AUGSBURG, Germany: September 21 - October 1, 2007
A few pictures are sprinkled throughout this travelogue, but click here for the full picture gallery for this trip!
We got a bit of a late start on Friday October 21, leaving Squirrel Hill at around 3:45, just in time for the Friday rush hour traffic leaving the city through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. We were slowed down by that a bit, but ended up overall making reasonable time. We stopped for dinner once (FYI: they got rid of all the PNC ATMs on the PA Turnpike! now it’s some lame off-brand) and got pizza and a Cinnabon. The rest of the drive was uneventful – we saw a bunch of sheep, talked and listened to the radio. Isaac kept trying to go to sleep but I made him stay up to keep me company and navigate when we got near my sister’s. We made it there at around 10:30pm and pretty much went straight to bed, exhausted from the long drive.
Saturday we spent some time with my sister and her son a little bit before it was time for his nap. We went over to my mom’s and caught up with her and her husband. We all went to the boardwalk in Seaside Heights , NJ, and rode the skylift to one end and walked to the other. We had zeppolis and a clown made some heart balloons for my mom and me. That evening, the whole family went to dinner at TGI Friday's -- we were quite a crowd! The waiter gave us one of these electronic devices they call the "ESP" (link goes to a local news video; keep an eye out for my sister, the customer quoted in the video about halfway through!). You can press the button on it and it lets your server know you need him/her. Supposedly everyone loves this because it cuts down on response time for the server, and this makes the customers happy, so they tip more, which makes the servers happy. That evening Isaac and I played the CSI board game with my sister. It was actually pretty challenging! It took a long time, but I had fun and would like to try it again. We weren't sure, but it seemed like there might have been some typos in the case we solved, so I'd like to try it again with one of the other cases.
After the walk it was after 3pm, so Isaac and I decided to make an early start to the airport for our flight to Germany. We had to return the rental car so we didn’t want to cut it too close. The rest of the trip went relatively uneventfully, except when we had to call my friend Amy near the airport to get her to use the Internet to find us a gas station to refill the rental (why oh why don’t more airports have gas stations on site!?). We made it through check-in and security with little difficulty and got to the gate after stopping for take out Chinese just as boarding began (starts a bit earlier for international flights).
Thank goodness for nonstop flights – I think I was actually able to sleep a bit on the 9-hour flight to Munich. I’m just glad we didn’t have to stop over in London or something; nothing worse than trying to clear customs and transfer flights at 6am when you’re jetlagged and sleepy from not getting to sleep on the plane. Trust me, I’ve done it enough times! We made it to Munich without event bright and early Monday morning (our flight landed at approximately 10:30am).
Day 1 – Monday 09/24
Our first day in Germany! Immediately on landing I was struck by the beautiful weather --- low humidity, 65 degrees, sunny and clear. Back in Pittsburgh it was going to be another hot and muggy day. We landed into Munich, which is actually about an hour drive from Augsburg, so we still had to get there before our journey was done. We had decided to take the Lufthansa Airport Bus (aka the "City-Airport-Bus" route) to get to Augsburg because it was by far the cheapest option at only 15 euros one-way. Unfortunately it only runs 3x a day in each direction, so we had about 2 hours to wait for the next one. Since it was so nice out, and we had each gotten a reasonable amount of sleep, though, it wasn’t such a bad wait. I busied myself reading up in our guidebook (Lonely Planet’s “Munich and Bavaria”) about the region, useful German phrases, and other cultural notes.
One thing that was readily apparent on our landing in Germany was that smoking is still very much a common habit there. There are painted outlines on the train platforms denoted for smoking, which people do respect, but most anywhere else there’s no specific smoker vs nonsmoker separation. Quite a difference from the US in that regard! I've never understood why the Europeans seem so attached to their smoking, especially when you check out some of their warning labels!
Once the bus came (on-time), we boarded. The trip was supposed to be about 70 minutes, but it actually ended up taking almost 2.5 hours! There was ridiculous traffic on the tiny 4-lane highway leading out of Munich, for no apparent reason. We never did find out what was causing it (it was only around 2pm). But it was a pretty miserable ride. It was hot and stuffy on the bus since we often literally stopped, and then the bus driver would turn off the bus, so then the A/C wasn't on. Isaac and I tried to resist, but with the stuffy air, the quiet ride and the long traveling we had just done, we couldn't help but doze off during the ride.
Finally, though, we arrived in Ausgburg! Relying heavily on my map, we made it to the hotel, although I lost my favorite hoodie on the way :( When we got the hotel around 4:30pm, we checked in without incident and finally got to shower and relax!
In an effort not to succumb to jet lag and go to bed ridiculously early, Isaac and I set out to explore and find dinner. We ate at a tiny Chinese fast food joint (imbiss is the keyword to look for on German eateries that do fast food or quick take-away, spelled properly in German as imbiß), where they spoke absolutely no English. We were able to decipher the menu enough anyway to have some really delicious food, especially considering how quickly it was delivered to us. After dinner, we returned to the hotel, and hung out trying to stay awake until around 9:30pm. Isaac paid for T-Mobile Hotspot access to the Internet (T-Mobile is pretty ubiquitous in the regions we were traveling and this was the only option for wireless at the hotel).
Up to that point, we had had reasonable luck with English speakers. Of course the passport agent at airport immigration did speak English, but the bus driver not so much; the woman we asked about the bus was very fluent. The Chinese people at the imbiss joint spoke extremely little (I remember her asking me “take-away?” in English). The hotel staff were fluent, of course.
There are two sources of church bells right near our hotel: The Kirche St-Anna (kirche means church) and the Perlach Tower (on the left in the photo above). The bell are awesome (a bit of sarcasm there) – not only does one chime the hour, but it chimes the half hour (two chimes), AND the quarter-hours (one chime at 15, 3 chimes at 45). The other pipes up completely separately on the hour only. Writing this on Monday night at 9pm, it remains to be seen if either goes to bed for the night…
Day 2 – Tuesday 09/25
Well, it turned out the church doesn’t wake up till 7am, but the construction next door did at 6am. Woo. Tactical error today – did get up for breakfast at 8:30am but then went back to sleep around 11am until 2pm. Is now 11pm, need to sleep, no sign of it.
It was on this day that my digital camera started complaining about its battery being low. Because of the difficulty of traveling in Europe for plugging things in (not only do you need an outlet adapter, because the plugs are shaped differently, you also need a voltage converter from 220v to 110v), I hadn’t brought the charger for the camera battery. It actually ended up lasting quite a long time once I turned off the display for the preview (it still showed the postview after a shot was taken, conveniently). We only had to use our dorky little disposable film cameras on the last day we were in Germany.
After about an hour there, we moved on to a neighboring university (about 15 minutes walk) which was hosting the Interactive Arts Program portion of the conference. It was basically a set of projects making use of some kind of multimedia technology in an experimental interactive way. For instance, we saw a mind-controlled robotic fern plant; a little abstract sculpture which could have conversations with you; a motion detector/tracker using a new visualization algorithm to render the motion exploring the bounds of what is still recognizable as “human” motion; and many others. It was neat to see all these in action as a lighter, more creative side to the conference. However, the food was seriously lacking – it was not dinner, even though the reception went from 6:30 to 10pm, and the mini hors d’oeuvres they provided were largely non-vegetarian. I ate about 4-5 little tomato-mozzarella skewers, but that was it. On our way home, Isaac and I looked for places to eat, but it being so late, everything was actually already closed! So we had to go to bed hungry. Ah well. Such can be the life of a vegetarian in Europe!
Day 3 – Wednesday 09/26
I went into the conference after that and had lunch in the cafeteria with all the other attendees. The cafeteria was quite large and had a lot of hot meal offerings. This is consistent with something the guidebook mentioned, which is that lunch is the main meal of the day in Germany/Bavaria, and for dinner, people often don’t even have cooked food but instead eat simple fare such as cold cuts and cheese. The vegetarian option was a fried potato-and-spinach fritter which was actually quite tasty. There were various sides to choose from, and some simple desserts like pudding and fruit compote.
Many of the conference sessions were a tad over my head. This conference is very technically oriented, focusing on computer vision and multimedia processing algorithms, which I know next-to-nothing about. I was able to find interesting sessions somewhat on the fringe of the main conference theme, though, and these were generally the ones I attended. I didn’t really know anyone at the conference except a few people I had met at FXPAL over the summer (although no one I worked with directly), and a former colleague of my advisor whom I had once met at another conference.
That night Isaac and I asked the hotel receptionist if she had any recommendations for places vegetarians could go to still have a chance to sample traditional Bavarian cuisine. She suggested the Ratskeller – a restaurant/bar in the basement of the Rathaus itself. In spite of the guidebook’s caution against visiting the Ratskeller (they have one in every city, pretty much, and they all tend to be a bit touristy), we went with it because we were hungry and it was adjacent to our hotel. The waiter we got spoke a little English (probably because we mentioned that we didn’t speak German to the host), and we proceeded to gorge ourselves on giant beers and an immense amount of cheese.
Day 4 – Thursday 09/27
This day at the conference, I saw some interesting talks, especially the technical discussions of some of the Interactive Arts Program pieces from Tuesday’s reception. For lunch I had a giant veggie lasagna, which was really just noodles and a white sauce, with a few pieces of spinach and tomato and mushroom on top. Germans don’t really do vegetarian that well :)
We had a weird situation near the end of the meal – neither of us had any cash coins to leave for tip, and I had paid with my credit card. We were still unsure about the tipping situation. The guidebook said most people leave a tip of 5-10% on top of the always-included gratuity, but we had never witnessed anyone doing this, nor was there a space on the credit card slip to add a tip. Most other nights we had left a little less than 10 percent, for fear of giving Americans a stingy name, but this night we eventually opted not to leave anything, and left feeling extremely guilty. It’s interesting how our culture of not paying waitstaff enough to live on has permeated our approach to dining out – it now feels almost criminal not to tip at least 15%! Going to countries where they don’t tip at all always feels odd. We never did figure out the tipping situation, so if you ever go yourself, look into it and let us know!
Day 5 – Friday 09/28
Today was the actual day of my workshop, so I planned to be at the conference for the full day. I got up a bit earlier than I had been and took the tram in, which was crammed with high school students, who apparently use it just for their regular transport to and from school. The German teenagers looked much like American ones, but a bit more European in their fashion sense (read: more edgy as the norm).
Overall I enjoyed my workshop a lot – I met several people who seemed interested in my work, and one student who even said I was on his reading list! So it turns out someone is paying attention after all. It is a nice feeling to find that you and your advisors aren’t the only ones who are aware of what you are doing in your work, but that you might have a broader audience. I gave a talk about my work on the handwriting-based algebra tutor so far and a demo of our current prototype system in the workshop.
One interesting thing happened at lunch. We had free lunch in the cafeteria as usual, and the vegetarian option today was an “apple pancake”. Essentially it was like a crèpe, but thicker and less-sweet dough, filled with roasted apples and applesauce. It was really good, but a bit odd for a lunch entrée selection. In true European fashion, I had pommes frites to accompany it :)
Day 6 – Saturday 09/29
Today may have been my favorite day – we visited the fairy tale castles of southern Bavaria, Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. King Ludwig I of Bavaria (in the 19th century, before Germany became Germany), grew up in one beautiful castle overlooking the Alps and a lake and the valley, and then decided to build a “perfect” one on a higher hill with even more stunning views. We decided to go visit them in person to see what all the fuss was about.
We got off at the Füssen train station and took a bus (included in our Bayern-Ticket/Bavaria-Ticket, which is good for one day and up to 5 people to ride any regional transportation in Bavaria including buses, trains, trams and subways, even in Munich) to the castles. We disembarked with about a hundred other tourists who had all taken the train down, too. The ticket buying situation is a little odd – you have to go to a ticket office in the little town where the bus drops you off, and you are assigned a tour number and time, and then you go to each castle at the appointed time on your own. We got a tour of both castles booked for 3:15 and 5:15, respectively (we arrived around 2pm). Note that the 5:15 is the last one of the day!
At the end of the tour, Isaac and I got a snack from the shop adjacent to the ticket building. He got a Berliner (“Ich bin ein Berliner!”) but failed to take a picture of the sign, and we never saw another jelly doughnut labeled that way in our stay. I wonder if it was actually just for the tourists. I got one of the ubiquitous brezels (pretzels) and an Apfelschorle, a kind of apple juice+mineral water combo that tastes like sparkling cider but less sweet. We knew the walk to the other castle, Neuschwanstein, was a long and grueling uphill battle so we began as quickly as possible. You can take a horse-drawn carriage up the hill for €7,50 round-trip, but the carriages don’t go any faster than you could walk and there’s always a long line, so you might not make your tour time after all. My recommendation is, unless you’re a sufferer of joint pain or exertion would be bad for you, do the walk, even though, frankly, it’s pretty terrible.
It was then nearing 6:30pm and we still had a long trek down to the town and then the bus back to the train station. One our way down we noted that all the tourist shops were already closed (they close at 6pm), even the snack shops. This seemed to us a silly move, as the last tours of the castles would just be getting done then and it seemed like one extra hour could really rake in more cash for the folks. We ended up getting pommes frites at a little Asian imbiss in Füssen, with 3 minutes to spare for our train (with a transfer this time in Kaufbeuren) back to Augsburg.
When we arrived home it was only a little after 10pm, and remember this was Saturday night…and absolutely everything was closed. Except McDonald’s and the bars. So Isaac and I went without a real dinner that night (again, actually) because we were just too tired to go back out to hunt for a restaurant after all our walking around that day (not to mention most would have been closed by then). This was a nuisance on our trip – things closing so much earlier than we’d expect and just not much night life unless you were drinking or clubbing.
Day 7 – Sunday 09/30
Today was the today we planned to go to Munich (finally) and also see Oktoberfest in full swing. It had been going on from September 20th and would continue till October 5th. I didn’t know much about it, save the stereotypical “drink a lot of beer and eat a lot of sauerbraten” so I was sure in for a surprise! But first, the early part of the day…
We actually slept late this day. I hate those vacations where you’re operating on less sleep than usual and trying to see and do more things than usual – you hardy feel like you had any relaxation at all when you get back! So we has a leisurely breakfast at the hotel around 11:15. We then headed off to the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) to catch the train to Munich, having bought our Bayern-Ticket and checked timetables the night before.
On the way to the train station, I had planned to check out some more shopping in Augsburg because passing the shoe stores on the way over and over really had me lusting for some of the cute European styles. To my dismay, I discovered that nothing was open on Sunday!! As it turned out, this was also true in Munich. So, if you’re ever in Germany, don’t expect to go shopping on Sunday. Restaurants, coffee shops, brauhauses (German beer halls), and some of the small street stands were open but that was about it. So, no shopping spree for me :( Given the state of the dollar to the euro, this may not have been such a bad thing to have avoided doing actually.
The train was completely full of people heading to Oktoberfest. You could tell this by the fact that they were dressed up in their traditional Bavarian costumes – lederhosen, dirndls, etc. The whole 9. It was kind of fun to see. The train took a little less than an hour and we were deposited in the giant Hauptbahnhof of Munich. My guidebook had a 2-hour walking tour of Munich’s highlights, which we planned to do since we didn’t have time to really go spend a long time at any one attraction in Munich itself.
We wandered through the throngs of tourists and passed the little touristy stands selling beer steins and postcards (the more tourist-y a place was, the more likely it was to be open – the 4 H&M’s we passed, though, totally closed). We saw a couple of street performers – your standard still-as-a-statue people, a guy playing the calliope, another guy playing the accordion, a guy singing opera in a particularly acoustically-friendly alleyway, etc. The weirdest we saw, though, was a Houdini-like escape artist who was being put into a strait jacket. A rather large crowd had gathered and so we stopped to watch, too. It took us a few minutes to realize that this was some sort of traveling missionary act – as the guy was being strait jacketed, and then escaping, two speakers (in English, with a German translator) were expounding on how we’re all chained to Death due to sin and every time a man looks at a woman with lust in his heart it’s the same as committing adultery and we should blahblah. It was kind of creepy actually. We left before the guy actually escaped – enough religious fundamentalism for me, thanks.
We saw many, many, many drunk people who were being held up as they walked with friends, or people passed out on the sidewalk, the closer to Oktoberfest we got. And it was before 5pm (sunset around 7:30). We got some kind of Turkish filled pastry at a döner shop on the way – it was on this leg of our journey I finally realized that a doner shop basically has a giant rotating spit of meat. Actually quite unappetizing, but the pastry was delish.
The tables were all packed, and some seemed to be reserved, so we weren’t quite sure what to do about getting ourselves one of the 1-liter beer mugs. We wandered through a couple of the halls – different music but same atmosphere – before, feeling really overwhelmed and not at all sure what to do, we sat down at the foot of the giant, impressive statue of a woman representing Bavaria. A lot of other people were sitting on the stairs or in the grass, in various stages of intoxication.
As we tried to figure out what to do, I noticed a group of people taking pictures of the statue and talking in English. I thought, hey some Americans, I bet they can explain this whole thing to us. It turned out they were in fact from the States, the South to be exact, and they explained that it’s really every man for himself, although you might be able to get a waitress to help find you a seat if you’re lucky to catch her between beer runs. They said it should be easier now because it seemed less crowded to them. They wished us luck and we parted. It was now about 6pm and the crowds outdoors did seem to be thinning, so we headed back in. We had a few false starts but finally ended up at a table in one of the (much less crowded than indoors) outdoor areas where we were immediately asked by a waiter if we wanted beer, so we got 2 and finally – Oktoberfest was here!
As we weaved through the brightly lit-up rides and booths and the crowds, I felt so happy to have had the chance to do this. We may not have spent all day in the beer tents, and we may have only had 1 mug each, but I felt the spirit of Oktoberfest touch me – the good-natured camaraderie, the celebration of life, and fun and the excitement. We made it home on the 8pm train (getting some pommes frites on the way) and said goodbye to Munich and Oktoberfest.
Day 8 – Monday 10/01
Today was, sadly, our last day in Germany. We got up nice and early (6:20am) to get showered, breakfast and leave for the airport. So early! I’m currently on the plane back to the US. We’re somewhere over the Atlantic, and they have just rebooted the entertainment system for the 2nd time. They reboot, some people’s aren’t working, they reboot again, and different people’s are working. It really doesn’t seem like it should be so interdependent.
Getting to the airport was uneventful – not nearly as much traffic as on our arrival. We had to go through 2 different security lines and 2 different passport control agents to leave Germany, though. What a nuisance. We finally got to the gate with about 45 minutes till boarding. I did some word puzzles and Isaac used his fancy T-Mobile HotSpot to browse the internet. We boarded and so far the flight has been uneventful. I did overhear a wonderful American-ism, though – “I really can’t wait for some Friday’s Jack Daniels chicken.” Figures.
I really enjoyed my time in Germany – I wish I could have stayed longer and seen more of Munich and Bavaria. To say nothing of seeing places like Berlin and Frankfurt. I also felt a bit guilty for not visiting any Holocaust sites like Dachau (which is right near Munich) – I felt sort of selfish saying I didn’t want to prioritize that, when so many people suffered. I feel I almost owed it to them to go and pay respects. Perhaps next time I go I will have more time to make sure I can do that. Another thing I regret not having had a chance to do in Augsburg was see the marionettes show, which apparently has quite a history in Bavaria and Germany and is very popular. On the way to the train station, though, we did see a street performer who was making a marionette play the violin. So I at least got to see a little puppet action while we were there, but if I ever got to go back, the Puppenkiste would be my first stop.
All the people we met in Germany were quite friendly. I’ve lost track of our ratio of English-speakers to non but we had a lot of success everywhere we went when I just said either “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” ("Do you speak English?") or “Ich spreche kein Deutsch” (I don't speak any German). Of course, our sample was representative of the city dwellers only.
We ended the trip with €2,45 (euros) in coins, which Isaac will keep for his knickknack collection (I already have a few euro coins myself).
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it and reminiscing about the trip! I would highly recommend visiting Germany and traveling the countryside of Bavaria especially. Super charming and picture-book perfect with the Alps for a backdrop. Auf weidersehn! Till next time!
(c) 2007 Lisa Anthony. Last revised 11/5/2007.