25 August 2010

A European Jaunt - Part 3

Warning: this blog entry contains numerous Australianisms, befitting the company I've been keeping recently. Your patience would be greatly appreciated.

Day three broke with Australians shivering. Yes, it was an Arctic 10 degrees Centigrade in Lauterbrunnen, in the heart of the Swiss Alps, and a climate that the visiting Aussies had never experienced before. M'colleague and I, however, we more than happy to wander around in our short-sleeve tops commenting on how like London in the summer it was. Okay, it was perhaps a little chilly to have your arms on show, but it most certainly was not the dawning of the next ice age!

It was a little warmer once we'd left the Alpine region. Here the coach is seen parked at Rheintal Services on the A13/E43, adjacent to the Principality of Leichtenstein

Two coaches were parked overnight in Lauterbrunnen, at the Camping Jungfrau site, with ours heading north-east to Munich today (via Lucerne) and the other due south, bound for Nice. Both driver and guide were Simon and Dave - the same today as yesterday - and both commented how unusual it was since driver rest periods are usually taken here with it being the Busabout admin centre and with slightly more amenities for employees than elsewhere. However, at 0800, Dave greeted us all aboard our coach and Simon started the engine.

Our journey mirrored the end stage of yesterday's, as we retraced our steps along the A8 through the Brünig Pass and onto the A2 to Lucerne. It was here that those leaving the coach were escorted on foot by Dave to the accommodation. Simon, meanwhile, undertook guide duties of his own by escorting everyone else to a shop run by a dude called Harry, down one of the town centre streets. Harry is a purveyor of, amongst other things, Swiss Army Knives, where (knowledge bomb time) non-red variants can be purchased. Only in Switzerland can you officially by a purple knife, for example.

A reasonable amount of banter had taken place upon our arrival at Lucerne and it was now, while holding a small bag containing three sausage rolls, that Simon told us both what had happened. Apparently a neighbouring shop to that of Harry's sells something of a rarity in Switzerland: sausage rolls. Some guides reveal this in their spiel on Lucerne and before the driver can get into the shop to buy some, the passengers have purchased them all, so there was an agreed omission from the welcome-to-Lucerne speil as both driver and guide were feeling mighty peckish.

Parked at Lucerne

The Reuss River passes through the centre of Lucerne and is incredibly fast flowing. You'd not survive very long if you fell in. I quite liked Lucerne, though not sure that there'd be enough to occupy me for a couple of days, which is when the next coach would depart.

Back on board, we needed to take another stop before 1230, which is when Simon's 4.5 hour driving stint would be up, and so opted to take it at a service station backing onto one of the world's smallest countries - Liechtenstein. While we didn't enter the country, it was one that had always stuck out in my mind from geography lessons at school. The number plates carried by cars registered there look like those issued pre-1960 here in the UK, being white-on-black, both front and back.

Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein is seen here, clinging to the mountainside

Liechtenstein is something of a tax haven, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that it has more registered companies than citizens. They, like Switzerland, have made attempts during the past few years to prosecute money launders, though this has proven far trickier than had initially been envisaged. There were no knowledge bombs regarding Liechtenstein, but a quick Google provided a couple of my own: it's the world's largest producer of sausage casings and false teeth. It's also a German-speaking country which does not border Germany.

Back on the coach and we were told that the option of a guided tour around Neuschwanstein Castle, in south-west Germany, was on offer. The price would be determined on the number of takers and, in the event, 15 (of 15) wanted to undertake the tour, so a price of 9 was quoted. While the tour was underway, Simon would re-fuel the coach at a nearby BP garage (Busabout only use BP stations, with drivers issued with fuel cards). Neuschwanstein Castle, like so many, has its own story from inception to completion, though is relatively rare because, for a castle of its relative young vintage, it was never completed. It's also the castle on which the Walt Disney emblem is based.

"When you wish upon a star...." is the tune played at the end/start of most Disney productions, with a shooting star passing over an emblem of a castle (below). The castle was based on Neuschwanstein

We arrived at the foot of Neuschwanstein Castle at 1430 and had a look around the gift shops until 1500 when we re-grouped for a walk uphill to where the castle was perched, overlooking the valley. It's not a walk for the faint-hearted. Well, not at speed anyway. Since the remainder of our contingent were Australians and 'uber-fit', it was quite a feat maintaining pace. Though being British, neither of us were willing to lose face by dropping back! Oh know. The most excruciating part was that everyone else not only walked faster and more effortlessly to the top, along the 1.25km road, but that they did so in flip flops!!

However, once at the top, the view was very impressive. A further walk was needed to a vantage point (even higher) in the form of a bridge spanning what must be a 1,000ft drop to the valley floor below. We did it though, and to be honest, ignoring the initial breathlessness, recriminations, painful chests and foot ache, we both enjoyed the walk and soon recovered.

We visited the bridge spanning the narrow but incredibly deep canyon before our tour of the castle. The bridge affords visitors an exceptional shot of the castle in the foreground and most of lowland Germany in the distance

Our tour was a 1555 and we had to queue below a digital display that showed our tour number. While the castle was an impressive sight, the completely human-less and automated start to the tour was not. Where was the warm, friendly welcome? Where were people checking tickets? Where were people offering free advice on where to wait and what you can see from the courtyard? There was none of that. It was, perhaps, clinical German efficiency at its best/worst. When the digital display showed your tour number, you inserted your ticket into the barrier (identical to how you'd gain access to the Underground network in London) and then meandered your way (as you would in a lengthy queue at the local Post Office) through the remainder of the courtyard until you entered the building.

Clinical. Queuing for entry to Neuschwanstein Castle can be likened to the cheese counter at Asda

Full details of Neuschwanstein Castle can be read here. It's a fascinating story, but one our castle guide did not tell in full. Partly because some of it does not conform to the image the Germans want to portray (why, for example, was the Walt Disney connection never uttered, when Disney is known to virtually every child on earth) and partly because the tour is, well, a complete swizz: your guide does not deviate from his/her set speech whatsoever and in rooms where echoing is problematic, his/her speech is not altered to accommodate this. You're also guided through only five rooms, with the remainder done on your own. Photography is not permitted either, which incensed one tour member to exclaim: 'sacré bleu!'

The castle is a dominant feature of the landscape and I particularly enjoyed viewing the enlarged photos that showed it being built, with scaffolding clinging to the mountain sides. The views were superb, as was the walk downhill.

There was something of a rush back to the coach, though, as we'd been told 1700hrs and the guided element of the tour lasted 20 minutes (so, on paper our tour was between 1555-1615), but some people took longer than others and there was the 1.25km walk back to the coach. Another 30 minutes could have been afforded quite easily, but we suspected that both driver and guide wanted to push on to Munich as soon as possible.

And this we did. Having briefly passed through Austria when heading to Neuschwanstein Castle, we were now to remain solely in Germany, heading north along some unclassified roads before the B17 and A96/E54 to Munich. The drop-off and pick-up point here is down what you could be forgiven for thinking was a one-way street, with cars parked on both sides of the road. It is in fact a two-way road, just incredibly narrow. Senefelderstraße is the name, and the associated accommodation arranged for anyone who requests it is called Wombats.

We managed to secure a ride to the coach park and passed the site of Oktoberfest, which was in the process of being accommodated for, with a plentiful supply of marquees and stages being erected. Our driver told us that he would be double-manning a coach to Oktoberfest from London during mid-September, which he was very much looking forward to since he'd not been back in Blighty since leaving on 15 May. Upon arrival at the coach park, we both witnessed first-hand the extensive cleaning process that each coach undertakes daily:
  • All carrier bags attached to aisle arm rests are either emptier or replaced
  • Windows cleaned throughout
  • Coach floor swept and mopped
  • Carpeted area at front removed and cleaned
  • Seat upholstery checked and cleaned if required
  • Seatbelts checked
  • Dashboard polished
  • Exterior windows cleaned, involving the use of a huge wooden pole, at the end of which sits a blade
  • Exterior bodywork cleaned
  • Windscreen cleaned
  • Wheel trims cleaned by cloth
  • Security measures taken to ensure coach is as safe as possible parked overnight
As you can imagine, it's quite a lengthy process and one in which the guides have no role to play. While this is taking place, they are still working - checking travellers into the accommodation and letting them know what there is to do in the area that evening.

While the coach was being cleaned, another Busabout vehicle arrived, this one from Vienna. While the driver of that coach was getting to work polishing his wheel nuts, we headed into the city centre, making use of the U-Bahn. We walked about 3 minutes to an S-Bahn station called Heimeranplatz, though Simon said that the fare was cheaper to Hauptbahnhof from the S-Bahn equivalent, so after videoing two trains (see below) we headed to the subway station.

From here we paid €1,50 for a single fare into the city centre, with the Hauptbahnhof stop virtually opposite Senefelderstraße, down which was located our accommodation - The Euro Youth Hostel (we had a room each tonight). This establishment, incidentally, 'boasts' a 40-bed dormitory. Surely not for the faint hearted!

An evening stroll around Munich was in order, though after partaking some local cuisine, in the form of Wiener Schnitzel (chicken breast in breadcrumb) with chips and a splodge of what looked to be strawberry jam on top of a slice of lemon. It was delicious and what we both refer to as 'safe' foreign food.

Wiener Schnitzel

Munich is a very nice place to be - certainly the city centre. Although the evening was upon us and it was getting dark, we managed to see many of the sights on display, from the story-telling town hall clock to the infamous
Hofbräuhaus, where Hitler made a speech in 1920 that effectively re-united disaffected Germans following their defeat in WWI to ultimately form the Nazi Party. Up until 2006, the Hofbräuhaus held a baby photo of Hitler. We headed inside for a pint but the row was such that you couldn't hear yourself think. There also appeared to be very few seats. Revellers were certainly in full swing. Well, it was a Saturday night and much the same occurs in the UK's city centres.

Munich is certainly a place we'd return to - not only to sample its light rail network, but to take in more of the sights. Sadly, this wasn't to happen on this jaunt as tomorrow we'd move onto our last call - Stuttgart.

To be continued.....

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