This is part of a set of pages describing our trip in March 2012 to Europe.
Tuesday, March 20
We grabbed showers first thing in the morning and headed down for breakfast. The Munich City youth hostel has a cafeteria across a courtyard and attached to what appears to be a second building in their complex. There is a typical school-type cafeteria and what looks like an evening hangout in the back. The gathering place is incorporated into an old trolley car. You can enter that area through a separate outside door almost as if you are boarding a trolley.
The spread was what would become, for us, a typical morning meal. In fact, until we reached France, this was a common meal just about everywhere we went. First, you grabbed a coffee or milk. The coffee was always from a machine, never in carafes or urns. Then you could choose yogurt, meats (salami and ham) and sliced cheese. Based on some pre-trip reading, I’m guessing that this was Emmentaler-style cheeses. It is worth mentioning that our family has something of a cheese fascination. A few of us love eating cheese, particularly orange cheeses from England (cheddar, naturally, but also Double Gloucester and Red Leicester and so on). One of the things we were interested in trying were the harder cheeses that we could find on this trip. If you notice that I seem to go on and on about cheese, this is why. It was something of an eye-opener that we were likely to find Emmentaler (or what we probably would call Swiss cheese) just about everywhere we went. Southern Germany, Austria, and, of course, Switzerland all have their local versions of this type of cheese. It might have been imported from Singapore for all I know, but this light flavored, white, hard cheese was what we ran across nearly everywhere.
Since this was a youth hostel, we were surrounded by youth. They mostly appeared to be part of a single group. It was funny to find that the kids tended to dress exactly like the teenagers in North America, right down to the skinny jeans and t-shirts with sayings. In fact, I would have been hard-pressed to pick out people based on their country before they spoke. My daughter confirmed for me that these European kids were wearing what she knew her peers wore.
One fellow turned around from his table and asked us, in lovely English, what time it was. We answered but the way he handled the conversation – it sounded like a school practice conversation – made us think he was practicing his language skills since we were the most obvious English speakers in the room. In fact, when you travel with 3 children, you are almost always conspicuous for something!
We headed out at 9am with our bags, walked down to the Rotkreuzplatz and hopped back on the U-Bahn. As we had before, we bought a group day pass but this time just for the city centre (Innenraum), which was cheaper than the airport-to-city day pass. It may be useful to know that, until this time, we had only used cash once. We had brought about 75 Euros with us to help us get through the first day or so. In fact, nearly everything we needed to do was possible with plastic. If you are considering traveling and don’t want to carry cash around with you, traveling in larger cities probably means you can rely heavily on using plastic without withdrawing cash and paying any penalties. It confirmed in my mind the lack of a need for a bureau de change or for traveller’s cheques. It gave us a significant amount of latitude since we were not waiting for banks to open to have access to funds.
Second Class to Fussen
Our early start was to enable us to make the train to Füssen, which is the train station nearest to Neuschwanstein castle. The castle is not near anything. If you are going to go to it, you just need to commit a day to going to it. We contemplated taking one of the bus tours that, over the course of a 10 to 12 hour day excursion, gets you and 30 of your closest friends to the castle and other sites in that corner of Bavaria. But one of the goals of this trip was to use trains, as many as possible, so we were taking the train to Füssen.
A major European train station should not be underestimated for the fun it can offer to young children. As you can see in the picture to the right, our youngest was fascinated by the high speed engines (ICE in this case) that were everywhere. This photo is not, in fact, him racing off to see the train. Instead, he was frequently enacting something, so he is in fact standing still pretending to run for his train because he is late. While we often had to wait to catch a train (and tonight’s wait was going to be a marathon), there was almost always something new to look at in the station.
We arrived at the Hauptbahnhof in Munich and activated our Eurail pass. We would now have 5 days on which to use it. We had not quite arrived with enough time for the next train so instead we headed back out to the Marienplatz. The day was much brighter and clear than it had been the night before. We took pictures of the city hall (Rathaus) and of the clock. The moving figures only go 3 times a day and we were not going to be there any of those times. It is also a good place to get souvenirs, so we bought our first lot of postcards and patches and pins and the like.
Back to the S-Bahn and then the Hauptbahnhof and on to Füssen. We left our bags in storage again – 5€ for a large locker that held both suitcases and 2 of our 3 backpacks – and hopped on the train. It was a local train, all cars were second class, and it was almost entirely empty. While it gathered passengers on the way, we always had two sets of double seats and nearly everyone was going to see the castles. The seats were relatively hard with no arm rests except at the end. There were head rests that were ideal if you were under 6′ tall but otherwise poked you in the shoulder blade. There were 8 sets of double seats in a “room”, with each room separated by a set of doors from a small vestibule where the carriage doors allowed passengers to get on and off. There were three rooms in the carriage, which kept noise to a minimum.
Everyone catnapped or vegetated. Out came the electronic devices – iPods, Nintendo DS – and everyone settled in for the 2 hour ride. The first hour or so was largely flat countryside, once we’d left Munich, although you could start to see the hills rolling. We started to go very gradually up, always passing small towns and villages with their unusual, onion-dome-like church roofs and maypoles. All of a sudden, we started to see the Alps!
I have commented on the excellent English everyone in Germany speaks, at least so far as we have had the opportunity to experience it. I was not surprised, since I’d been in this area before and had noticed it then. I was the lone language person on this trip, since I had a smattering of German and some passable French, so long as the listener had a flexible, shall we say, interpretation of what I was saying. For someone who knows no language other than English, Germany seems to be an ideal place to travel without fear of starving or otherwise not being able to make one’s way without recourse to sign language. I tried to use my German where possible – if only to justify the hours that our youngest one had spent listening to the German for Dummies CD (his favorite phrase is, “Ja, ja, ich weis”:Yes, yes, I know) – but found that, even when I did, I often was answered in perfect English.
The written use of English was sometimes funny, though. We noticed a number of times where an English word was stuffed into a product name or other advertising location. One of my favorite words was the German nickname for cellphone, the handy. We laughed at “Fancy” style or “Discountpreis” when it appeared. The best was when we were able to order a glass of “Eistee” (iced tea) at the foot of Schloss Neuschwanstein.
The busses at Füssen are timed to the trains, so our tourist horde – over 100 people got off at the terminus with us – made its way through the wee station and immediately onto the two buses waiting in the parking lot. Both bus routes go through Schwangau, the town at the foot of the mountain on which Neuschwanstein sits. There is a family day pass for the bus as well, so when I indicated I had 5 passengers, the driver suggested the family pass (return, both there and back again) and we saved about 15€. It was nice to be able to buy the tickets on the bus rather than poking around in the station and potentially missing the bus. The ticket kiosks are sometimes hard to understand and there are often lines.
Although there are lines (or queues), they are often ignored and there is much pushing and cutting in to which we weren’t accustomed. It’s not that I consider it rude (where it would be in North America), but that I had to start getting sharper elbows than I would normally have had. Having a large group often helped, since I could deploy our eldest as a skirmisher on one flank and propel the two younger ones forward while my wife watched the other flank! Try getting around that!
We got off the bus with everyone else and immediately grabbed lunch. There is a story in my family of my last visit to the castle, of which all I remember is standing at the bottom of a hill and having hot dogs and fries. I can’t remember a stitch of the actual castle! Not to be out done, I had hot dogs and fries, in which our youngest joined me. Everyone else tried something local, including potato pancakes and potato soup. It was all delicious and revived us for the climb to come.
You can get to the top of the hill, where the castle is, in a number of ways. There are minibuses that go up behind the castle, reducing the walk. There are horse-drawn carriages that go up the pedestrian path. It’s less than a mile, though, and we decided we’d rather stretch our legs after the train ride than riding in more conveyances. But first we needed the tickets for the castle. Entry is timed, and you need to enter at your allotted time.
This was the first of what were a handful of times that I should have read signs better. We returned to where we got off the bus to what looked like a ticket or visitors centre. It was, but it doesn’t have the tickets for the castle. As the sign outside said. And the one on the door that I pushed open. And the one in front of the man who I asked about getting tickets!! The poor fellow!! He had just told another couple – who had left the same restaurant as us moments earlier – the same thing, since we ended up trailing them up the hill to the real ticket center. Worst, the signs were all in English!
We started our climb and it took about 30 minutes. Even our youngest (6 years) was able to manage the ascent although he was waning at the top. The place was absolutely awash with people and, considering it was not a summer or spring break, we were amazed at the number of tourists. It must be mayhem when school is out. We were more than an hour ahead of our entry time, so we walked around the front of the castle and up to the Marienbrücke, the bridge crossing the chasm behind the castle. I would recommend this highly. It is about 15 minutes of nearly all up hill walking and the bridge feels dodgy when you walk on it, even though it is made of metal with wooden planking.
The bridge spans the gap behind the castle. The sun was shining right onto the castle (mid afternoon) so it was a great place from which to take a picture of the castle. There were many people (including me) who weren’t sure it was that sturdy, but once you get out on it – and your 6 year old stops jumping on the really springy boards – it’s not bad. The views of the castle are fantastic, since you’re slightly above it and at a distance. It’s a great vantage point for photos, even if it gives you the collywobbles.
We took the tour at 3:25 and whizzed through the castle. Our guide’s English was, ironically, just about the worst we experienced. Nearly every sentence began with “Well, …” or “Well, of course …” even though neither was necessary to start what he was saying. The tour is very fast with little time to dilly dally and you are spat back out into three – count them, three – gift shops before you are finally free of the castle.
My favorite room was the last one, the singer’s hall, where there is a painting on the wall of Arthur and Guinivere, as well as other famous pairings from German myth. Unfortunately, there were no postcards of these so I just stored them away in my head; photography is not allowed. Which is not to say people didn’t attempt it: our group had one fellow with an iPad clutched to his chest who was clearly moving it in ways to video tape the rooms, and one fellow with a still camera stopped only when the next tour guide saw him and warned him off.
We headed back down the hill to the bus, which dropped us back at the train station. We had a short wait of perhaps 20 minutes for the train and then were on our way back to Munich. The train filled as we got closer to the city but we had a long wait to come. We grabbed dinner at a McDonalds underneath the train station and then settled down with our bags to wait for our night train to Vienna. The idea of sleeping on a train sounds a bit romantic and was certainly an experience we wanted the kids to have. But Munich’s Hauptbahnhof is an open air station, so the cold air and lack of seating meant that your choice was to either find a slightly warm corner and sit on a floor or head for the very small heated waiting room. The room was unfortunately occupied by one exceptionally odorous inhabitant and the heat actually made the smell worse. We hung about near a coffee shop for awhile, but the shops all close by 11pm and our train wasn’t leaving until 11:45.
There was more to the couchettes than just an experience, though. They are a cheap way for a family to have overnight accommodations, since we had already paid for the train fare. The couchettes require an additional reservation (and I highly recommend using the Deutsches Bahn to make them; they had the best customer service of any organization I used in planning this trip) but it’s nominal compared to a hotel room. Also, you eliminate lost time during daylight for travel. We would wake up in our next city, ready to immediately hit the bricks and see the sights.
Finally, it was time for us to head to the track, already quite sleepy and cold, and settle ourselves in.