A Bavarian fairy tale

The villages in Bavaria, Germany are small and sleepy, tucked away off the frantic autobahn where new BMWs roar past at 120 miles per hour. Driving through the soft, rolling hills past corn and wheat fields reminds me of home. That is, until the tour van I’m riding in approaches the village of Hohenschwangau (Upper Swan County) and atop the abrupt start of the Alpine foothills rests Schloss Neuschwanstein.

The palace could be from a fairytale, and in fact, inspired Walt Disney’s design of the castle at Disneyworld. King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a peculiar and reclusive man, designed the castle after the operas of Richard Wagner inspired him. While the castle was completed rather recently (in 1886) its design was medieval because Ludwig found the style to be romantic. He did not spare a single cent and created one of the most famous and beautiful castles in the world.

After my visit to Neuschwanstein, I was enchanted with this perfect, fairytale land. However, like every fairytale, there has to be a villain and the story of Bavaria is no different.

A mere hour from Neuschwanstein lay the villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which hosted the 1936 Winter Olympics. The event was presided over by none other than Adolf Hitler, who, at that time, was considered a legitimate and respectable politician. While the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, were tense and several countries threatened to boycott them, photos from the Winter Olympics show alarming images of acceptance of the Nazi regime.

The Canadian team can be seen giving the Nazi salute, the Nazi flag flew above the French one (even as German troops moved into the Rhineland), and “Jews Not Wanted” signs were removed from shops for the games.

While traveling throughout the Bavarian countryside it was hard for me to reconcile the two conflicting images I had of the area. One, an image of beautiful castles and soft, green hills. The other of a monster with a tight smile, waving to a crowd of people unaware that a human being could be so vile. The story of Bavaria has all the makings of a true fairytale and like the best fairy tales, the villain is defeated by the powers of good.

When travel breaks your heart

I spend a majority of my time writing about the benefits of travel and the beauty I have been fortunate enough to experience while on my adventures, but it is also important to note that travel is not always comfortable or fun and easy. As Anthony Bourdain said, “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts. It even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you—it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you and hopefully you leave something good behind.” The first time I remember my heart breaking while traveling was in Chumphon, Thailand as I was walking to catch a boat to the island of Koh Tao.

I had my trusty backpack with all of my possessions and I was approaching the dock and loading area. As I was crossing the bridge, I heard a horrible noise that raised goosebumps on my arms despite the heat. I followed the noise and looked over the side of the bridge and below, rather than a clear stream, was a garbage filled ditch. In the ditch, I could see that the sound was coming from a dog whose fure was once tan but was now smeared black and brown. He was half way out of the ditch, trying to climb out but his back leg was clearly broken and he couldn’t get any farther. My heart broke, I felt numb and confused, and I had no idea what to do, or who to call.

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Wild dogs run rampant in Thailand. The one pictured was having a wonderful time playing in the water, but many dogs end up dying of disease and starvation as they live on the streets.

This was far from the first loose dog I had seen in the country, as there are many wild dogs in Thailand. Just a few days before I had had to walk over a dead dog outside of the front door of a Starbucks, which had been depressing enough. Now here was a dog in pain, dying, and I could do nothing.

While the dog in Thailand was my first experience with the emotional hardships of travel, the most heartbreaking experiences I have had while traveling occurred during a train ride from Rome to Pordenone, Italy.

The trip would take approximately six hours with one transfer. We had been traveling for an hour and fifteen minutes, making ourselves comfortable for the next few hours before we had to change trains. Simultaneously, I heard and felt a clanging and crunching sound beneath our train. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that my first thought was, “We’ve lost a part of the train, that’s just like the Italians to let their trains run down like that.”

Our train came to a stop and everyone was silent as the conductor came over the intercom. Since he was speaking Italian, Steve and I had no idea what he was saying. After several minutes of silence and our 7 cabin mates speaking amongst themselves, a middle-aged man turned to us and asked, “Did you understand?”

We told him we had not and he proceeded to inform us that a man had jumped in front of our train to end his life. It put the sounds I had heard and felt into horrifying perspective and I thought I might be sick. It was the single worst event I had experienced while traveling.

I have seen countless homeless people, such as the man in Seoul, Korea who had his legs blown off in a Cambodian mine and wheeled himself around on a cart. I have spoken to people who have expressed their blatant hate for Jews, Muslims, Roma (Gypsies), Syrians, Africans, and black Americans.

These things can not be unseen or unheard. And I wouldn’t have it any other way because this reminds me why it is important to see more of the world and hear more from its people to understand my place in it. I only hope that, even though I have had my heart broken by these experiences, I have been changed and I have, hopefully, left “something good behind.”

Soaking in the Széchenyi baths in Budapest

Budapest, like many other Central/Eastern European cities has a variegated history—from its establishment as a Celt village, to a Roman settlement, to a Magyar (Hungarians) tribe’s kingdom, on to Turkish rule, followed by Hapsburg, Nazi, and Communist. While I witnessed and learned much about the city during a guided tour, my favorite part of the trip to Budapest was a visit to the Széchenyi (say-chen-yee) thermal baths.

The Széchenyi baths were established as a permanent bathhouse in 1913 and use the water from two thermal springs. The building itself is beautiful, built in a Neo-Baroque style with series of columns superficially supporting the copper domed roofs. They have over fifteen thermal pools in the building’s large complex, but my favorite was the large outdoor pool.

I visited the baths at night and the soft, golden glow of the streetlamp style lights reflected off the canary yellow building. The steam encouraged an air of mystery and seduction that people in tiny bathing suits did not need, but certainly appreciated. The turquoise-by-day water was now muted cerulean blue under the quiet night sky.

Day and night the bath is filled with a menagerie of locals and tourists of all ages and offers some of the best people watching I have ever seen in Europe.

Children (and adult tourists) play in a “whirlpool” whose artificially strong current constantly knocks you off your feet. There are elderly men testing their mental endurance in games of chess while sitting in the warm waters. Teenagers and adults alike smooch and have no problem with public displays of affection. There are women wearing swim caps doing small laps in the less crowded areas and of course, there are the land dwellers reading books and newspapers along the water’s edge.

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The Szechenyi Baths provide warm water year round. The whirlpool is pictured here with adults and kids alike enjoying its strong current.

Things at Széchenyi have not always been so relaxing. During WWI the complex came upon hard economic times and made no profit. WWII was worse and during one of the worst sieges of the war, one-fifth of the baths were damaged and after the war the buildings fell in to ruin under Soviet rule, having no funds to maintain it.

These days, the most frightening thing the baths see are the hairy, overweight Magyars sporting itsy, bitsy, teeny-tiny Speedos.

An Unforgettable Eruption of Etna

On December 2, 2015 Steve and I were lucky enough to travel to Sicily and take a tour bus to the largest volcano in Europe, Mount Etna. As Mt. Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world we were also lucky enough to miss the eruption that happened less than 24 hours after we visited.

Steve and I had traveled to Sicily as a stop on a cruise and after doing some research decided to take a tour bus from the port in Catania to the nearby volcano.

After an hour on the bus we reached the Sapienza Refuge, which lies south of the two main craters, Bocca Nuova and Voragine. From there we walked to the craters on crunchy, reddish black volcanic rock. With so little vegetation and unfamiliar stones, it was like an alien planet. While the temperature when we left our ship had been in the upper 70’s, on Mt. Etna it had dropped to the upper 50s with a wind that was so strong it nearly knocked me over. I left Etna satisfied and thrilled by the idea that I had just climbed (alright and driven to) my first volcano. Steve and I returned to our ship and sailed away from Sicily and Etna.

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Here I am standing near the Bocca Nuova and Voragine craters.

Two days later, we left the cruise ship, had access to the Internet again, and found that Mt. Etna had erupted less than a day after we were there. We looked at images of the volcano and could hardly believe that the docile mountain we stood on could explode so fiercely. Video footage of the event showed volcanic ash falling on the city of Catania. It was like a hailstorm of dark, black rock, but the most interesting part of the video was seeing people outside going about their lives and simply carrying umbrellas to keep stones from hitting them.

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Mt. Etna erupts on December 3, 2015. Time-lapse photo by Marco Restivo|Demotix|Corbis

I fell in love with the complete foreignness of Mt. Etna, and as it turns out, the locals love the volcano just as much as foreigners. Even though the volcano constantly threatens their homes and way of life, the locals refer to it as “Mongibello,” the beautiful mountain. After seeing it, I can understand why.

A city under siege

The sun was setting in the Sarajevo valley in Bosnia-Hervegovina and it was then that I heard the low crescendo of the muezzin floating on the soft summer breeze. A moment later the bells of Sacred Heart Cathedral began to ring and I understood why Sarajevo has been called the European Jerusalem. It is a city that hosts mosques, a synagogue, and Serbian Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals all within a few hundred meters of each other and for hundreds of years was the picture of peace and tolerance.

This all changed in 1992 during the Bosnian War when Serbian forces surrounded Sarajevo and started the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare. The siege lasted from 1992 to 1996 and I was fortunate enough to hear about the history of the city during that time from a local who had experienced and survived the war.

We went on a walking tour of the city and our 27 year-old guide, Lelja, was not shy about pointing out Communist-era apartment blocks riddled with bullet holes and the remnants of bomb blasts making them look like moldy, Swiss cheese. She told us that when the city was first under siege she was seven and needed to go to school. “I went to school in an old ale house because it was the closest large building to my house. We had to go to school very early because we had to be home by 10 a.m. when the shooting and bombing started. We don’t know why, but they didn’t start shooting until 10 a.m. Maybe they wanted to sleep in,” she joked.

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Bomb blast and bullet holes from the siege of Sarajevo.

She also pointed to a large, red paint splatter on the pavement. It was a “Sarajevo rose” and the city has more than 100 of them. Each rose marks where mortar shells fell and killed between 3 to 20 people. 11,500 people were killed during the siege, many of them children out to collect water or food for their families.

After the tour, I could not help but notice the groups of people sitting outside on park benches and along the small river that runs through the city. There were women with headscarves having a picnic with women wearing shorts and tank tops. There were teenagers flirting outside of a mosque, while old men sipped Turkish coffees and played chess. The war cost many people their lives and left its mark on buildings and locals, but the people of Sarajevo have proved their resilience by steering the city’s history back to one of tolerance and peace.

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The Mediterranean’s medieval gem

Dubrovnik is one of Croatia’s most famous cities. Many people know of its incredible Old Town (Stari Grad), which is surrounded entirely by a series of defensive, stone walls, which run over 6,000 feet, have a maximum height of 82 feet, and are approximately 15 feet thick. They have been defending the city against sieges throughout its history from 866 to 1991 when the Serbian army sat atop Mount Zarkovica above the city and launched artillery. The ancient walls turned out to be more effective at resisting modern warfare than contemporary structures outside of the Old Town.

Having read about Dubrovnik’s history and layout before I traveled there, I had an idea of what to expect, but as I drove into the city, down from Mount Zarkovica, the view took my breath away.

The walls’ stones looked pearly white in the afternoon sun as the city jutted out into the clear, blue Adriatic. When you look down on it, there are few trees clinging to the mountain face and you have a clear view of the famous red rooftops that cover the buildings. From above, it is a sleepy little city, but once you enter the old town through a fortified stone gate, the story completely changes.

During the day, there is the dizzying activity of tourists crowding the streets and gaping at the incredible architecture while scrambling to get the best gelato (ice cream). At first, the crowds felt oppressive and disappointing; it seemed to make my trip less special since, apparently, everyone was visiting Dubrovnik. However, as twilight fell and tourists set sail on their cruise ships, the city became mine.

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Dubrovnik’s harbor in Stari Grad at twilight.

I did not think Dubrovnik could look anymore stunning, but as the sun set on the harbor and struck the ancient walls for the final time that day, the city took on an ethereal glow.

If the history and sheer beauty are not enough to convince someone to visit Dubrovnik, it might also tempt Game of Thrones fans, as Dubrovnik is the main filming location for King’s Landing. Stock up on all of your Game of Thrones memorabilia at nearly any souvenir shop, but make sure to learn a little about the real city’s history and not just the fictional one, as it might shock you even more.

The mysteries of Newgrange

One thing many people will tell you if you are traveling is to have in mind sights you want to see and things you want to do, but leave space in your schedule for spur of the moment opportunities. I had one such opportunity when I traveled to Dublin, Ireland.

I was planning on staying in the city for my four-day visit, but after receiving an email from my former college advisor, who knew I was traveling to Dublin, at her recommendation I booked a day tour to the Newgrange tomb just outside of the city.

Newgrange is a prehistoric monument built around 3000 B.C. to 2500 B.C., which makes it 500 years older than Stonehenge and 1,000 years older than the Egyptian pyramids. While it might not be as grand as the pyramids or as mesmerizing as Stonehenge it does include some special features that boggle the human mind.

The tomb is made of a large, circular stone mound with a stone passageway and interior chambers. The passage stretches for 60 feet or about a third of the way into the center. At the end of the passage are three small chambers off a larger central chamber. The small chambers may have held the bones of the dead, but its still not clear if the site was actually a burial place.

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The entrance to the Newgrange tomb.

Another interesting aspect of the tomb is that once a year, at the winter solstice, the rising sun shines directly into the passage and illuminates the main inner chamber, which reveals wall carvings. The illumination lasts for about 17 minutes. Today the light on winter solstice enters about four minutes after sunrise, but astronomical calculations of Earth show that 5,000 years ago first light would have entered the passage at exactly sunrise.

I cannot fathom how a group of people could not only build a structure—that had massive stones carried uphill from over 15 miles away—but could also design it to allow the passage to be lit up on the winter solstice at exactly sunrise. This is where you could perhaps begin to believe in aliens.

Jokes aside, I try to remember to keep my traveling schedule a bit loose, because had I not allowed myself a less rigid schedule I never would have had the experience of seeing an incredible structure built thousands of years ago by a very determined (or alien-aided) civilization.

A big journey in a little car

Europeans are a bit notorious for driving small cars. It is no wonder for this phenomenon because streets in Europe are quite small—many of which have not been expanded since the automobile was invented. Gas is more expensive so it also makes sense to avoid the gas-guzzlers that we in the United States often depend on to haul trailers and plow through three feet of snow or mud. I have observed that as you approach an American Air Force Base in Italy or Germany, the appearance of pickups, SUV’s, and minivans significantly increases—old habits die hard for us Americans and we cannot seem to let go of the luxury of space that many Europeans were never raised experiencing.

That’s why when we decided to go on a roadtrip from Naples to the Amalfi Coast in Southern Italy I thought Steve was joking when he pulled out of the rental office driving the tiny, two-person SMART car. Not only was he not joking, he wanted me to get in so we could start our four hour drive along the coast. After having a good laugh at how ridiculous he looked—he’s six foot one—in the tiny car, I hopped in the passenger side.

We quickly learned that for such a tiny car, it had a large amount of blind spots. A terrifying realization since the winding roads leading to the Amalfi Coast have hairpin turns and while we crawled along at a responsible speed of 55 kmh (equivalent to 35 mph) the Italians fly around the curves at almost double that speed. While digging my fingers into the passenger door and center consul, I tried to enjoy the views from the cliffs we were driving along.

The cliffs rose straight up out of the turquoise sea below like jagged hands reaching for the sun. There were no beaches, just sheer, solid rock faces that seemed welcoming rather than intimidating as the waves gently pushed against them and fisherman lazily anchored their boats in the shade of the bluffs.

We cruised along the winding path before entering the village of Positano, where we were glad for the miniature car we drove. The one-way street barely had room for us to drive as the townspeople doing their daily grocery shopping spilled into the road.

They frequently bumped against each other and offered a familiar smile, unbothered by the crowded, cobbled streets. While I appreciate my space as much as the next American, as I watched the Italians move separately in the crowd, I could not help but think perhaps small spaces are not always such a bad thing—however, I won’t be buying a two-person car any time soon.

Skiing in the Italian Alps

To give you an idea of what it is like to go skiing with me I will tell you that my boyfriend, Steve, said to my mother, “A ski trip isn’t complete unless Emily ends up crying on the side of a mountain at least once.” I will be honest, I typically cry more than once per ski trip. While Steve is supportive and always tries to build my confidence, I am by no means an expert or even intermediate skier.

I have gone skiing exactly six times in my life. I learned on a bunny hill outside of Minneapolis, I’ve gone twice to Terry Peak, South Dakota (where at one point, with my legs and skis going opposite directions my friend said, “I have no idea how you did that.”), once in Korea, and I’ve gone skiing twice in the Italian Alps.

Let me point out that Steve is an expert skier. He started when he was six years old, was on the ski team at his high school in Wisconsin, was the ski and snowboard club captain at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two of the four years he was in the group, and taught skiing and snowboarding at Lake Tahoe, NV for two years. He literally skis circles around me.

This might explain how, on my most recent ski trip to Cervinia, Italy this winter, I found myself once again sitting on the side of the mountain having a small panic attack.

The city of Cervinia (Cher-vee-nee-ah) sits in the western shadow of the Matterhorn, which lays half in Italy and half in Switzerland. The landscape was beautiful with the Matterhorn dominating the skyline, but at that moment I was too terrified to appreciate it.

After a semi-successful day of skiing (no injuries) I realized our last run of the day was far above my skill level and began taking my skis off in protest; planning to slide down the mountain on my butt, no matter how humiliating it was.

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This is me looking ridiculous in a ski helmet that is too big and a my boyfriends jacket, since I had packed an insufficient one. Look how happy I am…not. Terrified; I was terrified of falling off the side of the mountain.

As I detached the skis from my boots, the ski patrol stopped and said in their Swiss-German accents, “You can not slide down on your bottom. You will go too fast and you can’t stop and will fly right off the edge.”

This was not the motivation I needed so I said, “And what makes you think I won’t fly off the edge with these sticks attached to my legs?”

They did not reply, but waited until I had put the skis back on. It took me almost thirty minutes to slowly “pizza” my way down the mountain, but I did it. I was proud of myself for conquering my fear, but I will be damned if you ever find me on the side of another mountain with carbon fiber rods stuck to my legs.

 

Firefighters breaking in on purpose

One of my favorite things about traveling is meeting new people. I was fortunate enough to meet six new Italians one day in Pordenone, Italy (the city I primarily stay in when I’m there). Unfortunately, they happened to be members of the fire department.

I was standing in the kitchen, making soup as it was pouring rain. I decided to go outside to take some quick photos of the rose bushes, persimmon, olive, and palm trees, and a kiwi vine in the yard. After fifteen minutes outside I was chilled and decided to go back inside to check on my soup, but as I walked up the stairs I had a horrible realization. I had closed the front door, which locked automatically. My only link to the outside world—my cell phone—was also inside. I threw my body against the front door in hopes that it would magically open. No matter how I finagled the doorknob and pushed with all my strength, the door did not yield.

My next thought was to try to climb through a window I had left open. The window was on the top floor and 20 feet up. I ran around the house three times, searching for a ladder. I discovered an old, rickety, wooden one and prepared to make my shaky ascent.

I made it to the fourth rung when I realized two things 1) even if I climbed to the top of the ladder I would not be tall enough to reach the window 2) if I climbed to the top of the ladder I would probably plummet to my death. I weighed my options and decided against the climb; I like to believe there are at least a few people who would be disappointed if I were to die.

After ruling out scaling the building, I grabbed a rock, ready to smash through the glass of the front door when I thought better of it—I didn’t imagine my boyfriend would be very impressed if I vandalized his home. I finally accepted defeat and decided to use the rational side of my brain.

I knew I should call the fire department—my boyfriend had locked himself out of the house several times and had relayed stories of calling the fire department. Since I had no cellphone and did not know anyone in the neighborhood to ask to use his or her phone, I decided to walk down the block to the grocery store.

I walked into the store, approached the checkout attendant, and asked, “Do you speak English?”

She shook her head “no” and I was afraid I would have to proceed with a desperate game of charades when a young woman behind the counter of the espresso bar said, “I speak a little English.” I could have hugged her, but decided against it and asked to borrow her phone to call the fire department.

She smiled and asked if I knew the fire department’s phone number. I said I did not so she dialed the number before handing me the phone.

What proceeded was an embarrassing reminder that if I’m to live in Italy I should probably learn some key words other than “bongiorno, ciao, arriverderci, and grazie.” Key words such as “Help! I have locked my keys in the house and need assistance as soon as possible since I also left a pot of soup on the stove and may burn the house down and actually need the fire truck anyway.” You know, common phrases.

As it was, I barely knew the address and after giving them the wrong one (the street name is Giovanni Batista Morgagni not Giuseppe Batista Morgagni) was told to wait thirty minutes. I thanked the man on the line, the barista who let me use her phone, and slunk out of the store.

Alternating between being on the brink of tears and running down to the front gate every time I heard a vehicle approaching, I waited. After only ten minutes I heard a large vehicle and saw the universal red of a fire truck.

I waited for my saviors at the gate and flung it open for them to enter—all six of them. The whole troupe followed me up the steps to the front door carrying several interesting wires, screwdrivers, and a shiny piece of what looked like industrial tin foil.

The lead firefighter jammed the tin foil in the crack of the door and wiggled it. The other five firefighters struck various relaxed poses as they watched the work of their colleague. I too tried to strike a casual pose, but couldn’t keep myself from making dramatic cheers as I watched.

With a click and a pop the firefighter opened the door with minimal effort. I was so relieved I put my hand up for a high five and after a few seconds of awkward hesitation each firefighter laughed and gave me five.

I would say that day was a great success as I got to meet some outstanding citizens and every time I went to the grocery store down the street the barista made a point to smile and wave at me. I don’t mind seeing her regularly, but I hope I will never have to see the firefighters again…unless it is while they are helping someone else break into their own home.