Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Ninth Day Of Our Vacation: Innsbruck And Munich

Most of Saturday was devoted to an exploration of Innsbruck.

The day did not get off to a good—or an early—start.

The previous night, we had given my parents the best of the three hotel rooms assigned to us. My parents’ room, on the second floor of the hotel, was the most spacious and most luxurious of the three rooms. It was also the room nearest the hotel’s central amenities.

In contrast, the room shared by Andrew and me and the room shared by my sister and my brother were situated at the top of the hotel. Our rooms were very small. They featured low ceilings with alcoves and dormer windows. The beds were placed only twelve inches off the floor. The televisions were tiny, the free floor space non-existent, the baths cramped.

We did not think that my parents would be happy in either of the rooms at the top of the hotel, and we had insisted that they occupy what we thought was the best of the three available rooms.

As it turned out, however, my parents were not happy with the room on the second floor. The room had faced a major thoroughfare, and my parents had been subjected to the constant sound of passing traffic through the night. They had been unable to get to sleep until 3:00 a.m.

In consequence, my parents were delayed in getting up on Saturday morning. They were not ready for breakfast until 9:30 a.m. and, when we all gathered, my parents were irritable and prepared to find fault with everything.

The hotel’s breakfast was satisfactory but not lavish. There were no cereals, no sausages, no bacon, and no eggs cooked to order. There were, however, breads and rolls, cold meats and cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, juices and coffee.

Coffee was what my parents needed most, and they had coffee for breakfast and nothing else, announcing that they never wanted to see hard rolls again and insisting that they were going to scream if they ever again were presented with cold meats, cheeses and hard-boiled eggs before 12:00 Noon.

It was not a joyous meal.

Not having enjoyed a good night’s rest, my parents were out of sorts. They had decided that our Innsbruck hotel was the most disappointing hotel of the entire trip and they vowed never to return (not that they will be in Innsbruck again anytime soon).

The hotel experience had put my parents in a very bad frame of mind and made it difficult if not impossible for them (and everyone else) to enjoy our day in Innsbruck.

In these situations, the standard practice in my family is for my sister to hang around my mother while my brother hangs around my father, with no one talking unless a fresh reason for griping asserts itself.

And this was precisely what happened for the rest of the morning: my parents were sullen (and silent) and my brother and sister kept quiet, while Andrew and I had the unpleasant job of steering this cheery group through the major attractions of Innsbruck, trying to generate some interest in (if not enthusiasm for) the sights the city presented.

Innsbruck is a very beautiful city, but our morning was gruesome.

My parents found nothing we saw interesting or amusing. It was not until early afternoon—after an American lunch at a McDonald’s franchise in the center of town—that my parents were able to put their hotel experience behind them and begin to enjoy Innsbruck.

It was 10:00 a.m. when we departed the hotel. We headed straight for the ancient center of Innsbruck. It took us twenty minutes to walk to our destination, and no one said a word en route.

Innsbruck’s Altstadt is filled with Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo buildings, many of them very fine. Since the nearby mountains are always within sight, Innsbruck is an extravagantly beautiful city.

Our first stop was the typical first stop in Innsbruck, The Golden Roof, the three-story balcony built in the early 16th Century for Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, so that he might sit in comfort while he watched jousting tournaments in the town square.

From The Golden Roof, we walked the town’s primary streets, admiring the buildings and monuments.

We explored the exterior of Innsbruck’s Hofburg, the primary Habsburg palace in Eastern Austria. We examined the exteriors of the Landeshaus, a series of buildings housing several museums. We viewed the city’s municipal buildings. We saw Landestheater, the city’s opera house. We noted the many stately ancient residences of the minor nobility, which had continued to flourish in the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. Many of the homes of the minor nobility were particularly fine, with unique and distinguished exteriors.

Innsbruck has been very fortunate in the quality of its architecture over the last 800 years. Further, the city was lucky in that most of its important architecture survived World War II (Innsbruck was bombed only twenty-one times).

However, our morning in Innsbruck was anything but lucky.

All morning, my parents complained that our exploration of Innsbruck seemed to be “aimless” and “directionless”, and that we were, too often, retracing our steps in attempting to locate important buildings on our list of the city’s most significant attractions.

It was all I could do to keep from snapping at them, but I managed to maintain self-control, since snapping would have made a bad situation even worse (and we had a long car ride ahead of us in late afternoon, and I did not want the forthcoming drive to Munich to be unendurable).

During the morning, we visited the interior of only one building. We visited the interior of Innsbruck Cathedral, a large Baroque structure dedicated to Saint James.

Innsbruck Cathedral is remarkably similar to Salzburg Cathedral. Both structures were built at the same time and are much the same, inside and out.

Innsbruck Cathedral is a beautiful building. However, by this point in our trip, we had seen our quotient of Baroque churches for the summer and no one but Andrew was genuinely interested. (My Dad: “Once you’ve seen five or six of these, you’ve seen them all.” My Mom: “This one is the least interesting of all.” My sister: “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we’ve already seen this one.” My brother: “I think I’ll go wait outside.”)

It was after our brief and listless visit to Innsbruck Cathedral, where we had apparently looked bored beyond description, that Andrew took me aside and asked whether an early lunch at a McDonald’s might brighten everyone’s day and serve to dispel the gloom.

I told him it was worth a try, and I asked my Dad what he thought about having lunch at a McDonald’s.

His eyes lighted up, and so did the eyes of my mother and brother. Not even my sister objected to eating lunch at a McDonald’s, so we proceeded to a McDonald’s outlet we had passed earlier in the morning and ordered a lunch of Big Macs, French Fries, Coca-Cola and coffee.

The lunch hit the spot. It provided everyone with a much-needed jolt of energy and brightened the day considerably.

Lunch at McDonald’s turned the day around. It allowed everyone to settle down and prepare to enjoy the afternoon.

This was fortunate, because immediately after lunch we visited something truly extraordinary—and, happily, everyone was in a mood to enjoy and appreciate it.

The attraction was Innsbruck’s Hofkirche.

Hofkirche is home of Europe’s most amazing cenotaph, the cenotaph of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (the same Maximilian I for whom The Golden Roof had been created).

Hofkirche was built as a memorial to Maximilian many years after his death. Maximilian’s cenotaph is Hofkirche’s most important feature (it is a cenotaph, and not a tomb, because Maximilian was buried not in Innsbruck but in Vienna).

The huge ornate monument, created from black marble, occupies the very center of the nave. At its base is an extensive series of bronze reliefs, above which is a double-row of marble reliefs. The twenty-four marble reliefs depict events from Maximilian’s life. The cenotaph itself is enclosed within a fine wrought-iron grill, now gilded.

Surrounding the cenotaph are 28 larger-than-life bronze statues of Maximilian’s ancestors and relatives, all rulers in their own rights.

The cenotaph is amazingly complicated, and very impressive.

Construction of the cenotaph required almost a century. Artists from all over Europe—Rome, Florence, Venice, Nuremberg, Vienna, Prague—contributed drawings for the cenotaph and its many reliefs and sculptures. Among the artists contributing drawings were Albrecht Durer and Christoph Amberger. The end result is one of the most imposing and unique memorials to be seen anywhere.

All of us appreciated Hofkirche. We were glad we had made the effort.

After Hofkirche, we had a decision to make: whether to continue our exploration of central Innsbruck, as planned, or find something else to do. We had two more buildings on our list of prospective attractions to visit, but both of the attractions were churches—and, given what had happened during our morning visit to Innsbruck Cathedral, Andrew and I were fearful of pressing ahead with our plans.

My mother stepped in and made our decision for us. She said that, if the churches were the most important remaining buildings in Innsbruck, we should visit them.

So we did.

Happily, the churches were only a few yards apart, but we had to walk almost half an hour to get to the churches, both located in Wilten, formerly an independent town immediately south of Innsbruck’s Altstadt but now incorporated into Innsbruck itself.

We first visited Wilten Basilica, a sacred building in the Rococo style from the mid-18th Century.

Wilten Basilica is at least the fourth church building on the site, a place of pilgrimage since The Late Roman Era. A famous Madonna painting, no longer extant, used to be on display in an ancient 5th-Century Christian chapel in Wilten.

Wilten Basilica has served as a Basilica Minor only for the last half-century. During the previous 300 years, the current structure had been The Wilten Parish Church.

The interior of Wilten Basilica, known throughout Europe for the brilliance of its pastel colors, is a riot of Rococo excess. Wilten Basilica is considered to be one of the most important Rococo churches on the continent.

Only a few yards away from Wilten Basilica is Wilten Collegiate Church (“Stiftskirche”), a Baroque building that is part of ancient Wilten Abbey.

Wilten has hosted a monastery for 800 years, but a Christian house of worship was situated in Wilten for centuries before the monastery was founded. There is some evidence that a house of Christian worship has continuously occupied the present site of Wilten Collegiate Church for at least 1500 years.

Wilten Collegiate Church, from the mid-17th Century, pre-dates Wilten Basilica by 100 years. The previous church building, at least the fourth on the site, had suffered partial collapse.

Wilten Collegiate Church is at least as beautiful as the more celebrated Wilten Basilica.

The interior of Wilten Collegiate Church is a riot of Baroque excess. Its colors are the deep hues of the Baroque, and not the pastel colors of the Rococo. Wilten Collegiate Church is not as renowned as Wilten Basilica but, in my opinion, the interior of Wilten Collegiate Church was at least of equal interest and beauty.

Both Wilten sacred buildings are prime examples of the influence—and excesses—of The Counter-Reformation. Such over-decorated houses of worship would be unthinkable in Protestant lands.

Andrew says that The Counter-Reformation churches of Austria and South Germany, regions caught between the sensuality of Roman Catholic Italy and the severity of Lutheran North Germany, display an over-the-top quality that exceeds even the most flamboyant Counter-Reformation churches to be found in Italy, Spain or France.

This may be because Austrians and South Germans, living in close proximity to the Protestant North, took The Counter-Reformation much more seriously than Italy, France or Spain, none of which was genuinely threatened by The Reformation. Austria and South Germany, in contrast, very clearly WERE threatened by The Reformation, which may account for the elaborately-florid Austrian and South German churches of the period.

My parents and my sister and my brother actually enjoyed the two Wilten churches, which was a relief after their indifferent—if not hostile—reactions to Innsbruck Cathedral that same morning.

After our visits to the Wilten churches were complete, we took cabs back to our hotel, where we retrieved the car and set out for Munich.

For the first time on the trip, my Dad allowed someone else to do the driving.

Andrew drove, and I sat in the front seat. My mother and my sister sat in the middle seat, which they had occupied throughout the trip, and my father and my brother sat in the rear seat.

It took us two hours and thirty minutes to drive to Munich, and we enjoyed the drive. The sour atmosphere of the morning had long since dissipated, and my parents were able to laugh about the motorcycles revving their engines at all hours of the night as they passed the Innsbruck hotel.

Our Munich hotel for the final two nights of our vacation was the same Munich hotel as the first three nights of our vacation. Returning to the Munich hotel was almost like returning home.

Andrew and I dropped everyone (and our luggage) at the hotel, after which Andrew and I went to turn in the rental car. We returned to the hotel in short order.

We remained at the hotel for only a short time, because we were soon to head out for dinner.

We chose a seafood restaurant, where we ordered stuffed pollock and boiled potatoes (our waitress had informed us that the night’s pollock was exceptional and the best thing on the menu, so we took her word for it—especially after seeing an order delivered to a nearby table).

The pollock was excellent. It was a combination of pollock filets, stuffed with mushrooms and baked, and minced, seasoned pollock, fashioned into balls and fried. We were very pleased with our dinner.

My parents turned in immediately after dinner.

While they slept, my sister and my brother and Andrew and I walked around Munich for an hour, experiencing the city at dusk.

It was a beautiful walk.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Eighth Day Of Our Vacation: Klagenfurt, The Grossglockner Pass, Zell Am See, Kitzbuhel And Innsbruck

We rose very early Friday morning—we rose at 5:30 a.m.—because we had a very big day planned.

We rose at such an early hour in order that we might gather for breakfast the very minute the hotel dining room opened at 6:30 a.m. We intended to be packed, breakfasted, checked out of our hotel and on our way to Klagenfurt no later than 7:30 a.m.

Our hotel in Graz was the newest hotel of our entire trip. It was an ultra-modern hotel, with ultra-modern architecture and ultra-modern conveniences. We liked it.

However, during breakfast we overheard other guests complain incessantly about the hotel. The guests complained about hotel personnel, the décor, the size of the rooms and the size of the baths, the room furnishings, the bath fixtures, the towels, and Internet connectivity.

The guests making the complaints, we were able to ascertain, were from Belgium and Denmark.

We could not understand the source of the complaints. The hotel was perfectly satisfactory and featured many amenities not often encountered in European hotels.

Further, the dissatisfied Belgians and Danes were bitter because they had had to pay for their breakfasts (we did not—our breakfasts had been included in the price of our rooms). They also complained about the breakfast foods on offer, which they believed to have been inadequate.

We could not understand the complaints about the food, either. The breakfast foods included fruits and fruit juices, cereals, breads and rolls, cold cuts and cheeses, bacon and sausages, eggs cooked to order, and a bewildering variety of pastries. What did the Belgians and Danes expect would be served for breakfast?

After overhearing thirty minutes of non-stop moaning, we concluded that the guests in question were simply complainers by nature and would, no doubt, benefit from some serious counseling. We arrived at this conclusion after listening to them express their dismay about the city of Graz itself, a city these Belgians and Danes had found to be totally boring (“with nothing to do”) and not worth a visit.

We were on our way out of Graz not long after 7:30 a.m. We rolled into Klagenfurt just after 9:00 a.m.

We spent almost two hours leisurely walking around the old part of the town.

We found Klagenfurt, an 800-year-old city surrounded by mountains, to be completely charming.

We did not visit the interiors of any buildings, but we did explore the exteriors of the Landhaus (the regional government center), Neues Rathaus (the new city hall), Altes Rathaus (the old city hall), Klagenfurt Cathedral (a splendid Baroque structure erected as a Protestant Cathedral but converted to Roman Catholic worship during The Counter-Reformation) and Stadtpfarrkirche (Town Parish Church, another splendid Baroque structure).

The old part of Klagenfurt is filled with stately squares, courtyards and churches. The architecture is a pleasing mixture of Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque.

The city boasts a proliferation of towers—towers rise from sacred buildings and towers rise from secular buildings—and the assortment of towers made a stroll through the city a particular pleasure.

We loved our time in Klagenfurt. Klagenfurt is one of the great, undiscovered cities of Europe. One day we shall have to return for a longer visit.

From Klagenfurt, we drove past Lake Worth toward Heiligenblut, the village (with its famous church) that marks the southern entrance to the world’s most remarkable and most famous roadway, Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse (The Grossglockner Alpine Highway).

Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse is the road built upon The Grossglockner Pass, the highest of all passes through The Alps.

From Heiligenblut, one may see the forbidding mountains ahead, mountains through which the roadway proceeds.

We traveled on The Grossglockner Alpine Highway all the way to Zell Am See. Although only 48 kilometers in length, The Grossglockner Alpine Highway passes through several vegetation zones, from temperate to Arctic, and is renowned for its 36 sharp bends that allow the roadway to climb some of the steepest mountains of The Alps.

The road was planned in the 1920’s and constructed in the 1930’s. Having fallen into disrepair through neglect during World War II, the road was repaired and modernized in the 1950’s.

The Grossglockner Alpine Highway is perhaps the most remarkable road in the world, providing drivers with some of the most beautiful views to be had anywhere.

The road is closed for much of the year. The Grossglockner Alpine Highway opened this year on May 9, and is due to close for the year in another few days. Even during the few months each year the road is in use, it is open only during daylight hours (from sunrise to one hour prior to sundown), and is often closed at short notice due to weather conditions.

This year, a one-day ticket for a standard passenger vehicle was 28 Euros. We found the scenery to be well worth 28 Euros.

From the peak of The Grossglockner Alpine Highway, we could see our destination, Zell Am See, in the valley below.

We loved The Grossglockner Alpine Highway. Traveling The Grossglockner Alpine Highway was one of the highlights of our trip.

Zell Am See is a resort town on a lake surrounded by mountains on all sides. The town attracts visitors in the summer for the beauty of its lake and mountains. The town attracts visitors in the winter for its winter sports. Although Zell Am See has fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, the town has 14,000 hotel rooms—and the rooms, all of a very high standard, are filled year-round.

We did not intend to spend much time in Zell Am See, but we did intend to walk around the town a bit and have lunch at an outdoor café, enjoying the breathtaking views to be had in any direction.

We ate lunch at a café that offered nothing but Austrian cuisine.

We ordered Kasnocken, an Austrian dish comprised of noodles, butter and cheese. Kasnocken is baked in an oven and served in the very skillet in which it is baked. The contrast between the creamy parts and the crispy parts is one of the joys of Kasnocken.

For dessert, we ordered Mandelecken, a light almond cake served floating in blueberry sauce. Genuine Mandelecken bears little resemblance to packaged Mandelecken, an almond wafer cookie. Genuine Mandelecken is a delicacy, a light cake with the subtle flavor of almonds. The Mandelecken we were served was Weis (White) Mandelecken, although Mandelecken is sometimes coated in a chocolate glaze.

It was an excellent lunch, filling but not heavy.

From Zell Am See, we drove to Kitzbuhel, taking a scenic route instead of the main roadway. Once again, the views were awe-inspiring.

My father had been to Kitzbuhel before—he had undertaken a skiing holiday in Kitzbuhel several years before I was born—and he had wanted to return to visit the town a second time.

In the 1970’s, Kitzbuhel had been a very fashionable summer and winter resort, but today’s Kitzbuhel is no longer fashionable—today’s Kitzbuhel is down-market, with a reputation as a tourist trap. At present, Zell Am See enjoys the up-market reputation (and desirability) that Kitzbuhel enjoyed thirty years ago.

Kitzbuhel is undeniably beautiful, nestled in a valley below a range of mountains. We did not object to the town, although it certainly did seem to be swarming with British tourists.

In many ways, Kitzbuhel is a town created for the fantasies of travelers. Since the town’s “discovery” by the British in the 1920’s, Kitzbuhel has played up its reputation as a “typical” Alpine village to such an extent that Kitzbuhel is now the least typical village in Austria. The town’s buildings, painted insanely bright colors, feature gabled roofs with overhangs, gussied up to resemble Alpine chalets. The town presents an artificial, “music-box” face to the world.

There was a lot of kitsch in Kitzbuhel—including the local tourist pamphlet titled “Kitz Mix”—and a lot of trashy trinkets for sale.

Nevertheless, Kitzbuhel has a few buildings of interest, first among which are the town’s churches. There are several churches in Kitzbuhel, but the two largest and most important churches—one Gothic, one Baroque—are only steps apart.

We spent an hour walking around the town, and we spent thirty minutes at an outdoor café, drinking coffee and watching tourists.

We were happy we had stopped in Kitzbuhel—and, once there, we were happy to leave.

From Kitzbuhel, we drove to Innsbruck, where we were to spend the night. The scenery from Kitzbuhel to Innsbruck was as wondrous as the scenery we had been experiencing all day.

It took us more than an hour to get to Innsbruck. Once we arrived in Innsbruck, it took us another half hour to locate our hotel.

Our hotel was a very old, family-run establishment—the origins of the hotel date back 500 years—situated in the very center of Innsbruck. From the outside, it looked like an old Mississippi River riverboat hotel catering to steamboat passengers, but the hotel’s interiors had been completely refurbished and were entirely modern. It was a perfectly acceptable hotel.

It was past 6:30 p.m. when we checked in, and the couple checking us in—who appeared to be the hotel’s owners—asked us what our plans were for the evening.

We said we had no plans, other than finding a place for dinner—and we very quickly realized that we had committed a strategic blunder.

The couple running the hotel pounced instantly. They told us that there was a wonderful place nearby that served dinner and provided Tyrolean entertainment during the meal, and that they would be happy to make a telephone call to see whether there were openings for us at that night’s show.

A quick, “No thanks—we don’t want to put you out”, from my Dad had no effect whatsoever. A quick call was placed, and our hotel’s proprietors—quite adept at this little drama, no doubt—assured us that they had been able to secure for us seats for that night’s Tyrolean evening.

We weren’t quite sure what to do: blow the whole thing off, and simply not show up; tell the hotel proprietors that we had changed our minds and beseech them to call back the Tyrolean people and cancel on our behalf; or go to the silly Tyrolean thing after all.

We talked about it up in our rooms, and we decided: well, what the heck, let’s go see what these people of the Tyrol are up to.

And so, against our better judgment, we ended up at The Gundolf Family Tyrolean Evening.

The food was about what we’d expected under the circumstances (all patrons were served the same things): Tyrolean cream of herb soup; an American-style garden salad; escalope with potatoes; and apple strudel with whipped cream.

The entertainment was also about what we’d expected: Tyrolean brass music and Alpenhorn music; singing, accompanied by zither, guitar, harp and cowbells; yodeling; a guy playing a saw; comedy skits (and very low comedy it was, indeed—men looking up women’s dresses and the like); and dancing, including shoe-slapping dances.

The best part of the show was three men dancing while chopping and sawing a log. The dance was mildly amusing and concluded the first half of the show (there was an intermission, which amazed us no end).

The show was, as my mother described it, “very, very Branson, Missouri”.

Nevertheless, we got through the evening—at a tariff of 43 Euros per person, not including beverages—and we did not begrudge giving these people a few of our dollars and two hours of our time for a mediocre meal and some pretty lame entertainment.

At least they had worked hard and honestly for their money.

However, we did not buy a Gundolf Family CD or DVD on our way out the door.

I wish we COULD have bought a DVD of a program we caught on television after we returned to our rooms. It was perhaps the funniest thing I have ever seen.

The program’s narration was in Tyrolean German, which we had trouble understanding, but the thrust of the program was the presentation of real-life videos of lowlife people caught in embarrassing situations.

The segment or partial segment we caught concerned a real-life family of lowlifes from the United States: an obese middle-age woman of appalling ugliness; her equally-obese middle-age husband; their squalid, slatternly adult daughters; their goofy adult son, who appeared to suffer from some sort of mental disability; and a bastard grandchild.

The videos, taken over a period of years, were hysterical. Andrew and I were laughing so hard we were literally crying.

Like any white-trash outfit, the family owned too many cars to count, including the requisite broken-down van. From the videos, we could see that the many cars bore license plates from several different states: Connecticut, Kentucky, New York and Virginia. The old jalopies were parked all over their neighborhood, turning an entire residential district into a used-car lot. One of the outfit’s cars was apparently repossessed, or so Andrew and I gathered from a video scene in which a truck arrived and towed away the newest of the cars.

Like any white-trash outfit, the family had mountains of discarded furniture—tables, dressers, a pool table—filling their entire backyard. To allow passage out of the house, there was a narrow pathway through the junkyard of furniture that began at the back door and proceeded all the way to the outer gate. The backyard full of discarded furniture was shown in all four seasons of the year: in the rains of spring; in the heat waves of summer; in the dead leaves of fall; and in the snows of winter.

Apparently neighbors shunned this white-trash outfit, because the videos showed, over and over, neighbors, including children, rushing into their houses the very minute this white-trash outfit pulled up in front of its house.

The funniest portions of the videos were scenes involving the obese mother, whose piggy face broke into a sweat whenever she walked DOWN her front steps. Among other things, the videos showed her tossing dog waste from her own yard across the fence into a neighbor’s yard, deliberately breaking someone’s yard light, and digging the family cars out from a snowstorm by dumping the snow into the already-plowed street. Aptly, the German narration referred to her, in English, as “White Trash Fat Lady”.

At the end of the program, the father of the white-trash outfit was shown in full profile, revealing his severely-extended stomach, while the narrator intoned, “Is he pregnant, too? Just like his slut daughters? Will there soon be more babies in America’s number one passel of hillbillies? For the answer, tune in next time.”

The man looked like he was ready to drop triplets any second, I swear.

Update Of 1 February 2010: Please see the following.