Saturday, January 4, 2020

Oktoberfest in Munich 2019

Munich is the final destination for this European trip.  It's October and why would you be in Munich except for Octoberfest.  We decided to take the train instead of fly from Venice to Munich.  One reason for taking the train is because we'll be going through some beautiful country in northern Italy and Austria.  The first part of the train journey took us from Venice Maestre station to Verona.  Then we changed to a Deutsche Bahn train that goes straight to Munich.  The train passes through the Dolomites in northern Italy.  This is an area of great beauty.  It's also a popular hiking area.  The train then passes through beautiful Austria before crossing over to Germany.

We arrived at the Munich Hauptbahnhof or Central Station at about 6pm.  Our friend's son, Yannick, met us and helped us take the S8 train to Daglfing.  It was about a 10-minute walk from the Daglfing train station to their house.

Prior to leaving the US I tried to book a tour of the BMW factory in Munich.  I had to wait until registration is opened before I can formally book a tour.  When it finally did we were hiking on the TMB.  Fortunately, I was able to call through to their reception and booked a tour.  It was a wonderful tour of the factory and the museum.  It took about 3 hours.  The factory tour was most impressive with its level of automation.


An early BMW car

A new-generation BMW

BMW Head Office
Unfortunately, it rained almost every day that we were in Munich.  We went to Marienplatz a few times because that's the only place I know where we can stroll around.  Not only are there many shops, restaurants and church, there is also a market and a beer house next to to it.  The market sells many fresh vegetables and meat.  It also has many restaurants around the market, selling anything from traditional German sausages to seafood to other traditional Germany food.

A dish of pork knuckles and potatoes
There is also the famous beer hall Hofbräuhaus München near Marienplatz.  This is a very popular beer hall, especially during Oktoberfest.  Some tourists think that they have come to Oktoberfest but it's not the official Oktoberfest, which is celebrated in Theresienwiese, a few miles away.


Large groups of Patrons in the busy Hofbräuhaus

Doris in the beer hall

Rathaus Glockenspiel in Marienplatz
One day we met my friend Paul for breakfast.  I met Paul and his girlfriend Alina while traveling in South Africa.  We were staying at a hostel in Coffee Bay, one of the most memorable places I visited there.  Read my blog here on Coffee Bay.

Meeting my friend Paul for Breakfast

Tasty German donuts
Tobias and his family one day took us to a nearby famous castle called Neuschwanstein Castle.  Unfortunately it was so popular and crowded that we couldn't get into the castle.  We walked around the grounds but it was also very crowded.

Neuschwanstein Castle
Visiting the castle with Tobias' family
One of the nicest things about visiting a local friend in a foreign country is eating what the locals eat. Tobias' and his family always take us to authentic German restaurants, sometimes quite far out of the away but they are always good.  The myth that Germany food is all potatoes and sauerkraut is not true.  There are a lot of great German dishes.

At a German Restaurant in Munich

The Menu

Name of the restaurant
Finally the day came that we are going to the Oktoberfest.  Wolfe, Sandra and their 3 sons drove in from near Heidelberg.  We had lunch together then get ready to head out.  Our table reservation is at 5pm so we took the train to near Theresienwiese and walked the few blocks to the grounds.  Security was very tight after a bombing few years ago.  The grounds are now surrounded by chain-linked fence so that security can screen everyone coming in.

Yes, we are at Oktoberfest but it is not a true experience unless you get into one of the beer tents.  The tents are owned by one of the few big Bavarian beer companies.  You can get in only if you have a ticket or wait in line early enough to get in before it's full.  I've been lucky.  My friend has a connection that he gets us table reservations every year.  This year he reserved two tables - one for the adults and another for their grown children.  These families knew each other when they were working in Singapore.  That is why I feel a closeness to them even though I did not know them in Singapore.

Coming here is not only about drinking beer.  It's about celebrating a festival, getting together with friends and having a good time.  The beer are brewed specially for Oktoberfest and have a slightly higher alcohol content.  They come in 1-liter jugs.  Not only are the beer great but the food is great too.  Here are some pictures of the good time that we had.

Dressed up and getting ready to go to Oktoberfest

Entrance

Doris and I outside the Paulaner beer tent
Besides beer there is tasty food too

Having a good time with friends

A 1-liter jug of beer

Beer Hall with a live band in the middle.  They play a lot of American music besides German polka music


Soft tasty pretzels

The kids are also having a wonderful time
It was a wonderful week in Munich, seeing old friends.  This is my 3rd trip to Oktoberfest and every year I look forward to going back.  One note about the German kids.  They are so nice and polite and friendly.  I felt like I have just spent a special and fun week with my extended family.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Venezia

It might have made sense for us to drop the rental car off in Venice.  But someone told us that the car rental location is very hard to find in Venice and if we drop it off in the wrong place we get charged for parking in the garage.  So we decided to take a 2-hour train ride from Florence to Venice.  However, we are not staying in Venice proper but just outside it.  The train stopped at the Venice Maestre station, which is just 1 stop before the main Venice St. Lucia station.   From the Maestre station it was a 5-minute walk to the a&o Hostel/Hotel.

I've just read about this hostel in the New York Times and it sounds like a perfect fit for us.  This is a big hostel/hotel, comprising of 2 buildings.  Yes, there are rooms where they are shared by many travelers but they also have private rooms.  We booked a private ensuite room for two, which means we have our own bathroom and shower.  It was not fancy but it was clean and comfortable.  It costs us about €145 for two nights. cheaper than a hotel in Venice.  Many of the travelers staying here are on a budget.  So many of them choose to cook their own food in a central kitchen.  We decided to take a 5-minute walk to a nearby supermarket and bought some groceries and cook our own dinner.  We shared our dinner with another American from Boise, Idaho, who is on a motorcycle trip around Europe.

A nice clean room with two beds.

a&o Hostel/Hotel in Venice Maestre

In the morning we took a 15-minute bus ride to the main bus station in Venice.  It's right off to the side of the Grand Canal, near the Ponte della Constituzione or Constitution Bridge.   We had bought unlimited bus and boat ride tickets for the day for €20 each so we just hopped on one of those water taxis plying the canal and took it to San Marco Square or St. Mark's Square.

Grand Canal with Ponte della Costituzione
St. Mark's Square is the center of attraction in Venice.  Almost all tourists congregate there or pass through there.  Lots of pigeons also love the place.  Surrounding the square are a few restaurants and cafes but expect too pay a hefty price if you decide to eat or drink there.  There's the beautiful and famous St. Mark's Basilica but in my many visits to Venice I have never gone inside the church.  There is always a long line waiting outside.

St. Mark's Basilica

Tourists hanging out at St. Mark's Square

More Tourists
There is not much to see in Venice except wandering the narrow streets and watching the gondolas go through the narrow canals.  Riding a gondola is expensive, about €80 for about an hour.  You can get one that can take more passengers and share the ride with other tourists.  If this is your first time it might be worth the money.

Another popular spot is the Rialto Bridge where there is a market and many souvenir stands.  Again there are many tourists hanging around the area.  From the bridge you can get a nice view of the Grand Canal.

View of the Rialto Bridge

Rialto Bridge from a different angle
We wandered through the narrow streets.  There are many shops and restaurants catering mainly to the tourists.  There are residences here too but from the looks of it, the locals must be hiding from the tourists.  We also took the water taxi to Murano, one of the islands.  Another popular island is Burano but we did not have time to go there.  Murano is not as crowded.  It gives a different perspective of another part of Venice.

An UPS delivery boat in Murano

Gondolas on the Grand Canal

A popular thing to do - riding on a gondola

Gondolas going through a narrow canal

Gondola waiting for passengers

One of the narrow streets and residences

The canal through Murano
Buildings along the Grand Canal

The Grand Canal is like a major highway

One of the churches along the Grand Canal
If you come here with a tour company they will likely take you to a glass factory.  Glass blowing is very popular here and has a long history.  The glass pieces sell for a lot of money.

A few sad notes about Venice.  The city is sinking and they have been trying to figure out how to prevent it from doing so.  But the worst thing is it gets flooded frequently.  About a month after we were there, there was a big flood for many days.  Many of the shops have to close and tourists were floating their suitcases through St. Mark's Square.  One of the major complaints by the locals are the cruise ships that come to Venice.  They are gigantic and seeing them anchor next to the city is quite a scene of contrasts.  They dumped a few thousand tourists into the city for the day.  They don't stay at the local hotels and not many of them eat at the local restaurants either because they get fed when they go back to the ships.

This is another place that I hope I don't have to come back again.  There are many more beautiful places in Italy that are starving for tourists.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Tuscany

Tuscany conjures up an image of rolling hills, ancient mansions, old cities, old churches and vineyards.  It's everyone's favorite part of Italy.  Florence is the capital of Tuscany but to enjoy Tuscany you have to get away from Florence.  There are many beautiful and ancient towns to choose from:  Siena, Lucca, Pisa, Arezzo, San Gimignano, Livorno, etc.  There is not much public transportation options if you want to explore the region so the best way to do it is to rent a car.

Driving in Italy is very different from the US, or other parts of Europe for that matter.  Italians are much more aggressive drivers, especially in bigger cities.  You have to be able to drive a manual transmission, although automatic transmissions are available for a much higher cost.  Not only you have to be able to shift gears, you have to shift without thinking because your speed changes very quickly with the sudden traffic.  You also have to know how to drive through roundabouts, which are almost at every intersection.  At the same time you have to listen carefully to the GPS.

We rented a car from Sixt Car Rental.  We found the rental through a portal called Autoeurope.  After specifying your rental requirements, the website gives you choices from different car rental companies, like Hertz, Avis, etc.  Sixt does business mostly in Europe so it's not well known to Americans.  But I've read that it's a good company.  However, Autoeurope is a money-making company so even though the rate may be reasonable, Autoeurope add on their own charges.  Like many car rentals, it's "caveat emptor" or buyers beware.  Sixt has a booth inside the Florence train station.  It's a big building and it took me some time to find it.

Our plan is to spend 3 days and 3 nights in the Tuscany countryside.  We had a lot of recommendations on where to go.  I finally decided that we'll go to Assisi, Siena and Chianti.  Our first stop is Perugia, not far from Assisi.  Both are actually in Umbria province.  We arrived there in the early afternoon and checked into the Sangallo Palace Hotel.  It's a very nice 4-star hotel at a reasonable rate.  After checking in we headed for old-town Perugia through a series of escalators that took us up to the hilltop.  There were some old buildings and a cathedral (always in Italy) but not much else.  It was a disappointment.  We thought there will be more to see in Perugia.

Old Town Perugia

Restaurants lining old town
We parked our car in the garage a couple of blocks away.  In the morning when we drove to the hotel to pick up our luggage we found the road to the hotel blocked.  We didn't know why but we circled the area a couple of times through winding streets but the police would not let us through.  Eventually we called the hotel to bring our luggage to another street and picked it up from there.  Such is the frustration of driving in Italy.

Our next stop is Assisi, about 30km away.  Assisi is made famous by St. Francis, who left a privileged life to become a priest.  St. Francis started the Franciscan Order.  Much of the town is on a hilltop.  We found a parking lot where we could take the escalator and walked some stairs up to the town.  We could've driven up there but I didn't want the challenge of navigating through some narrow streets.  Many Italians told us that Assisi is their favorite town.  We can see why.  The town has a done a good job of preserving their buildings, especially the churches.  We headed for the Basilica of San Francisco d'Assisi.  Its a beautiful church at the edge of the hilltop.  The grounds were well-maintained and the church itself was also very clean and well-maintained.  Surprisingly, there was no admission charge, except to certain parts of the church.

Tasty looking canoglis

A Restaurant in Assisi

Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

One of the streets

Looking into the court-yard of the church

Another church closer to the main square
From Assisi we drove to Siena, about an hour away.  The Albergo Cannon d’Oro hotel is supposed to be right in the middle of old town.  That's why I picked it.  It's not a very nice hotel but it's close to where we were going.  However, finding the hotel is a big challenge.  The narrow streets of the old town just goes round and round.  Finding a place to park was a big challenge.  Eventually we found a parking spot we think it's close to the hotel.  We took our stuff and walked about 20 minutes and found Via dei Montanini, one of the main streets in old town.  We checked in and then took a walk through the busy street.  There were many shops, banks, restaurants, etc.  Some are upscale and some are just middle of the road.  We ended in the very big main square, the Piazza del Campo, where there was supposed to be a concert that night. We waited for a long time.  The concert started at about 10pm.  By then we were fairly tired and ready for bed.

Buildings around the main square

Fortress

Duomo or Cathedral, away from the main square

A panoramic view of the main square
In the evening we moved our rental car to a park where the parking is free.  This way we won't have to get up early and put money in the parking meter.  Our next destination is Chianti, the wine region, only about 60 minutes away.  We were going to take SR222 through beautiful vineyards grown on rolling hills.  Five minutes into the highway we were stopped at a roadblock.  We were told that there was a classic car race on highway, which means we'll have to take the country roads and join SR222 north of the section where the race is being held.  Well, that was a bigger challenge that we expected or bargained for.  However, it took us through some of the most beautiful Chianti countryside.

We stopped and posed next to several grapevines.  In September, this is harvest season and the grapes were all riped and bursting with juice.  We picked a few of them and tried them.  They are not sweet like table grapes.  We took a wrong turn onto one of the country roads and ran into 3 women trimming the grape vines.  They told us there were no through roads but they picked some grapes for us to try.  It was so generous of them.

After driving around for 3 hours, with the GPS keep wanting to take us back to SR222, we finally found the part of the highway that is north of where the race was being held.  It was then a short beautiful up and downhill drive to the Albergo Casa Al Sole, a small hotel on the main road.  There are several small towns along the highway and Greve is one of them.

Display of Chianti wines in a wine store

Grapes are ready for harvest
Olives are also common in this region

Beautiful rows of grape vines on rolling hills
Chianti wines are popular all over the world and have been around for a very long time.  I confess that I like Chianti wine but don't know much about it.  In a 2019 article in New York Times, Chianti Classico, Eric Asimov talked about the tastefulness of Chianti.  They are not the cheapest nor the most expensive.  You can get a decent bottle for between US$10 to $20.

In the morning we drove back to Florence, about 30 minutes away, according to the GPS.  As luck have it, we ran into a roadblock as we approach the city center.  It was Sunday and there was a march going on supporting Breast Cancer.  I tried other routes to no avail.  The GPS kept pointing us back to the city center.  Finally I stopped and asked one of the policewomen.  She pointed towards the hill and told me that I can bypass the marching route by going up that hill.  As I drove up the hill I recognized the spot where you can have a bird's eye view of Florence.  I was here on one of my trips with Trafalgar Tours many years ago.  With the maze of streets surrounding the Florence train station it was a miracle that I finally found the right entrance to the garage.  When I returned the car to the desk we only had 10 minutes left before I get charged another hour or even a day.  With 2 hours left before our train depart for Venice I walked quickly to the nearby Central Market and bought some lunch for us.  What a hectic time in Tuscany!