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One off the Bucket List: Bavaria at Christmas

Many years ago, a German friend of mine told me how Christmas was her favourite time of year, and how Christmas was a very big deal in Germany. As she described it for me, I had images of villages lit up like the ones I’d seen on the mantel at home when I was young. She told me of Christmas markets, glühwein and gingerbread. It sounded like everything there was to love about Christmas, and so I filed it away as a “bucket list” thing to do.

For the six years my wife and I lived in Asia, we celebrated Christmas quietly, but it’s not as culturally celebrated or festive as it is in the west. We had to request Christmas day off as a personal day each year we worked there. There are many practicing Christians in Asia. For them I suppose it’s about the religious meaning, but in general Christmas isn’t shared as much as a cultural tradition or a marketing and consumerist bonanza as it is in the west. Or at least on the same scale as it is in the west.

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, or are religious or not, you would know that Christmas is a tradition that invokes feelings of warmth and good cheer (if you can get past the shopping and ironic mean-spiritedness induced by seasonal stress.) It can typically be a time of great memories, just as any culture I know of has special traditions that bring them times of joy.

After being away from our traditional sense of the holiday for that long, we thought it might be a good time to go for gold and visit Bavaria at Christmas.

We looked at a map and chose our locations.

Munich

Where we wandered through the Christkindlmarkt and wafted from stall to stall.

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I had been to Munich before, but had never visited Dachau Concentration Camp. It felt like it was time to go. It was so completely wet and cold that day, and it was impossible to imagine what kind of horror life would have been there.


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Grainau

We chose Grainau because it was tucked way down in Bavarian Germany at the foot of the Alps. It seemed like it could be a cozy place to spend Christmas.

We left Munich in a rental. Christmas surprise! They gave us a BMW.

We were going to drive through the Alps in this:

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grainau
We stopped for a few photos in Starnberg, on Lake Starnberg, where Ludvig II mysteriously drowned. We would be crossing his path again soon.

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We got off the road again in Schlehdorf, because I thought the lake might give a nice view. It did. It was also the first time we’d seen the sun in days.

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When we got to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, I knew we were in for something special. It was a real-life Christmas village, covered in snow. By the time I took photos a couple of days later, most of the snow had melted away.

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We stayed in Grainau, a smaller town next to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which was really just up the road. We also drove a little further down to Lake Eibsee. The mountain seen here is Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitz.

dsc_5769view from the hotel

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Drove around, visited Wallgau. Bavaria!

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In Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we visited the Partnachklamm (Partnach Gorge).

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dsc_5582At the top of the gorge. We took the cable car down.

We took a day trip to visit Neuschwanstein Castle. What would a trip to Bavaria be without a castle visit? This was built by Ludwig II (referenced earlier at Lake Starnberg). He had spent a great deal of his family’s wealth on his Wagnerian obsession, and mysteriously died before the castle was finished. Many reviews I read of this castle said that because it was unfinished, it’s not worth touring the inside. Untrue! The tour was totally worth it and really fills out Ludwig’s vision and obsession. Book your tickets in advance and avoid a huge line.

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It was a cloudy day. I waited two hours for this little sliver of light. Then it covered over and the light never came back. When you come this far and think about a photo for so long, two hours wait is okay. Special thanks to my ever-patient wife who actually sat there for 90 minutes with me. (Please, no mention of ‘vemödalen‘.)

dsc_5649Hohenschwangau Castle

The trip to this part of Germany was one of the greatest trips my wife and I have ever taken. We would have loved to see more snow (being from Canada and currently living in Africa), but in every way the trip was absolutely amazing. Our visit to Grainau / Garmisch-Partenkirchen was our favourite part of the whole trip.

Austria

Austria was as great as Germany, and was like going a whole degree deeper into the culture of this part of the world. We stopped in Innsbruck for lunch, which was incredibly busy after Christmas / before New Year (a time called ‘Jul’, or ‘Interscotia’, as I recently found out.) The alpine range rose behind the city like a giant salt rock wall, and the architecture of the city indicated that we were in a place set apart from its neighbour to the north.

Now I had this brilliant idea (sarcasm should be noted) that we were going to drive through the Alps. Take the scenic route.

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So the last third of the trip was in darkness since we didn’t get there until the night time – which began around 5pm. However, the first part through the Alps was incredible. I felt like I was in a car ad. I did take a few photos as we drove through valleys, ski villages and around crazy bends that revealed massive panoramas, but I don’t feel any of them did the scenery any justice.

This was one of the only photos I took in Salzburg, in the Salzburg Cathedral. There was a lot to photograph, but there are times on vacation that I don’t want to carry the gear.

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dsc_5801Gingerbread!

Salzburg was a beautiful city, and although we didn’t visit a lot of the cultural landmarks, I would like to go back during a less touristy time and visit again. It was very congested at Christmas, and I can only imagine summer must be intense.

We had returned the rental car and booked a trip to Vienna by train. I was glad to have reserved seats as well, because the train was packed with people cramming the aisles. Everyone was traveling for New Year’s Eve.

Vienna

Vienna! The architecture and vastness of this city are dizzying. We walked for days and saw so much, yet visited so little of the city. This is a place worthy of the hype in its history and grandeur. It’s one of those European cities that you wish you could live in some dream.

dsc_5846The famous Café Central.

dsc_5880The Wiener Riesenrad

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The winter markets in Vienna were similar to the ones we’d seen in Munich, but with an Austrian distinction. We had also seen the winter markets in Salzburg and partly in Innsbruck. They sold a great assortment of hot drinks to walk you through the cold nights, which was a great way to spend New Year’s Eve.

We wandered through the wide, busy streets of the old city, drinking, eating, and dodging massive crowds. Before midnight, in one of the spots we had stopped for some glühwein, a waltz began to play over the loud speakers. Everyone around us suddenly started to dance. It was the perfect New Years in Vienna.

And so Austria, from its alpine spine to its historical city wonderlands (winter wonderlands, for us) was a great way to conclude the trip. If you love Christmas, you will love Germany and Austria!

 

(A final note – I was surprised at the amount of people who smoke in Germany and Austria. It’s a huge part of the culture there, perhaps even bigger than when we were in Asia. It was especially noticeable in Austria where people were smoking in most cafes, restaurants and bars. I read that the law is changing but that it’s been so slow because no one wants to enforce it. Really, Austria?)

 

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Posted by on January 9, 2017 in Life Abroad

 

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Cambodia Part II: The Floating Village

The floating village is sold as some sort of tour that is one of the things “to do” around Siem Reap.
We took a tuk-tuk an hour out there, then found the fee to hire a boat was about $30 USD. We might have figured there was a fee, but for Cambodia this is a complete rip off. But when you’ve made your way all the way there, you’re a captive audience that’s not likely to say ‘forget it’ and go home.

We should have.

We spent an hour cruising through floating slums. We were told that most of the people who lived there couldn’t afford land, so made a life on the water. Sometimes for generations. He told us the villagers “didn’t mind” the tourists coming through on boats, but as I observed faces through my telephoto lens, it didn’t seem at all like they wanted another camera pointing at them. No one wants to live like zoo animals.

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The guides brought us to a “crocodile farm”, which was nothing more than a leather bag breeding pool that had been built into the floor of a floating shop. As we ‘took our break’ there, children carrying snakes floated up beside us, trying to sell photo ops.

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The guides had been going on about donating to the local school. Then he brought us to a rice shop where we were given the option of handing over $60 USD or $30 USD to donate rice to the orphans. Just hand over the money, they’ll take care of it. I laughed and got back in the boat. First of all, it’s absurd to think that rice costs that much in Cambodia. That was the giveaway. Subsequent internet searches have found frequent postings about this scam. It’s said the orphanage will even use children who have parents to try and part tourists with ‘donations’.

If you visit Cambodia, beware of these and other hustles. If you want to give to charity, make sure to give  through valid agencies.

Next- Cambodia Part III: Koh Rong

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2013 in Life Abroad

 

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Japan Part II – Kyoto

We stayed in Kyoto for five days, which gave us plenty of time to travel all around the city on foot, by bus and by bicycle. Kyoto is a fantastic city for bicycles, everything is flat and you can get from point to point very quickly.

The image sharpness of the horizontal shots are soft due to WordPress resizing them in this standard gallery format. You can click on the images to improve this and make them larger – especially recommended for the wider panorama shots.




















In the Imperial Palace, this is the place where the emperor sat. The bamboo partition would be lowered so he could not be viewed directly. Click image for much larger version.

















Next: Japan Part III – Minoh and Nara

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

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Japan Part I – Osaka


























Next: Japan Part II – Kyoto

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

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Japan – introduction

Living in Korea for the last 2+ years has somewhat prepared us for our visit to Japan. And by prepared, I mean that it minimalized any culture shock. Although the two countries have their deep divisions in history, there are undeniable parallels in their cultures. Their mutual influence, interconnectedness, and proximity have created some similarities, while they remain entirely distinct.

I won’t compare the two, but coming from South Korea has inevitably caused us to draw comparisons and differences that might affect the overtone of this post.

Let’s make it simple. I’ll list off what I love about Japan.

-Order. That might drive some people crazy, but when you have so many people and so much going on around you, it’s nice to know that people are going to behave in a civilized and respectful way, even to complete strangers. People don’t push and shove to get on the bus, and they are generally aware of their surroundings. It’s a universal courtesy and I love it. In some sense, it restores my faith in humanity as a direct contradiction to the “ME FIRST” mentality. If they can be polite in overcrowded places like Japan, people can be polite everywhere. It’s the choices we make about the kind of people we want to be.

-Mixing the old with the new. When you think of traditional attire in any country, you wouldn’t expect to see people wearing it in the street. But arriving in Japan in the sweltering heat of summer, I was surprised to see so many men and women dressed in Yukatas (casual traditional Japanese clothing.) I saw Geishas and Maiko’s discretely scuttling the side streets of Kyoto, appearing and disappearing from doorways a few short blocks from each other. I had never expected to be treated to such a vibrant part of living history. The flipside was the fierce, stylistic edge that can be found ubiquitously throughout the streets of Japan. Many women were dressed to kill, and many of them were busy checking each other’s’ appearance as well. It reminded me of Montreal, where as a new arrival, I voiced concern about why so many people were staring at me. “Because they’re checking you out” I was told. People staring at other people out of interest in fashion and uniqueness. This is Japan.

This type of style called “Lolita” seems to be popular among some of the younger girls, with outfits that could get quite elaborate.

-The transportation system. It can be expensive, but do you really need to take the super-highspeed bullet train? If you’re modest about your travel plans – or even better, if you’re traveling only within one province – it’s not that bad. We went from Osaka to Kyoto for 600 Yen (roughly 7 dollars for a city about 90 minutes away.) Despite the generally high price for public transportation, the convenience and extensiveness of it can’t be beaten. The entire world should be looking at Japan as a model. Even though everything in Japan is in close proximity, it’s still an amazing standard.

-Cycling is a huge part of everyday life and alleviates so much road traffic. People need more exercise and where you’re going most of the time is not even that far away. Cycling is so pervasive in Japan that they have to regulate where you can even park a bike. Bikes and people share small sidewalks and no one is griping about it because everyone is respectful and that’s the way it is.

-History. Everything you could imagine about the history of Japan in front of your eyes. Glorious and astounding.

-Fine women.

To be fair, I will also list some of the cons about Japan.

-Price. Almost everything. But just get over it, you’ll have a better time. And eventually you’ll realize, as long as you’re not buying everything in sight, it’s really not that bad. If you’re coming from Canada or the US, the cost increase might seem incremental, but I hazard the assumption that you too, will find it most worth it. I would suggest that you don’t come to Japan as a backpacker on a backpacker’s budget.

It’s too good to budget for eating at McDonald’s twice a day because you want to afford the subway tomorrow.

-Everything is small. If you like to eat a lot, get used to smaller portions at high prices. If you take an American size XL, don’t plan on shopping.

-Almost no English. Jeju Island, where we live is also like this. With basic Korean we get by, but even in the big cities of Japan, you will get minimal to no English. So it’s good to learn basic phrases, and be prepared to skip a lot of restaurants because unless there are pictures on the menu, you’re not going to have any idea what you’re getting yourself into. Everyday things like transportation are not a problem, (everything is translated) and despite the complexity, you can easily get the hang of their amazing, integrated transportation system. Just ask an attendant, they’re incredibly helpful. I’ve been told taxis are a different story when it comes to English though. But man, those taxis sure do look like a classy ride.

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves from here on out. But really- if you ever come from the west to see Asia, do not miss out on Japan. It might be among the costliest of your destinations, but it will also be amongst the most memorable.

Since we had 12 days, we made our itinerary simple. Osaka, Kyoto, then Osaka again to make some day trips out to Minoh and Nara. The pictures are posted chronologically in 4 different posts.

Next: Japan Part I – Osaka

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

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