Nuremberg, Munich, Prague, and Krakow Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits Central and Eastern Europe, September 2007.

Barbara left Seattle early Thursday morning to join Richard, who was already in Nuremberg attending a professional conference. She arrived in Frankfurt Friday morning and caught the fast train to Nuremberg, arriving within 2.5 hours. After a nice Thai lunch, Barbara walked around town. Nuremberg has a nice market in the central square dating from 800 years ago, featuring a beautiful ornate fountain and dominated by the graceful Church of Our Lady (photo, Frauenkirche). In the early evening, we visited the City Museum with its integrated media program showing the process of the city's construction over the last millennium. We did not get a chance to go see the Nuremberg Trial site since it's still in use as a court and open to the public only on weekends. We took an evening train to Munich where we checked in to the AberallaSheraton, a giant hotel. At the beginning of Oktoberfest, it is such a sought after property, several hundred rooms are booked solid at a daily rate over 400 US dollars.

Saturday we rose early to take a train out to Fussen, a small town near the German-Austrian border, to visit the Neuschwanstein Castle (photo, Fairy Castle) and Hohenschwangau Castle (photo, Other Castle). The Hohenschwangau Castle was first built in 13th century and rebuilt again along with construction of Neuschwanstein Castle, started in 1869 by Ludwig II. The towers (photo, Neuschwanstein) became the inspiration of the fairy castle at Disneyland USA. We enjoyed exceptionally nice weather, which made the castles look even more fabulous. The interiors are also impressive, commanding lovely views from every room (photo, Out the Window). We enjoyed a latte from the castle cafe, sitting where "crazy" Ludwig might have once relaxed. (photo, Castle Cafe). We got back to Munich rather late and enoyed our dinner at a bistro in the student district near Munich Technical University.

Sunday was the opening day of Oktorberfest. The major event is a two-and-a-half-hour parade (photo, Parade Masters) put on by 60 organizations from different regions in Bavaria, as well as other parts of Germany -- and even a few foreign countries. Most delegations lead off with a marching band, followed by marchers in traditional costume, armed with their tools or guns or their proud harvests (photo, Parade Delegation). The local breweries play a big role with their handsome, highly decorated horses drawing carriages heavy with giant beer barrels (photo, Lowenbrau Horses). People along both sides of the road cheer when their hometown team passes by. We stood under the warm sun for over two hours til the end of the parade, nipped into a nearby beer garden where we had a take out Thai lunch, washed down with huge mugs of radler. A giant pretzel the size of Barbara's head, became our dessert (photo, Big Pretzels). We were joined by several friends both local and from the US, a nice party. Back to the hotel, we got in a long nap before going out in the evening to the Unterfahrt jazz club. Our friends cheered enthusiastically for Richard when he got onto the stage.

Monday morning Barbara got up leisurely to take the U-Bahn to the Oktorberfest grounds (photo, Theresienwiese midway). The underground trains and stations were very crowded, all the way to the site, which for 10 month of the year is an open grassy space. One month prior to the festival, workers put up all the giant beer tents dedicated to the different breweries, each with its own theme (photo, Beer Tent). In the center of the tent is a raised platform for a brass band to play. By noon the tents are all filling up. We stopped at Paulaner tent for their beer, a favorite of one of our local friends, accompanied with traditional lunch of boiled veal sausages and sweet mustard, grilled chicken and roasted pork (photo, really big roaster), all with potato dumplings.

In the afternoon while Richard had to work on his collaboration with his colleagues, Barbara took the afternoon to explore Nymphenberg Castle. Nymphenberg was Ludwig's Munich residence before he tired of the city court's life and retreated into the deep mountains to build the Neuschwanstein Castle. Unfortunately the main building was under renovation and completely wrapped up. Barbara enjoyed the gardens with nice ponds. In the evening we joined our friends at home for a dinner of more traditional sausages, cheese with dense but brilliant German breads and marzipan desserts.

It was rainy and cold next morning, Barbara slept in while Richard went to finish up the assignments of his trip. Barbara caught up with some email, went for a walk around the ArabellaPark neighborhood and visited a few local shops in the area. In the evening, we went to the famous Weisses Brauhaus for its renowned Bavarian specialties. After dinner, we bid our friends farewell and headed off to Munich's main train station to board the overnight sleeper train to Prague.

On the ground and in person, Prague is really smaller than it seems on the map. We got out of the train station expecting to walk a quarter mile to our hotel, but we overdid it. We ended up walking all the way back with our bags, as it turned out the hotel is directly opposite the train station within less than 100 feet. The Holiday Inn is a no-frills, clean and efficient place, convenient to local transportation. The hotel staff stored our bags and we had time to enjoy their complimentary breakfast before heading out to look at the old town photo, Old Prague. We found the square crowded with tourists waiting in front of the Old Town Hall to see the amazing clock strike the hour (photo, Astronomical Clock). We climbed up the clock tower to take views of the city, blessed with good weather. We continued to the Municipal House to enjoy the fantastic facade of the building, the best looking of a government building you can imagine (photo, Prague Municipal House). Walking in the Jewish Quarter was somewhat depressing, surrounded by history of torture and suffering. The heaviness was lifted when we climbed up the Bridge tower to see the bridge from high above (photo, Charles Bridge). The bridge itself is a sculpture garden of history, populated with over a dozen statues dated 600-800 years old. The bridge span is crowded with merchants and artists doing their trade. A blind woman singing sacred songs with her keyboard was particularly moving. Off the western side of the bridge (photo, Mala Strana), looking for a traditional Czech restaurant, we stumbled into a Czech Kitchen for a delightful dinner. After dinner we enjoyed a long walk back to the hotel.

Light rain started Thursday morning while we enjoyed our breakfast at the hotel. We then took the tram (photo, public transit) to Prague Castle and spent the majority of the day visiting the Castle Church with beautiful windows (photo, Stained Glass). From the church tower we enjoyed fabulous views of the city, even through the rain. We visited the Royal Palace, St George's Basilica, and the Golden Lane, littered with tiny shops in the same locations that have been there for centuries. There was an antique music instrument store where they had a "tenor" saxophone pitched in B natural instead of B flat! We went to Strahov Monastery where we saw two beautiful libraries from 17th and 18th centuries, with high painted ceilings. We ended our day strolling along the Vltava River in the drizzle, and ran into the famous Fred and Ginger Dancing Building (photo, modern Prague architecture), before we turned to the well-established Na Rabarne fish restaurant -- frequented by the beloved President Havel -- for fresh carp and trout.

Friday was to be our last day in Prague, which overwhelmed us with its beauty and dense history. The architecture is so fabulous everywhere you turn, it's almost intimidating. We decided to spend the morning at the Modern Art Museum to see Van Gogh, Picasso and Klimt on display, plus some younger Czech artists' work of the 20th century. Before we boarded our train to Krakow, we managed to stop by the Wenceslas Square, a historical place where the 1918 independence, 1938 German invasion, 1968 Prague Spring and 1989 Velvet Revolution all happened.

We caught the 2pm train to Krakow. The journey was nice and easy til we stopped at Auschwitz, which we did not have the heart to stop and visit. Sensitive Barbara is afraid of continuous nightmares which does not qualify as a fun travel experience! Arriving in the evening, we found our hotel grand if a bit old (photo, Hotel Corridor). The stairways are grandly formal, and all the rooms have French double doors with high ceilings, large windows and lace drapes. We walked across the old town, still crowded with people at 10pm, in search of a jazz club in the university area. Our two-year-old Lonely Planet was clearly out of date, because the jazz club was defunct and a couple of restaurants listed were gone as well.

Saturday morning saw the beautiful sun shining on the top of many old churches the old town hall tower and the Cloth Hall (photo, morning light). We got out early after enjoying a nice Polish breakfast, to climb up the higher of St Mary's two asymmetric towers (photo, St Mary's), where an hourly bugle plays a music symbol of the city. It was played the same way as in the medieval time, when the tower was a watch tower and a watchman spotted the enemy invading. The story goes that an arrow stuck the musician through his throat while he was blowing on his warning bugle, and the tune abruptly stopped in mid-note. We chatted with the bugle man before he played the call once each out of four of the high open windows (photo, Trumpeter). We passed through the Cloth Hall with its stalls selling souvenirs and amber jewelry and passed an outdoor flower market as we made our way toward the Wawel Castle. On the way, we stopped by the Dominican church where a wedding was in progress, with priest praying and passing commune wafers. We looked in at St Paul and St John, the oldest church in the town. The 1989 revolution resulted in a direct increase in Catholic religion and priest school training. A lot of European churches nowadays are now staffed by young Polish priests. It is mandatory that religion is taught at public schools, and abortion has become illegal after the collapse of communism. We found the Wawel Castle less impressive than Prague Castle, but nevertheless it was the ruling ground for over 500 years in medieval times when Krakow was the capital of the Polish empire (photo, Wawel). The royal palace is so popular that the entry is strictly controlled. We had to wait more than two hours to get in. While waiting, we visited Dragon's Cave, where a legendary tale is associated with a damp cave about 100 feet underground. The Senator Hall and the Thorn Hall are particularly magnificent. On the way out, we went back to Old town square and watched people at the weekend medical services fair, while the main stage hosted some weird fashion show and salsa dancing. We climbed up the town hall tower, located across the square from St. Mary's Church. Still the late afternoon sun was fantastic for a bird eye view of the city (photo, evening light). Restaurant hunting for dinner was hectic but we ended up in a nice Georgian place, apparently popular enough in the city to have several outlets.

Sunday proved to be another gorgeous day in Krakow, so we decided to spend the majority of the day here instead of going on to Warsaw. We started at Czartoryski Museum where an original Da Vinci painting is on display, together with a Rembrandt. We continued on to Barbican and the old city wall (photo, by the wall) dating back to the 15th century. From there we took the tram to Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter which demonstrates a piece of sad history for Polish Jews. The neighborhood was long neglected til the movie Schindler's List was made in the 1990s, when many of the scenes were shot close to this area. The town where over a half million Jews used to live now has a Jewish population less than 100. The old Synagogue, and both the elegant old cemetery and the "new" (still 200 years old) cemetery are quite striking. The wall of the old cemetery is constructed from broken tombstone pieces with markings still clear (photo, cemetery wall). We debated on if we should visit Auschwitz but decided against it, primarily due to Barbara's sensitivity that she won't be able to pull herself out of sadness and darkness for a long time. In the same way, we also agreed never to visit Cambodian killing fields since the movie has already given us more nightmare than we can bear. It is somewhat selfish and we know it and we are acutely aware of these horrible monuments to cruelty.

The train from Prague to Warsaw on Sunday afternoon proved to be rather crowded. Even though we had first class rail passes, there were no seats left on any first class compartments, or even second class seats, of the entire train. Even the dinning car was crammed with people. We had to stand in the aisleway with our bags. It made us miss the Chinese trains which always have small flip seats in the hall by the windows. The stewards pushed their coffee/snack car and we had to lift our bags and jam into one of the full compartments, where a group of Polish employees were on their way back home after a retreat, awarded by their company for their outstanding performance. Fortunately all of the bright young Poles speak English and they were kind enough to share their seats while they alternated among themselves. We chatted about their job and the city of Warsaw. By the time we arrived it was a bit late in the evening and turning dark, so we went directly to a hotel close to the airport to fly home early next morning.