Buenos Aires – Warm and welcoming

Arrive at Buenos Aires airport. Discover that Argentines are on strike due to proposed tax hikes. Join the line that extends from customs to the luggage collection. Wipe sleep from tired eyes, and try to recalibrate body clocks. Luggage is X-rayed and passes. Hola, Buenos Aires.

We are dog tired. We stand out like the dogs proverbials, tall pale Gringos. Our luggage on the trolley we try to work out the best way to get into town. Obviously if we go to the taxi rank we will pay an extortionate Gringo price, and the local bus is either not running due to strikes, or requires coins that we have not yet acquired. After some tired deliberation we head to the internal taxi stand and book a taxi. One that then speeds like a rally car down the bumpy freeway, dodging and overtaking as much as possible. I hope Argentina produces good rally drivers, this guy was definitely up there.

Eventually we arrive, and are greeted by a warm smile from one of the hostel workers. We check into a small room which will be ours for the next few days. I immediately change into shorts and a t-shirt, and walk outside to feel the heat of the sun beating down on me. Such a strong contrast with the icy-cold tail of Winter that we left behind in Germany. We spend the next few days adjusting to the jet lag, and the sunshine helps us.

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The hostel is warm and inviting on the inside, painted colourfully outside. We have breakfast near the stove daily, making the most of the free coffee. We pass on the staple white bread and dulce de leche (delicious but not nutritionally satisfying), and opt for bought cereal, fruit and yoghurt.

While there we make a foray into the heart of Buenos Aires, in order to change some money on the black market. Or blue market? The Argentinian government has placed restrictions on the flow of currency into the country, which means that a thriving market for foreign currency exists. We have a bit of euro that we change over after walking up and down Florida Calle, the street for moneychangers. ‘Cambio Cambio Cambio!!!’ the crys of the vendors ring out when we walk past. We find someone who offers a price we accept, and then says ‘Come into my office’ and we follow them into a small green kiosk on the road. There is a money counting machine in the tiny space, and the transaction for pesos is quick and effortless. We then make tracks back to the hostel, not keen to be carrying substantial wads of cash.

After a few days at the hostel, where the operator smoothly makes clients pay in the Blue Dolar rate, we decide it is time for somewhere with better cooking facilities and no dodgy practices regarding payment. We try AirBnB for the first time and find an excellent apartment for the week very close to the parkland around Lagos de Regatos. We spend the next while getting back outdoors everyday, running and walking and enjoying the climate. Running through the park we come across Eucalypts, which are a reminder of home. The lake in the closest park is beautiful, especially at sunset.

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Every day that we are outside we see people walking dogs, usually 15 at a time. Dogs of all shapes and sizes, snuffling and scratching and panting and wagging and be guided by their walkers through the streets and around the parks. The owners obviously don’t walk the dogs themselves, and we are glad to see the dogs getting some quality time outside. It looks like an enjoyable job, but I guess the novelty wears off. One time I try to say hello to the dogs and the walker barks at me to keep away. I guess I understand that it would be frustrating to have people pat the dogs. Once they finish walking the dogs they take them to a section of the park where they tie them up around trees for a break. There is incessant barking and yipping of a hundred dogs, with multiple walkers all seeking reprieve from the heat in the shade.

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We spend Easter weekend in this part of Buenos Aires, and try as we might cannot find any chocolate eggs on sale. The local super market we head to is called Jumbo – and boy it is! We observe them cooking up a paella inside, in what would not look out of place as a spa! We find the Argentinian steak to be high quality and quite cheap compared to Australia, although the price of most everyday items is the same or dearer than back home.

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We enjoy a dinner out and opt for a more Americanised meal rather than the mixed barbecued meat that Argentina is famous for. We still get the high quality steak, but skip all the various sausages that normally come with a mixed grill meal.

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We catch the local metro train a few times into the city. The service is good, and it is air conditioned inside the train. It is also extremely packed every time of the day that we catch the train. So much so that when we line up to head out of town one day, we are in one of a multitude of lines back up to where the doors of the train will be when it arrive, each line growing to some 40m long over the half hour wait before the train arrives. Every waits patiently, and there is no pushing or shoving. The doors on the opposite side open and allow passengers off before we board.

Our final experience is waiting at the Bus terminal before our departure to Mendoza overnight. The bus station is a hive of activity, and the armed guards motion to us several times to keep a very close eye on our packs. Once we are on board it will be a 16 hour journey across Argentina.

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Hiking Cerro de Arco

During our stay in Mendoza (Western Argentina), one of our goals was to set foot in the Andes.

Due to the Andean foothills bordering Mendoza there are many options to choose from, but typically tourists take the “excursion hikes” which involve an organised tour with a guide and are expensive. We didn’t want to do that, so instead I spent time researching the favourite options for locals and planned a nearby half day hike that we could do independently.

I decided that Cerro de Arco was a good choice. It is something that tourists don’t often venture to because transportation to get there is a bit tricky but many locals do and it’s worth the challenge.

Distinguishable by its crown of radio antennae, Cerro de Arco lies just to the West of the city amongst the looming Andean foothills. To get to the start of the hike, we took a local bus (114/115) to El Challao Mirador, at the end of the line 8km to the Northwest. The 8km took 45 minutes due to the bus winding amongst backstreets to various bus stops. It was nice to sit back amongst the friendly locals and even nicer to see all the young men and boys jump up to relieve their seats for women boarding the bus.

We departed at the end of the line, stepping into a desolate and dusty carpark. We sought two landmarks, a white building in the middle of nowhere (a nightclub no less!), and a “dyke” which is a regional term for a dry stone wall. Once locating these two points it was was easy to find the 1km gravel road leading to the base of the mountains. Within 20 minutes we had passed through the gates of the Club Andista clubhouse and were ready to begin the hike.

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At the beginning…

What we found surprising, was that those first two steps put many tourists off from attempting the walk at all. Even our American housemate at the Air BnB caught a taxi to the mountain and spent 90 minutes finding and walking to the clubhouse. He had been living in Mendoza and using it as a base for travel for more than 6 weeks and recommended we take a tour guide for this walk. Really?

We decided that as long as directions and reviews were researched carefully and we had a plan (including a back up) it was worthwhile catching public transport and trusting that were were capable of small challenges. This kind of travel seems more genuine to us and overcoming problems is extremely gratifying too.

After passing the clubhouse we meandered along a gravel road for 1km to the reach mountain base. Then began the winding, rocky track up. Having been for a run that morning, we took it easy and yet found ourselves sweating during the constant ascent.

Some locals passed us at a slow jog, puffing and sweating up the Argentinian version of the 1000 steps! Without the leafy coolness and actual steps of course!

Instead the 11km return jog included jaggard and loose rocks, 600 metres of incline and full exposure to the relentless sun.

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Heading towards the mountain

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Quick stop at the helipad, look at Mendoza!

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We made progress quickly and after a few minutes of ascent, looked back and could no longer see the clubhouse

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We passed helipads, launching points for paragliders and even saw one paraglider soaring off the summit and spiraling upwards until we could no longer see him at all and felt a bit queasy watching.

But the most spectacular part of the walk was the 360 degree panorama of the city and the seemingly endless expanse of land to the East, as well as a peek into the higher foothills to the West.

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Views of the Andean foothills behind

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The vast expanse of Mendoza’s plains to the front.

We stopped for a quiet lunch on the top, flanked by two drooling stray dogs and then it was time for a quick decent before dusk.
As we walked back we marvelled at the eagles soaring close by, the cows amongst the foliage and the birds that could imitate other bird songs like our Australian Lyrebirds.

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Time to go back down!

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Can you see the trail?

With buses running every 25 minutes, it was inevitable that we would get within 500 metres from the bus stop and see a bus coming in the distance.

Nothing else to do but run!

Sprinting down the treacherous embankment with loose and tumbling rocks, all I could think about was the disaster of twisting an ankle, smashing to the ground and seeing a bus of staring people driving away!

But the potential crisis was avoided and we made it onto the bus.

Time to relax.

Reinventing the journey

Our initial plan for the journey this year was to travel around the world for a year, with a six month stopover in the middle to work in the UK. The basic plan was to travel through South East Asia, then head to Europe, the UK, possibly Scandinavia and then off to South America after.

As we were preparing to head off overseas the support from our friends, family and workplaces was invaluable. They backed us, believed in us and wished us all the best with taking this chance to explore and learn about the world and ourselves. This encouragement is something that makes us feel extremely privileged , even more so than having the opportunity to actually travel.

We have our working visas and had spent a good amount of time preparing everything to enable a seamless transition to work overseas, whilst back in Melbourne. Documents were readied, identities were proven, ability to work was demonstrated. We were lucky to have a friend of friend working as a recruiter, who had come from the UK and was working in Sydney, assist us with everything.

Then in Vietnam, we began to change our itinerary, deciding that South East Asia was not for us at that stage. We redefined what we wanted. One of the things that was strongly pressing on us was missing the connections of home. Of family and of friends. Of our puppy. Of our meaningful jobs. Of our regular physical activities and healthy habits. Travel was showing us a lot of things about the way life works in this part of the world, but having both traveled prior, it was not any sort of a revelation. If anything it just reconfirmed how lucky we are to come from Australia. We felt an ethical conflict; we were wealthy and priveleged enough to take time of work and to travel to this place, and whilst immersed in it, realised it was not at all what we wanted at this time.

What we missed from home was the meaning that is created by having regular family contact and expectations, juggling the social aspects of maintaining our friendships, working in communities of other passionate people who prioritise learning and growth. There was the pull of family ties that we felt, the worry for sick and injured family members. There was a desire to be at home for significant family and friends events – weddings, first birthdays, events which cannot be repeated.

We headed to Europe earlier than planned, and as a result got to experience the end of a European winter. We experienced an immediate increase in the quality of life. People had more freedom, more space and more health. We were exposed to a history that had been venerated for many years, retold and modified, but also protected and celebrated. It felt like this had not been happening in the same way throughout Vietnam.

We spent some two months soaking up what Europe had to offer. Throughout this time we enjoyed the history and culture we were exposed to, the language, the cuisine, the social expectations and values that varied from home. At the same time, the overwhelming privilege of being a traveller began to weary us. Every day is a feast at the smorgasbord of opportunities that await the traveller. We strongly felt an absence of purpose, of meaning, of being involved with what we are passionate about.

We also realised that despite picking up short term work teaching in the UK, it was not going to match what we do at home. We would be in between different schools with no local understanding of the situation. Whilst this may develop over time we did not see how it would work for us.

What became strongly apparent was that we have a sense of balance at home. While we like to enjoy time off work, to explore different experiences and make adventures, doing this for months on end was not quite what it was cracked up to be. There is a feeling like a lack of agency, an impotence in being a constant consumer and not contributing. This is starkly contrasted to home where support and are in turn supported by family, friends and colleagues. These networks make meaning for us.

Initially we struggled with the idea of changing our plans. It was confusing and frustrating to think that we had sacrificed and made of a lot of changes to get overseas and then so quickly found that it was not what it was meant to be. We struggled to name the feelings and to deal with the need to justify what we were thinking.

Eventually it became clearer. We were going to head home to Australia earlier than expected, without working in the UK. Allowing ourselves to feel this and to acknowledge this was a weight off our shoulders. Once we had realised and admitted it we needed to start some changes including letting our recruitment friend know that we were no longer planning on working in the UK. We also needed to work out what we would be doing for the rest of our now abridged version of round the world travel.

Our decision was to spend quite a bit of this time traveling through Europe to visit places we felt strongly drawn too, particularly Italy, Spain and Germany. We knew we were also flying to Buenos Aires and out of Santiago so would need to factor this part of the trip into our revised plans.

Where it currently stands we will travel for just over four months, experiencing fourteen different countries. We will go back home, humbled at having learned more about ourselves and about the world we live in. We will go back home speaking more German, eating more like Spaniards and Italians. We will go home feeling awfully lucky to live in the lucky country and to be privileged enough to be a traveler. We will go home thankful for the warmth of friendship and hospitality provided by many along the way. We will go home hungry to spend time with family and with our puppy. We will go home to be home. And I can’t wait!

 

Mendoza

Located on the Argentinian side of the Andes near the Chile-Argentina border, the city of Mendoza is a large country town filled with long, leafy streets and has a quiet country feel. This is wine country- the atmosphere is relaxed and yet still very lively. The locals are often rushing about, going to work on buses and the back of motorbikes, buying groceries and everywhere, talking! Animated Spanish conversations fill your ears as you wander through a town that has a strong resemblance to Victoria’s, Bendigo or Ballarat.

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As we did in Buenos Aires, we chose an Air BnB room close the the famous town park. In this case it is Parque San Martin, a huge park consisting of a large lake, running and biking tracks, areas of woodland, a tennis club, fitness centre, golf course and velodrome.

A welcome change from many of the parks we visited in Europe, was how well the park was utilised. Not just by joggers and walkers, but with a variety of sport and recreation reminding us of parks at home. We ran and walked the trails dozens of times throughout our stay and felt comfortable and safe almost all of the time. Our BnB host had warned us to stay on the paths and avoid going into the woodland where we “might see things you shouldn’t see and get in trouble for seeing them”. Well that sounds ominous!
Yet we found with so many people around, including families, we were just like the locals enjoying the outdoors and luxuriously warm climate.

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As well as visiting the park each day, we also discovered the local ice-creamery and became frequent visitors. Ordering in Spanish was difficult at first, but after a while the staff began to know us and preempt our intentions! With a chocolate and nut waffle cone and 3 flavours a bargain at 20 pesos (under $3 AUD) we managed to try a variety of flavours during our visit, the most outstanding being Dulce de Leche with brownie. Mmmm.

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Internationally, Mendoza is best known as the hub of Argentina’s wine country. The bodegas in the vicinity of Mendoza comprise the largest production source of Malbec wine in the world. Naturally, we sampled several Mendozan wines.

We matched a few bottles with our home cooking. Purchasing wines from the shops and finding Syrah/Shiraz and Malbec to be our favourites. We found that the quality was essentially “you get what you pay for.” The difference in quality of a 25 peso bottle (AUD $3.50) to a 60 peso bottle (AUD $9) vastly different.

We considered visiting the nearby town of Maipú where many of the wineries could be found. But it required a long trip by bus and then a bike ride along roads that were not equipped with bike lanes and in some parts unsafe. We weighed up the options and instead chose to visit a tasting room in town called Wines of Mendoza.

In essence Wines of Mendoza is a tasting room for all wines of the region. From boutique wineries, historical family run wineries, and every bodega near and far from Mendoza. It provides the opportunity for people to try wines that otherwise may not be easily accessible. We utilised half price wines during special “happy hour drinks” and went back several times for a glass of delicious Chardonnay.

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One Wednesday night we also attended a “Winemakers night.”

It was more formal than we expected, with chairs and small tables facing the front and lengthly, animated discussions about each wine. The room was filled with Americans, Australians, South Africans, Brazilians and one outspoken Argentinian. The winemakers spent a lot of time speaking passionately in Spanish and the English translation was brief. We didn’t mind though because we knew enough about wine to translate parts of the Spanish description and analyse the wine ourselves. I also discovered that waiters continued to refill your “tasting glass” as quickly as you drank it! Coupled with a selection of cheese and bread, it was great value for money!

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Ravensburg and Friedrichshafen – Delightfully quaint

Our short trip to Munich ended with a bus ride to Friedrichshafen, a ride that took just under four hours across the cold, dark and wet Bavarian landscape. The bus was sparsely occupied, and we found ourselves drifting off to sleep in the warm environment inside. Eventually we arrived at Friedrichshafen Bahnhof, some 15 minutes earlier than expected and walked across the train terminal to get out of the cold night. We were meeting our friend Ana, our short Portugese friend with a huge heart of gold and a gorgeous smile to boot! And there she was! Big hugs and kisses were shared and she packed us into her car and took us to her apartment in nearby Ravensburg where we would stay for the weekend.

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We had met Ana on a previous journey overseas, in the Amazon jungle in the north of Brazil. We were there for five days, on an eco-tour that showed us some of the huge range of flora and fauna of the Amazon, and how the local people lived in this wild place. Five days was long enough to cement a good friendship and we promised to visit if we ever came to Portugal. Fast forward to 2015 and Ana is working as Doctor in Germany and we were in the country!

Huge kudos to her – living in Germany and speaking a new language, while practicing medicine as an early career doctor! She is an inspiring, generous individual, and having her as a host and guide in Germany made our trip more memorable and developed our appreciation of the German culture. wpid-20150327_135021.jpg

 

She had a packed itinerary for us – this despite having a virus that had decimated her workplace – and she was insistent on joining us for just about all of it.

After a gentle start to the first day and a run through the local woods, we visited the town of Friedrichshafen, climbing the lookout tower that oversees that lake joining Austria, Germany and Switzerland. We also visited the local museum of Zeppelins, this is the area of the the world that they developed in. We were able to climb inside a real Zeppelin that was built into the museum, and there were some excellent physics demonstrations that explained the concepts underlying the construction of the Zeppelins and how they achieved flight. Looking at the scale of the Hindenburg was incredible – it was so much larger than any current aircraft at some 245 metres.

Scale

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Our second day there we visited Schloss Neuschwanstein, a modern castle commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The weather made for a gorgeous day trip, even when the autobahn there was reduced to a traffic jam and everyone got out of their cars to stretch their legs whilst we waited for it to clear up.

Climbing the hill up to visit the castle you can see why King Ludwig II chose this area – it has stunning panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. The castle itself is impressive, and you might recognise it as the Disney castle, being the inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle. The castle is modern, being opened in 1886 to the public after King Ludwig’s early death and some of the design features would not be out of place in current buildings! Hot waste air from the kitchen was piped around the castle to provide ducted heating. The kitchen is impressive, with huge array of copper cooking apparatus. Water was piped into the castle under pressure from a local spring, allowing taps even on the higher floors. There were telephones as well.

The inside is decorated with scenes from Wagner’s operas, one of Ludwig’s contemporaries. Rumour has it they were particularly close, and looking at how much effort Ludwig went into to replicate the scenes from Wagner’s operas, suggest that something more than a passing interest was driving this! We were not allowed to photograph anything inside, but the exterior is just as impressive to view.

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Our third day was going to be a trip to Zurich, Switzerland. We headed into Friedrichshafen and were ready to board our bus a few minutes before it departed. Until we realised that we had left our passports at home. Apparently Switzerland is not part of the EU and therefore we would need them to cross the border. It was unfortunate to say the least! Claire asked if we needed anything else when we packing, I assumed that Switzerland was EU and Ana assumed that Aussies were smart enough to always carry passports.

We ended up going out for a slow lunch in Ravensburg instead, and then for a walk through some woods in the afternoon.

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This statue of a bus is located out the front of the psychiatric hospital that Ana is working at. It is a memorial for the many thousands of patients at such hospitals that were taken away by bus by the Nazi regime. It reads ‘where are you taking us?’.

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A cute part of Friedrichshafen.
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I did not take many photos of Ravensburg. It is a quaint town, one that missed the bombing runs during the great wars and still has the old fashioned cottages of a precious era. We were extremely privileged to have Ana as our host for our time there and to experience a smaller, quieter part of German life while we were there. Thanks Ana!

Dachau Concentration Camp

Having both read biographies and historical recounts about the Holocaust and life in the concentration camps, we wanted to see a camp in person. It was a chance to put together some facts and details and attempt comprehension. Initially we had wanted to see Auschwitz but since it is actually in Poland (not Germany as we initially assumed), this was the next best option.

We spent a few hours reflecting on the atrocities committed at camps like this, and the sheer scale of it all.

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This was the first concentration camp built and the only one which remained during the entire Nazi regime (12 years). It was a prison to 200,000 people and where 40,000 were murdered. This is but a small fraction of the victims who were held in concentration camps or who died as a result of this during the second world war. The survivors of the Dachau camp were liberated by American troops in April, 1945.

 

The first thing we did was go into the museum where there was a comprehensive collection of artifacts, images and information. Some things were ones we’d seen in Berlin, and many images were horrible and graphic. After an hour it was too much to take in, we felt fatigued and “numb.”

So we left the confines of the museum (the building prisoners were first brought to for processing) and walked the grounds.

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It was chilling and strange, but the feeling of comprehension never came.

Perhaps it was the dozens of school groups being marched around, spoken at (while most students barely listened) and walked through the gas chamber like it was just another thing to tick off.

Or maybe it was the information overload, the exposure to numerous Jewish memorial sites before this one and the bright, sunny day.
Whatever it was, our minds and feelings seemed disconnected.

Note: there are images below that may be confronting.

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Crematorium flanked by “body storage rooms”

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The Gas chamber

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Barracks – the only one left standing

 

Munich

Our last adventure in Europe would involve returning to Germany to explore Munich and visit a good friend in Ravensburg.

The big trip from Barcelona to Munich was in the comfort of a plane, but in the early hours of the morning. We caught a taxi to the airport at 4.30am and had a surreal ride through an unusually quiet Barcelona.

We noticed that people at the airport seemed a bit impatient and anxious, possibly due to the crash of a German Wings flight from Barcelona to Germany the previous day. It certainly was on the forefront of our minds too!

Despite this, it was a smooth flight and we arrived ahead of schedule. Obviously I wasn’t too worried because I slept through yet another landing!

To catch the train from the airport into the city we had to buy an all-day ticket, strangely 2€ cheaper if purchased as a couple traveling together.
We decided that since we couldn’t check in until 2pm and it was 11am, we’d throw our packs in the luggage room and use our tickets to journey to Dachau Concentration Camp.

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We have written about this experience separately.

Dinner that night had to be at a local Beerhall. We chose “Augustiner Braustuben,” which is well known for it’s great food, beer and atmosphere.

All were superb!

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This place was the real deal and totally packed with big, loud and laughing Germans.

Not a glass of water was in sight!

Without pause, we found ourselves at a table with four German men and two steins of “Augustiner Hell Maß”  beer in front of us.

We looked around at the mountains of meat on every plate and swiftly ordered the best local cuisine consisting of roast pork with copious crackling, pork knuckles, roast duck, enormous, glutenous potato dumplings, and delicious cabbage salad.

We resisted the urge to grab an “appetizer” in the form of pretzels on each table to leave room for the meals.

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We found the food to be rich, heavy and satisfying with huge amounts of delicious gravy. Something I wouldn’t usually want, but this was divine.

The people and atmosphere were welcoming and authentic and the whole dinner definitely made the list of our top ten this trip!

Day two started with a cold run around a strange open space called “Theresienwiese”. Treed paths around a concrete oval with some kind of circus or festival tents in the middle. Mmmm?

Afterwards we checked out and began to walk! Here are some highlights:

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City square (Marienplatz) with stunning, neo-Gothic “Neues Rathaus” which began in 1867. Here we needed bakery treats for energy 😉

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Isartor Gate. Built in the 14th Century and is one of the three remaining Munich city gates (the others being Karlstor and Sendlinger Tor)

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Royal Residence and Hofgarten (Palace gardens)

For a spontaneous lunch we visited “Viktualienmarkt” a famous fresh produce market. We grabbed some delicious marinated beans, olives and bratwurst to eat on the go. After lunch we passed the Hofbrauhaus – of course we had to visit and try the beer! Inside there was fantastic energy with bands playing and so many people talking and laughing in the Beerhall.

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Inside the Hofbrauhaus

 

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“Englischer Garten ” worlds largest multicipal park.

It features a permanent wave at the southern tip of the park where surfers hone their skills.

It also has beautiful trails and wildlife, we saw an abundance of birds including gorgeous ducks and woodpeckers (which we heard too – so cool!)

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Our last stop was at “Steinheil,” famous for their legendary schnitzels. As we had not had a German schnitz yet, we chose this place to represent. It did not disappoint and was the perfect early dinner we needed before boarding a bus to Friedrichshafen.