Sunday, November 1, 2015

Alps, Balkans, and Oktoberfest 2015

aka - Tour of Former Olympic Venues  OR Tour of Wars of the 20th Century

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We red-eyed to Munich nonstop on Lufthansa, leaving SFO at 8:50 pm and landed around 5:05 pm on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015.

The airport had a giant courtyard between terminals with the requisite Biergarten. Alas, we didn't stop facing a two hour drive in a sleep deprived state.

Getting the rental car was fairly easy, as was the drive to Innsbruck. We averaged 120kmh, though sometimes drivers passed in the left lane at double out speed.

We drove south, the setting sun alighting the alps in late summer splendor. They came into view just a few minutes out of Munich. I was wanting a soundtrack of Rachmaninoff or Chopin, or perhaps a local like Handel to accompany the drive.

We arrived in Igls just above Innsbruck at 7:50 and found the restaurant at Bon Alps open. They had an Italian buffet, which was serviceable, but not great. We had salad, carrot soup, veggies and lasagna with overtones of nutmeg. The tiramisu was well above average.

We arrived at the Gasthaus Sonnehoff at 9:30 and got to a well deserved rest around 10:30. It is a clean and pleasant spot, though certainly not luxurious.

September 7

We had a nice, typical breakfast at the Gasthaus and the headed into the center of Innsbruck to spend the morning.

We parked near the center and then walked along the river on both sides. The tram up the mountain didn't seem worth it, because the peaks were shrouded in clouds. So, we walked up along the funicular line to the first stop. It was part of a 10k winterweg route In season.

After the hike, we headed back to the old town and walked around attempting to avoid the large tour groups. We visited the Church of St. Jakob and then headed for lunch at the local Biergarten. We had the special, which was knodel soup and spatzle with spek, mushrooms and cheese. We added green salad for a hit of veggies.

After lunch, we headed for Brenner Pass and the drive to The Pustertal, home of Dobbiaco/Toblach and the Tre Cime/Dreizinnen hike we've been wanting to do. The mountains came into view about 30 minutes out and made my heart sing. After checking into the Toblacherhof Hotel, we walked through town and got a coffee at Cafe Marlene.

We had a nap and reading time before heading to a return (having eaten there in 2011) dinner at Pizzeria Hans. I had the prosciutto and mushroom pizza with salad and we shared a bottle of local Lagrein wine. All in all, it was a great day.

September 8

We had a marginal breakfast at the hotel and then started up toward Tre Cime. We paid the exorbitant 22 Euro toll to park so we could do the shorter route and test our legs.

As soon as I stepped out of the car, I was choked up with the beauty of the place - a reminder why this is my favorite place in the world so far.  We started out clockwise to avoid the crowds which were headed counterclockwise. We had a small climb to a saddle where we could start to see the face of the peaks. Then, a descent followed to a small Refugio. We could see Locatelli in the distance, but the sign said 1 hour. That seemed a long estimate. But, we had another climb to a saddle and a big descent to a deep meadow and then a steep climb back to the Refugio for lunch. 1 hour, 5 minutes.

Lunch was polenta with peppers and bratwurst, though not veal brats. They were pork or venison. I also had a radler to drink.

After lunch, we had a small climb to the last view of the peaks before turning around the front side and a return to the start. At the end, we had a strong cup of coffee before driving back to the hotel where we napped before having a massive Tyrolian platter of pork and other local specialties at the Hotel Nocker restaurant. We will be back at pizzeria Hans tomorrow.

September 9

We decided to take an "ass kicker" hike that would give us another glimpse of the Tre Cime. We left from the town of Sexten on route 102 then split to the left up 103 through some switchbacks up the side of a massif and then into a narrow canyon ascending above a knife edge peak. We climbed 3000 feet in about 3 miles after a mile or so of flats to the start of the climb.

We stopped at Refugio Comici for some coffee and apfelstrudel. After the refuel, we started the two hour hike to Dreizinnenhütte (aka Refugio Locatelli), turning off on route 101 around the summit. We crossed a high plateau and entered a huge amphitheater of stone leading to the hütte, crossing a narrow scree field along the way.

For lunch I had some faro pasta filled with chanterelle and cheese in butter and topped with goat cheese and mushrooms. Delish. We caught a gloomy view of the Drei Zinnen in a cloak of clouds before turning down route 102 back toward the start. The descent was slow and undesirable as most are for me. I had a small spill and gashed my elbow. But, we made it back before the time estimates, nevertheless.

After a rest, we retuned to Pizzeria Hans for dinner. I had pizza with prosciutto, egg and asparagus and a side salad.

Today was probably the most beautiful day hike I've taken in the Dolomites - all around spectacular.

September 10

We had a leisurely morning before packing up the car to head out for our next destination - Slovenia!

The drive was estimated around 2.5 hours, give or take. We had to stop just before entering Austria to get our "vignette", a toll sticker, we had failed to get earlier that we were lucky to not get caught without.  After a brief stop in Villach, Austria at a wursthaus called Josef for lunch, we got our Slovenia vignette and headed for the border.

There was a 8km tunnel through the mountains to Slovenia and only a short drive in the freeway before hitting mountain roads in search of Lake Bohinj. We made a pass through Bled, the more popular tourist destination, and then 15 minute later arrived at Hotel Jezero on Lake Bohinj. We had a gelato and coffee (kava) with cream before taking a tour through the village church of St. John the Baptist. The church was small and quaint - just the way I like them.  It dates from the 13th century.

After the small stop, we walked for a bit along the lake - as much as my toe blisters would allow before heading back for dinner. Dinner was included as we had half-board at the hotel. It was pretty good with a nice variety of veggies and meats and sides. I had fish with asparagus, salad and steamed veggies and a tiny bit of steak and fries. I had a honey cake for dessert, which is similar to baklava. I also had strawberries gratin, which were cooked under a layer of spongy cheese - different but good.

September 11

Our planned hike today was up from the Sport Hotel to Debela Peč peak and back. The drive there was a bit exciting with less than one lane roads and blind corners, but we made it without significant opposing traffic.

The beginning of the hike was in deep conifer forest. We found lots of ladies out foraging for mushrooms. Then. After a few km, we emerged on a meadow with a tiny village without road, power or running water called Planina Javornik. From there the hike climbed more steeply to Planina Lipanca, which had a mountain hut. We had goulash there with root veggies, barley and beans. We then headed up another couple km toward Debela Peč. The footing was quite bad with scrambles mixed in. Plus, there was no view to be had as the peaks were socked in. So, we headed back down.

At the road, we found two Czech women who were hitching a ride down to the lakes, so we took them with us. They were university students in Prague taking masters in economics.

We had some "folded cake" after because we were hungry with our coffees.

With dinner we had some wine that we ordered called Dom ekonteric, which was pretty good. Otherwise, the meal was fairly standard.

September 12

We awoke to a dense fog but forecasted sun. Around 9:00 am, we headed up to the next village of Stara Fužina to start our hike up Rudnica - a lesser peak in the middle of the two river valleys that join at Bohinj. The hike up was brutally steep on a cowpath, reminding me of the walks in Ireland last year. But, every so often, there was a meadow with panoramic views of the surrounding peaks.

After summiting, we started down the other side of the mountain on single track. It was steep and dicey footing in places, but we made it down. A farmer helped us get back on track after we lost the path in the forest above Brod. Brod did not have meal service in town, so we continued along the cycling route that circled the mountain and followed the river back to Stara Fužina and then down to Ribčev Laz.

We had beers, grilled panini and gelato for lunch outside the hotel. Then, we retired for showers and naps before dinner.

September 13

Today we left Slovenia just after breakfast and headed toward Croatia. The first part of the journey was fast to Lublijana where we switched rental cars painlessly at the airport.

Then we continued for another hour or so on major highways after crossing the border to Croatia. We had lunch at a chain restaurant and hotel complex off the freeway. It was sweet pepper stuffed with meat and a side of veggies and potatoes - a big plate of food for around 8 Euros.

We got on more minor roads for the second half of the journey to Plitvice Miric Inn, just south of Plitvice national park.

After checking in, we walked to the neighboring town and had coffee at the local ski resort, which was more of a bunny hill.

In the evening, we enjoyed a mixed meat platter at our hotel, which was massive with pork chops, lamb sausage, pork sausage and chicken along with many traditional sides and knodel soup and salad wrapping up with an apple and cherry strudel cake. It was a huge meal, but very good.

September 14

We walked the 2km up to the national park first thing in the morning. It was relatively easy to get tickets and start the program. We took a tram to the top of the park and started the walk back down to entrance 2. It was mostly cloudy, but the lakes and falls in karst created a magical fairy land - like something out of the Lord of the Rings.

It took about 6km of walking to return to entrance 2, with most of the best falls in the last 2km. From there, we caught a boat across the biggest lake and had lunch on the other side before heading down to the big falls. The last bit of walk was shorter, but packed with tour bus groups traveling the opposite direction. We were happy to get a couple pics of the big falls and start our walk out of the park. After a short tram ride, we walked the 2km back to our hotel. We were out around 6.5 hours and covered 25km, probably around 15 on foot. What a great day!

After a call to my mom for her birthday, we ended the night with the trout platter. That was the first time I've eaten a whole trout (and my bone removal skills confirmed it!)

September 15

Today was the biggest driving day of the trip. We had planned about 5 hours for driving, but it ended up closer to 6.

We continued south and fairly quickly came to the Bosnian border. We got an exiting Croatia stamp and an entering Bosnia stamp.

Soon, we saw the hillsides dotted with minarets instead of steeples. We spent a good chunk of the day driving through the Republika Srpska. As we were looking for lunch and a WC, I saw a restaurant on the left and pulled in. They didn't speak English at all, but had a few words of German, so we used that. We asked if we could drink and eat. The proprietor opened his smoker to show us a suckling pig and told us "five minutes" in German.  We had sparkling water and Rick had a beer while waiting. Then, they served us a big salad, pig and a whole loaf of bread. It was delish, and only cost 11 Euros total!

After getting stuck behind many tractors and logging trucks, we finally made it to Sarajevo. We spent some time walking around and watched a small basketball tournament and had coffee. The Ervin, our guide, picked us up for dinner at his house with his mother. We had many local dishes with them and ate to overfilled. They were refugees during the war and spent time in Croatia and Spain. They eventually came back to their apartment - tank shelling on the side and all (still visible today).

It was good talking to them. It seems for the more cosmopolitan city people, life under Tito in the former Yugoslavia was much better. They had a good standard of life and people from different religious groups got along quite well - even intermarrying a lot. Now, life is hard, officials are corrupt, and lines of religion are drawn more strictly. They thought maybe things were different for the country people, but they preferred life before the 90s.

September 16

After a nice breakfast at Hotel Colors, we walked back to the eternal flame to meet up with Ervin for our walking tour.  We started in the Austro-Hungarian part of the old town where a mortar struck down 26 shoppers in the early days of the Balkan war in 1992. Then, we went through the indoor dairy and meat market where we sampled some cheeses and smoked meats.

After that, we went to the produce market where another mortar hit near the end of the war in 1995. Then, we visited the main Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in quick succession.

Following those, we moved through the Ottoman part of old town into the Jewish quarter where we took a break for Bosnian coffees, served with Turkish delight. There are only about 500 Jews left in Sarajevo, but they played a big role in helping Bosniak refugees escape the city in the war.

Following coffee, we went to the corner where Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sofia were assassinated starting the events leading up to WWI.

We ended with a visit to the main mosque and madrasah, which dates back to the 15th century.
After the tour, we had Burek or meat, cheese and veggies baked in a phyllo dough. We went with Ervin who had recommended the spot.  Following lunch, we walked up to the biggest Muslim cemetery from he war. It was sobering. 11000 citizens of Sarajevo were killed and the city went from being a diverse cosmopolitan place with 45% Muslim Bosniaks, 32% Serbs, and 10% Croats with other minority groups to 90% Bosniak and very economically depressed - now with 45% unemployment.

We went back through the market and I bought a necklace and earrings from a woman that does silver filigree. Then, we took a break at the hotel before heading out in the evening.  In the evening, we took some nice photos and then had apple cider before dinner. We went to another restaurant that Ervin recommended. I had veal and carrot soup and a cauliflower salad. It was a nice, light meal to follow too many heavy meat and bread laden affairs.

September 17

Today we drove from Sarajevo to Pelješac Peninsula. It was around a 5 hour drive.

We stopped halfway in Mostar and had lunch in the old city after getting lost a couple of times and ending up in one of those tiny cobbled streets where the car barely fits. I had to do a 100 point turn in someone's yard to get back out.

The food was good and we sat near an old bridge that did survive the war before making our way through the throngs of tourists across the "old bridge" that has been reconstructed. We saw a couple of divers jump off for tips before heading through the cobbled streets back to our car.

After lunch, our GPS directed us to the ferry for the shortest route. We arrived at 3:12 for the 3:15 ferry, but we didn't have a ticket. So, Rick had to do wind sprints to get the ticket and the captain thankfully waited for us.

We made the 1 hour crossing while having coffees. Then, we drove the last bit to our hotel. It had been a scorching 34-35 Celsius all day. We took a short walk along the waterfront before getting dressed for dinner, which we are at the hotel. We had a fish stew, salad and cheesecake along with the bottle of Montenegran wine Ervin had given us.

September 18

We had breakfast as early as we could at Hotel Indijan. Then, we headed out for our hike up St. Ilija mountain - the highest peak in that part of Croatia. It was already around 90 degrees before 9 am. So, we decided just to hike until we wanted to turn around. Around 10:30, we'd made about half he distance and 1/3 the climbing. The footing was getting challenging and I was concerned about getting sloppy as I got hot and sleepy. So, we turned around and descended the mountain.

We got back to town around noon and had a light lunch - salad, oysters and a yogurt smoothie. Then, we headed back for a swim in the Adriatic. We floated around for nearly an hour before heading back to our hotel for a clean up and laundry.

In the evening, we walked to a restaurant rated well in Trip Advisor, which was across town. I had risotto with shellfish and a salad. We shared some local wine before strolling back to the hotel for the night.

September 19

The morning started with a swim after breakfast in the ocean. Then, we piled in the car to head for Dubrovnik.

Our first stop was Violić winery where Boris, the wine maker, showed us his harvest and small operation. He explained how during the Tito years they gave their grapes to the state, so he is re-learning the winemaking craft that his grandfather passed on. We bought a 2013 Dingač and some grape candy with nuts.

Our second stop was Grgyč, who is famous in Yountville for beating the French winemakers in a competition in 1976. Their property was recently damaged by a wildfire. We bought a Pošip white.

We stopped for lunch in Mali Ston, a town fortified to protect the salt pans and known for oyster farms. I had fried calamari for lunch, which was perfection. I am spoiled for all other calamari now.

We then spent the final 40 minutes finding our apartment near the harbor in Dubrovnik. The parking space was "interesting" to fit into and our car still partly stuck out into the street. Oh well. We got settled, rested,  and had coffee and lemonade brought by the owner. The apartment "Cime" is small even by Manhattan standards, but is comfortable with good air conditioning.

In the evening, we walked to the old town and had dinner at Dalmativo, a recommendation on the Rick Steve's guide. I had mussels cooked in cream and they were fantastic. We walked back and had a bottle of white wine the apartment owner had given us.

September 20

We took the city bus to the old city for breakfast and dined just outside the gates. It was raining a bit during breakfast but let up.

The first city thing we did was buy a ticket to walk the walls. We spent around 90 minutes circling the city from above. It was a great walk. The skies were dark and dramatic against the orange tile roofs.

Following the wall tour, rain started coming down hard, so we ducked into a cafe for coffees under the awning.

Then, we went for a tour of the ethnographic museum to see how the southern Slavs of the Adriatic have lived over the centuries. During that tour, the rain stopped and the sun started peering out. We stopped for lunch at Komenič seafood - a Rick Steve's recommendation. I had the octopus salad.

Our last stop was at an exhibit of Dali illustrations including a set to illustrate the Vulgate as well as Dante's Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradiso. There were several that I really liked artistically.

In the afternoon, we rested and then went for dinner at a restaurant close to our apartment, which was pricey and good but not great.

September 21

We got up a bit early and looked for breakfast at a local spot so we would have time to catch the ferry to the island of Mljet for the day.

It was cool and breezy following yesterday's rain, but the sun was starting to come out fully. The ferry departed at 9:15, but didn't arrive on Mljet until 11 due to the rolling swells.

We bought our ticket into the national park and hiked our way to the larger of the two "lakes" on the island, which are really formed from a very narrow inlet.

We took the shuttle boat to the island of St. Marie in the middle of the lake where there is a ruin of a Roman monastery. We hiked around and looked at the ruins and enjoyed the restored church. Then, we had lunch by the water and waited for the next shuttle to take us to the smaller lake.

We stopped at the small lake for a swim as no powered watercraft are on that lake. It was warm and glorious. Some little fish were biting on my feet as I walked into the water. It was like a free Thai pedicure.

Following the swim, we hiked the longer route through a small village and back to where the ferry would pick us up to return to Dubrovnik.

Dinner was at a small local spot. I had the čevapi. We crashed a bit early after the long day.

September 22

We had breakfast around 8 at another local spot. Then, we decided to walk all morning and explore the Lapad peninsula. We walked for nearly 2.5 hours, exploring neighborhoods and the seaside walking path. It was sunny and a bit warmer than the previous day, but certainly not scorching.

We returned to our 'hood around 11:45 for a leisurely lunch at the local pizzeria. I had a tuna salad and mushroom pizza, knowing we would likely not eat a proper dinner with our travel schedule.

At 1:00 pm, we headed up to get our car and head for the airport. We just needed to gas it up before returning it. The first gas station in town was down for credit card payments, so we went to the other, which was under construction :( Finally, we decided to just head to the airport and look for one on the way. We were able to fill up about 9km from the airport. Phew!

Our first flight left at 4:40 and got to Zagreb at 5:40. The second flight left at 6:40 and got to Munich at 8:00 pm. We were able to successfully negotiate the train and streetcar to arrive at Das Hotel a bit after 9:00 pm.

September 23

We were hungry and so enjoyed our breakfast buffet at the Das Hotel. After eating, we headed out to walk to Marionplatz where our bike tour was meeting up. We arrived about 40 minutes early, so enjoyed an apfelstrudel and coffee at a cafe on the square.

At 11, we could not locate our group, so walked to the office of the company. They said the group wouldn't be assembling until 11:30. When we arrived back at the plaza, we found the group just as the rain was dissipating.

We had a brief lecture and then went to get our bikes. Our first stop was the residences of the Kings of Bavaria, reconstructed following WWII. Then, we went to a church built to honor the birth of an heir to the lineage. Following that, we rode to the seat of government, rebuilt in glass following the war. Finally, we stopped for a snack in the English garden and then went to watch the river surfers before ending the tour. Our guide, Tony, was from DC originally and moved to Munich to be with a woman he met in Thailand.

We had lunch at Haxenbrau, which specializes in pig and veal "knuckle". That was fantastic. We retuned to the hotel to change into warmer clothes before heading out to Oktoberfest.

Our trip to the get required a 45 minutes walk and we stopped to buy some Turkish delight on the way there. The fest was crazy - almost like a very packed state fair with games and rides in addition to the food stands and beer tents. After trying to find an inside table in two halls, we settled outside at Augustiner. We had 1 liter beers there before going to buy a half chicken and a pretzel. Then, we sat outside another tent to eat. Rick ordered another beer, but we only finished half or so and then decided we'd had enough of the monster crowds.

We walked back and partially sobered up, stopping for gelato on the way. I had dark chocolate ginger, which may be my new favorite flavor.

September 24

We caught the train after breakfast to Dachau, site of the first, and model, Nazi concentration camp. It was a forced labor camp targeted at political opponents and not geared toward extermination. However many cruel things happened there and many died as a result of their internment. Around 43,000 out of 250,000 who were ever there died - the lowest death rate in the entire camp system.

We toured for nearly four hours with a guide named Bernd, who is a retiree passionate about making sure nothing like that ever happens again.

After our visit, we headed to the train station and stopped for lunch at a hotel across the street. I was in detox mode so had a big salad with ox and water.

After a short rest, we headed out for dinner. Yelp assisted us in finding Alter Simple, where I had a fantastic schnitzel . Afterward, we went to BallaBeni again for ice cream. It was again superb.

September 25 - return day!

We had a short morning. After breakfast, we went next door to buy an apron I'd seen commemorating Oktoberfest, which I wanted for our tech chili cook off next week.

Following that, we went to the Brandenhorst museum across the street which had its entire Warhol collection on display - over 100 pieces including Portfolio Marilyn and Triple Elvis. It included some of his early drawings, two films and several episodes of TV that he made. My impression is that the silkscreen and paint pieces are his best, and the film stuff was just weird.

After the museum, we went to Burger House for a quick lunch and then headed to the airport. Coincidentally, after getting to our gate, we ran into my friend and former colleague Shannyn traveling home to Portland from Romania. What a fun day!