European Road Trip, August 2008

European Road Trip

August 9-23, 2008

Photo of Passport and Luggage Tag

Matt & Rebecca are touring Europe in our new BMW 335i. We plan to visit Munich, Venice, Vienna, Prague, and Carlsbad, then return to Bavaria for a few days, where will drop off the car for shipment home and fly back.

We will endeavor to provide daily updates and photos, so please check back frequently during the trip.

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Friday, August 22, 2008 7:07PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Munich, Germany

Last night after I wrote the blog post, we went to the hotel pool and spa. They had an indoor and outdoor pool, both of which had water levels up to ground level, giving them a cool overflowing effect. The outdoor pool was 35 degrees centigrade (approximately body temperature) and stays open all year. It also has an automatic glass door in the pool, so you get into the pool inside and as you swim toward the door it lets you out.

Then we had dinner at the hotel. Rebecca and I both had steaks with béarnaise sauce. The steaks were described as “steak of Irish beef” in the English menu translation, and I wasn’t successful in figuring out from the waiter what cut they were. We both were disappointed. The beef was clearly grass-fed—meaning it was mealy and dry. I don’t think the Irish will be dominating the beef business anytime soon. We woke this morning and headed back to Munich. Breakfast at the hotel was not included, and we declined to eat there at their price of €25 each ($40 US!) for a continental breakfast. Wow.

View from the balcony of our room in Berchtesgaden.
The drive back to Munich took a couple of hours, and we weren’t able to do any high-speed driving due to heavy traffic. We saw lots of folks headed to or from vacation. There were many cars towing camper trailers and quite a few with bicycles strapped to racks. Our first stop upon returning was the Olympiaplatz mall, where we went to Woolworth’s to buy an inexpensive piece of extra luggage. We were charged for excess weight on our luggage on the way over. We could have checked additional bags for no additional cost, however, so we plan to distribute the weight more on the way back. We found a cheap duffel bag that will serve our purpose. We strolled briefly through the mall to check it out, and we found it to be much like any American mall. The stores were different in terms of what they were called, but they had basically the same stuff—clothes, books, jewelry, etc.

German police car, a BMW 3 series station wagon.
Next we navigated to our hotel, the Munich Marriott Airport. This is not the same hotel we stayed in when we first arrived in Munich. That one was booked. I thought that since this one described itself with the name “airport,” it would be convenient for our flight tomorrow. I was mistaken. It is neither in the City of Munich nor near the airport. We will have to pay to take a shuttle in the morning to the airport, which is 20 minutes away. Oh well. We deposited our bags in our room, and cleaned everything out of the car. We had a quick lunch at the hotel, which by European standards meant it took 35 minutes. I temporarily parked the car in the underground garage beneath the hotel. Like most parking garages we have encountered in Europe, it was unattended. You pull a ticket upon entering, then use a vending machine, called a kassenautomat, to pay and validate your ticket before returning to your car.

Sign for our hotel, which is not near the airport.

Machine for validating your parking ticket.
We left the hotel and used the Garmin to navigate our way to a self-service car wash near the place we had to drop off the car. I got the address off of We used some of our remaining Euro coins to wash the car.

Sign for the car wash at the Shell station.

Matt washing the car before shipment.
Next, we drove over to E.H. Harms, the company which ships the cars over for BMW. We signed papers at the office, and then did a damage inspection of the car. Part of the European delivery deal is that they will repair any damage free of charge before giving you the car back in the U.S. We had none, but the attendant said about 60% of the cars come in with at least some minor damage. We removed the first aid kit and warning triangle from the trunk. These items come with the car, and they are required equipment in Germany, but for some obscure legal reason they won’t import them to the U.S. The only way to get them home is to take them and carry them with your luggage. We also removed the German front license plate as a souvenir. It will be 5-6 weeks before our car is redelivered in Charlottesville. We have reserved the hotel shuttle at 7:00 tomorrow morning and confirmed our flight. If all goes well this will be our last update from Europe. Thanks for reading.

Matt has a hard time saying goodbye.

Thursday, August 21, 2008 7:19PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Berchtesgaden, Germany

This morning we did a bit of shopping in Rothenberg, before it was overrun by tour buses. Rebecca visited a massive shop dedicated to German Christmas decorations. It also has a museum about Christmas decorations and traditions, telling when trees were first decorated, the evolution of ornaments, Christmas cards, etc. Meanwhile, I went to another place that specialized in cuckoo clocks and beer steins. We had our purchases shipped home, due to lack of capacity in our luggage and fears of breakage. We returned to our car and headed back to the highway for our drive to Berchtesgaden, in extreme Southwest Germany. We actually had to drive through Austria to get here. We again relied on our Garmin, which got us here without any trouble.

Our Cuckoo clock, made in the Black Forest.
On the way here we were hindered a bit by traffic, but we did manage to do a bit of high speed driving. I ran the car up to 145MPH on the speedometer a few times. Our Garmin, however, indicates that our maximum speed was 140MPH. I suspect that our speedometer, which measures from 0-160MPH, is optimized to give more accurate readings at lower speeds and is not reading accurately at the high end. The road up to the hotel was both beautiful and very curvy. It was fun driving the car through the hairpin curves, but I kept the speed down.

Our hotel is right next to the parking area for Kehlsteinhaus, which is known in English as Eagle’s Nest. This is a mountaintop building of surprisingly modest proportions which was built in 1938 as a birthday gift for Hitler. The Germans had an extensive compound of buildings down below in Ober Salzburg, which served as a sort of resort for Nazi officers. The term Eagle’s Nest seems to have been used generally by Allied forces to refer to the whole area. The rest of the buildings were torn down by the Bavarian government after the war, and as I understand it there wasn’t much left anyway after the RAF bombed it.

The Eagles Nest.

Rebecca on the mountain, next to Eagle’s Nest.
We arrived in time for the last bus of the day to the top. I was frankly disappointed. This place is incredibly beautiful, but the building itself was underwhelming. They charged us €15 each (about $24!) for the trip up and back, which was ridiculous, but we paid it because we didn’t know any better. We rode a bus up a 4km road to the top. Then we walked through a dank, dark (and "creepy" in Rebecca's words) tunnel into the mountain, where we took an elevator another 400’ to the house. I stepped off the tunnel and estimated it to be 164 yards. There is a restaurant up there that serves beer and German pub fare. We walked around the outside and took a few photos. Fog made panoramic landscapes difficult, but I did get a cool shot of our hotel from above, using the 300mm telephoto. There was also a big wooden cross erected at the top. There was no explanation and the inscribed dates 2003 and 1951 didn't seem to fit, but I guess I’m glad it's there. It made for a good photograph.

Intercontinental Resort Berchtesgaden, as seen from above.

Wooden cross on top of the mountain next to Eagle’s Nest.
We are staying at the Intercontinental Resort Berchtesgaden. It is a beautiful hotel in a beautiful location. Mountains surround us on three sides, and they mostly have exposed rock on top. There is no snow visible this time of year, but the place is full of ski areas that open in the winter. Tomorrow we head back to Munich to turn in the car for shipment home, and we will spend our final night in Europe in the Marriott at the Munich Airport.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 10:48PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Fussen, Bavaria, Germany

Today we got up and again had breakfast at the hotel. The weather was overcast and the temperature hung around 68°F or so. The rain held off, however. Our first stop after checking out of the hotel was to get some pictures of our car with Neschwanstein in the background. One of the resources I relied on heavily in planning this trip was the European delivery forum on This forum is a great resource not only for the process of ordering your car and picking it up in Munich, but for touring this part of Europe in general. Someone published a data file for a Garmin GPS with the exact location of a great spot for photographs outside of Fussen. I downloaded the file and loaded it onto our Garmin Nuvi 670. It worked great and within a few minutes we were in a prime location for some cool photos.

Our car with Neuschwanstein in the background.
We made our way to Autobahn A7 and headed North for Rothenburg ob der Tauber (designated as Rothenburg o.b.t. on the road signs). There are several other towns in Germany named Rothenburg, so I guess they need a way to distinguish between them. Rothenburg is a beautiful town that was a prosperous city and trade center during the 16th century and earlier. It has preserved much of its character from that period. The whole town is surrounded by a stone wall, which by my estimates is about 18” thick and 35’ high. There are several large churches, and most of the buildings are half-timbered, in the traditional German style. At the center of the town is the obligatory square, complete with a large, historic town hall, or Rathaus. The Rathaus also contains a large mechanical clock, with figures which play out a historical drama at regular intervals. Sound familiar?

Clock on the town hall in Rothenburg.

Detail of figure on clock  drinking wine to save city.
The central historical drama associated with Rothenburg is that the town became protestant during the Reformation in 1544. Its prosperity as a trading center was permanently ended by the Thirty Years war. As the story goes, the town was conquered by Catholics, and the town leaders attempted to convince the conquering general not to destroy it. The general responded that he would spare the town if a resident could consume a meistertrunk in a single drink. A meistertrunk (literally master drink in German) was a vessel containing 3.5 liters of wine. One man, a former mayor of the town, stepped up and accomplished this feat, and the town was saved. It allegedly took him days to recover. So, the clock portrays the general watching while the other figure drains the tankard of wine.

The other thing the town is known for, other than being a tourist trap, are pastries called Schneeballen (snowballs). These are basically a fist-sized ball of shortbread covered in powdered sugar, although unlimited variations are available. We sampled them, much to our satisfaction.

Schneeballen in a café window.

Matt with a snowball pastry.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 7:56PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Today we rose early and had a nice breakfast, which was included with our room at the Grandhotel Pupp. It is quite common to include breakfast with the room in Europe. We hopped in our car, and before long we crossed the border out of the Czech Republic and back into Germany. After winding along a two-lane road, we headed south on A9, one of the federal autobahns. We were traveling through some rural areas and the speed was unlimited, so I opened up the car a little bit. At one point we got her up to about 135 mph. We traveled a couple of other autobahn highways as we continued southwest to Fussen, and I had fun driving the car like it was meant to be driven. The video below, which is a link from youtube, was made by Rebecca this morning while I was driving. You need sound to really appreciate it.

(If the embedded video doesn't work for you, here is a link)

There is a sign, pictured here, which you frequently see on the autobahns. The white circle with five slashes through it is generally thought to mean “no speed limit.” While it often does mean that, I have noticed that they seem to use it more generally to mean “restriction is lifted.” In Germany, as in all the other European countries we have driven in this trip, they don’t always post speed limits signs. There is a default limit for each class of road, and they expect you to know it. We have been looking them up in the guidebook for each country. When they do post signs, it is usually to impose a speed limit lower than the default, often for construction, a school zone, etc. At the end of the reduced speed zone, they will use one of the signs with the slashes through it to indicate that you are back to the default speed. On the autobahns, the default speed limit is that there isn’t one, thus when I see one of these signs I like to think of them as happy signs. It means get in the left lane, downshift, and start making some time.

No limit sign on German highway.
We got off the autobahn and took some secondary and smaller country roads to the town of Fussen in extreme southern Bavaria. After locating our hotel, the very nice Hotel Sonne (means sun in German), we headed for Neuschwanstein castle. This was one of the items on our itinerary Rebecca was most looking forward to. Neuschwanstein was used as the model for the iconic Disney castle. It is of relatively modern construction by European standards. It was built starting in the late 1860’s by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig was a huge fan of German composer Richard Wagner, who is most well known for composing his Ring Cycle of four German operas based on old Germanic myths. If you have ever heard Ride of the Valkries, as featured in the film Apocalypse Now, you have been exposed to Wagner. Ludwig liked Wagner’s work so much that he started building a series of four real life castles based on his idea of what the settings for Wagner’s operas should be like. These turned out to be enormously expensive, and his advisors had him declared insane. He was forced to abdicate, and was found dead the next day, mysteriously drowned, along with his personal physician.

Neuschwanstein Castle from the trail down.

Hohenschwangau Castle taken from a window at Neuscwanstein.
Next to Neuschwanstein is the older Castle HohenScwangau which was built by Ludwig’s father. Clearly building huge castles ran in the family. We toured both. The tourbooks warned us that there were tremendously long waits to get it, but by arriving in the afternoon, we didn’t have any real trouble. We did get caught in a rainstorm up on the mountain where Neuschwanstein is located, but it didn’t dampen our enjoyment too much. Inside Neuschwanstein is amazingly beautiful. Photographs aren’t allowed of the interior, but the mosaic floors, wall paintings, and elaborately carved furnishings combine to produce an amazing effect. Ludwig’s obsession with Wagner is evident from the motifs of the decorations. He even had one room done up as a very convincing mock cave, to be the appropriate setting as a scene from one of Wagner’s operas.

We had a nice, quiet dinner at the hotel, and tomorrow we will sleep in a bit, then head up North of our current location to Rotenberg on the Tauber, a well-preserved medieval town.

Monday, August 18, 2008 9:18PM Central European Time (GMT +1), Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

We left Prague this morning after another delicious breakfast by our host Milos Opatrny of the Pension Vetrnik. It took about 90 minutes to drive to Karlovy Vary (also known as Karlsbad), in the western part of the Czech Republic. At around noon we arrived at our home for the night, the Grandhotel Pupp, which features photos of movie stars who have stayed there in the hallways. (The town hosts an international film festival every July.)

Grandhotel Pupp

Karlovy Vary street
This town is known as a spa destination, but not in the typical U.S. sense of a spa. The rich and famous used to come here for healing powers from the springs, and a typical visit included doctors and blood tests versus fluffy robes and massage oil. (That was, until the Communists shut it down, though Karl Marx reportedly wrote a couple of chapters of Das Kapital while relaxing here.) These springs are not the hot springs you soak your whole body in; instead, you drink from the 12 spiggots of spring water around the town. This is a very interesting tourist attraction, as everyone buys a ceramic mug for about $8 and then tastes the water. We had been warned previously that the spring water is pretty powerful stuff and will effectively clean out your system, perhaps more quickly than anticipated. Rebecca took this advice and just took photos of the springs. Matt decided to taste a little and said it just tasted like regular water. It varies in temperature depending on the spring, but none are so hot you need to let them cool off first.

Line to drink from the spring

Matt drinking the water despite all warnings.
While Matt recovered back at the hotel, Rebecca took the funicular up to a lookout to get a view of the town.

Funicular to Diana observation tower.

Karlovy Vary view
She then wandered farther down the main street to see the Mlynska kolonada (Mill Colonnade) and the Vridelni kolonada (Vridlo Colonnade). All the springs are housed in ornate colonnades around town. The Mill Colonnade sort of marks the center of town, and many people sit around in the plaza nearby. The Vridlo is the Karlovy Vary version of Old Faithful. This geyser shoots up in the air all the time though, reaching as high as 40 feet, and it's enclosed in what amounts to a shopping mall with a special skylight for the spring.

Mill Colonnade in center of town

Karlovy Vary's Old Faithful
Matt then met Rebecca for dinner. Taking a break from traditional cuisine, we went to the place all the film stars go when in town, a simple pizzeria next to the river. (Again, the restaurant proudly displays their photographs to lure you in.)

The last thing we did before returning to our room was explore the hotel a bit more. It is a really impressive place, on par with the Grand Hotel in Vienna. For those who saw the last James Bond movie "Casino Royale" apparently they filmed the outdoor scenes of that casino town here, and our hotel houses the casino. They also boast about their fitness center and spa (in the sense of massages this time), but it was pretty unimpressive, with just four cardio machines and a set of weights as the fitness room. (This was also the setup at the fancy hotel in Vienna, so there just must be different expectations in Europe for a good fitness room.) Good thing we've been walking around enough we're getting plenty of exercise anyway.

Tomorrow we travel back to Germany to start our tour of Bavarian cities. We've made a meager attempt to learn a few Czech words--hello, thank you, and please bring the check--but it will be nice to be in a country again with more English cognates.

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