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Part 2: Operation Iraqi Freedom vacation - in Europe!

Author: Ben Shakman (More Trip Reviews by Ben Shakman)
Date of Trip: March 2006

March 26th (Day 9)
Fortunately, we had retained the skiing equipment so we were able to skip the lines and get right to it. We opted for skiing at the Haupsberg area and then touring the gorge. As it turned out, the weather had been sufficiently warm for a number of days and the skiing was very sloppy. The upside to this is that Allison and I were able to ski comfortably with a minimum of extra layers. At one point, I was down to just my long underwear and bibs.

Allison skied her little butt off while Lizzy and I made a miniature snowman. Both kids really enjoyed themselves and Charleen was able to get away for a few hours and buy herself several things she wanted at the local PX. She reappeared just as we had loaded up to walk back to the hotel and we were off for the gorge.

We drove all the way up to where they collect the entrance fee because we were concerned that they might have closed for the day. As it turns out, the place was closed. I suppose that we will have to take the kids there on our next visit. This is something that I would certainly recommend for anyone visiting the Garmisch area. It is an area where the flow of water had cut through the rock face of the mountain such that it now flows through a really unique path that takes it through what had been solid rock. There is a small walkway next to where the water rushes down hill and it is quite a sight to see. Also, when you reach the top of the gorge area you find yourself in a small village that is clinging to the pastureland on the side of the mountain. The whole thing is breathtaking, although it takes a bit of effort to reach and enjoy.

We drove back down to the ski jump stadium and walked around there for a little while before returning to Edelweiss for a simple pizza dinner. As a native Chicagoan (displaced by choice) I would like to warn everyone against the pizza at Edelweiss -- it sucks!

The kids and I closed the pool while Charleen did a little laundry (the first time since she deployed -- I had zero inclination to offer to assist) and otherwise helped us get ready for the beginning of the second phase of our vacation -- Central Europe.

March 27th (Day 10)
We ate our last breakfast at Edelweiss and then I went to check out and load up the car while Charleen finished up with the kids. It turned out to be a good thing that I scrutinized the bill because they had charged us double for our first night. The quickly adjusted the bill and we were on our way. The second phase of our vacation was significantly different than the first phase for several reasons: we would be visiting Central Europe, we would be moving around a lot more, and we would be seeing friends of mine from my time in Iraq with the Multinational Division Central-South.

Austria had a fair amount of road construction going on and that slowed us down measurably. On the upside, they have some of the more unique road construction signs that we have ever seen. They use the smiley face with different emotions expressed based on how much longer the work zone will last. As an example, the sign at the 6 km point looks about like I was feeling -- PISSED -- while the sign at the end of the work zone looks elated. There is a progression from mildly upset to indifference to slightly happy to a full grin. I'm sure that the local population does not even notice the signs at this point, but they were so entertaining that we slowed way down to snap pictures of them.

Charleen and I have both seen the movie "Eurotrip" so we decided that we would be travelling too close to Bratislava not to manage a short visit. The premise of the film is that a group of 20-somethings goes to Europe for the summer and they go through a series of adventures. One adventure has them hitchhiking because they were robbed and winding up in Bratislava by accident with only $1.67 between the four of them. As it turns out, they are treated like royalty on that amount of money. We did not find any such prices on our excursion, but things were certainly more reasonable than they were in Germany. It was also our first foray into a country that an American serviceman could never have visited 20 years ago. Our initial impression was that it was an Eastern European dump, but that turned out to be incorrect once we got away from the communist housing developments. Then it turned out to be a beautiful city with typical European architecture and atmosphere.

While in Bratislava, we also visited the "Aupark." It is a mall very similar to those found in the west with several notable exceptions: smoking and café placement. Specifically, where western malls have wide corridors where one can walk and window shop, their version includes cafés placed throughout the mall such that you have to walk well around them. We stopped at one such café and had some delicious cake for dessert. Another interesting thing: the Indian food place in the food court offered several different meals, including one called "barfi" that seemed to demand that we take a picture with the sign.

We found our way back to our vehicle and found it in the same condition as when we left it. I was concerned about the contents, so I parked it as close to the end of a row as possible and backed it in such that the tailgate could not be opened without moving the vehicle.

We continued on towards Budapest. We found the city without problem, but had a significant amount of difficulty locating their National Defense University (Hungarian West Point). A friend of mine is a member of the faculty there and he arranged for lodging on post and also offered to show us around the city for a day and a half.

We meandered back and forth across the city for quite a while and got to see their tomb of the Unknown Soldier and several expansive parks before we finally concluded that we were not going to be able to find the appointed meeting place. We finally broke down and called my friend only to have our German cell phone run out of money mid-way through the conversation -- no surprise considering that we were paying 1.59 Euros per minute at that point. We pulled into a gas station and I managed to convince the attendant to allow us to use his phone by holding out a handful of Euro coins and simultaneously holding my other hand up to my face while making a phone symbol of sorts. I spoke to Guyla and then he spoke to the gas station attendant such that we learned that we were only two tram stops away. He came to pick us up and we discovered that we had actually been on the right street earlier in our search. We had been looking at the police academy instead of the compound on the other side of the street as it was behind a dense wall of foliage and not immediately visible.

Guyla suggested that we should stop for some carryout Chinese food and Allison jumped at the suggestion. She has developed quite a taste for Chinese food sometime in the last few months. We went to a nearby place and Charleen was astonished when Guyla pulled right up on the sidewalk to park. I took Allison with me and the three of us walked across the street to the carryout place. They had a different approach than I have seen before. Specifically, all of the food was prepared and waiting in steam tables behind a glass counter. You could actually see everything and you made your selections based on what looked good. I spent about $12 for about twice as much as I expected we would eat (mainly because I did not want to risk having it all get consumed and still having a hungry kid or wife) and then went to our accommodations. Guyla had arranged for us to have two rooms at their guest lodging and they were very spacious and extremely reasonably priced -- four room nights only cost me 7,000 Forints, or about $33US.

We settled the kids in for bed and then watched a movie on our laptop. It made for a very pleasant end to a very busy day.

March 28th (Day 11)
My day started with a run at the NDU, followed by breakfast in their "bar." Guyla arranged for a private room for us (a benefit of being a Colonel, I'm sure) and it was a good thing because everyone in the rest of the place seemed to be smoking cigarettes.

After breakfast we headed out on a driving tour of some attractions that would have to wait for a subsequent visit because there simply was not time to see everything. Some of these areas of interest included the zoo, hot baths, opera house, main cathedral, and the parade grounds they used to show their military might when they were part of the Warsaw Pact. An interesting fact: their military is now roughly 25% of the size it was during the cold war and they have no structure like our reserve/guard system.

Once we finished with the things that we would not be seeing, we moved on to some really neat stuff. Our first stop was Castle Hill. There are two ways to reach the castle that overlooks the city: by car (boring) or by rail. We opted for the rail option mainly because it was so unique. The castle area itself was built in Buda starting in the 13th century and expanded hundreds of years. The railway was added about 150 years ago and is unique because it only runs a few hundred meters and the entire track is at about a 45-degree angle. Therefore, when you board at the bottom, your view of the city improves every second as the car climbs the track.

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