Frankfurt/Heidelberg/Rothenburg ob der Tauber/Munich/Neuschwanstein/Lindau, Germany; Bregenz, Austria; Zurich/Lucerne, Switzerland; Strasbourg, France. [August 2017]
2017 wasn’t a great year on many fronts – so it’s nice to have some pleasant memories from a land afar to look back on and appreciate, like a pearl in a cesspool.
We landed in Frankfurt well-rested from the impeccable Lufthansa Business experience (thank you Chase Sapphire sign-up bonuses), where we were stuffed up like they were preparing to make foie gras out of us. We soon embarked on the mostly speed limit-less drive across the Autobahn where the Audi A6 topped out at 207 km/hour (129 MPH) – not too shabby, although I felt less accomplished as countless little VW Golfs whizzed past me.
Heidelberg. This was a charming, classic Bavarian city, split by the Neckar River and overlooked by the grandiose castle atop the hill. Everything was steeped in effortless history, from the cobblestone streets to ageless fountains in the town square. Golden Hour was something special as the aged walls caught fire, and the night was appropriately wrapped up with a feast on wursts, schnitzels, and beer with that European je ne sais quoi you just can’t taste in the US.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber. A few hours’ drive later we arrive at the lilliputian walled town that distills the essence of the Bavarian stereotype without seeming insincere. It’s pretty easy to get lost in a Andersenian storyline walking around the colorful Black Forest houses, atop the city walls, and into the countless dessert shops.
Munich. The Alte Pinakothek is a true hidden gem lost in the list of much better-recognized museums in Europe, with its enormous collections of world-renowned Rubens, da Vincis, Raphaels, and Rembrandts. But by 8PM sheer hunger has overwhelmed our artistic curiosities and we flee to the beer garden in Viktualienmarkt for nourishment. It is a great alternative to the overly touristic Hofbrauhaus and filled with local Germans in an open-air setting, as we feasted on plate after plate of bartwursts, frankfurters, and the not-to-be-missed lumps of Schweinshaxe (pork knuckles), deep fried to a crispy perfection – all washed down with pints of Paulaner Munchen beer (I swear this stuff just tastes better in Europe).
The next morning we pay pilgrimage to BMW Welt, the temple for Bayerische Motoren Werke enthusiasts worldwide, in their futuristic museum and test-drive complex adjacent to the factory (which of course isn’t working in August since this is Europe afterall). I’m still bitter SixT gave me an Audi instead.
Fussen/Neuschwanstein. A pastoral drive down south takes us, as the Alps rise in the distance, to Germany’s most famous tourist attraction. Neuschwanstein is basically as expected: majestic but overmarketed, impressive but overcrowded, picturesque but overphotographed. Only after climbing past “DO NOT CROSS” signs on dirt paths to the summit of the nearby mountain will the photo opportunity unfettered by throngs of tourists come into frame. More charming was St. Coloman’s Church that greets drivers as they turn towards Fussen, set amid the infinite grassy expanse with the snow-capped Alps in the backdrop.
Lindau. Who would’ve thought you can simply bike your way over to Austria in 15 minutes along the banks of vast Lake Constance? No passports required, just a lot of pedaling on somewhat rusty bikes. But you can always compensate yourself for the effort with some gelato along the way.
Zurich/Lucerne. I prepared for this infamously expensive city by booking the sleek Park Hyatt Zurich for free (thanks again, Chase). We supped at Hiltl, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world, and this carnivore must confess it was quite excellent (but I won’t be sparing any chickens soon). A walk around town took us to the swans of Lake Zurich, the many church spires that dot the city’s skyline, and the chocolatey pleasures of Sprungli Cafe.
The next morning we raced to Lucerne, which was a lot more packed and touristy than expected. The Kapellbrucke was quite interesting, but the Lion Monument more resembled a lethargic house cat nursing a hangover, and as expected everything was expensive like whoa. It was time to move somewhere more off the beaten path.
Strasbourg. Once in a while a gem emerges unexpectedly on a travel itinerary and Strasbourg is that gem. This Alsatian city exudes an unapologetically French musk that recalls ideals of Paris of olden movies – cobblestone streets, streetside cafes, young couples talking sweetnothings. That month the city put on its carefully choreographed light show on the facade of its massive cathedral, mesmerizing locals and visitors alike.
Our hotel, the Les Haras which was converted from a horse barn, was impeccably chic with its Scandinavian modern design and incredible local French delights at breakfast (butter milked from family-owned cows, jam made from an apple farm a kilometer away, etc.).
We enjoyed our last fantastic European meal of the trip on the busy pedestrian streets chomping down on magical cheesy squares of Tarte Flambee (a thin Alsatian flatbread), dreading the return to a land where the closest alternative will be Domino’s thin crust pizzas.
Snapping back to reality from a fairy-tale castle journey filled with tender pork knuckles, bottomless draft beer, and French gourmet delights is not easy. But maybe like the Autobahn, no matter how fast and far and recklessly you drive, the circular road brings you back to where you started. The only difference is, did you take along something new aboard the ride?
“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” -Carl Jung
“You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want? Yes, Dorian, you will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit.” -Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray