As a Foreign Service Officer, my husband is considered to be “quasi-military” for some purposes. On the one hand it makes no sense, as he, like most of his diplomatic colleagues, would probably be booted out of the military in a matter of days just for having an attitude.
On the other hand, we serve our country just as military families do: and in fact, whereas most military families live in fairly nice places such as Germany, Japan, or Korea, the majority of Foreign Service families live in forgotten corners of the developing world. It is somewhat ironic that on our first “nice tour,” in the Czech Republic, where we really don’t need “rest and recreation leave,” from our surroundings, we are finally enjoying military perks like shopping in base PXs and staying at Armed Forces Recreation Centers. Go figure.
The AFRC is a remnant of postwar “poor” Europe. In the years after World War Two, when living in Germany was actually rather difficult, these recreation centers were established as a refuge for servicemen and their families. Nowadays, with European currencies whupping the dollar, they are an affordable way for servicemen to enjoy some mountain scenery. I suspect that they must be self-supporting, because they are marketed fairly extensively and certainly behave like a commercial operation.
Anyway, we made a reservation in a “deluxe cabin” in the base campground, located at the foot of the Zugspitze, the highest peak in Germany. It turned out to be an adorable mini-Alpine log cabin, complete with a German-style corner dinette and a loft for the kids to “camp” in. Best of all: a cozy little bedroom for Mom and Dad. No wait, the very best thing had to be the base library, a wonderful thing for kids who haven’t seen an English-language library or bookstore in a year.
While we lack for nothing in Prague, it’s still fun to hit the military commissary, where I can actually read all the labels. We blew through there in about 20 minutes, filling our cart with everything from microwave popcorn, to hot dogs, to Lucky Charms. Hmmmmmm….no wonder Americans are so fat!
The first night the kids were (naturally) up until well after 10. PM. My 5-year-old son, who has “a problem with transitions,” was a basket case. So the next day we took them on a 5 mile hike to burn off some of that unfocused anxiety. We took a cable car up to the Hausberg, 1,350 meters above sea level. It was a crystal clear day, and I hear that view was stunning. I did not actually see it, since I was sitting on the floor of the cable car putting on sunscreen and pretending that I was not, in fact, suspended by a spindly cable 100 meters above the forest, but on a nice, solid rock.
It took 2 and 1/2 hours to walk down to the bottom, stopping along the way at a café that clings to the side of the mountain, and to my mild surprise, the kids did really well. I helped my scientifically inclined son collect “specimens” for his pack, unaware that is was actually illegal to pick the flowers, and I bribed both of them with the promise of lunch at Pizza Hut. No beer gardens for us on this trip, alas!
On day three we made an excursion to the Freilichtmuseum Glentleiten, a very cool little outdoor museum near the village of Kochel am See. Actually, as far as I could tell from my very limited ability to translate the German signs, the museum itself used to be an exceptionally quaint little mountainside hamlet, until all the inhabitants died of old age. We got to see what Bavarian farmhouses look like when they have not been renovated and converted into Gasthofs (inns) and gift shops. Most of the houses even had photographs of the original inhabitants, some of whom occupied the houses until the 1980s.
These houses were built like little caves, with foot-thick walls made of huge wooden beams and whitewashed inside. Some rooms had fascinating folk art on the walls, painted by the folks who spent many hours in them during long, cold winter days. Pictures of past popes, crucifixes, and other Catholic icons were the only other ornaments, along with the occasional item of painted furniture, and of course, lots and lots of potted geraniums on the windowsills and balconies.
Outside each house, rows and rows and firewood were stacked, all cut to exactly the same length, and stacked perpendicular to the walls. Not only is this almost obsessively tidy, but it is a very sensible way of providing extra insulation. The more firewood is burned, the smaller the pile gets, and the warmer the days become, therefore less insulation is required. Firewood is still stacked this way throughout the valley.
There are several more infinitely sensible little tricks that I have only seen before in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. One example: the barns with the earthen ramp to drive the wagon up to the second floor and pitch the hay out. Not only is this a good way to keep the barn’s entrance from being covered with snow, but it means that you pitch the hay down onto the pile instead of up onto the top. Duh. I’m still wondering about the small barns with the walls that are narrower at the top than at the bottom. I know it makes sense, I just don’t know why yet!
Day four was our wedding anniversary so we put the kids in the AFRC day camp, hoped for the best, and hit the road. Our destination: Schloss Linderhof, described in the Rough Guide to Germany as “one of King Ludwig’s more restrained fantasies.” Restrained in size, perhaps, but still pretty ostentatious. The Linderhof itself is a sort of mini-castle: it has all the glitz and excess of other Hapsburg residences, but with fewer rooms. Apparently Mad Kind Ludwig had a thing for the Bourbons of France, and especially for Versailles. So he built a country park in Bavaria long similar lines, in a last gasp of the Bavarian monarchy.
Ludwig lived at Linderhof for just a few years before drowning in a nearby lake under suspicious circumstances. One gets the feeling, looking at kilometer after kilometer of infinitely sensible, tidy farms, that a man like Ludwig II just didn’t belong in Bavaria and was doomed from the day he was born.
The most interesting aspect of the place is the natural air conditioning provided by a mountain stream that been trained to cascade down a series of ledges into a pond. The water is so cold that the spray is really nice on a hot (by German standards) day. The cool air created by the waterfall wafts into the tall windows of the palace, opposite. The pond is, naturally, adorned by a huge golden statue of nymphs or something that doubles as a both a forty-foot fountain and a duck roost.
The weirdest part of the estate is the Venus Grotto, created out of reinforced concrete on a hillside overlooking the palace. I guess that in a way King Ludwig was a visionary, because this fake cave resembles nothing more than a ride in a modern amusement park. He would float in a frilly, shell-shaped canoe like some kind of drag queen (Ludwig is widely rumored to have been a repressed homosexual) and listen to Wagner’s operas as performed on a small stage beside an artificial lake. The first electricity in Bavaria was generated to provide red, blue, and green lighting. The whole shebang is lifted from Wagner’s opera “Tannheuser,” about which I know nothing, but which I suspect must be very strange indeed. Sounds like the Magic Kingdom, doesn’t it?
On the way back we stopped in Ettal, a small resort town with a really big Baroque monastery and church, for lunch. A word about German meals: portions are big! I ordered the cheese plate, which is basically an appetizer, along with a small beer, but I could barely finish it. A big, ruddy-faced German woman at the next table took the large beer, along with a meat dish that covered the entire plate. It was literally enough for three people, but she managed to finish it.
You certainly get your money’s worth at a German restaurant, but there are plenty of overweight, red-faced locals walking around to remind you of the consequences of living that way all the time! That said, I saw plenty of older, quite hefty Germans tooling around on bicycles that I was surprised that they could manage at all, much less pedal up mountain slopes. There must be something to the routine of biking, “wandering” and downing large quantities of beer, but I don’t think I could handle it for long, myself.
On the fifth day, we hiked the Partnachklamm, a truly impressive Alpine gorge located on the edge of Partenkirchen. An icy stream tumbles down from the mountaintop, gaining speed with every jump over granite boulders.The path is an engineering accomplishment in itself, clinging to the side of the gorge overlooking the water. I was nervous, and held my five-year-old son’s arm in a death grip. On the one hand, we would probably be liability-conscious in the U.S. that kids would never be allowed to walk a path like that. On the other hand, I consider it my responsibility as a parent to decide what’s safe for my kids and find the U.S. to be awfully nanny-ish. This is a thought that occurs to me often when traveling in Europe. On balance, I am happy that we are able to have experiences like hiking the Partnach gorge!
Then, the ladies shopped. We camped next door to a family of our acquaintance, and the menfolk took the kids swimming while we indulged in strudel and “ethnoplunder.” I came away with a few gifts, the inevitable ceramic beer mug, and some hand-painted Bavarian wooden thingies to hang on my kitchen wall. Wooden animals are also found here: I couldn’t help but notice that my entire collection of Central American animals would cost about as much as one Bavarian critter! I’m glad I plundered while the plundering was cheap. I can see that collecting in Europe is an endeavor to consider much more seriously than in the mercado. (No rebajas either!)
On the sixth day, we took our chances on the kids’ camp once again and rented bikes. Our neighbors were determined to bike to Mittenwald, a round trip of about 60 kilometers. We intended to follow along, but to be frank, while most of me is in decent shape, my hindquarters are not used to mountain biking. When the trail began to follow along a major highway and to slope upwards about ten degrees for as far as the eye could see, both buttocks screamed “surrender now!” I swear I could hear them over the roar of traffic, really! So, I talked my husband who is, by his own admission, “much more into exercise as torture” than I am, into heading back toward downtown Partenkirchen to take photos and eat strudel. Both were excellent. Partenkirchen is the more residential half of the Garmisch-Partenkirchen holiday town/complex, and the high street is much less touristy than Garmisch’s but with just as many beautiful painted buildings to admire.
After stoking up on strudelly energy, and taking a few photos, we decided to bike toward Grainau, another lovely village but located quite close to Garmisch. We didn’t make it quite that far, although the bike path that followed along the train tracks was flattish and very pretty, lined by fields, barns, and lots of flowers. About two kilometers from Grainau we saw a sign pointing to Reisersee–well, more accurately to the Hotel-Café Reisersee-and the thought of a cold beer next to a cool Alpine lake was simply irresistible. We foolishly tried to walk the bikes up to the lake, but quit halfway up and locked them to a bench.
The lake was beautiful, surrounded on three sides by green forest and with glaciers looming far above on the Zugspitze. The water was very cold, but did not deter the German tourists, who were splashing around in it with plenty of joy. I don’t imagine they get a lot of sunny, 85-degree days in these parts, and I think it had been declared a local holiday. After borrowing a pillow to sit on, I quite enjoyed my lunch of potato noodles with butter and cheese-kind of a baked potato, only a different shape-and nonalcoholic Lowenbrau. (I’ve learned to look for the vegetarian sections on the menu here!)
The next day, after popping a couple of ibuprofen to soothe my aching muscles-I really do intend to start biking more often-we polled the kids and found that, given a choice between tooling around picturesque villages with parents and watching Pokemon on a four-foot TV screen, they will dump us in a heartbeat. So we signed them up for summer camp again. This could be a dangerous habit! Anyway, we hopped in the car and headed to Oberammergau, home of the famous Passion Play which has successfully warded off the plague for 400-plus years. The town was OK, but, after the first couple of shops flogging religious statues at inflated prices, I had had enough and stopped for strudel (again). Nice church, though.
Off to Mittenwald, but in air-conditioned comfort this time! Mittenwald delivered what Oberammergau had promised. Perched at the very edge of Germany, with Austria just over the next mountain, this town seems to date mostly from the 15th century. We parked in a municipal lot at the edge of town, as the medieval layout is not car-friendly! The market streets snake around beside an ice-cold stream that is tidily contained in a cement bed with footbridges every few feet. My husband observed, probably correctly, that this was the town’s original sewage system. And a very efficient one it probably was, judging from the speed of the current.
I was really glad to have finished our stay in the Bavarian countryside in Mittenwald-it seems to be the ultimate in Bavarian small towns. I’ll be back some day, for sure.
Sniffling, we packed up our worldly goods and departed from our cabin, which was beginning to seem like home, right down to the smell of damp towels over the banisters and beer bottles in the recycling bin. (Well, you had to be there…) Next stop: the Deutsches Museum in Munich.
It was awesome. Definitely on par with anything the Smithsonian Institution has to offer, and to our delight about three-quarters of the signs were bilingual German/English! Boats, trains, cars, submarines, rockets, buttons to push: this museum has it all, and with a great gift shop. My kids were enthralled, and I had a pretty good time too, especially at the exhibit on the history of textiles. We couldn’t possibly do it all in one afternoon, but that just leaves more for another time.
Onward to the Holiday Inn Munich South. Wrong move. Germany is usually so well-run that it’s a real shock when a hotel staff is just plain clueless. It was clean and had a decent breakfast, but that’s about all I can say for it. We also discovered with 5 and 9 year old kids who snore, sleep sideways, and speak in mysterious tongues whenever they are unconscious (mind you, I’m not naming names here…) our family is just getting too big to squeeze into two dinky European double beds. We had intended to stay three nights, but I told my husband the next morning that I could handle one night, but three would probably kill me. We took a poll, and everyone agreed that it was time to go home. We packed up everything in an amazing 20 minutes or so and crammed it into the car top carrier by handing bags up to my husband fire-brigade style.(Diplomatic families are the world’s best packers and unpackers. My dad once told me it looked like a military encampment being taken apart and put on trucks.)
So, we spent the morning at the Munich Zoo. Awesome once again! Happy furry animals in 70-degree heat, unlike the poor, wilted creatures you see in August at the Washington Zoo. Clean as a whistle. A good many signs in English. A kiddie amusement section with train, car, pony, and motorcycle rides. And, the piece de resistance, a great big playground in the middle with a beer garden in it! This arrangement may be Germany’s single greatest contribution to world civilization. Actually, we must have passed six or eight beer gardens as we walked through the zoo, each with several Germans sitting peacefully under trees downing half-liters at 11 AM. Amazing.
After a lunch of non-alcoholic beer and pretzels (I would put a good cold Clausthaler up against lemonade for thirst-quenching any day!) we hit the road. It turned out to be a longer day than we had planned-one of the disadvantages to traveling in rich countries is that everyone else has a car too. But we stopped by the military base in Vilseck on the way home anyway, to stock up on huge jars of Jif peanut butter, Hebrew National hot dogs, Tyson’s chicken nuggets, and other essentials. Finally got back about 10 PM, tired, sticky, but happy. Now that’s what I call a vacation!