and they mark up their prices and give tour companies a commission for bringing people. If you still want to see how Delftware is made, by all means, visit those factories, but there are two smaller places in the center of town where you can also see how Delftware is made without any pressure to buy anything. These are De Candelaer and De Blauwe Tulp, which are right next to each other on Kerkstraat (close to the Markt). We talked to painters at both of these places, and they told us about how they got started painting Delft pottery, and also explained the differences in genuine Delftware and the cheap knock-offs.

I already own a few pieces of Delftware (both the real thing and the cheap stuff), but my aunt and cousins don't have any, and they were fascinated by the variety of products, designs, and colors (yes, colors - they don't just paint it all in blue). They got a bit carried away in the shops. As my cousins discovered, Delftware is hardly staid and boring! It can actually be very beautiful and intricate, and it's generally priced according to how difficult the piece is to paint. I bought a tiny hand-painted trinket box with "Girl With a Pearl Earring" on the lid. Vermeer and Delftware - the best of both worlds!

Further Suggestions for Your Trip to Delft:

- Eat lunch at Leonidas Lunch Tea-Room. This is the same Leonidas of Belgian chocolate fame (and they do have a chocolate shop right next door). You can get very hearty and tasty meals at very reasonable prices here. I got a bowl of soup and a huge sandwich (it was definitely enough food for 2 people) for less than 7 euros (FYI: they do have English menus, so be sure to ask for them). We ate inside since it was chilly that day, but they have sidewalk seating as well as a beautiful private garden in the back (which is where we would have eaten, if the weather had been better). The only complaint I have about this place is they had a poor selection of tea, which is disappointing, since it is a tea-room. But none of us had complaints about the food.
Address: Choorstraat 24 - in the vicinity of the town hall

- Visit the Prinsenhof Museum. If time would have permitted, we would've stopped here for a visit. It was originally built as a convent in the 14th century. William of Orange lived here from 1572 until 1584, when his life ended with an assassin's bullet (you can still see the bullet holes in the stairwell). The museum now houses objets d'art, as well as focusing on the history behind the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Stepping on my soapbox

This is my 100th post, and it's appropriate, I think, because this post is important. This post isn't about travel. This is about a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and a cause for which I get up on my soapbox many times.

And I dedicate this post to my late friend, Sherry, who died on this date at the age of 14.

When I was 14, my best friend was Sherry Payne. She desperately needed a heart and lung transplant, and was on the waiting list for a very long time. When I first met her, she was still relatively healthy and could live an almost normal life. Starting in 8th grade, she got increasingly ill. She could still go to school, but was not allowed to climb up or down stairs. So everyday, her father would carry her up the stairs at school to where the classes were. My friends and I would bring her a tray of food at lunch and we had special permission to sit upstairs with her in one of the classrooms and eat our lunches.

The summer before high school, she got worse.

She died before she ever got those healthy organs that she needed. She was fourteen.


No high school. No driver's license. No prom. Her last days were spent confined to her house, as she was too sick to go anywhere and do normal teenage things.

I remember the day I found out about her death - October 10, 1989. My friend Tracey came up to me while I was at my locker getting my books. When she told me the news, I didn't believe her. I told her that she was a rotten liar. And then she began to cry. I just remember that small group of us, those who were close to her, huddling around each other all day at school and crying.

Her funeral was one of the worst days of my life. How do you confront mortality when you're 14? How is it even possible to think about death when you haven't yet lived?

The first thing I did after I got my driver's license a couple of years later was sign up to be an organ donor.

If you aren't already an organ donor, please consider becoming one. Giving the gift of life is the most precious and selfless act you can do.

For more information, visit:
(Look at the number on the waiting list. It's very sobering to think about.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Venice Redux

Many of you know that I photographed and wrote about Venice to death back in March of last year, when I was there at Carnival and had an assignment to write about it for Connection magazine (yes, that monthly publication put out by US Army Germany). Therefore, I really don't feel like going into great detail here, and I don't even have that many photos this time.


Monday, Sept. 24

We arrived at Marco Polo airport around noon. Having traveled through Treviso previously, I was unfamiliar with the logistics of getting into Venice from this airport. We needed vaporetto tickets anyway, so we bought 72 hour passes, and then were told to take the #5 bus to Piazzale Roma. From there, we got on the vaporetto and went out to the island of Lido, where we were staying.

Once we arrived at Lido, we had a bit of difficulty finding our hotel. Seems the hotel wasn't as close to the vaporetto station as we were led to believe. It was a 5 minute walk...not bad without luggage, but not pleasant when you have it. But we eventually found it and had no trouble checking in. Luggage was schlepped to the 2nd floor, which is actually the 3rd floor by US standards. There was an elevator, but it was one of those old, scary looking ones.

We rested a bit, and then went out in search of provisions. Lance stayed in the room, but my SIL and I went to a shop down the street and got panini. I got Lance a salami and cheese. For myself, I got bacon and brie on olive bread (it wasn't conventional bacon...more like dried prosciutto). We took the food back to our room and ate.

The decision was made not to go to mainland Venice that day. We just wanted to relax a bit and explore Lido. So we walked around and checked out the beach and other parts of the island, and I seem to remember us ending up back in the room late in the afternoon, where I dozed off for a bit. We had been up very early, since we had a train from Garmisch to Munich, and then our flight.

After the nap, we went to a restaurant down the street that we had discovered earlier. Dinner was okay there...good, but not fantastic. I had an eggplant pizza. SIL and I shared a bit of wine and got pretty happy. We went to another place later on for gelato, and then ended up sitting out with some more wine (I found that I kind of like Pinot Grigio). It was a pretty nice evening. And the weather was just gorgeous.

Tuesday, Sept. 25

Lance and I went down to the breakfast room and found a nice spread. We had a fairly leisurely morning. I booked us on a walking tour of Venice, but it wasn't supposed to start until 11. We were on the vaporetto before 10 and at the royal gardens, where the tour started. We just relaxed in the gardens for a bit. We knew the day ahead would be busy, and we were in no hurry.

The tour started shortly after 11 and lasted about 2 hours. It wasn't good, for reasons I stated in an earlier post. The highlight was supposed to be the basilica, and we never even went inside. And the walk didn't seem to really take us anywhere else, except Rialto Bridge. And the crowds made it difficult to stay with the group.

After the tour, we stayed in the Rialto Bridge area and decided to grab some lunch. We were just looking around for places to eat, and just got pulled into one without really wanting to. The menu prices were obscene, and we were actually just looking at the menu, but the waiter practically grabbed Lance and pulled him inside, and we followed. Once we were seated, I asked if we should stay. I had my reservations due to the high prices and the forceful ways of the waiter. But the decision was made to stay there. It was here that I had one of the most horrible meals of my life. No lie. And I felt very nauseous all day afterwards. Lance and his sister said their meals were okay. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant, so I could tell you all to avoid it. It had signs all around it that said "Casa della pizza" and "Casa della lasagne" if you see those signs AVOID THE RESTAURANT (if the waiters don't see you and accost you first). And I won't even mention the absolutely disgusting restroom there. Oh wait, I just did.

The afternoon was spent in Piazza San Marco. By the time we finished lunch, getting into the basilica was much easier and faster than it had been in the morning (it was high tide in the morning, which closes off two of the entrances). So we visited that and spent an extra 3 euros to go up to the loggia. Well worth it for the views and to see some of the old artifacts associated with the basilica, including the original 4 horses that were once confiscated by Napoleon. Reproductions of the horses grace the outside of the basilica now.

I skipped the Doge's Palace (having been there before), so while Lance and SIL were there, I went across the piazza to the Correr Museum. It was disappointing, to say the least, and took half an hour to walk through. It's connected to the Archaeological Museum though, so if you're going to see that anyway (and I also found that disappointing), then you might as well just see both. Your ticket pays for both anyway (and also covers the Doge's Palace and the Library of St. Mark). We all planned to go to the Archaeological Museum together, so I skipped that and tried to get in to see the Library of St. Mark. It was closed.

I met up with Lance and his sis an hour after we parted ways, and we went to the Archaeological Museum. I was almost denied entrance, because they scanned my ticket when I went into the Correr Museum. So I had to explain to the woman that I was going there to see the other museum. She reluctantly let me in.

Anyway, let me recap: Correr Museum - not really worth your time. Archaeological Museum - ditto. Library - I wouldn't know. Doge's Palace - one of the major attractions in Venice, so you better go there. Same for St. Mark's.

We needed a break after all this museum hopping, so we grabbed gelato (what else?) and relaxed in the square for a bit.

The rest of the day is kind of a blur. I remember taking the vaporetto back to Lido because it was getting a bit chilly and I didn't have a jacket. We spent a short time at the hotel and then went back into Venice, but took the vaporetto that went all the way down the Grand Canal, and then got off at the train station. We had dinner in that area...a place next to where I had lunch my first time in Venice. I just had a cheese omelette since my stomach was still tentative. Afterwards, we got on the vaporetto to go back to Lido, but the route changed after we got on and we were practically out to Murano before we realized it. We had to backtrack and get on a different vaporetto. Good thing we didn't have any particular agenda.

Wednesday, Sept. 26

Overnight thunderstorms woke me up around 6, and they never really let up. We hung out in the hotel until it was almost checkout time. Our flight didn't even leave Venice until 9 PM. We checked out, left our luggage in the lobby, and ventured out in the wind and rain. Once we reached Venice, we just spent our time ducking into shops. We had lunch at a place near the train station. We basically stayed out until we couldn't stand it anymore, and then went back to Lido for dessert, went back to the hotel to pick up our stuff, paid for a ticket to ride the special boat out to the airport, walked about 7 minutes to get to the airport, and then spent the rest of our day there.

Marco Polo airport sucks until you get past the security checkpoints. There is nothing to do before that point. Everyone was at the cafeteria-style restaurant, and we ate there too. They had American-style pizza (??), sandwiches, desserts, salads, and a few other things. While we were eating, they announced that check-in began for our flight, so we took care of that, got through security, and then found a nice variety of shops and food. Oh well. And our flight was delayed too, so we spent half a day at the damn airport.

So yeah...this trip to Venice...not stellar.

Anyway, I promised a handful of photos. Here they are...not my best work, but my previous pictures of Venice were some of my best photos ever.

Bier Hier...Das ist Oktoberfest!

Sunday, September 23

Okay, I admit it. I hate beer. Always have and probably always will. So why did I go to Oktoberfest? Well, it's just one of those things you HAVE to do if you're here in Germany. It's a requirement, or something.

That being said, it is HIGHLY overrated.

Our original plan was to get a Happy Weekend ticket on the Deustche Bahn and take a train from Garmisch into Munich. But we weren't sure where Oktoberfest actually was, and Edelweiss was offering shuttle service to and from for $20 per person. So we figured that was a better option. We booked the last 3 spots on the Sunday bus. It was destiny, so it seemed.

I was the lone one out when it came to seating, and since I knew the bus was full, I was anticipating sitting next to a stranger. Without going into too much detail about my seatmate, I will say that he was quite friendly and talkative on the drive to Munich, and the time passed quickly and pleasantly enough.

That changed, however. More on that later.

The bus dropped us off in the Oktoberfest parking lot. The driver gave us a stern warning not to come back drunk enough to throw up. He threatened us with the expense of cleaning and sanitizing the bus if that happened.

Essentially, Oktoberfest is like a state fair with huge beer tents. It's very expensive though...each ride is about 4-5 euros. Wow. And I can't see the logic in riding rides after drinking copious amounts of brew.

Also, the Oktoberfest grounds are nowhere near anything, as far as I could tell. My hopes of going off on my own to sightsee around Munich were dashed. Besides, we really only had about 5 hours or so anyway...not much time to do anything else.

Since this was opening weekend (the 2nd day, in fact), there was supposed to be a parade. We quickly found the parade route, since we were there early, and had a good view. There was a problem. First of all, it was warm and sunny. Secondly, the parade wasn't supposed to begin for another hour yet.

So by the time the parade started, I was already sunburned (and so was Lance) and my feet were starting to go numb.

So the parade started. And it went on...and on...FOR TWO SOLID HOURS. It was the parade that never ended. I swear to God, they had marching bands for EVERY SINGLE Bavarian town, no matter how big or small, in addition to groups from Italy and Croatia. And as the parade continued, the grounds swelled with people.

The parade was still continuing when we decided we had had more than enough. Lance wanted to go into the Paulaner tent to have a beer, and even though it wasn't far, we had difficulty even getting through the crush of humanity. But since it was around 1 pm, we also wanted to get food. So we went to a food stand first, where I got fish and chips and a lemonade, and Lance ordered 2 huge pretzels for himself and his sister.

We fought through the crowds to get to the beer tent, went in, and started looking for a place to sit. No luck. It was packed. We walked around the beer gardens outside. No luck there either. Finally, Lance decided to go inside and check again, and that's when I was stopped by security. They saw my lemonade and told me that no outside drinks were allowed in the beer tent.

So what were we to do? I told Lance and his sister to go have some beer. I would just go off on my own and meet back up with them at the bus for our departure.

(Don't try to stick drinks in your purse either...they check your bags. They are very adamant about this and kind of mean if they find illegal beverages on your person.)

So my question is - why sell outside drinks at all if they aren't allowed in the beer tents? How ridiculous. Perhaps you don't like beer, but your friends do. Are you just supposed to die of thirst while they sit around knocking back liter after liter? Also, they do sell food in the beer tents, so don't bother to get it outside. You can get pretzels, sandwiches, and cheese plates. I didn't notice if they sold any non-alcoholic beverages inside, but I saw nobody drinking anything other than beer.

Anyway... so off they went and off I went. I tried to eat my fish and chips as quickly as possible, and then, having accomplished that, tried to find a trash can. They are few and far between there. I spent quite a bit of time just doing that, particularly since the crowd was such that I could only take tiny baby steps.

Then I had to use the restroom. But since I wasn't allowed in the beer tents with my drink (the only places I could see that had any restrooms), I had to drain my And it was a huge bottle. I thought I was going to be sick drinking it all that fast. But I finished it, and I returned the bottle and got back 1 euro, and then I went into the beer tent.

No sign of Lance or his sister. It was just insanely packed inside. Everyone looked fairly sloshed and happy, though. More power to 'em.

Back outside afterwards, I walked around the fairway for a bit. Not very interesting if you're not riding rides. I bought some soft serve ice cream, as the day was really warm. Before meeting the bus, I went into the wine tent (yes, there was wine there...all is not lost if you are a fan of the grape!) and checked that out. Didn't drink any wine though. Wasn't in the mood. It is significantly less crowded in the wine tent, though.

Went out to the bus, where Lance and his sister were already waiting. They never did find a place to sit, so they never had any beer. Disappointing, since that's really why one goes to Oktoberfest.

No sign of my seatmate yet.

Finally he arrived. Staggering drunk. Oh no.

He joked that he had enough beer for both of us, and then promptly dozed off. I breathed a sigh of relief. But no. He suddenly sat bolt upright, leapt out of his seat, and ran off the bus to vomit.

Hooray. Of all the people who had to get drunk enough to puke, it had to be the guy sitting next to me! Am I lucky or what?

He came back on the bus with a plastic bag that the driver gave him, and then assured me that he thought it was over. I was neither comforted nor convinced by this assessment. Lance tried to get me to move to another seat, but since I thought the bus was fully occupied, I had nowhere to go.

Finally, the bus started up and headed towards Garmisch. I secretly prayed for it to be a puke-free trip. My seatmate (whom Lance started calling Mr. Pukey) fell asleep again and slumped over on me. I was in misery. Lance was trying to make me laugh (he was sitting in front of me and kept looking back at me and trying to make jokes and faces), but I was actually very angry at the whole situation.

A few minutes into the trip, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked behind me, and the girl sitting behind me (who was probably in her early teens) told me that she had a free seat next to her, and asked me if I wanted to sit with her.

Hallelujah! Sweet rescue!

(To be fair, Lance was about to suggest that I switch seats with him, because he was only beginning to realize the extent of my horror and disgust right before the girl asked me to sit with her. Besides, I would not have wished that on anyone, which is why I figured I would just suck it up and deal with it myself.)

Anyway, I explained to the girl that as much as I wanted to sit with her, my seatmate was asleep, and I couldn't wake him up to ask him to move out of my way so I could change seats. I was trying not to be rude to him (even though I thought it was extremely rude of him to get that drunk), but he woke up just then and scooted out of my way enough so that I could crawl over him and go back and sit with her. Her grandparents were sitting across the aisle and they whispered to me that they felt so bad, they just had to do something. I didn't even know there was a spare seat on the bus!

So I sat with them, right by the drunk people in the very back row of the bus, who were drunk enough to be jolly, but not drunk enough to be sick. I can't say it was the most pleasant bus trip I ever had, but it was significantly better than spending the entire trip sitting next to Mr. Pukey. (And one of the guys in the back of the bus offered to buy me a beer at Irish Pub that evening...uhm, no thanks.)

So yeah...that was my Oktoberfest experience. At least I can laugh about it someday. Maybe.

Now, for pictures...there are about 40 or so. I noticed that a lot of them look smudged...there must have been something on the lens. This might have happened when I was at Partnach Gorge, since the camera got really wet.

Click here

Monday, October 1, 2007

Innsbruck and South Tyrol (Italy)

Friday, September 21

Our drive to Innsbruck was pretty short...about an hour from Garmisch. It was a bright, clear day that promised to be warm. The drive down was pleasant enough...a lot of pretty scenery. There was some construction as we got closer to Innsbruck, and signs warned us as we were getting near it (the signs in Austria have faces...frowny faces as you get closer to the construction zones, smiley faces as you drive out of them).

The bus parked next to the royal gardens, and our only agenda in Innsbruck as a group was to visit the palace. So that's the first thing we did (no pictures were allowed inside, but videotaping is allowed). It was a nice palace. Not the nicest one we've seen by far, but worth the time.

After that, we wandered into town as a group for a bit...our guide pointed out a few things of interest. Then we were cut loose.

The three of us didn't do much after that. We shopped mostly (Lance discovered this fantastic Christmas store in the main square where we were able to add to our ornament collection). We ate (of course, I had to have some Sacher Torte...when in Austria and all...). And we visited Dom St. Jakob.

Our time there was fleeting. Shame, really, because Innsbruck is a beautiful city. I was glad to go, because one of my long-time online friends is from Innsbruck (Hi Dani!), although she's since moved to the States. I was glad to finally see her hometown. (Hon, I hope my pictures don't make you too homesick!)

We got on the bus at our scheduled time, and drove up to the Olympic ski jump area, where we had fantastic views of the city. After about half an hour or so up there, we headed back toward Garmisch.

I would recommend the Innsbruck tour if you're staying at Edelweiss. Definitely a city worth checking out.

Saturday, September 22

This was the day I would finally return to Italy. Only, this area of Italy didn't look like the Italy I know. South Tyrol once belonged to Austria, so this area still has a mostly Austrian flavor. The main language is German. Restaurants serve schnitzel as well as lasagna. The buildings have a very Austrian/Bavarian look to them. But bits of Italian culture have crept in over time, so it's a nice blending of both cultures.

But before we got there, we had to drive through Austria. We took the same route that we had taken the day before to get to Innsbruck, but we passed Innsbruck and kept on going. We got to experience the Europa Bridge, which is the highest bridge in Europe, and probably the most scenic (also popular with bungee jumpers). We stopped at a rest stop on the way...a rest stop with a McDonald's that probably had the most beautiful view in the world (and this McD's had a pastry shop in it that sold the most amazing looking pastries). There was also an Austrian restaurant, convenience store and a chapel (because you can't go anywhere in Europe without having somewhere to stop every 5 minutes and pray). We had about half an hour to spend here, so I wandered around and got pictures of the scenery.

We arrived in Vipiteno (German name: Sterzing) about 2 hours after we left Garmisch. It was hard to tell we were in Italy at all, because nothing about the landscape or architecture changed. The first thing we did as a group was go to a shop called Mair Mair for a wine Italian is that? That was just a short diversion, but Mair Mair also has Italian leather goods and a gourmet food shop (dried pastas, seasonings, oils and sauces). So once we finished the wine tasting, we explored the shop a bit. And I was elated to find the most perfect travel purse in the world. Now that we're getting ready to leave... But I bought it anyway. It was only 15 euros. It had plenty of pockets, yet it wasn't big and bulky. It had a long enough strap to wear across my chest. And get this...THE PURSE HAS A ZIPPER GOING AROUND IT THAT YOU CAN UNZIP TO EXPAND THE MAIN COMPARTMENT! Like luggage. This was very useful to me later on.

Anyway, we had between 1-2 hours to explore Vipiteno on our own, which is actually more than enough time. So we exhausted everything there was to do there long before we had to be back on the bus. But all in all, it's a cute town, and I liked it there. If you go, visit the little church in the center of town...the Tourist Info Center is right next to it, so you might overlook it. But it's worth going in. It's tiny, but has really fascinating frescoes from floor to ceiling.

Once we got back on the bus, we drove a few minutes to Castle Reifenstein, from the 12th century. It's privately owned, but we were allowed to take a tour. Very neat. I didn't actually get a good photo of the entire was on the opposite side of the bus from where I was sitting, but I got pictures of parts of it as we went through it (except for the prettiest rooms, which were not photo-friendly).

Here's a photo of Reifenstein.

There was another castle nearby that I photographed, but it's closed to the public. The name of that one escapes me at the moment.

Anyway, we spent about an hour, maybe a bit longer, touring Reifenstein. Then we went down the road to a typical Alpine Gasthof for lunch (this is where the schnitzel and lasagna come into play). It was warm by now and we sat outside, enjoying the sunshine...but also a lot of bees that threatened to spoil our meal. We all had pasta, although I must say that my dish, though tasty, was kind of odd. I had macaroni with ham, meat sauce, mushrooms, and peas. The meat sauce and the peas were not mentioned on the menu. Too much meat in it. But it filled up my stomach, and that's what counts. Lance had their house speciality - lasagna - but said it was strange...not like the lasagna he has had before.

After lunch, we hopped back on the bus for the drive to Bressanone (German name: Brixen), which was about half an hour away. Brixen (as it's more commonly known) is famous for its Baroque cathedral, which is a pilgrimage site (this site has had a cathedral on it since the 9th century, but the current cathedral was built in the 18th century). The drive to Brixen was very pretty...passing vineyards and apple orchards everywhere along the way. We had a dramatic view of Brixen, which sits in a valley, from a road high up where we were stuck in traffic for a bit. But we made our way down into town, and to our surprise, there was a festival going on...added bonus!

I should say that normally, this tour out of Edelweiss stops in Brixen first, and more time is supposed to be spent there than in Vipiteno. But it being a Saturday, the itinerary was changed, because the shops in Brixen are normally closed on Saturdays, whereas Vipiteno has "Red Carpet Saturdays" (as you will see in my photos), where the shops are open all day, and a red carpet is rolled down the center of the street.

We had about an hour in Brixen. Not long enough. The town is much more beautiful than Vipiteno. And with the festival going on, there was certainly stuff to do. We visited the cathedral, which I liked a lot, but I was more impressed by the frescoes in its astonishing medieval courtyard. I had never seen anything like it.

All the while, we heard music coming from the stage set up in the town square.

The cathedral and courtyard were pretty much all we got to see there. We stopped for postcards and gelato, and to find a normal restroom (many of the restrooms there have squat toilets), and then we had to leave.

I would really recommend this tour. This area of Italy is often overlooked by tourists, which is a shame, because it's really beautiful. But perhaps being off the beaten path is what makes it so great, because the streets weren't clogged with people.

Pictures here...a little over 100 in this set. (Just some photo advice: all of the photos I took inside churches? Never once used flash. You don't need it unless it's very dark inside. Don't use it.) Also, a few of these pictures could use a bit more re-touching, but lack of time prevents me from doing that at the moment. I re-touched the ones that were really bad.