Friday, June 03, 2016

To the Alps!

On to Germany. The current economic powerhouse of Europe, a country that rose brilliantly from the ashes of WWII. First up, I was disappointed that the train from Prague to Munich was late by over 2 hours, causing me to miss my connection. We seemed to have fallen behind only after we had crossed into Germany. Not a good first impression of the famed German efficiency. Though I later learned that Germans over estimate their efficiency and build no slack into their time train time tables.

My initial plan was to visit Berlin, but after Rome, I had developed a general aversion towards big cities. So I decided to go to Bavaria instead. However, I did get a chance to visit Munich for a few hours. The former base of the Nazis was flattened during the war and the city has been rebuilt in a mixture of old and new styles. Strolling around a city for a few hours doesn't do justice to any city. But I did get a feel of Munich's beer culture around every corner. I guess I checked off the most important item on Munich's to do list.

My decision to choose Bavaria over Berlin was richly rewarded. The first stop was Benediktbueren. A nondescript town that for some reason popped up in my Google search. My couch surfing host gave me an authentic Bavarian experience. A house set in the countryside with views of the mountains was just the beginning. There was a Bavarian breakfast of sausages, pretzels and of course beer. Some of them even dressed up in traditional clothes. Another experience, a hike up a mountain that rewarded me with spectacular views and beer. Yes, in Europe you can get beer and lunch on the trail. Talk about instant gratification.

My second stop in Bavaria was Fussen, for the famous Neushwanstein Castle. The castle appears to have come straight out of a fairy tale, framed by snow capped mountains, overlooking a lush countryside. The inside is very ornate as well with ever square inch covered with carvings and paintings. While the castle trip was very rewarding, I was a little disappointed that the view made famous in postcards is not to be found anywhere. Those views are either from the air or by hiking through private property. Oh well, nonetheless, still a worthwhile trip.

Journeying through Bavaria on foot, bike and train made me feel like I had died and gone to heaven. The scenery is picturesque and the setting idyllic. The towns are like the ones you see on Christmas cards and in children's books. Wandering along the back roads, the only sounds you hear are cow bells ringing and church bells tolling. Occasionally a tractor will rumble through. It got me thinking that if I ever try those farm work vacations, it will have to be around Fussen. And like a prayer answered, I met a lady in line at the station who has a farm and gave me her email address asking me to contact her if I'm ever back. Southern Bavaria is definitely a hope-to-be-back place for me. I also loved Radler, a drink made from lemonade and beer. Sweet alcoholic drinks, they hit the sweet spot for me.

One a side note, one thing on my bucket list on this trip was hitch hiking. I gave it a shot in Bavaria. I got a ride for a short distance, but didn't get further after that. After a long wait, I decided to cut my losses and catch a train. I'm not sure what exactly was the problem. A national holiday or low traffic route or single guy. I don't think I'll have a chance to try it again as rural Germany was probably my best shot.

One thing I have been asked is whether I have been affected by the migrant crisis and the rise of extreme right wing views in Europe. Overall I've head a great experience with friends and strangers alike being very friendly and helpful. But there were a couple of incidents that could be attributed to the current migrant crisis. First, in Budapest, when I need a phone to call up my contact, people even crossed the street to avoid me when I approached them. Maybe it was because it was after dark or because I'm a tall guy with a big backpack. But I hope I don't look too threatening to warrant such a response. And the second incident was in Fussen when a bunch of kids asked for my passport (while pointing toy guns) as I was strolling through a quiet neighborhood. Now I attribute their moronism to plain stupidity as I was a guy with a big camera in a town overrun by tourists. And I was more concerned about their stupidity than their xenophobia. But I'm sure they must have gotten their views from the adults around them. I have been following the migrant crisis in the news, but seeing it first hand definitely gives a new perspective.

I could be a dreamer and imagine a world with no borders. I wish I could see all the great cities, experience the cultures and taste the food everywhere in the world without worrying about visas and passports. I wish there was no migrant crisis. I wish there was no war. The reality is very different and the causes highly complex. Trying to address any of these in a blog post would be an impossible task. But I hope that travel will leave me with a better understanding of the world and I hope that the people who have met me have a slightly better understanding of India and the US.

The above paragraphs about Bavaria being heaven were written before my time in Switzerland. This note is important because if there can be only one heaven, it has to be Switzerland, not Bavaria. Switzerland has many things going for it and the flag is a big plus. It is a small country, but there are so many things Swiss. Chocolate, cheese, watches, knives, banks, etc. And now they even have the longest rail tunnel.

The first thing you notice in Interlaken is the number of Indian tourists. Years of SRK romancing with the Bollywood ladies in the Swiss mountains have led to Switzerland having the highest number of Indian tourists in my observation. It is a great destination, no doubt. But the bang to buck ratio is average because the place is outrageously expensive. And factor in the atrocious weather (I saw the sun for about 10 minutes in 5 days), you've got a good chance of being underwhelmed. It's a good thing they have beautiful pictures of mountains on clear days everywhere. It helps imagine the scene when you are standing in fog as thick as pea soup. Or maybe it leaves you ruing what might have been. Thanks to Michael for trying his best to optimize my trip by checking detailed weather conditions to decide on the plan every morning.

Switzerland is known for it's scenic train journeys. The train snaking up and down steep mountains as it makes its way through the tiny picturesque villages hugging the mountain side is a quintessential Swiss experience. Throw in a few waterfalls, alpine lakes and rugged mountains and you've got heaven on earth. My personal favorite leg was Interlaken to Lucerne. Besides, all those tunnels makes you see the truth in the old adage "there's a light at the end of every tunnel." The only downside of seeing the country this way is that you don't get to stop and take it all in. I'd suggest to get off the train sometime and hike around one of those tiny villages and imagine what it must be to live in paradise.

On one of the train journeys, I met a Swiss lady who claimed that her people are too cold and efficient and that she loved the vibrant and chaotic Italian culture. True, Switzerland is always on the clock. Train schedules are optimized to around the top of the hour. And there are clocks everywhere. The capital, Bern, is the epitome of Switzerland; clean, efficient, organized and a tad boring. Though the Swiss kids seemed like normal kids; boisterous, mischievous and rebellious. I wonder at what age do Swiss kids morph into Swiss adults.

With that it was goodbye mountains. Let's hope it's downhill here only literally as I head north.

Thanks to Daniel Siebel for hosting me in Benediktbueren!

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