A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: gpontour

Oktoberfest

Munich, Germany

semi-overcast 21 °C

There’s no denying it, this blog is painfully overdue. It’s not like my travels since September 2014 have been unworthy of documenting, this huge gap can only be attributed to two things: my utter talent for procrastination, and general shock that anyone other than my Nana (hi, Nan) actually read my ramblings. However, there is no time like the present and my homework for creative writing class this week is to write about a memory, so here we are.

Trying to condense Oktoberfest into a single memory is difficult because the festival is a complete assault on the senses – but a very pleasant assault, apart from the people already vomiting at 10am. Our host for this time in Munich, Kilian, warned us that the area would soon be littered with Bierleiche, a rough German translation for ‘beer corpse’. On a side note, the exorbitant prices that accompany Oktoberfest led us to seek alternative accommodation, and through the magic of Airbnb we ended up sleeping in a campervan in Kilian’s driveway. I loved it, it was all the privacy of your own room, with a warm house full of friendly people only steps away.
The night we arrived, we talked about the tradition of Oktoberfest. I know the world is pretty familiar with it as an extravagant piss-up, and it’s hard to argue that it’s not. However, beyond its reputation for hop-induced bliss, Oktoberfest is actually the biggest folk festival in the world, and a long-standing monument to Bavarian tradition. Not just beer is celebrated, but steaming mountains of chicken, pretzels and potato dumplings as well. Many tents are dedicated to serving local wines, spirits and ciders. There are exhibitions dedicated to the festival’s beginnings, which my hazy memory recalls as some form of royal wedding. But yes, the beer is important, and exquisite, and damn strong. Being Germany, of course this standard is upheld by pretty stringent regulations. Only breweries which fall within Munich’s city limits can produce official Oktoberfestbier, which is normally aged for several months and reaches about 6% alcohol volume by the time it’s served. This probably explains why the roof of the campervan wouldn’t stop spinning while I was trying to sleep, because drowning myself in foreign beer is a wonderful idea before embarking on an international long-haul flight.

As I said, Oktoberfest is a joyride for your senses. Walking into the fairground is akin to a child entering Disneyland. You walk under the wonderful, garish entrance and immediately your ears are whirring with the screams from rollercoasters, your stomach rumbling for whatever salty goodness is floating in the air, your eyes swimming from the bold block colours of the dirndls and lederhosen. People talk about the politics of getting into a bier-tent when you arrive, and my regional Australian roots meant that I severely underestimated what this meant. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve camped, you have never seen a tent like this. They are glorious monstrosities, adorned with huge ceramic statues and themed to compete for the most customers. I think the largest holds around 10,000 people. So yes, I was pretty overwhelmed when I realised that this whole drinking affair was going to be much more complicated than visiting a winery or local market back home.

After realising that these enormous tents were essentially packed to capacity already, a couple took pity on us as we wandered through the outside area of the Lowenbrau tent and squished over so we could fit on their bench. It turns out that these lovely people, German and French respectively, would make our day a whole lot easier. There is serious skill involved in getting the attention of a waitress (I can’t bring myself to say wench) if you are not part of a huge group. They are impressive creatures, carrying huge trays of chicken and ten steins of at a time. Our new friends helped us to commandeer them to order drinks as we got acquainted, and artfully scooted us indoors when the real party started. Before we knew it, we were dancing on the long tables, pretending to know the words to Bavarian folk songs, and massaging our arms and bellies from the exertion of carrying (and drinking) from huge glass mugs.

I’ve run out of steam to explain our days here as anything other than just so much fun. Oktoberfest is such an intoxicating experience, like falling down a rabbit-hole to a bright, crazy party. It was such a fitting end to this trip, to our time away. The transit home from Munich was… long. Really, really long. Hodge and I are pretty much immune to the horrors of airports and planes now after that 52 hour crusade. We arrived home in one piece, despite scattering bits of our heart all over a different continent. There is so much to say about this adventure and its impact on our lives and relationship, most of which has only sunk in as the months have passed. We got under Europe’s skin, each other’s skin, our own skin.

I’ve made a promise to myself that I will finally give my writing more time and effort this year, and this travel blog will undoubtedly by impacted by the changes my soul undertakes on the way. I’m getting my wisdom teeth removed later this week, and I’m hoping that my swollen misery post-operation will provide space for me to keep churning out these entries. I have so much to record, to remember, to relive.
Thank you for laughing with us, and at us, throughout this journey. It’s beautiful to know that it doesn’t stop here.
So, until then – adieu, arrivederci, adios.

Posted by gpontour 20:56 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Top of the Lake

Lucerne, Switzerland

semi-overcast 14 °C

On our final stop, I hang my head at my former self, who protested against spending any longer than a week in Switzerland. "It will be cold", I complained; "and it costs an arm and a leg". I am so glad I let Daniel talk me into seeing this gorgeous country. It has been chilly, it has been expensive, but Switzerland has taken my heart along with my proverbial limbs. I had no idea how much I owe to these clever people.
Firstly, the Swiss invented cheese. Need I say more? They then had this marvellous idea that it would taste even better melted and plopped on a bit of bread. Yep, I owe cheese on toast to these guys. Like that isn't enough, the Swiss were also the first bright sparks to take cocoa and condensed milk, put them in a bowl together and thus bring eons of happiness to humanity through the magic of milk chocolate. People pretend like the Swiss are conservative and formal but I argue that any society who creates cheese and chocolate must be an inherently kind people.

If I were to describe Lucerne in one word, it would be serene. The town is essentially the waist-belt to a beautiful lake, which seemed like the end of the world- this infinite mirror, a perfect reflection of the calm, blue sky. Looking out across it each day, I was struck by how it evoked memories of the desert for me, even though the two are stark opposite landscapes. I think it was the stillness. Like everything moving across that expanse was mired in slow-motion, the water its own universe.

The town of Lucerne was so very charming. Cosy and warm, despite the bluestone facades and freezing temperatures. That being said, my constant sense of cold was probably my own fault, seeing as I didn't pack any shoes but thongs and runners. Tourism in Lucerne centres on two sights. The first is the Kapellbrücke, or Chapel Bridge, the oldest covered bridge in Europe. Lucerne straddles both sides of the main river that bleeds out from the lake, so it's easy to hurry over this bridge without appreciating its history; but the timber walls are painted with scenes from the town's past for those who take a few minutes longer. Honestly, I was much more besotted with the magenta flowers that adorn either side of the bridge and how they reflect cheerfully on the water come midday.

I was much more moved by the Lion Monument, a famous carving into a stone wall just outside the old town. It's hard to describe why this carving is so touching. It's much simpler, more atavistic than what it commemorates, which is the massacre of Swiss Guards during a siege in the French Revolution. The lion exudes a primal sense of despair that only wounded animals can express so rawly. Mark Twain called the monument "the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world" and like most things, Mr. Twain is right.

In front of this noble scene is a constant swarm of tourists elbowing one another for prime photo opportunities, and I was able to get my own photo in the same place that my Nanna did many years ago, which was a special moment.

Other than explore the town's icons, and have an afternoon at the Geology Museum where Hodge did some inappropriate things to the mammoth statues, we just strolled and strolled through Lucerne's surroundings. Switzerland is so lush and safe that adventure is as simple as waking up, saying "let's follow the river", and going. I miss the tranquility of Swiss towns, this steady rhythm of tradition and harmony between people and place. I think it's got to do with all the chocolate.

Posted by gpontour 23:25 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Searching for Elves

Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

overcast 14 °C

You get lazy when you become used to the road and new destinations as a lifestyle. Places that you would usually break bones to visit can be easily written off as ho-hum; you're travel weary and your capacity for wonder is stretched thin. But there are spots so incredible that they snap you out of this stupor, make you want to walk until your soles blister, your eyes water from a definite mission to capture, to take in. You tell yourself that you have to cherish every second you're in this place. Lauterbrunnen, and the Swiss alps in general, fall into this category. I feel like I would need to transform into an epic author to do justice to this area, but luckily one already did so for me. JRR Tolkien stepped up to the plate and immortalised this place in print:

"Such was the virtue of the land of Rivendell that soon all fear and anxiety was lifted from their minds. The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them, and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song".

Despite the obvious romanticism of this passage, you can honestly believe that Elves would choose to live in Lauterbrunnen. Tolkien visited the valley in 1911 and used its sweeping mountains and cascading waterfalls as inspiration for Rivendell in his Lord of the Rings novels.

Apart from searching for Orlando Bloom during the valley's myriad of gorgeous hikes, the area that surrounds Lauterbrunnen is famous for outdoor adventure sports. You can barely glance up without seeing a base jumper diving headfirst for a halo. More level-headed tourists opt for paragliding or in our case, a high ropes course (didn't even fall off or throw up).

Otherwise, the more idyllic attractions of Lauterbrunnen spoke to my soul. We spent a perfect day following the hiking trails after taking the funicular to Grindelwald, basking in the glorious snow-capped sight of the Jungfrauköch, the highest point in all of Europe.

After filling our lungs with fresh air and falling in love with the local cows, we would return at night to our campsite, snuggled deep in the valley and overshadowed by a seemingly infinite waterfall. There is nothing so peaceful as waking up to the sound of running streams and fresh dew on emerald fields, even if I was half-delirious with altitude sickness the entire time.

I wish I had the gusto or skill to properly describe this area to you all, but I somewhat quail at the task of verbally illustrating its beauty. Even my photos seem like cheap imitations to me. There are places that you feel rather than see, and the best way I can express the solemn majesty of Lauterbrunnen is to share that when I can't sleep at night because of the stresses and structures of city life, I picture myself wandering down this valley. That sensation of calm, of quiet awe, sends me off to sleep without fail.

Posted by gpontour 21:13 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

A Bern-esque Show

Bern, Switzerland

semi-overcast 18 °C

  • * Guest Commentary from Hodge

After a week in the incredible, yet vulgar city of Paris, I find it fitting to compare Bern to a burlesque show, only the attraction is for true beauty, nature and mysterious culture rather than, boobs, the cancan, boobs and seedy old men.

Ah Switzerland. The neutral country that everyone loves but could f*** you up in a heart beat. Pardon my French, I'm still kicking the habit after a fortnight in France. So, some little known facts about Switzerland which will justify my opening statement. It is the richest country in the world per capita (except for Monaco... And probably the Vatican City). It prefers to ride solo rather than join the EU. It has hollowed out mountains which contain enough reinforcements and food to allow the whole country's population to live inside for fifty years if they need to. They also have compulsory smaller underground bomb shelters outside every single store in their capital city. It is compulsory for every male to do a year of military service at 18 and they're required to keep their guns at home for the rest of their lives. They have fake grassy mounds which house aircrafts inside them all over the country. They have aircraft runways painted like roads nearby so as not to draw suspicion from overhead. They have four national languages. Even their national flag is a big plus (haha, couldn't resist). In short, as our guide told us, Switzerland does not have an army. Switzerland is an army.

With all that in mind, Bern has to be a contender for the most beautiful capital city in the world. Picture an old-style town laden with cobblestone streets and green buildings, surrounded by a crystal clear river, beautiful bridges and more greenery than all of Melbourne's inner suburbs combined. Add to this it's almost non-existent crime rates and homelessness and it's quite possibly the safest and cleanest city in the world. Maybe that's the reason it's so expensive. Our first night here we went out and had the equivalent of a medium sized pizza for 22 Swiss francs each. Roughly converted to around $28AUD. This pretty much crushes any touristic dreams of ever living here.

Bern was discovered and named after a bear, the first animal hunted on the land which the city now rests. The bear is symbolic in every inch of the city with the Swiss flag and Bern province symbol found hanging from most rafters and on each registration plate. The Bern province symbol is a bear (no surprises there) but the humour lays in the intricate details of the design. Since foundation, the bear has always been illustrated with a red tongue, red claws and... Wait for it... A red penis. "Why?" I hear you ask. It's simple, if you're going to name a city after an animal, you don't want to be a coward who killed a 'weaker, far inferior' female bear. Just ask the locals. This is yet another quirk of a place which has many. Nevertheless, this city has a proud history and ever since its foundation, live bears have been kept in captivity within the city. This concept has evolved dramatically in recent years with bears moved from a small pit to a large outdoor enclosure with access to the lake and almost-natural habitat. More furry friends can be found by wandering along the crystal clear river until you reach the local zoo, which housed everything from llamas to flamingos.

If you're more into watching creatures of the human variety, you can comfortably spend an afternoon lazing by the river and watching people float down it.. They trek a few kilometres up stream, sporting nothing but some questionable bathing apparel, and happily drift back with the current. At the end of summer, I'm sure that the water would be ice cold as well as ice clear. Bern is heaven for those who love a city lifestyle, but want to stroll through pristine country only a few kilometres away. Though a few million dollars short, I would be glad to call it home.

Posted by gpontour 21:06 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

One week in Paris

Paris, France

sunny 25 °C

Paris is quintessential. The Eiffel Tower decorates people's bedroom walls, teenage girls envisage themselves in berets with red lipstick, fashionistas dream of the Champs d'Elysee. People pin their ingrained hope for beauty, for romance on the idea of Paris; they expect the city to capture their deepest desires in one glittering microcosm. They hold it up like a shiny locket, and curse when they discover it will tarnish after time, nothing gold can stay. This is so unfair. No city is a short-cut to the Belle Époque of your existence. The magnificence of modern Paris deserves to be celebrated, rather than canned by disheartened tourists, most of whom will tell you "Paris is not what it used to be"; that the city is struggling to cope with the multitude of squabble and mess that comes whenever millions of humans are concentrated in one area. But I refuse to believe this is a recent development, some ugly by-product of the 21st century. Paris has ways been a glamorous cesspool of debauchery and self-expression, I think that people simply don't like how that translates to a current-day context. Perhaps we've all become too sanitary.

Anyway, cutting short my indulgent sociological rant (forgive me, I'm in Switzerland and suffering from lack of oxygen) Paris was a spectacular week. For me, it was a perfect blend of living out Hollywood-induced Parisian dreams and also discovering what it means to exist in Paris day-to-day outside of these idealistic ventures. We definitely lived like locals, meaning we stayed in an apartment that was exactly 7 metres squared, excluding the charming balcony where we enjoyed many kebabs after growing tired of pricey restaurant food. Our bed collapsed into the wall but we had the holy grail of cheap Parisian apartments- our own bathroom (cue Georgia dancing around happily at not having to wear shoes in the shower for a whole week). Again, it reinforced to me just how much personal space we enjoy back home, but also taught me that cosmopolitan Europeans probably just don't have the same anxieties about personal space. I went overboard with trying to eat like a local though, easily consuming my body weight in macaroons and enjoying the world's fanciest hot chocolate at Angelina Patisserie.

Aside from delicious food comas, we were very busy that week acting like Griswald-esque tourists. Places like Paris can be really daunting to explore because of the omnipotence of sights and attractions. Luckily, my trusty Shawnee had spent time there and could easily divide this list into worthy and wasteful. Among her top picks were the Musee D'Orsay (half the waiting time of the Louvre and twice the edginess) and the city Catacombs. I really didn't understand what she meant by calling the Catacombs a 'humbling experience' until I was stuck many miles underground surrounded by hundreds of thousands of skeletons. I've never seen such a vivid illustration of how tiny a human life is (in physical, statistical terms).

That being said, Paris is a city that celebrates the undeniable majesty of the human experience. Walking the grand squares and gazing at the monumental architecture, I couldn't help picturing how the streets must have oozed with blood for months after the Revolution. Maybe this is why Parisians are so fiercely proud of their lifestyles, and all the grit and glitz attached to them. It's a place where Gucci and the Guillotine are equally celebrated.

Without question, the highlight of this week for me was finally getting to visit the Moulin Rouge and watch its current show, Feerie. Anyone who knows me knows of my love for theatre and burlesque so the prestige alone always meant I was going to enjoy the night. What really surprised me was the quality of the performances, the acts were versatile and the dancers obviously very highly trained. Prowling through Montmartre (believe me, the only way to get through Montmartre is to prowl) satisfied my bohemian dreams but also made me realise that gypsies are essentially glorified criminals. That put somewhat of a dampener on my secretly-harboured dreams to run away in a caravan. Keeping the gypsies and multitudes of thieves out of your pockets while trying to enjoy the horizon from the Eiffel Tower is a real art form.

I have two favourite memories of Paris, and they reflect stark differences in my time there. The first was a night bike ride we joined, where you essentially pay to be marked out as a huge group of tourists in fluro vests taking up half the road while gawking at your surroundings. The Louvre and its gardens are much more spectacular at night, and the nocturnal Champs D'Elysee is affectionately referred to as the Avenue of Diamonds and Rubies, named after its glittering signs and car headlights. After dismounting the bikes, we boarded a barge that glided down the Seine. I think I was more fascinated with watching the nightlife under the bridges along the river banks than the landmarks that the gravelly loudspeaker kept barking at me to look at.

The other memory I will hold close to my heart is a much simpler one, of a sunny afternoon where Hodge and I meandered hand-in-hand down the riverbanks, stomachs full of pastry and the air abuzz with the glow of summer. We pottered around, giggling at street performers and perusing the souvenir stalls. It was one of those rare occasions when you are travelling that you forget that home is so far away, and everything feels natural, as though we had done it every weekend for many years and would do so time and time again. In the midst of my awe and intimidation of a place so rich with history and life, I will always cherish feeling part of that for a short moment.

Au revoir, Paris. Such a unique bubble of existence you are.

Posted by gpontour 19:55 Archived in France Comments (0)

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