Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Neuschwanstein: Enchanted day in an enchanted castle

After an early, three-hour train ride on Sunday, I made it safely to Munich. My brother was there to pick me up at the train station and get me back to his place. I took the day to get in a lot of missed rest. I hadn't been sleeping well (or much) since I've been here, plus, my knee was swollen and killing me. The day to get in some RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) did me good. As was the time to catch up with my brother and watch some stupid movies. While my knee is still tender, the swelling has gone down a ton. Fingers crossed more rest is all I need.

Neuschwanstein Schloss
Monday was my day of "me time." It was nice to have my own agenda. I took the 9:00 a.m. train to Fussen, and then a couple busses to get to Neuschwanstein Schloss, or better known as Neuschwanstein Castle. I've been to Germany a few times, and this is the last "touristy" thing to check off on my list. The castle was in an absolutely stunning part of Bavaria. It means "new swan stone," which apparently was a bird King Ludwig II was a big fan of. 

One of my favorite classes I took in college was an art history class on Walt Disney. It was during that class I learned that the inspiration for the castle at Magic Kingdom came from this castle. He and his wife spent time at the castle while on a European vacation. It was first depicted in the movie Sleeping Beauty, and then created at Disney Land (which came before Disney World).

Despite it being a rainy, gloomy day, it didn't take away from the magic of the day. The mist would part occasionally, to see this massive castle on the top of a very high hill. There were options to bus, take a horse-drawn carriage, or walk up it. I opted for the hike, which I'm so glad I did. The walk was very steep and was like walking through an enchanted forest. I joke about it, but I really did have a number of "Pretty, Pretty Princess" moments that day. There were streams, and waterfalls, and just...magic. I hiked around a lot that day, taking in the incredible surroundings. I guess I get what may have inspired Disney.

Views of the "enchanted" forest on
the way up to the castle
I missed the train I intended to take back to Munich, which unexpectedly gave me some great time to explore the very small city of Fussen, pronounced "foo-sin." I think Bavaria is like Switzerland in that they can't help but make their little towns so damn quaint and beautiful. I was damp and cold, so I grabbed a coffee and croissant to try to warm me up. I napped for a chunk of the train ride back, occasionally peeking out the window to take in the Bavarian countryside. I met a really nice man who commutes in an hour every day. He mentioned that while he works in Munich, he prefers living where he does over urban life, which after what I've seen, I kinda get. (Don't worry -- I'll still be a city gal with a penchant for the outdoors!)

So yeah, it was another wonderful day.

I planned to walk around Munich with my brother's dog today, but it's been raining again, so I decided to catch up on my blogs, pack up my stuff and get my stuff ready. My brother and I head out of town and will be making our way down to Ljubljana, Slovenia tonight. We'll then make our way through a few cities in Croatia, then on to Trieste, Italy, before getting back to Munich on Saturday night. I've heard great things about where we're headed tonight, so it should be a good time!

Earning my trip: On with the tournament

I recently came on my 10-year anniversary with the company I work for. It's been a fun ride, especially with this company "Olympics" they put on every four years. I was at my first event in 2006, which brought me to Paris. My second turn, in 2010, led me to Budapest. This third run has been fantastic, in Zurich. I've gone each time to play volleyball. It's an amazing thing to be part of. To see those familiar faces from the 2006 and 2010 events. Some whose names I know, some just the faces I remember playing or watching.

At the team dinner on a Zurich
So basically this first week has been on the company -- I know, rough life, right? The events kicked off Wednesday night with a team dinner. It was on a mountaintop overlooking Zurich. The food was amazing, along with the company and the views. It was a relatively low-key night, as we had practice in the morning.

Thursday's practice went well. It was just nice to check out the facility and get my body used to the courts we'd be playing on and the equipment we'd be using. European volleyballs are very different from the ones we used in the States -- they're A LOT harder. We've been practicing with them before getting to Europe, but not consistently. (After a long day of playing, I have A LOT of bruises on my forearms from those balls!) Plus, the court lines are different. The dimensions are the same, but there are a lot more lines for other sports on the court, so it was...helpful. That night marked the opening ceremonies, where we saw people from all the 40+ countries competing at the event. Another night of amazing food and seeing people. 

My setter and I icing our very sore
knees, post-tournament
Pool play began Friday bright and early. It was a long, hard day of playing volleyball. We were fortunate enough to play at the same venue as the men's team. It was fun being able to watch them and cheer them on -- and have some fans cheering us on, too. I can say that even four days later, I'm still hoarse and don't have much of my voice. And then there's my body. I forget how physically taxing it is to play a day's worth of volleyball. I think it's the playing, then resting, then playing again that makes it so tough. We played well, but clearly not enough. With our silver medal finish in Budapest, we had high aspirations to the very least take home a medal. But we played hard and had a lot of fun with some truly talented competition.

I'll admit, I'm furious at my body right now. If you know much about my journey, you'll know that in the past four years, I've lost about 100 pounds. I'm in the best shape of my life, truly, even when I was playing in college. I've been working and training hard for this event. Pre-game warm-ups on Friday morning went great. And then came my first hit of the tourney. It was a kill. But I landed funny. It felt like my left knee went out of joint. I tried kicking it back into place, to no avail. My teammate loaned me her knee brace, which made playing the next match bearable. During the middle of the second one, I went up for another hit. It was another kill, but this time I landed on someone's foot, feeling a click in my other knee. SHIT. I sat out the next match, which was against the team that has taken the gold medal match for the last several events. To say I was frustrated was an understatement. Another teammate luckily had another knee brace, which I wore during the next match for the bronze medal. I played really well, despite the pain. Despite a lot of ice and rest, my knees are still in a lot of pain. At least the swelling has gone down. I'm worried I tore my meniscus in both knees. I'm hoping that no running or jumping these next few days will be all I need and that my body just needs time.

The men's volleyball team and basketball teams both took the bronze, which meant we all were done for the day. So we drank our sorrows away that night. Dinner and drinks were on the company, so...yeah...drinking ensued.

Feeling no pain at the closing
ceremonies on Saturday
Saturday marked the last day of the event. Since we were done playing, we took time to cheer on a few athletes who made the finals. I also got in some much-needed time by an icy cold pool and some hot sun. We then headed back to the hotel to get dolled up for the closing ceremonies. As expected, it was a fantastic night of good food, great entertainment, and a lot of ass-shaking. It ended up being a late night, again, also as expected, which made for a very early train ride back to Munich on Sunday.

I feel so fortunate to work for the company I do. They're really good to me, and opportunities like this...I mean, c'mon, how awesome is it? The next "Olympics" will be in Munich in 2018. I'll be 38. I'm staying cautiously optimistic that me and my knees have one more left in me. But four years is a long ways away.

Another day, another beautiful Swiss city

On top of the world in Rapperswil
I'm wondering if the Swiss just intended for every city in its country to be absolutely breathtakingly stunning.

We didn't have a full day to do our own thing, since we'd be heading to the North American  team dinner that night, which gave us just enough time to make another day trip out of Zurich. That led a bunch of us to Rapperswil, which was just a 40-minute beautiful train ride down Lake Luzern. With the mountains in the distance, and the sailboats on the lake, it was an easy way to take in the morning.

The city itself is very small, so it was easy to get around and see the sights. Not a lot of shopping, which is more than okay. One of the first things we saw in the middle of the main center was 8-foot tall white letters saying "Dolce Vita" or the sweet life. Seemed pretty perfect. The main square led to an outstanding vista to look at everything going on around the lake. Once up there, there was a fantastic breeze, which felt especially great. From big yachts, to smaller sailboats, to jet skis, to paddleboats, the Swiss definitely take advantage of what the lake has to offer.

We eventually made our way down to the rose garden before taking a quick break to grab a drink at the cafe on the lake, taking in more of the great breeze. We then dawdled a bit and hopped in the lake and got our feet wet. I don't know why, but I was surprised that it wasn't colder. Don't get me wrong, it still felt refreshing!

Compared to the day in Luzern, this trip to Rapperswil was short and pretty relaxing -- and very much worth it!

Stunning panoramic views of Lake Luzern from the main lookout in Rapperswil 

Luzern + Mt Pilatus = OMG...bee-u-tee-ful!

Views from the mid-point
on the way up Mount Pilatus
A planned trip to Lucerne (Luzern), Switzerland had us up early. I'd like to say I slept through the entire night like a baby. Woke up once around midnight, crushed candy for a couple hours before I was able to fall back asleep for a few hours. I know, I know, big problems.

The plan: Walk around the (very old) city and get up to Mount Pilatus to check out the views. We heard that it was best to check out the mountain in the morning before clouds came through, so we headed there first thing. It was a beautiful train ride to the mountain, which we took a "cog" train up. At one point, it was at a 48-degree angle, which is remarkably steep. But when you looked back behind you, the views were incredible.

Once we were up at the top, it was a bit surreal, but something I'd seen before. There was a lot of cloud cover, which made seeing things a bit challenging, but in a way, it made you appreciate it all the more when the clouds did go by and you could see some absolutely amazing views. One gal on my team commented, "I feel like I'm walking around in heaven." It kinda was like that. When the clouds were there, you really couldn't see anything...like maybe 20 feet in front of you. 

Hangin' with the birds in the clouds
The birds up there were...friendly. They'd get really close to us, in the hope we'd drop some food or feed them something. While hangin' with the birdies and hearing a "Ricola" guy toot his horn, we noticed some hiking paths, which we ended up hiking up. Wow, were the views incredible. There was a ledge we could stand on, sit on, etc. It was a bit trippy (there was a drop behind us), but the views were great.

We then made our way to the descent down the mountain via a gondola. At the mid-way point down there was an alpine slide and zip line. Unfortunately, the alpine slide was closed and no one was really interested in the zip line, so we headed the rest of the way down the mountain. The views going down were just as stunning going up. (Check out my Facebook page for some of the pics. They were too beautiful to just choose one!)

Once getting down the mountain, we took the bus back to Luzern so we could walk around. I've been to Switzerland a few times now, and I've seen some beautiful places, but Luzern is gorgeous. It really "came to be" in the 1400s. Today, two of the oldest covered bridges are still standing, along with parts of the original castle/village wall. If you've ever been to places like Germany, France, and Italy, you'' likely see how much of the country was impacted by the World Wars, so it's amazing to see how much here wasn't impacted by it.

Amazing view of Lake Luzern from the old city wall
Two of the prettiest focal points in Luzern is Lake Luzern and the Reuss River. The lake is narrow, but long, and you can see it from almost everywhere. It runs to the River, which is flanked by walking paths and gorgeous, quaint buildings. The river is green -- but not in a bad way. It runs fast, it's deep, and it's crystal clear. A few of us walked the path and eventually found the old city wall (complete with turrets!) and walked on it to take in some absolutely fantastic views of the city.

After meeting up with the crew, we grabbed some dinner at an Italian restaurant, where I instead opted just for dessert: a pistachio sundae. Afterward, we headed back to Zurich, which ended a very long, but very wonderful day.

What I learned: GO TO LUCERN. And take in Mount Pilatus when you're there. You'll be glad you did!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Drunk...with exhaustion

First, I have a lot of updating to do. A lot. I've got the stories ready in my mind, just need to put my fingers to a keyboard for that. More to come later on my non-traveling adventures.

So, I.Am.Wiped. Not gonna lie, when we dropped off our bags at our apartment this morning, it was about 10:00 a.m. We couldn't check-in until 3:00 p.m., and I was genuinely sad about that fact.

Yes, I'm already eye rolling myself. First world problems, Lady. Don't be such an ingrate! But here's at least why...

I was REALLY excited
about how they turned out!
My last couple weeks coming up to the trip have been...BUSY. Between preparing to be gone for two weeks at work, continuing to train for this volleyball tourney, figuring out a new roommate situation, attending bachelorette parties, wedding showers, and weddings, hosting house guests, getting sued (yes, sued), making time for friends, figuring out a challenging love life situation that has me all in sorts...I've had a lot of my plate. Normal questions I was being asked, like, "Are you excited?" or "Are you packed?" were stressing me the "eff" out. I seriously live to travel. It's a passion of mine. While I've been absolutely looking forward to it all, life's been a bit too busy to really sit back and get excited. I did eventually come around...the day before I left. I got my nails done to celebrate being part of Team USA, so I went a bit showy. Weird that it took something so mundane to get me excited.

I got a fantastic massage before I left on Sunday, which got me further along into relaxation mode. Expectedly, I only slept about an hour of the entire nine-ish hours from Minneapolis to Zurich. So When we got to our apartment, I wanted to lay down in a bed and crash. I was on empty.

Stunning views from
a church tower
But we had no place to go and nothing more to do other than wander around Zurich. What a beautiful, walkable city. Lots of rivers, lots of cobblestone streets, and then there's the lake. After about an hour or so, we realized keeping a pack of 10 together was like herding cats, and decided to split up. For the three gals I hung with, it really was just a day of aimless wandering, taking in what we stumbled upon. There are many beautiful churches. One had 187 very steep, very narrow steps that we climbed up. While it definitely brought out the claustrophobia, it was SO worth the stunning views of the city. After taking in that scenery, we then continued on with our meandering and decided to hop on one of the ferries on the lake. The houses on the lake are incredible!

By the end of it all today, I finally feel a bit acclimated to the city. But I'm now even more crazy tired...to the point where I feel drunk and can barely keep my eyes open. It's only about 8:00 p.m., but I'm impressed I even made it this long.

Tomorrow's plan: Lucerne and the world's steepest train. Then another short day trip Wednesday before the volleyball (and many other!) shenanigans begin.

Oh, and I was reminded just how darned CUTE European men are. And well dressed. #happygurl

Monday, March 10, 2014

German men, German cars, and final thoughts on Morocco

Alas, it's the last day of Fire & Ice 2014. It's definitely bittersweet. While I'm looking forward to the comforts of my home, I'm sad to leave Phil, Jen, and the boys. I've really missed them and time with them has been precious. I don't doubt that "missing" feeling will go away any time soon.

Last day in Munich
Surfers on the Isar, River that
runs through Munich. They do this
year-round in Munich.
Phil worked and the boys went to school today, which gave Jeni and I some much-needed time to hang out. Our sunny, crisp spring day started with a run around their neighborhood and also included a great stroll around Munich. We spent a lot of our time around Englischer Garten. We first watched some cute guys surfing the Isar river, where one of them caught me more or less talking about how cute he was. (I stupidly assumed he spoke no English. That's dumb in Germany, as many of them speak very good English.) The last time I was here, I stumbled on the nudist part of the Garten, and I was happy we didn't this time, as last time, it was a bunch of old, round men. And I've heard not much has changed on nudist Garten demographics since I've last been here.

That brings me to German men. I'm a fan. They tend to be on the tall side, and are definitely a tad goofy. So obviously, it jives with me on both fronts. Plus, they dress so darn well. ZZ Top really did say it best, "Cuz every girl crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man." And they're everywhere here. My sunglasses have given me freedom to check them out, and it was fun to see how many were checking me out, too. Ha, ha. Maybe a German man is in my future? Who knows! Always fun to imagine, I guess. (I didn't realize it coming out here, but having location services on my phone meant guys over here have seen me in their feeds as someone to contact. They've been pretty funny, but very different compared to American men. I'll share those experiences another time, for sure.)

It should make sense that there are a lot of BMWs, Mercedes, Audis, and Volkswagens out here. One thing that I thought was funny was the general perception of who buys them. VWs are like the Chevy or Ford. The Mercedes is the Buick of Germany (for older folks), while BMWs are more like the Honda (for hipper folks and families). Audis are like Toyotas. I've noticed a lot of Volvos. They're sportier here.

One thing I absolutely love about Munich is how dog-friendly it is. They can pretty much go where what seems to be everywhere: Museums, trains, trams, busses, salons, shops in the mall, even inside restaurants. Being a "dog mom," this is a wonderful thing.

Takeaways from Morocco
Graffiti in the medina
Morocco was one of the best adventures I've been on, to date. If you're seeking more relaxation, it's definitely something you can find pretty easily, too. From a Western viewpoint, if you haven't traveled much, especially outside the U.S., Morocco will likely put you into culture shock. If you've traveled a lot, especially places like Southeast Asia or Latin America, Morocco will be a similar experience -- and just as much fun once you get the hang of things.

Some of my favorite things about Morocco (that, in some instances, every person going there should know):

Bartering. As one vendor said, "This is our culture. Your price is only a starting point." (See my earlier post on bartering.) One of the funniest things you'll be asked to give up is your "best price." You only give it up when they're very close to yours, otherwise, you'll pay more than you ever wanted to. I did a lot of the bartering, and it was funny, because they'd eventually look to my brother with the expression of, "Talk some sense into this woman." Whenever they'd start talking to him, I'd say, "He's my brother, I have the money, so talking to him isn't going to help you." To that I'd get a surprised look and then, "You strong woman!" and a smile.

Crossing the street. Between mo-peds, donkey carts, cars, and pedestrians, there's a lot to compete with on the roads. Even though there are crosswalks, crossing the street can be like participating in the the game Frogger. Like, really.

Mo-peds. They're everywhere. And they get close to both cars and pedestrians. Thanks to "iPhonegate 2012," I flinched every time I heard one coming up behind me -- they get that close. On our way into the medina from the airport, a gal on her mo-ped was following too close. When our cabbie breaked for the mo-ped in front of him, we heard a loud scream followed by a crash. She completely ran into our car. What was funny was she apologized to our cabbie over the affair.

Winter wear. It was in the 50s in the morning and got up to the mid-80s by noon. Regardless, you'd see Moroccans in full winter gear -- coats, gloves, hats.

Affection. There isn't a lot of inter-gender interaction. For example, there are separate security lines at the airport for men and women. There were obviously couples together, but in general, the genders didn't mix. The men were very affectionate with one another -- holding hands, kissing one another on cheeks. It was really neat to see, yet is saddening to realize the stigmas we have in America about what that type of interaction "means."

No bodily contact. Despite how many people are there, it was weird how you could get around without bumping into one another. When the bumps did happen, it didn't go over well. No fights ensued, but you'd definitely get looks of disapproval.

Drinking. With 97% of the population being Muslim, it's hard to come across alcohol since drinking is a faux pas in this religion. Our riad had beer and wine, but it was tough to come across at restaurants.

Aggressive vendors and restaurant guys. You'll learn quickly that giving eye contact will bring on more harassment than you want. I found I was often looking in an upwards direction to avoid the constant coaxing to either check out their stand or eat at their stall. They get in your face, but never touch you. One thing I heard a more ballsy food vendor say, "You look starving. Our food is finger-licking good. It's fucking amazing!"

Cats and dogs. Neither dogs nor cats are taken in as pets. We saw a lot of cats and the occasional pack of dogs. Most are feral. But they all seemed to be treated well. We saw a lot of cats hanging out at the foot of meat vendors, waiting for scraps. And they seemed to make friends and get their affection from their local vendors.

Cleanliness. From what Westerners are used to, Morocco seems dirty. Its dusty, and there's a lot of litter. It's hard to find places to put your litter, and when you ask for a place to put it, it's often thrown into a pile on the side of the street that's picked up by trash guys in a couple days. So the smell can get off-putting at times.

Chivalry. With there being a lot of traffic, you rarely walk anything but side by side in the streets. But when you do, the rule is "walk on the right, with the guy on thhhe left to ensure the woman is safe from cars and mo-peds." My brother got a stern talking to about this one. I couldn't help but giggle.

Follow me! What's disguised as help is often an attempt to get money from you. Often, you'll hear a guy (or child) saying they can help you, either lead you in the right direction, or something. Once they help you, they'll ask you for a few dirham. Otherwise, they'll say something like, "Where you want to go is closed," or "The road that way is closed because it's a holiday." It's all a ruse so they can "help" you and then get some money out of you. If you just ignore them, you'll be fine. The key is the ignoring part.

Catcalls. I got a lot of looks. More gawks and staring than just looks. It was often accompanied with a comment. Some were funny, some were kinda flattering, some were frightening. At first, it was easy to ignore, but it got exhausting after a while. Some of the more interesting comments I (or my brother) heard:
  • You tall beautiful woman
  • Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex
  • You lucky man! (To my brother!)
  • Big thighs! Yes!
My rating of Morocco: Two very enthusiastic thumbs up. I loved it. It was an amazing adventure, but it's not a place for everyone.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Donkeys bite! And the scariest plane ride ever!

What a crazy last few days! I'm at London Gatwick on layover to get back to Munich. I was able to sleep for about two hours. So...I'm wiped.

Thanks to the following series of events, the flight from Marrakech to London was FRIGHTENING.
  1. We're queueing to take off and we had to turn around due to a woman getting very ill.
  2. After sick lady is removed, we're further delayed while on the queue due to "mechanical issues."
  3. Without no warning from the pilot, we took off. The takeoff was steep and the plane was shaking and moving all over the place. Many people were yelping with each shake.
As soon as the plane took off something didn't seem right. Then the shaking started. I was crushing candy to distract myself, but then immediately shut it off thinking, "I probably just killed everyone on this plane." Pretty much every person on the plane was a bit put off by the takeoff, even Phil. I seriously wanted to throw up. Clearly though, I'm just fine. With that big jetliner going missing off of Malaysia, I feel like this was a justified reaction. Maybe?

Highlights of our last day in the medina
Lazy start. Our brekkie buddy
brought a friend today!
We had a really nice last day in Morocco, which included a much-needed lazy start to the morning. We woke to no alarm, lounged on the riad rooftop, and then went on our way to take a very long walk around the medina (old town) of Marrakech.

Today's highlights:
  1. Being given peppermint before going into the tanneries. A tannery is a place where people prepare the leather ("fresh" from the carcases) so artisans can make the goods we buy. Why the peppermint? Ever been to a slaughterhouse? If not, just think about what the smell of rotting carcases smell like. That's what the tanneries smell like. Hence the peppermint. It helped a lot. We were amazed to learn that 3,000 people live in the very small space that makes up the tanneries.
  2. Seeing a donkey bite a woman. There are donkeys everywhere here. It makes sense in the medina, where the streets are incredibly narrow and full of people walking or riding mo-peds or bicycles -- even cars. While on our way to the tanneries, a man on a cart being towed by a donkey was pulling out on the street. As usual, there were a number of people walking, including a woman. It was timed so perfectly, I could have missed it, but the donkey got her. And she was not happy. I actually felt bad for her because that donkey bit her on that super sensitive back part of the arm.
  3. Walking through Palais Bahia. This is the old place in the medina. It was amazing how well preserved it still is. The tile work is absolutely gorgeous. 
  4. Stuffing my face with another bocadillo. I'm so happy they're easy to make. This will absolutely be a new comfort food for me.
  5. Enjoying a last drink on the rooftop of Cafe du France. We stopped here our first day to enjoy some mint tea, so we thought it was fitting to end our time here, too. Plus, our dogs were barking from the long walk we took and we desperately needed  break.
Last pic in Morocco on the
cafe rooftop
While Morocco was a blast, I'm looking forward to getting back to Munich with my brother. Sounds like we'll have a very mellow Sunday, and Jeni and I will hit up a museum and Englisher Garten on Monday. The weather is supposed to be 60s and sunny, which sounds fabulous! So maybe the "Fire" part of my vacation isn't completely over.

And while I love traveling, I'm getting ready to go home. Today was the first day I've missed my bed. And my hot tub. And my puppies.

After being up for 24 hours with minimal sleep and a lot of walking around, a hot shower with firm water pressure sounds pretty fantastic, as I'm feeling quite ... funky. Only about three hours until I get there...

I'll next give a recap on my "tips" to Morocco. (Based on my experience, of course!)