Part 1: Operation Iraqi Freedom vacation - in Europe!Author: Ben Shakman (More Trip Reviews by Ben Shakman)
Date of Trip: March 2006
March 21st (Day 4)
Our landing in Germany was smooth as silk. We were collecting our bags when I noticed Charleen standing outside the PAX terminal exit. She was dressed in civilian clothes and I instantly felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders! Customs was relatively quick and I put the backpacks on the kids before heaving on my own load for the short walk outside. I was carrying my big backpack (the one the kids named "grande" on our trip to Spain), another backpack on my chest, a laptop, and a full-size duffel bag in each hand. We walked outside and I spotted Charleen approaching out of the corner of my eye. I stopped, put the duffel bags on the ground, and told the kids that we should ask someone for directions to our lodging. I said "how about her?" while pointing at my wife. Lizzy (the 5-year old) said: "you look a lot like my mommy." Charleen replied "that's because I am your mommy!" All three of them hugged and cried for a few minutes and then she led us to the rental car and drove us back to our billeting, by way of Burger King. As it turns out, she went into the Frankfurt USO to ask about directions to the train and lucked into a free shuttle to Ramstein. The driver had dropped her off at the billeting office where she was able to do an early check-in before picking up the rental car. She managed to go to the room, take a shower, unpack a little and pick us up upon arrival. Talk about LUCK!!!
The kids and I took showers and then Charleen and I decided "what the hell -- let's go to France for dinner." We jumped in our rental car (a Peugot 407 station wagon -- 451 Euros for 2 weeks thanks to AnneMarie) and headed for Metz. We got on the Autobahn and I was immediately struck by how slow the car was on the highway. We were being passed by everything but the trucks!
The border station was unoccupied and we were unable to get our passports stamped on arrival. We decided to find a police station in town and discuss the issue with them. The police spoke just enough English and we spoke just enough French (mainly Charleen) that we were able to ascertain that the office that stamps passports was closed for the evening. We made it Metz and found a parking lot near the city center. There was a big mall nearby and Charleen wanted to shop.
In the parking lot on the way to the shopping center, Charleen spotted a little red Ferrari and we took several pictures with it. It was just sitting in a normal parking space like all of the other cars.
We spent a couple of hours looking at various clothes, but only the kids wound up with anything. Afterwards, we went to a place that the clerk in the department store recommended based on our criteria: quick service, casual, and appropriate for kids. It turned out to be a mixture between a cafeteria and a restaurant -- perfect considering the days' events thus far.
The kids ate poorly, but the place had a play-place similar to a McDonald's and they found a few little French boys to play with. There was also a guy dressed up as some sort of mouse-like animal that made a big hit with the kids. We managed to close the place, and the kids took a few pictures and said goodbye to their new French friends.
We took an after-dinner walk around the center square and then loaded up for the trip back to Germany. Our rental car was still an abomination on the road and I decided to go exchange it for something else the next morning. As we passed the deserted border control station on the way back to Germany, I remarked to Charleen that it was no wonder the French have been invaded so many times in the past -- they don't even bother to keep someone at the border after normal working hours. Later in the trip, she asked me what the French flag looked like and I responded that it was white, solid white.
March 22nd (Day 5):
Our original plan had indicated that we would spend two nights at Ramstein, but we decided in the morning that we would rather head out for Bavaria. Thus, we ran through the PX to pick up the inevitable few missing items and a SIM card for an Iraqi cell phone that Charleen had borrowed from one of her Ukrainian friends. Hertz (on post) agreed that there was a problem with the car and offered to exchange it for the same model, but with a manual transmission. All we had to do was refuel it and bring it back to them. Little did I know at the time that diesel fuel was not available on post. We drove out to town and had lunch at a Mexican restaurant (the 5-year olds' choice) and then refueled before heading back to collect up all of our stuff, check out of billeting, and trade in the rental car. One note on the car: a Peugot 407 station wagon can actually hold 3 full-size duffel bags, a huge backpack, one large backpack, one medium backpack, two small backpacks (all under the cargo cover) and four occupants, if loaded very carefully).
Charleen and I hooked up the portable DVD player for the kids and we were off! We called Edelweiss (in Garmisch) from the road and learned that it would not be a problem to add another two days to our reserved stay. Unfortunately, they told my wife that there were no connecting rooms on the entire property and that we would have two rooms right next door to each other -- more on this later. Our estimate of the driving time indicated that we should arrive there in time for dinner in Garmisch. Unfortunately, the map reading did not work out so well and we found ourselves at the Swiss border just as the sun was going down. We opted for the trip through Switzerland and Austria instead of backtracking. The kids were quite content in the back seat, watching movies and being fed various snacks that we acquired (Charleen started to refer to the bag by her feet as the "cookie buffet") so we pushed on until we hit the Austrian border. The 7-year old (Allison) spotted a Chinese restaurant at the boarder and insisted on stopping for a late dinner. I was glad to have a break from the constant driving, albeit discouraged because it seemed like a nice restaurant and that translated to an even later arrival at Edelweiss. As it turned out, we had the best meal that we have ever had in a Chinese restaurant (the place was named Phoenix) and even wound up with a spectacular dessert which was poorly described on the menu. We ordered a fried apple with caramel sauce thinking that it would arrive in a bowl. In reality, the waitress first brought out a pan of cold water, followed by a bowl of fried apple pieces, and then a pan of hot caramel -- right off the fire. She proceeded to dip the apple pieces in the steaming hot caramel to coat them before dropping them into the cold water to cool them off. The end result was a hard caramel coating with a soft, warm piece of apple in the center. It was delicious beyond words and we left the waitress a huge tip.
We spent longer than we anticipated at the restaurant because the kids were "helping" another waitress fold the dinner napkins into origami fans, and they also had a big tropical fish tank and a goldfish pond that was quite a hit until we caught the kids spitting in the pond to provide snacks for the fish. It never ceases to amaze me some of the things that normally well-behaved children will do when subjected to the turmoil involved in traveling or when they think no one is watching.
Back on the road, we made good time through most of the Austria leg of our trip -- right up until we started climbing the mountains. At that point, the fog settled in thickly. We were driving in a thick blanket of fog that brought visibility down to less than 50' and precluded travelling more than about 35kph at best. We literally crawled our way through the mountains until we came to a tunnel entrance that was closed -- the only way to Garmisch from where we were, and the tunnel was closed for some middle of the night work. I left the wife and kids in the car and spent close to an hour standing alongside one of the trucks waiting with us talking to a couple of Croatian fellows about travelling around Central Europe.
Two interesting notes here: Americans typically refer to the Balkan states, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, etc. as Eastern Europe while people from those countries prefer the term Central Europe. Second, people in Western Europe (France, Germany, and Switzerland at least) are quick to refer to Central European countries as the wild, wild East while people in those countries reserve that term for the Eastern European countries -- Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, etc.
March 23rd (Day 6)
We finally arrived at Edelweiss at 0330. Upon arrival, I asked the clerk at the desk why I was told during my research and reservation phase that they had connecting rooms and was promised that they would do everything possible to put us into them, yet they did not even have such an arrangement available in their hotel. She looked at me quizzically and asked me why I thought that they did not have connecting rooms at their property. I explained the earlier phone call and she told me that the person we had spoken with was new and didn't know better. I was furious! I had her wake up the manager on duty and I lit into him about broken promises and incompetence. He apologized and asked me what he could do to make things right for me. I requested their best suite for what was left of the night and to be assigned to connecting rooms in the morning for the remainder of our stay. He balked and tried to feed me a line about lost revenue and the difference between the cost of the loft suite and the regular rooms. I asked him if he seriously expected anyone else to be checking in since it was 0400 and reminded him that some revenue for a room was better than zero revenue. He acquiesced and we wound up with the big suite so that we could get a few hours of rest before moving into our connecting room. Apparently, their business practices include blocking one side of a connecting room set before they finish selling all of the non-connecting room accommodations -- illogical!
It was about 0430 when we finally got the kids to bed. We decided to let them sleep as long as they wanted and begin our day much later than anticipated. We woke up close to noon and moved into our connecting rooms. With our accommodations set for the next few nights, we were finally ready to venture out and see some of Bavaria.
We decided that we would do best to see Neuschwanstein with the remaining half-day. We stopped at a small grocery store in Austria and picked up some sandwiches and a few snacks. We ate while driving and arrived at Neuschwanstein in sufficient time to look around a little before our appointed tour began. I had intended for us to take a horse cart up the hill and walk back down after the tour. Charleen decided to taunt the kids with a proposition that we should walk up instead. That was certainly my preference, however I knew better than to propose something to the kids that I was unwilling to have them accept -- she's out of practice after 7+ months away. Naturally, the kids opted for the hike and she was mortified. Up we went! Allison and Charleen complained most of the way up the hill, while Lizzy ran and I was busy trying to keep up with her. We promised Allison and Charleen that we would ride the horse cart down the hill.
The tour of Neuschwanstein was haltingly short, more so than I remember from our visit 10 years ago, but the kids enjoyed themselves. They were both amazed at the preponderance of swans throughout the castle and made something of a game out of finding them in each room that we visited. They were also very impressed with the beds in the servant quarters and asked if they could try them out. They were not so happy about having to remain calm and quiet and certainly wanted to run around in the ballroom. We finished the tour and managed to make it through the gift shop without accruing any additional Ludwig paraphernalia.
I was hoping to walk back down, but the kids had different plans: the little one wanted to walk and the big one insisted on the horse-drawn wagon. Lizzy insisted on having Charleen walk with her and I wound up on the cart with Allison. Lizzy ran most of the way down, stopping only to pet a couple of dogs and have a couple of snowball fights with some groups of teenagers that were walking down ahead of us. Lizzy and Charleen had time to stop for hot chocolate and still make it to the car way before Allison and I arrived, half-frozen.
We had a pleasant drive back along a different route and stopped at a grocery store on the way into Garmisch to search for our very favorite brand of Bavarian sweet mustard -- Johann Conrad's #1 Mustard. We initially discovered this stuff on our last leisure trip to Germany and it is a clear favorite -- so much so that we regularly request that friends going to Germany check for it in the stores. Unfortunately, we have only managed to get resupplied on one of those occasions. We found the mustard aisle and there it was&an entire shelf of the stuff!!! I promptly loaded up the girls' miniature shopping carts with five jars apiece and noted the price was about 1 Euro per jar. At one point, I had found a European online grocery store that carried it, but they wanted 30 Euros postage just to ship me two jars. Those ten would go into my backpack on the ride home.
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