Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Free Bike Tour of Munich

While I usually prefer to discover things on my own with the aid of a good guide book and stay away from group tours, there is one tour I wholeheartedly recommend - the Discover Munich Free Bike Tour.

I know nothing is free, but really, the only expenses you will have if you take one of these tours - and you should - are the beers you drink, the food you eat and the tip for the guide. Bikes are provided.

On Munich's birthday, which was full of festivities and revelry, I was standing with my sister in the square in front of the New Town Hall (home to the famous glockenspiel) on Marienplatz watching the celebrations when an American walked up to me and asked if I'd like to hear about a bike tour.

At first, I thought he was a tout and was just trying to milk me for a few euros, but he insisted it was free and handed me a flier.

"If you want to go, just meet me at the fish fountain at 11:30," he said.

The flier said the tour was comedic, and with our other option being yet another city bus tour, my sister and I opted to give the bike tour a try, especially since the June day was so perfect weather-wise.

We assembled at the fish fountain in front of the New Town Hall building with about 20 other English-speaking tourists in their 20s and followed our guide to where the bikes were parked.

"They don't have bells," he said, "so if you get close to someone, j
ust say, 'ding, ding,' and they will move."

The bikes were surprisingly new and well-maintained, and we set out on our tour, stopping in front of the m
any historic sites for information and a healthy dose of jokes. The guide had a dry sense of humor, which I liked, and he was very easygoing and friendly. Best of all, as an American, there was no straining to decipher an unwieldy accent.

We passed churches, original Bavarian building facades that were undamaged in World War II, government buildings museums and, of course, the famous Hofbrau Haus. At each place, we got just enough information to decide if we needed to explore it further.

As we rode through the English Garden (think Central Park), our guide pointed out the nudists' section, to the amusement of most of us, as well as some of the other sights in the park.

We made a stop at a sign that said "No Surfing." I thought for a second about Munich's geography. It's about as far away from an ocean as you can get in Germany, and I saw the quizzical looks from the other tourists. Our guide then led us over a bridge and pointed down.

To my surprise, a man was surfing in the river. Apparently, some landlocked surfers had chained a park bench to the bridge's pylons to create a wave, and they would come out, clad in wetsuits, to surf Munich.

The next stop was the one we'd all been waiting for - the Chinese Pagoda Beer Garden.

Located in the English Garden (Englischer Garten), the beer garden is a huge Chinese Pagoda building surrounded by picnic tables capable of seating 11,000. As I was there while Germany was hosting the World Cup, they were all full at night, but it was only about half-full during the day.

Our guide told us about the qualities of the different beers, including a
warning to stay away from the dunkel (darkest of them all) unless your gastrointestinal tract was used to it.

Going through the food line, I opted for a sausage and potatoes with an amber ale (that I think was 9 percent alcohol). The cute jungfrau asked me if I wanted a large or small beer, and really, the only answer I could give was large, but I was surprised when she handed me a liter in a glass stein. It was just before 1 p.m., I hadn't eaten anything all day, and I was about to consume the equivalent of a bottle of wine in alcohol.

And it was good. Very good.

You're supposed to return the steins to get your deposit back, and on the bike tour I couldn't carry one around with me, but I talked my sister into stealing one for me when she returned a year or so later.

Once we'd all reassembled, at varying degrees of intoxication, we started riding through the rest of the tour. At a stoplight, our guide called us all close.

"Okay," he said. "You've all been drinking strong German beer, and we're riding our bikes past these nice Mercedes and BMWs. If you hit one, you need to tell me immediately. Don't think about just riding on and hoping no one notices. Tell me, so we can all ride like hell and get out of here."

Laughing, we continued on to see the Imperial Pavilion, with the best acoustics in the city, and the nearby tree under which Adolf Hitler supposedly lost his virginity.

Near the end of the tour, we saw the Stat
e Chancellory, which was heavily damaged in World War II and rebuilt with glass to demonstrate the transparency of the new government.

We ended up back where we had started and returned our bikes. Our guide took his backpack off and set it on the ground, asking us to put tips inside. I'd read somewhere that nine or 10 euros is customary, and I considered that a bargain for the three-hour tour.

If you want detailed history of the city, with a focus on what king did what and when, then this isn't for you. I'd recommend a textbook. If, however, you want to take a leisurely paced bike ride through the city and learn the general overview of its history, from how it was founded by monks and made its fortune in the salt trade to the Nazi regime, then this is the perfect tour. You also get the added bonus of going places the buses can't and the stop at the beer garden.

For more information, visit the company's website here.

Please do remember to tip your guides. As someone who use
d to work for tips myself, I can promise you that it makes all the difference. As they say on their website, they need to get their drinks too.

Oh, and the verbal "ding, ding" really did work wonders.

Yes, I occasionally drink out of my stein. It holds almost exactly three pints (the bottle in the picture is 1 pint, 9 ounces)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Photo of the Week: The Taj Mahal

One corner of the Taj Mahal, which is every bit as beautiful as people say. I wrote about it at length here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Drinks in Hell

I've been to Hell, and it was actually quite nice.

Hell, it turns out, is a restaurant and bar in Rothenburg, Germany. A nicely restored medieval city oozing charm, Rothenburg is surrounded by a stone wall and is usually clogged with tourists, but well worth a trip.

Since the city is so old, most of the original houses were built in the 1600s, but one stands apart, with its foundation having been laid in 980 - more than a century before the First Crusade. The date of the walls is "nothing impressive," according to the resident night watchman, who makes the old building a stop on his tour, since they were only erected in the 1500s.

Aside from just being the oldest building in one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world, a metal sign with a cut-out of Satan hangs near the door - earning it the name Hell.

(Yes, that's a Christmas tree in front of Hell.)

It's unclear how the name and sign came about, but the restaurant and bar is a well-established business now, and a popular stop for locals and tourists alike.

When I went to hell, I was accompanied by my sister and another American we'd met earlier in the day who was traveling alone before meeting up with his family for Christmas.

It was a cold night, and we hustled over the cobblestone streets to reach Hell. It was warm inside, and we grabbed a table in one corner. It was immediately apparent that the building was old. The floor was on several different levels, and a narrow stone staircase led to the building's bowels.

We ordered beers from the server and toasted to "dining in Hell," with the obligatory references to the movie "300." Never mind that we weren't dining, just drinking.

We only had time for two rounds of beer, since it was pushing 1 a.m., and Hell was closing, but we got a good feel for the restaurant and the fare as we watched food served to a few late diners. It didn't look like anything out of the ordinary as far as German food goes - it was lots of meat, potatoes, vegetables and beer - but it all looked good.

When Hell finally closed its doors and we had to leave or be kicked out, we paid our bill - which was very reasonable - and hurried up the deserted streets to our hotel.

Having a few beers in Hell was one of those traveling novelties I just had to do. The name is really the only thing that sets the building apart - the foundations aren't really visible, so the fact that they were laid in 980 is cool, but not overawing.

Hell is, however, open somewhat later than most other restaurants and bars, and like the night watchman says, if you're out in Rothenburg at night, you can walk along the city's wall, or you can go to Hell.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Photo of the Week: Street in Siena

There's something about the perspective in this photo that I just like. It's a run-of-the-mill street in Siena, Italy, even though I think it looks kind of fake, like a movie set or something.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Prague at Dawn

I couldn't sleep, and it was only 4 a.m.

The problem I had was due to jet lag, which had really messed up my body's clock, leaving me staring at the ceiling of my hotel room in Prague as I contemplated what to do.

It was to be my last day in the city, which I had been told was fantastic at dawn. By 6 a.m., I decided I would brave the cold and experience what everyone else had told me about.

As it was just two weeks before Christmas, and snow blanketed the hills around the city, I bundled up in a sweatshirt, gloves, my full-length wool coat and the imitation Soviet fur hat I'd bought a couple of days earlier. To my surprise, the fur hat wasn't a cliche in Prague - many of the locals wore them.

Grabbing my camera, I headed out of the room, leaving a note for my family telling them I would be back for breakfast.

When I stepped into the street, the cold air bit at my face, and I was thankful for my warm clothes. I wandered through streets illuminated only by streetlights and passed very few people. A homeless man slept sitting up in a small alcove, a pair of trash collectors puffed steam as they labored with an overloaded bin, and two British guys stumbled out of a pub, which I was surprised to see still had a healthy amount of people sitting at the bar. As I had no desire to down a pint of Pilsner Urquell or Budvar, despite how good they are, I kept going.

I was headed to the Old Town Square, and the sky wasn't even giving the slightest hint that dawn was approaching. It was interesting to see the place without the crowds of people and the Christmas Market going full-swing, and I was amazed at how alone I felt.

Since there was nothing to do, I headed over to the Charles Bridge, which had been a solid mass of people every time I'd seen it. When i arrived, however, there were only two or three other people on it. The sky was finally starting to lighten up, but was just a dull red color.

I walked to the far end, on the side of the Castle Quarter, and I set up my tripod and camera, taking several extremely long exposures that I hated and instantly deleted. The gateway to the castle looked mystical, but I wasn't able to capture it on my camera, so I decided to let some time pass and hope that the conditions would get better with more light.

As the light improved, I got a photo that I was somewhat happy with (below), but it certainly wasn't the "photographer's magic hour" I'd read about. As the sun finally rose and I played around with the camera, I realized the reason that thing's weren't as advertised - the sky was overcast

I walked back toward my hotel as the city was waking up. The hordes of people weren't out yet, and shopkeepers opened their doors, swept the streets in front of them and set up outdoor displays. The smells from a bakery filled one corner, and I was suddenly eager to get to breakfast.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Photo of the week: Hawaiian Sunset

I like to think this is a classic, "I wish I was there..." photo. It was taken from the town of Lahaina on Maui, and I liked the sunset with the tiki torches. The island in the background is either Molokai or Lanai.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Misadventures: Traffic Violations

I admit it. I'm guilty of a slew of traffic violations in France.

I broke at least three laws, and I was only driving for about eight minutes.

It wasn't really dangerous, but I did sort of run
a red light, speed and drive the wrong way down a one-way street.

Let me explain.

We had to drop our car off at the Hertz office at the train station in Reims after hours. Normally, this would present no problem at all. The rental office is right in front of the station, and there's a drop box for the keys.

When I was there, however, the whole front of t
he train station was shut down and appeared to be closed off by construction of a new city tram/train service that will make navigating the city a whole lot easier.

My dad was driving, and my GPS ignored the fact that we couldn't get where it wanted us to go, so we were on our own. We ended up parking the car on the opposite side of the station and walking through it to try to find a route to get the car to the correct parking lot so we didn't get charged with the French equivalent of grand theft auto.

I saw there were two women in the Hertz office
, even though it was closed, so I knocked on the door. One said something about being "ferme" (closed), and I proceeded to butcher the French language as I tried to explain our plight with the 16 or so verbs and 100ish words I knew.

Fortunately, she spoke English and told us how we could get to the parking lot, where several taxis were waiting around for a fare.

Walking back to the car, I held my hand out for the keys. My dad gave me a funny look, but it had been a week and a half since I'd driven, and three years since I'd driven in Europe. More importantly, I wanted to be done with dropping the car off and get back to the fun part of the trip.

My dad feels compelled to follow the rules of the road to a T, even while being passed by all the locals. I don't fault him for it. In fact, I think it's probably the best way to travel.

However, if I am ever pulled over and cited by gendarmes, I think it would be funny, and it would probably make a good story.

We piled into our Opel Meriva, which is a normal-sized car but felt cramped with all of our luggage, and I started it up.

I began my vehicular crime spree by speeding. I'm not sure why the French seemed to think that 30 kilometers per hour is a good speed to be driving. The thing is, 30kmph is less than 19mph, and I don't think my German-engineered car made for the autobahn (maybe a stretch there) could even go that slowly. I thought 45kmph (about 28mph) was a more reasonable speed, especially since there was no one on the road.

I reached a larger road with more traffic and saw where I needed to turn. No one was coming, so I turned. My dad and sister started laughing and shouting something about running a red light. I think they were mistaken, but they assure me that I did, in fact, run it.


As I cruised past the construction toward the Hertz office, I had one of two choices. Option One was to follow the arrows, negotiate all the parked taxis and travelers who ignored the crosswalks as they lugged 90-lb suitcases over cobblestones. Option Two was to drive the wrong way down a one-way street for about 60 feet and end up at the Hertz office.

And really, it's not like it was actually a street. It was some nonsense someone had set up with cones. I have the utmost respect for French highway engineers, but I think the guy who set this up was just taking the easy route so he could go grab a glass of wine and a baguette - which is exactly what I wanted to be doing.

I wish I could write that some gendarmes came running out of the train station and I explained to them exactly why I had done what I did before we all went and got drinks and they gave me one of their cool hats, but no one saw me, or no one cared.

I tossed the keys in the drop box and became a pedestrian again.

-A note on the photos: The top photo is the Opel Meriva I was driving, but that photo was taken in Eguisheim, France, about three days earlier. The photo of the two gendarmes was taken in Paris, and I still want one of their hats.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Photo of the Week: Amsterdam's Bike Lockup

Amsterdam is best known for its canals, red light district and Anne Frank's house, but the most common way the locals get around is by bicycle. This is a photo of the bike lockup next to Amsterdam's train station, and literally contains hundreds (if not thousands) of bikes on two stories.

Rush hour in Amsterdam, with thousands of citizens riding home from work, is something to see.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Taste of Travel: Belgian Waffles and French Fries

I've always loved waffles, and Belgian waffles in particular. On the day I was in Brussels, the thing at the top of my list to do was eating waffles. Second on that list was eating French fries.

I realize the two foods don't really go together (except on a list of foods that might not be very healthy), but I'd read somewhere that the Belgians invented French fries, and that they fried them twice, making them extra crispy.

After a bus tour through the city, my family a
nd I stopped for French fries. Little stands selling them and waffles are all over the place, so it only took a few minutes to find one. Waiting in line, I eagerly anticipated sinking my teeth into the authentic version of one of my favorite foods. I watched the oil in the fryer bubble as a fresh batch of already-fried fries was dunked, and salivated when I saw them pulled out and stuffed into a conical paper wrapping for the couple in front of me.

Then I was horrified when a giant glob of mayonnaise landed on top of them, and two miniature forks were thrust into the top of that.

I was sure the couple would loudly protest and order a new batch, but instead, they dug into their fatty feast with relish, blobs of mayo sliding down the sides of greased fries as they stuffed them into their mouths as fast as they could.

With trepidation, I approached the smiling stall owner and ordered my fries sans mayonnaise. The cheerful, plump man nodded knowingly and respected my New-World tastes. He handed me a little trough of ketchup to go with them, and a pair of those tiny forks.

Not wanting to look like a barbarian, I used the fork and ate my fries.

They were delicious.

I don't know the calorie count, nor do I care. Double-frying the fries is an excellent idea, and one that we should adopt in the States. They still tasted like good French fries I could find at any number of places in America, but the twice-fried texture put them over the top.

After digesting the fries for about 10 minutes, I had to stop at a waffle stand. I saw two locals heading away, waffles in hand, and caught a glimpse of a creamy white substance smeared on top. I really, really hoped it wasn't more mayonnaise.

Fortunately, it was whipped cream. I applaud the addition of whipped cream to nearly every food, but for my waffle, I went with a traditional topping of powdered sugar and vanilla bean ice cream. My sister went the healthy route and added strawberries to hers, then topped it with whipped cream.

As with the French fries, the Belgians handed out an innovative tool with which to better consume the waffles. It looked like a fork, but one of the outer tines was serrated, so the thin plastic could easily cut the waffle into manageable bites. (yes, I know that's a spoon in the photo. I was holding the fork).

I thought it was an excellent idea until I sliced the side of my mouth when I pulled the fork out. I swore and numbed the sudden pain with some of the ice cream, and advised my sister to be careful.

Far from accepting the advice of an older sibling in the spirit I gave it, she looked at me with a "well, duh" expression.

In spite of my minor injury (which was nothing ice cream and a few beers couldn't cure), I loved the whole eating experience in Brussels. The waffles tasted the same as they do over here, but I figured being able to say I'd had them in Belgium would be a good point in any future game of one-upmanship (which I inherently loathe but sometimes feel compelled to participate in).