Germany/Belgium: My First Trip Overseas, Fall 2008

Pictures from the trip are here.

For the record, when I'm in a different country, I don't expect people to speak English, I only note whether they did or not as a matter of record, and for my memories.

Monday, 18th August 2008

I arrived into Frankfurt, Germany. It was a partly cloudy day. Customs went very quickly, but my baggage did not arrive. The lady at the baggage counter spoke broken English, and did not understand my sarcastic comment about not losing my granola (sarcasm doesn't translate well). She asked where I was staying, and I told her at the Central Hotel in Viernheim. She asked for the address, but I didn't know it, as I was getting directions to it once I got to Mannheim. She seemed surprised at my lack of planning, and gave me an email address. She told me if I didn't get them the address, after two days my bag would be returned to my little house in Bloomington, Indiana! Arrrgghhh! I left her, retrieved my rental car (a diesel Santa Fe), and proceeded to get on the Autobahn to make my way to Mannheim.

I had never been, therefore I have never driven overseas. While the operation of the car and the general feel of the road is the same, there are subtle differences that I soon found out: 1) The speed limit signs made no sense at first glance. I could tell that in many places the speed was 80 km/h, but then I'd see another sign with the 80 crossed out. (After Arlyn got there we asked, it means that the 80 km/h speed zone is over, meaning the speed reverts to whatever it was before the 80 zone. It would make more sense to me to just note the new damn speed limit, but when in Rome....(or in this case Germany)). 2) There are not North/South/East/West exit signs on the highway, only the names of large cities in that direction. Unfortunately for me, I was with only one small map, and Mannheim was not listed on any of those signs.

I drove around for a little while, and finally got off on an exit and stopped at a gas station. I got a bite to eat (if you read my update from 8.18.2008 you'll see I was fasting, so I was really hungry). Instead of asking for directions, I ate my sandwich and left. I got back on the highway and proceeded to get lost for at least another 45 minutes. I knew I wanted to go South, and I knew I wasn't near Mannheim yet. I finally pulled off the side of the road and looked up to the skies for assistance. Did I pray? Nada. Did I notice the partly cloudy day above me? Of course I did! I watched the clouds move for a moment, and noticed they were moving to my right (head of the vehicle to my front). What does that tell me? That I was going the wrong direction! Well, I got back on the Autobahn going the opposite direction, and made my way to Mannheim. My first stop was to my work site to meet up with my point of contact to let him know I was in country and safe. He gave me directions to my hotel, and I checked in. The first picture is of my bathroom, the second of my view North into Vierheim. The Central Hotel am Konigshof in Viernheim is a nice little place with hospitable service and an excellent breakfast, should you ever be in the area.

I dropped my bag in my room and headed out for the mall I had seen down the street. The mall was awesome. It didn't just have the regular crappy stores, but it had several coffee shops, places to get a beer, and a few delicatessens.

After wandering the mall for a bit, I called the one person I knew in Germany, my friend Ronnie. He was a wiener and was too tired to go out, so I ventured on my own. Luckily the hotel had internet, and I was able to find a brewery a few cities away (thank you!) I wrote out the directions on a scrap piece of paper and hit the road. After missing my exit on the Autobahn, I finally got turned back around and headed into Schwetzingen to find the Schwetzinger Brauhaus zum Ritter . After getting lost yet again, hungry, and frustrated, I saw a nice looking restaurant with a beer garden, so I parked and went for dinner.

At the random restaurant were three people outside, and a door. I went in and there was but one table of people. They said something to me in German, to which I replied "English?". They said something else, and pointed to the people outside. I asked the same question outside, and one of the gentlemen spoke limited English. We were able to communicate enough with each other for me to get some schnitzel, pommes frittes, and a hefeweizen. I sat down at a nearby table and a minute later a beautiful glass and a bottle of hefeweizen were set in front of me. It was truly one the best hefeweizens that I have ever had (I swear it; I even brought one bottle back).

Inside I could hear the nice lady pounding my schnitzel fresh. Twenty minutes later a schnitzel the size of a hubcap and a plate of steaming fries was dropped in front of me. It was delicious, albeit probably unhealthy. I ate most of it, paid my bill, and walked across the street for gelato. After this I got in my Santa Fe and found my way back to the hotel before it got too dark.

Tuesday 19th August, 2008

I was smart enough to forsee the luggage situation, and had packed a change of clothes. So, I put my on extra t-shirt and shorts, and went to work. Work is work. That night my luggage was delivered and I was able to clean up before going out for the night. I drove down to Heidelberg to meet Ronnie. We found a good restaurant called Krokodil. I had pork medallions and Ronnie had sauerbraten, both were excellent. We asked the bartender about the Heidelberg nightlife, and he directed us to a bar called the SkyLounge der Turm on the top floor of a building with a view overlooking the entire city. I had a few beers there and Ronnie drank overpriced cocktails and hit on the waitress. She spoke good English and from her we found out about the walking strip with a bunch of stores and restaurants.

Wednesday 20th August 2008

After work I drove around a little while until I saw some cool little outskirts of Mannheim. I walked around there for a while taking pictures and having a beer. After my beer the rain came down really hard for about 10 minutes, and then cleared up for the night. I continued to walk, but really had to pee. I made my way into a grocery store, but couldn't find a bathroom. I continued walking and saw the Eiscafé Toscani, and figured I could eat some gelato and use their bathroom. The man behind the counter apparently saw my bladder punching through my side, and immediately offered me the facilities. Afterwards I spoke with him for a while. His name was Andreas and he was from Italy. He spoke Italian, German, and English. We chatted for a while and he asked me where I was from. I said the U.S. and he figured that much, but asked where from. I said Indiana and his hands formed an air-steering wheel (the Indy 500), and I confirmed. He proceeded to tell me about how he used to be a rally car driver, and how he thought it probably messed him up for life (accidents, I assumed). He told me how he vacationed in the Phillippines and that you could "eat, drink, sleep, and fuck" for 5 euros per day. He told me being inside for work all day was turning him into a vampire (he made the fangs so that I could understand his translation better). After a while of talking he made me some delicious espresso (on the house). After a while I told him I was getting hungry, so I said goodbye. For dinner I stopped at a supermarket close to my hotel. I managed to order some delicious meat and cheese to make myself a sandwich in my room.

Thursday 21st August 2008

I checked out of the Central Hotel to move to the Crown Plaza in Heidelberg. After checking in I was directed to my room, which it turns out was still dirty. For the inconvenience they upgraded me to larger room with a decent view of downtown Heidelberg. Ronnie and I left the hotel and had drinks at an Irish bar, where it turns out we could have had a pitcher of Smithwick's for less than two pints. We talked to a couple of guys in the back beergarden, one of whom was doing paced shots of tequila, but still appearing fairly sober. After an Irish red we headed to Vetters, a local microbrewery. They had what could be the best dunkel weizen I've ever had, and delicious food. Ronnie had a pork knuckle, and I had stuffed pork liver. The pork liver was a little too salty and the texture was weird, but the pork knuckle was good.

Friday 22nd August 2008

After work we met up with Tim and Scott. Ronnie and I took them to the Krokodil for dinner (knowing it would be delicious). I had the best tortellini ever. It was covered with a delicious beer cheese sauce and proscutto. After dinner we ended up back at the SkyLounge, where Tim was practically asleep after his flight that morning. Scott and Tim gave up, so Ronnie and I wandered and found a bar called Goodfellas. The waitress turned out to be the owners' sister, and she gave us a free shot of Jager before heading home for the night. We stayed and ended up playing a battery-powered air hockey game with the owner, Eddie, and doing shots of plum vodka and bourbon, among other things.

Saturday 23rd August 2008

A group of us wandered around the Haupstrasse (walking street). I gave Scott grief about getting coffee at Starbucks, but he explained the only reason he did so is because they offer it to-go (a lesson in European coffee, I soon found out). We ended up wandering around the castle and taking pictures for a few hours. I split off by myself and went in search of antique stores in search of jewelry and an old beer stein. We had afternoon drinks at the Irish bar again, went to Vetters for beers, and then ate at a local German place for dinner.

Sunday 24th August 2008

I had to work, after which I went to Schwetzinger Brauhaus zum Ritter with guys from work. It was an interesting brewery on the edge of a main street, across from an old palace. They had good food and decent beer. The cool thing about it was the massive outside beer garden the copper tanks, and the view of an old palace.

Tuesday 26th August 2008

After work we took a drive through the wine country west of Mannheim. We ended up stopping in Frankenstein, Germany and having beers and dinner. It was nothing remarkable, but it was cool to see some of the German countryside. Apparently the annual wine-fest started about two weeks later, which draws oodles of people from around the world.

Wednesday 27th August 2008

Worked. Afterward I went to the Palmbrau Gasse for dinner and beers. The marzen was good, the first one I was able to find. I sat by myself in the street behind the Haupstrasse, enjoying the cool night air and the sounds of the street.

Thursday 28th August 2008

Worked. Wandered around trying to find the Kulturbrauerei Heidelberg. After finding the side street it was on, I got a four-top table by myself in the beergarden. After my beer came, a man approcahed me and asked if he could sit with his wife and son. His English was ok, except I think he had a speech impediment, which made it all the more difficult to understand him. He spoke to me off and on, but his wife and stepson did not very often. The hefeweizen was delicious, as was the food, but the whole situation was a little awkward. I left quickly after the check arrived because of it.

Friday 29th August 2008

In the morning I drove to the airport to pick Arlyn up. I almost missed her because I parked at the other terminal, and her flight arrived a few minutes early. She had a few cents from when her mom had gone to Italy, and was able to make a call to my cell phone for a few seconds before the money ran out. All I got out of her was sidewalk and terminal 2. I ran to the outside, but didn't see her. I was getting frantic, but she finally spotted me. We made our way to the rental car where I fed her the breakfast I had pilfered from the hotel. I remember her telling me about how awesome the croissants and Nutella were for breakfast when she was in France, so I brought her that. I dropped her at the hotel, gave her 40 euro and a map, and told her I'd be back after work.

After my work day was over, I was done, off for 10 days of vacation! I headed back to the hotel, and from there Arlyn and I started driving west. We were rolling through the hills on 45 on our way to Bad Wimpfen and saw a carnival off the road, so we stopped. It was free, so we wandered around, then found a beer garden inside. We ordered a beer by pointing at the menu, and then made our way to a table to watch the festivities. Several nice German people tried to talk to us, but spoke no English, and not my 10 words of German. We ended up getting a paper certificate when we walked into the beergarden, and it turns out it was for a free beer (yah!). We drank the rest of our beer, had a brat, and wandered around checking out the carnival. It was a typical crappy county-fair type affair, with made in China items, and creaky rides. They had about 8 booths selling cooking items, with some of them demonstrating live. We got bored quickly, and jumped back in the car again. A few miles down the road we saw a little roadside restaurant beneath a castle, so we stopped for dinner. No one spoke English, but we managed to get a beer and schnitzel on the cheap. After dinner Arlyn was really tired, but I convinced her to stick it out with me, and we kept driving to Bad Wimpfen. It was a cool picturesque little town, just like the tour books had said. It was a little too dark to take many pictures when we got there though. But, we wandered around, took a few pictures, found some gelato, and noticed people setting up for a renaissance-type fair the next day. It sounded like fun, so after we left we got an early check out from the Crowne Plaza so we could go play in Bad Wimpfen for the day and night.

Saturday 30th August 2008

I let Arlyn take the awesome breakfast at the Crown Plaza (only had a voucher for one person), and I wandered out to find some coffee and a pastry. We wandered around Heidelberg for the morning, then jumped in the car to leave for the rest of Germany. We ended up changing our minds on Bad Wimpfen, and instead started driving towards Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The route took us through Austria, where we stopped at the base of a beautiful lake and took pictures. We were trying to find a hotel that was recommended to me called Edelweiss, but it turns out that a million things are called Edelweiss, and the GPS took us to every one of them. We finally made our way to Garmisch-Partenkirchen and ended up at cool little hotel where the guy running it spoke little English, but was really nice. We wandered around and had beers at several places before getting food somewhere I don't even remember. We had a few more beers and made our way back to the hotel for the night.

Sunday 31st August 2008

We drove to lake Eibsee with the intent of taking the tram to top of mountain. It turned out to be about $60 per person, which we decided was too expensive for a ride to the top. We hung out by lake Eibsee took some pictures, with the stupid ducks screwing up my reflection shots, and talked about what where we wanted to spend the night. We really wanted to spend a few weeks in Eibsee, hiking and biking, but had to be back in Frankfurt to change rental cars the next day. We finally decided to head to Munich, by way of Andechs. Andechs is a monastery that I heard about from some guys at work, and then again by the crazy German family that I had dinner with. They make their own beer, cheese, sausages, etc, and have a cool beer garden. So, we headed there, had lunch (cheese and sauerkraut and sausage, oh my!), and wandered around. The beer was good, but they only had a few of their 8 varieties at the beer garden. We ended up buying a lot of beer glasses (11, that had to travel back with us). On our way out we found out they had a sampler of all of their beers in their main restaurant, so we stopped to sample the rest.

When we got to Munich, we were a little overwhelmed. We only had a crappy map, and the GPS didn't want to lead us anywhere useful. We finally found English Park in the middle of the city, and tried to find a nearby hotel. We walked into the Hilton, where they treated us like crap (I asked about rooms, and I believe her response was "Yes, there are rooms available, but they're very expensive."). F-- them. We walked in several more hotels, but they were all more than we had wanted to pay. We continued our search, but were getting very frustrated by the lack of things being open (Sundays in Europe are worse than Sundays in Utah). We found out there was a 10k race that night, and they began closing the streets for it, so we decided to get the hell outta dodge. We drove towards the Augustiner beer garden, but missed it along the way. After stopping for gas, we asked and found out it was right down the street.

The Augustiner beer garden was incredible. It is a massive, outdoor garden, probably taking up a city block. We were hungry, and tired, but didn't see any hotels nearby (one nice guy did tell us where some hostels were). I got in the beer line, and asked the guy behind the counter what was on draft. I must have pronounced something wrong, so I asked (in German) if he spoke English. The response, to the best of my understanding, and very snide, was "In Germany we speak German." This pissed me off to no end, but I was thirsty, so I moved to another line to get my beer. I saw them pouring (not tapping, but pouring) something directly out of a wooden keg, and knew that was for me, so I just pointed. We sat down to eat our food, and got a lecture about being in the waited-on area when we should have been in the self-service area. We moved, finished out food, and got back on the autobahn.

After about an hour on the autobahn, I saw a sign for the Duetschland Hopfenmuseum, and became intrigued. A little while later I saw signs for Hallertau. I recognized Hallertau as one of the hops I've used in brewing, and just another minute or so later we saw the fields of hops before us. We had to get a hotel soon for the night anyhow, so we made the decision to pull off and find one in the middle of hop country. We came into a little town called Schweitenkirchen and saw a hotel. They had rooms, but they didn't take credit cards, which I needed them to. We drove around a bit and saw people out harvesting the hops. We didn't find much in the way of hotels, so we went back to the first one. The lady running the place spoke no English, but I was able to figure out the price and get a room for the night. We hauled our things up to the room and went to sit and have a beer in the garden outside. There was a group of men already out there, and they tried to talk to us, but we couldn't understand each other. The men clearly were interested in what we were doing in there little town, and wanted to talk to us, but couldn't. We sat and drank for a little while, while the smell of hops blew over us. We started getting tired, and the men started singing something, and asking us to join. We shrugged to say we didn't understand, and one of them, in broken English, started singing happy birthday. We sang along for a minute and all had a good laugh. The only other words we understood were a toast to their friend when they raised their glasses with us and shouted "Prost!" We finished up our beer and went to bed with the windows open and the smell of a fresh hop harvest blowing in all night.

Monday 1st September 2008

We ate a most unremarkable breakfast in the hotel (very smoky environment, lots of flies, and bland food) then got on our way to Frankfurt. After turning in our car at the airport, we wandered around trying to find our rental car company. We finally got someone to tell us that the rental company we had chosen (Thrifty) was not actually located in the airport, but off-airport, hence the better price we got. A fairly long shuttle ride later, we had our new POS (a Chevy Nutella, or maybe it was a Nubria; some sort of diesel station wagon they don't sell in the US, and apparently no one over there has either, because we didn't see another one) and got on our way.

We tend to fly by the seat of our pants (That's how we roll, yo! It drives Arlyn's mom crazy), so we had no idea where we were staying for the night. After 90 minutes of driving, we decided on Koblenz, a city on the split of the Rhine as built in 9 AD. This rental car didn't have GPS, and we had a limited map, so we started a game of getting lost (we should have called it a game, it would have been less stressful when it happened). After round one of our new game, we actually ended up right downtown, lucky somehow, don't always plan on that. We were starving, so we stopped in a fast-food kabop (American gyros) for a sandwich. We heard three guys speaking English, so we struck up a conversation. It turns out they were all old friends, and were from Ireland, UK, and Australia, meeting up in Germany. After chatting for a while, we said goodbye and wandered around a bit, had beer at Veltins, and found the tourism department. They directed us to the reasonably priced Hotel Jan van Werth, where we checked in for the night. We wandered around some more, checking out the site, and glad to be out of the car. We found an Italian place that looked good, so we stopped for dinner. The menu was in German, and the staff spoke Italian and German, and very little English. We were trying to figure out what was what, and the staff ended up going completely out of their way to help us understand the menu. It was really nice. We left there and had drinks at a pirate bar, where more people we really nice with helping us order a beer. After that we walked more, taking pictures, and eventually settling in for the night.

Tuesday 2nd September 2008

We had a decent breakfast in the hotel whilst talking to a nice couple from Toronto. She was originally from Koblenz, and was telling us to hang out for another few days and explore, but we couldn't be swayed. (Note: Koblenz was a nice city though, and everyone was really nice, but we had our hearts set on Brugge. If we had more time over there, we would have stayed another night or two.) We checked out, shopped a bit, took some more pictures, and left for Brugge. After being on the road for a while, we got off the highway in the Netherlands looking for food, and ended up playing our game of crappy-mappy again. We finally ended up at a supermarket where a nice guy understood us enough to let us use bathroom (our Netherlandian is worse then our German). We bought some meat and cheese for a sandwich, and some vegetables and chips for a side. We made our way back to the highway and got into Brugge ok. We pondered hotels (based on prices), and while walking around ended up getting poured on (Arlyn wasn't dressed for the weather either, and was freezing cold). The city has a four hour parking limit (which you show by using a reset-able dial that goes on your dash), but at one of the hotels the lady told us that you just come back every four hours and rotate it to the new time, a tip for anyone that may end up there.

We finally decided on the Hotel Jacobs and checked in for two nights. The nice guy at the counter directed us to several beer joints and local-style food. At the restaurant we had a traditional Flemish stew and delicious Belgian beer. We left and went for more beer at a famous beer bar, where we met a nice couple from Australia named Mark and Mary. We chatted with them about life, our travels, jobs, and drank their expensive beer (thanks random strangers!) They left for the night, and we followed shortly thereafter. We found a pommes frittes stand in the town square and walked around eating them. During our stroll we also saw the filming of a Dutch TV detective show, which lasted all of 2 minutes. After all of this we found a cool bar down in the cellar of a basement with a nice atmosphere and a cool bartender. Thankfully most of the people we met spoke English and we were getting by better.

Wednesday 3rd September 2008

We woke to terrible coffee and so-so breakfast at the hotel. It was terrible coffee. Oh, the coffee was bad; terrible, in fact. We strolled down to the town square and hit the farmers market. It was cool, with a bunch of really fresh, cheap produce, baked items, and even a few grills. We had lunch there, then went to an art gallery and drank some of their coffee. We were going to go back and buy some of the photographs the next day, but didn't end up making it. We also went to chocolate museum, but in the middle had to go back and rotate our parking dial, but we came back and saw a demonstration and got samples; it was fun if you get the chance. We had dinner at a hostel restaurant (good food and reasonably priced, compared to most of Belgium). We had beers at Gambrinus, then went seeking a late-night waffle. We found a café that served them, but I didn't want to pay $10 for a waffle, so we continued to walk and look. We finally went back to find the café closed for the night. Arlyn was heartbroken about it, and cried on my shoulder before we looked up an ice cream place in one of our tour books. When we found the ice cream place we smelled waffles and sure enough, right across the street was a waffle store, with cheaper prices than the café from earlier. From there we turned in for the night. Oh, but did I mention how bad the coffee that morning was? Terrible stuff!

Thursday 4th September 2008

We didn't risk the coffee at the hotel, but instead just had some water and juice before exploring Brugge again. We went to a local bakery and got a marzipan filled croissant and coffee. We sat on the edges of the town square for a minute, and I did the whole proposal thing. After multiple threats, hours of begging, buckets of tears, and lucrative bribes, she agreed to marry me. We found a supermarket again and bought oodles of chocolate and water (they had to think we were insane). We made our way back to the rental car and drove to Brussels. Round whatever of crappy-mappy came next. We got lost as all hell coming into Brussels. After getting frustrated with each other for a few minutes, Arlyn got out and asked a desk worker for directions. It turns out her French isn't as good as she remembers, but it got us close enough to our hostel, the 2go4 hostel (don't ask me about the name. Nice hostel, bad coffee). We dropped our bags and went for the tourism. We wandered streets, saw the peeing boy statue, had a less than perfect waffle and saw the setup for a beer festival the next day (someone hates me!) We sat and drank a crappy beer at a microbrewery off one of the town squares, and meandered in and out of the ghetto looking for food. We consulted the map the hostel had given us, and found awesome pommes frittes (finally!) as an appetizer and then a main food district. The food was fairly expensive; thankfully Arlyn and I split things now (that we're not so heavy). But, we had an awesome steak cooked in an abbey cheese and geuze sauce. We made our way back to the hostel, getting an abbey beer in a can on the way (yah, Belgium!)

Friday 5th September 2008

The main desk at the hostel told us all they had for breakfast was hot beverages; turns out it was terrible coffee again (not nearly as bad as a few nights earlier though). So, we went to an organic fast food-type place for breakfast, then found a supermarket for more water and lunch. We played another round of getting lost as all hell just trying to find the highway ring around Brussels. After over an hour we finally ended up on west side of city (we wanted east) and on the highway and the hell outta dodge. We looked at our map and decided to take the long way back to the Frankfurt area. We drove through more of Belgium and then through German wine country, stopping along the way for Arlyn to sample and purchase a bottle. After that we drove, drove, drove. We made it near the Frankfurt airport and began looking for a hotel for the night. We finally found the Landhotel on the same highway as our rental car return location. It looked like a nice old place, with a beer garden next to it. We went for dinner at the beer garden, only to find out it was awful. The food tasted like it had been sitting there all day, and for the most part was unsatisfying for our last German meal. We both wanted a sweet so we jumped in the car and found a supermarket where we ended up with four ice cream bars and some snacks for the flight back.

Saturday 6th September 2008

We were the first ones up for breakfast at the hotel. It turned out to be the 2nd best breakfast (behind Crown Plaza) we had. We turned in our crappy rental car, waited forever for the bus to load more and more people, and headed for the airport. I left Arlyn at her terminal (we were flying separate airlines, due to the company buying my ticket and her getting the cheapest option). I had about a 5 hours longer wait then she did, so I watched tv episodes and movies on my laptop. About 1 hour prior to my flight I made my way to the terminal to wait to board. Arlyn showed up and surprised the crap out of me. Her flight had been canceled and after an arduous process she was able to get on mine. We talked the nice lady behind the counter into giving us seats right next to each other for our ride home. On the way we sang carols, reminisced about the old days, and wrote postcards. When we go to Chicago O'Hare customs took forever, but our bags took even longer. We ended up missing our connection, but got on the next flight to Indianapolis about an hour later. After that we had a very tired drive home. Hope to do it again soon. The end.