Friday, July 10, 2009

July 8: Neuschwanstein Castle and Lindhof Palace

We awoke to find that the sun does, indeed, shine now and again in Munich. We had cool weather and blue skies for our 2 hour bus ride to Neuschwanstein Castle. The scenery along the way was some of the most beautiful I've seen in my life. I was seriously expecting to see the Von Trapp family running down the mountainside singing "The hills are alive with the sound of music..." followed by men in Lederhosen with those long horn thingies calling out, "Ricola!"

Neuschwanstein (pronounced newsh-vahn-stine) is nestled high atop the foothills of the Alps and was the inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella Castle. And much like Cinderella, it really was like a fairy tale. Except, in a fairy tale, a fairy godmother would have appeared at the base of the mountain and bibbity-bobbity-booed our sorry butts to the top of the cliff. Our group became subdivided into 3 smaller ones: the fast (aka the physically fit, to which most students and chaperones belonged), the slow (2 students and Michelle), and the lame. Guess who was the leader of the lame? Yep. Moi.

I “volunteered” to stay behind with 3 students who suffered various ailments and walk at a snail’s pace. But in my defense, it was the Alps. And I am 40, which puts me closer to senior citizenship than the young whipper snappers jogging up the 89-degree angled path. Even though I was panting and wheezing and my muscles cramping, it was so very worth it! What an amazing sight to see!

As we toured the castle and listened to the stories about how crazy mad King Ludwig II was, we came across a bust of dear Ludwig and made and interesting discovery. Pascal was a dead ringer for Ludwig II! It was uncanny and we all got a laugh out of it...even people who were not in our group recognized the resemblance! Unfortunately, we have no picture to prove it as no photos or video were allowed in the castle.

After Neuschwantstein, we headed to another of Ludwig II's residences - Linderhof. It appears as though Ludwig II might be the only other person in history more infatuated with the French monarchy than I am, and so built a mini-Versailles complete with a mini-hall of mirrors, mini-gardens, and decorated with dozens of paintings, portraits, and sculptures of court life in France. And of course, I loved it.

Manfred, our mad bus driver with mad bus driving skills, bobbed and weaved our bus over the twisted roads of the Alps as he blared German folk music, and occasionally cursed in German at inept drivers, and whisked us back to Munich just in time to make our dinner reservation. Since it was our last night, we had a little free time to finish shopping and check out a few last sites before Manfred again blasted German folk music and made the bus "dance" to chants of "Manfred! Manfred! Manfred!" There were also chants for Pascal followed by several female voices that demanded "DANCE, Pascal!!" It was hectic and crazy, but we all laughed and cheered knowing there was no better way to end our trip than this.

July 7: Dachau and Downtown Munich

This morning we had the honor of visiting Dachau Concentration Camp. This was the number one reason I wanted to visit Munich, and it was well worth it. Words to describe my experience there escape me. It is easy to describe the tangible aspects - where things were, what was in each building and how it looked, etc. However, I am not sure that words exist in any language to fully describe the feel or emotion of Dachau. Certain words or emotions repeatedly popped into my consciousness several times and the first one was ghost town. It was like visiting a ghost town, and when I would stop and think about what occurred there, I couldn’t help but get choked up.

After exiting the bus, I looked around at the beautiful landscape with a babbling brook running through and had I not known where I was headed, I would never have guessed that a concentration camp lurked right around the corner. As we made our way to the gate into Dachau, we noticed the crumbling remains of a train platform and train tracks. It was easy to imagine the SS yelling and guard dogs barking at the prisoners being unloaded there. I walked through the black iron gate and was surprised to see that the gate to Dachau was, like Auschwitz, marked with infamous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Makes One Free.”

Once you walk through the gate, you stand on the Appelplatz – the open courtyard where the infamous role call took place. To the right was the maintenance house, and to the left were rows of barracks. We were able to tour one of the two barracks that are still standing - the rest have been leveled - and view the bunks and workroom inside (the bunks were not the originals, but as you progressed it showed how over the years the bunks evolved to accommodate beyond their original capacity). The word/feel that perpetually ran through my mind in the barracks area was graveyard.

Perhaps the most emotional part of the tour was going through the crematorium. We took the path that a prisoner would have followed - fumigation/disinfection chamber, registration room, waiting area, gas chamber (marked "shower"), death chamber 1, oven room, and death chamber 2. Standing in the darkness of gas chamber was chilling to say the least. In both the gas chamber and the fumigation rooms (where they would disinfect prisoners belongings), I immediately noticed the metal grates and when I went outside I looked for and immediately found the metal chutes where they would drop down the Zyklon B pellets in order to emit the poisonous gas through the metal grates.

Dachau never used its gas chamber like the death camps did for mass killings. Instead, prisoners there - who were predominately political dissidents, (such as Communists), clergy who opposed Hitler, and of course, Jews and Gypsies - were worked or tortured to death or simply executed. One of the main forms of execution was to hang them from the rafters right in front of the crematorium ovens. Although there were two death chambers (storage rooms in which to keep the dead bodies before they were put in the ovens), as time went on the number of corpses became too massive for the space available, so there were a few mass graves near the outer perimeters of the camp. I am still searching for the word(s) to adequately relay to you the somberness of this place. Words like sadness, death, evil, anger, sorrow, and disgust are all naturally there, but there is so much more to it than that.

The last building we visited was the jail rooms for "special prisoners." It is also where much of the formalized torture was carried out. One of the men who attempted to assassinate Hitler was briefly housed in here before his execution.

Unfortunately, two other recurring words that floated through my brain were rudeness and irreverence. As a teacher, I am always on the lookout for texters. Texting while I am teaching is a HUGE pet peeve as I find it horribly rude, not to mention that the more they don't pay attention, the less they learn. However, what I saw at Dachau went above and beyond the rudeness of texting in the classroom. Teenagers were actually texting in the gas chamber! Many people were loud and laughing and I was not the only one disturbed by this. Most of our students and chaperones noticed the same behavior when they went through and were equally aghast. Sherry and I had to shush people a few times and I was on the verge of whipping out a soap box and speaking my mind (the only problem was that the better part of the irreverent noise makers were not speaking English, so they were spared my wrath...)

One major repetive concept I couldn’t get over was the paradox between the ugly side of humanity that was revealed there and the beauty of nature that surrounded the camp. To look at the babbling brook and lush vegetation that encapsulated the stark, bare concrete and stone that symbolized death was difficult to wrap my head around. In fact, it brings to mind one of the other words that pervaded my thoughts - surreal. The whole experience was very surreal because not only is it difficult to think about what happened on the very ground upon which you are standing, but because you just cannot fathom how any one human could do these things to another.

Dachau was a solemn and emotional experience, but one I think we all appreciated and will never forget. We left and traveled back to Munich to do some exploring. Of course, it poured buckets again and we made further good use of our umbrellas. It was also quite chilly and our jackets and sweatshirts came in very handy.

Dinner was at another Biergarten and consisted of chicken in a cream sauce and spaetzle. I am not a big fan of dumplings, but the spaetzle was awesome. And you should see the pretzels around here! They are as big as your head! It is crazy.

With full bellies and tired bodies, we all opted to go back to the hotel and get some rest for our big day castle hopping…

Monday, July 6: Nymphenburg Palace & Downtown Munich

This morning, Munich greeted us with buckets of rain! We no sooner got there when it just unleashed and we were all glad we’d packed our umbrellas. While we nearly had heat stroke in Paris, Munich required a jacket, so the Weather Channel wasn’t lying when it described July as Munich's "rainy season."

Our first stop was at the beautiful Baroque Nymphenburg Palace, summer home to the Wittelsbachs (the royal family of Bavaria) since its construction in the late 1600s. Its architect took his inspiration from the Palace of Versailles, thus proving that Paris was the trend-setter even 350+ years ago. Although both were done in the Rococo style, Versailles was much more grand (and dare I say pretentious) than Nymphenburg. When we took a poll at the end, the group was pretty equally divided on which palace they preferred.

A few things stood out to me while in Nymphenburg. First, were the gardens. It was obvious they had been created with thoughtful planning, yet they seemed more natural than those at Versailles. Versailles was completely symmetric and precisely manicured, while Nymphenburg’s gardens seemed more harmonious with its natural surroundings. (In defense of Versailles, it was built over swampland, so there wasn’t much nature to work with…)

The second thing was a particular room that belonged to Ludwig I. As did most kings, Ludwig had mistresses. However, he had a room dedicated for the sole purpose of displaying his mistresses’ portraits as a means of showing off their beauty. And there weren’t just 2 or 3 or even 10 portraits. No, there were 36 portraits and the room was dubbed the "Great Gallery of Beauties." Ouch. Talk about the proverbial slap in the face to the queen…

The final point of interest was Amalienburg. King Karl Albrect also had mistresses and to distract the missess from his revolving bedroom door, he built for his queen, Marie Amalia, a beautiful hunting lodge. Apparently, Queen Marie Amalia was no girly girl. She loved two things most; hunting and her dogs. One of the docents stopped us to tell us about her and Amalienburg (the hunting lodge). I don’t know about you, but when I hear “hunting lodge," the word "beautiful" does not come to mind. Dirty? Yes. Flannel shirts? Yes. Beautiful? Not a chance. Now, I don’t do the outdoorsy thing, but I would happily stay at this hunting lodge in a heartbeat. It was gorgeous! Hunters today should visit this little gem and get some decorating ideas, for sure.

After Nymphenburg, we headed to downtown Munich to the center of town called the Mariensplatz. Pascal took us here to see the glockenspiel play at noon. It was really a sight to see, especially the second tier which depicted people doing the traditional folk dance called the “Coopersdance” which was created to make the people smile a bit during the Black Plague. I can imagine it now; one peasant talking to another...“I say old chap, two-thirds of the European population is wiped out, I’ve lost most of my family to a most horrid and painful death. In fact, I currently have large oozing pustules forming in my armpits and groin, and am feeling a bit feverish. Oh well. At least I have the Coopersdance. Ain’t life grand?!”

We went to a big, open Biergarten for lunch with tons of markets and food stands. While this sounds amazing (and it surely was) it is where the day went downhill very quickly for me. I got some stomach flu and was sick as a dog. By the time we returned to the hotel at 3:00, I was done for the day. I showered, and went straight to bed, so I missed the Residence (which was, apparently, very interesting) and dinner (which was, of course, voted the best meal we’d had since we arrived in Europe). However, the rest did me some good as I awoke the following day feeling ready to tackle Bratwurst and sauerkraut...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

For Gabrielle, Will and Maddie

We just want you to know how much we miss you and love you! We cannot wait to see you tomorrow and hear all about your adventures with Grammie, Pappa, Stephanie, Chelsea, and Lisa! And Gab, we are looking forward to hearing about play practice! Today we are going to see the REAL Cinderella's castle, so we'll take lots of pictures. We love you lots and will see you really soon!

XOXO Mom & Dad

PS: Sorry we haven't been able to call you, but our phone is broken.

July 5: Au Revoir Paris

Today, sadly, was our last day in Paris. In the morning, several students went with Bill to mass at Notre Dame, while another group came with me to the Conciergerie (first Parisian castle turned prison, most notable for housing Marie Antoinette in her final days).

After lunch, we all headed to the Musee D'Orsay, which is home to Impressionist art. Despite being my third trip to Paris, this was the first opportunity I'd had to visit the Orsay. Of course I loved seeing many incredible artists - Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, and Rodin to name a few. But the real highlight for me was seeing the works of two of my very favorites, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. I actually teared up at first sight of each (reason 361 why I am a nerd).

Those whose feet could tolerate it, then went with Bill and Pascal to Pere Lachaise cemetery to see the gravesites of famous individuals such as Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Edith Piaf. The rest of us chose to spend our last hours in Paris gathering souveniers and I snuck off to a favorite little cafe to have a pastry and quietly soak in my favorite city one last time.

The real adventure of the day was next - the overnight train to Munich. Each room slept six - three bunks down one side of the room and across a narrow 2-foot aisle, another three bunks down the other side. I shared a room with Bill, Scott G., Kevin B., Andrew R., and Nate C. (all of whom apologized in advance for any potentially bad smells that may be emitted). I have not laughed that much in a long time. They were, combined, delightfully hilarious. And all were perfect, polite gentlemen in my presence.

In fact, Bill, his parents, and I have all commented several times about the manners of all of the boys on the trip. They are so very polite and thoughtful - holding doors, allowing the girls to go first, etc. I am a huge feminist, but tremendously appreciate courteous behavior, so thank you parents for raising such lovely sons! (and of course the girls on the trip are amazing, too...this comment was not meant to exclude or deny their wonderfulness!)

Overall, the kids seemed to find Paris amazing, overwhelming, and beautiful in a grand sort of way. I wish we could have slowed down the pace to give them a chance to know the quiet side of Paris, but when you are trying to cover so much ground in so few days, that is difficult to do. I hope they will all come back in the future and explore Paris according to their own preferences and pace. It truly is the most marvelous city in the world!

July 4: The Louvre, Montmartre, & the Eiffel Tower

This morning began with a visit to the Louvre. Although it began as a palace, today it houses some of the most famous art in the world, including Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. We let the kids go their own ways based on their interests so that they could see what they wanted. Because of the magnitude of the Louvre, it is literally impossible to see it all in the few hours we had.

After the Louvre, most students decided to spend the afternoon shopping. While I ran back to get the sick Gabby D. from the hotel and bring her into the city, the others followed Pascal to a shopping area. Now, I have to dedicate some time to discuss Pascal, our tour director. Pascal is a tall, handsome Frenchman of whom the girls have all grown quite fond. Pascal just has one minor flaw, and that is that he twenty, thirty, and forty-drops when it comes to ETAs. According to Pascal, everything is a 5 minute walk from where ever we are.
"How far is the Eiffel Tower from Notre Dame, Pascal?"
"Oh, it is about five minutes, "(of course this is spoken with an endearing French accent, so it is believeable every time).
"How far is it to the Metro stop from here, Pascal?"
"Oh, it is about five minutes." (still in the French accent, still believable)
"How far of a walk is it from one side of Paris to the other, Pascal?"
"Oh, it is about five minutes." (Okay, this one was an exageration for effect, but I am sure if we asked him, he'd tell us 5 minutes...and we'd still believe him!)
Twenty, thirty, forty-five minutes later, we'd arrive at our destination. This will explain the blisters on our feet...

Those students who chose not to shop went (on my recommendation) with Bill and his family to the Basilique St. Denis. All but four French monarchs are buried here and it is a sight to be seen. I tried to convince Bill that it was worth putting into our itinerary, but did he listen? (married ladies, you understand this rhetorical question, I know!) And what was the first thing he said upon their return? Yep. "We HAVE to add this to the itinerary the next time we come here! It was the best thing I've seen in all of Paris!!" I just gave him the look (again, married ladies, you know what look I mean!)

We took the Metro to Montmartre, which happens to be one of my favorite spots in Paris.Not only is it the highest point in Paris (the view is amazing!), but it is also where the Impressionist art movement and the Bohemian lifestyle were born. It is, however, probably most famous for the Moulin Rouge.

After dinner in Montmartre (where many students tried goat cheese for the first time!) we made our way to the Eiffel Tower. I made it to the second level but never left the center of the structure and was more than happy to bid au revoir to Bill and most of the students who were moving on to the top level (for those who don't know me well, I am insanely fearful of heights). Bill tells me it was an incredible view, and unlike my husband does with me, I will take his word for it!

July 3: Château de Versailles and a Tribute to Pop Royalty

Today was all about royalty - from King Louis XIV to Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. We boarded our bus and headed for the Château de Versailles - the royal residence built by the Sun King, Louis XIV. We explored the gardens, and I dragged everyone a couple of miles back to Marie Antoinette's Hamlet. The queen had a fascination with peasant life and so built her own little peasant village complete with gardens, a mill, and livestock. She particularly enjoyed tending her sheep...and by tending I mean perfuming them. Because that's what peasants did, right?! Weston P. summed it up well when he described it as her own live dollhouse.

The palace itself is overwhelming and many of the students described it as such. It was so funny to see their faces and reactions as we went through. Some, like Kevin B., were almost giddy with excitement. Others, like Andrew R. and Barbara S., just had a look of complete awe on their faces the entire time. And a few, like Alex B., went into sensory overload and just walked around with a dumbfounded expression.

Alex K., Mike B. and Sean P., overwhelmed with the sheer size of the grounds, chose to rent bikes to more efficiently explore Versailles. Sherry, Courtney L., Abby Y., and Ariana T. cruised the grounds in a stylish golf cart rental. The rest of us hoofed it like peasants...

After Versailles, we headed back to Paris and checked back in to our hotel, then jumped on the Metro to go to dinner. After dinner was free time in Paris. Many of the girls wanted to go shopping, so Michelle and Sherry took several to do just that. The boys were good sports and tagged along.

Bill and I took a couple of hours to enjoy our wedding anniversary in a way that only two nerdy history teachers would. We went looking for (and found) Robespierre's house which was under rennovation, so the facade could not be seen. However, a door was open, so we creeped inside the courtyard and took a look around. An older couple came out and with their minimal English, and our minimal French, we learned which room Robespierre lived in and that her husband had a book about Robespierre, which she couldn't show me now because they were on their way out the door. We thanked her and said au revoir - then I got bold. I decided to walk up the apartment stairs to see if I could find anything Robespierre-ish in the hallway (before you think I was breaking and entering, these are now apartments. I wasn't walking through anyone's living room or anything!) Although I found nothing, we determined that the rickety steps must be the originals (which meant I had to touch them just in case Robespierre's feet had graced them...and I expect that only my good friend Truly will truly appreciate that!)

After that, I made another discovery that nearly rivaled my Robespierre find - violette glace (ice cream). Violette is raspberry in flavor, and green in color. Just kidding. It's a lovely shade of lavender. It tasted amazing as we sat along the Seine and watched three Frenchmen pay tribute to Michael Jackson by singing "We Are the World." Except they didn't get the words quite right and instead of singing "there's a choice we're making...we're saving our own lives..." they sang, "we're TAKING our own lives." I almost laughed out loud, which would have been rude, so I just chuckled internally and kept eating my ice cream.