What do you do when your roommates buy your tickets to Germany and tell you 24 hours before the departure time? You pack your bags and go on an adventure!
During our intensive German course, my friends were inspired by the language to plan a weekend trip to Munich. A quick four hour bus ride from Zürich, we left on Friday afternoon and arrived in the evening. When I stepped foot into the station, I realized my first mistake was not bringing any Euros. So early on in this post, the life lesson here is to bring the correct currency to your destination!
Our first stop in Munich was exploring Old Town. Although we didn’t use the metro system in the city, Marienplatz is considered the main hub. Everything that has to do with anything is within walking distance of this centre. Strolling through the cobblestone/pedestrian-only streets brought back old memories of the Europe I came to understand. However, Munich is also very different from Zürich. This Bavarian region might not be an accurate reflection of Germany as a whole, but I found the general layout of the city to be a little chaotic. This kind of disorganization did not deter me from the stunning architecture of the city. The most prominent buildings were churches. Little did I know that I would visit at least one religious institution in every city during my travels.
It’s a good thing that we dropped by those churches because we visited the (in)famous Hofbräuhaus later that night. Where the default steins are bigger than your face, the beer was cold and ever flowing. Be prepared for loud people and even louder music. As a traditional beer house, the tables were communal and you really got to know your neighbours. We had the pleasure of meeting other exchange students from Finland and Sweden, but knowing we had other plans early next morning, the Swiss group called it a night.
Said next destination was Neuschwanstein Castle. As my first international trip of exchange, I sent every little detail to my parents. Apparently, my father had visited this same castle a decade ago and chuckled at the ever-lasting construction on the front façade of the building. You will see this trend later in a Western European country. Prior to visiting, we had booked tour tickets for inside the castle (highly recommend, especially during tourist season), and arrived early so we could explore the area. We had caught the early train and all seven of us slept through the two hour trip. It’s all right; Munich’s scenery in February is mainly snow, so not very different from Canada. Once we arrived on the premise, we boarded a local bus that brought us to the base of the mountain/hill and walked up the steep incline to our final destination. I didn’t need my mother to confirm that I had worn the wrong type of shoes on this excursion, as cute ankle booties were not appropriate for the slippery slopes. Along the way, we saw vendors selling hot chocolate, mulled wine, and deep-fried doughnut concoctions that were absolutely scrumptious. The funniest, and probably most ironic, food item of purchase was ice cream!
Although we didn’t find the tour of the castle to be particularly worth it, the interior was absolutely stunning. In short, the history of the Neuschwanstein Castle starts and ends with Ludwig II. Built in a Romanesque Revival style, this 1800s castle reflects typical Bavarian culture, especially the swan theme unique to the Schwangau region. The purpose of the castle was to host lavish parties in homage to Richard Wagner, but due to the commissioner’s poor health and anti-social behaviour, the castle never reached its full potential. During this tour, we weren’t allowed to take any photos of the interior, however . . .
Shhhhh, don’t report me! Just saved you a couple of Euros and a long line up!
Following our historical lesson, we quickly headed back to Munich in search of the BMW Welt. A couple of Christmases ago, my best friend and I watched a vintage car show, in lieu of shoveling the driveway. From then on, I remember being fascinated by the engineering and performance of these German-made sports cars. Despite not visiting Stuttgart for the Porsche/Benz headquarters this time around, I’m happy that I eventually made it to the BMW one. Quick tip – make sure to book tickets in advance if you want a tour of the factory. As well, students get a discount at the museum with ID. Not to bore you with the details of my secret obsession, the reputation of “German-engineered” is well deserved. Particularly with the exterior architecture, I admired how the building mimicked the curvature of their automobiles.
Once famished from walking the entirety of the BMW grounds, the boys and I headed back to city centre. Surprisingly, someone from our ski group had also planned a weekend trip to Munich and we didn’t even know! One of the girls texted me about this happy coincidence and we all decided to have dinner together at a cute little Thai place. As a reference, if you’re going to eat any kind of meaty/ethnic food, make sure you do it outside of Switzerland. We certainly took advantage of this tip and ate to our heart’s content. Decent meal indeed.
With a full stomach and healthy liver (we had forgone the beer that night), the two groups parted ways for the weekend. Our group of seven had booked a Sandemans Tour of Dachau for the next day before returning to Zürich. At the crack of dawn, we boarded the train towards the somber town. Dark history aside, Dachau is typical of any suburb and the inhabitants ranged from Germans to immigrants. We opted for the tour, since the guide would be helpful in explaining the significance and details of the concentration camp located just outside the town’s border. Upon entering the premises, there was a silent weight that fell on your shoulders. Arbeit macht frei. The irony of “work will set you free” gave an ominous welcome. The concentration camp was considered the original model for other camps during WWII. The atrocities that unfolded within these gates will forever be in our history, but it is about how we proceed into the future in remembrance that gives the greatest weight to the significance of change. These types of excursions are not typical for vacations, but the seven of us did not regret making the journey to these grounds. The most vivid memory from that day was my encounter with an older gentleman, dressed in formal clothes, visiting a Russian Orthodox temple located within the gates. Passing by each other, a simple nod and straight face conveyed words unspoken. The scar across his left eye and greying hair were enough for me.
Diverging from the serious topic, I just want to mention some logistics before closing. Transportation-wise, I quickly learned that if the destination were within four hours car/bus ride, then road vehicles would be the most economical options. We used FlixBus, but there are many competitors that offer similar services. Many buses now have wifi, so you can definitely get some work done on the road. As for accommodations, this was my first experience with hostels. We stayed at the Wombats! My group was fortunate enough to book a six bed suite and we occupied the entire facilities. You will quickly learn the ways of communal living, so make sure to pack travel-sized toiletries and slippers. Finally, if you plan on going on excursions outside of the city centre, research travel routes early! The most difficult part of this trip was the last minute aspect of booking tours and train tickets. If you are staying within Europe for an extended period time, consider getting a rail pass (i.e., Eurail). They also come as country-specific packages. And above all else, make sure you’re able to enter said country. I was surprised by the relaxed border control between Switzerland and Germany. They didn’t even look at my passport! This would become a general theme throughout my travels and I am forever perplexed why the rest of the world doesn’t operate in the same capacity.
The seven of us split up for the evening, as the normal people (Brandon, Courtney, and I) boarded the earlier bus back to Zürich. By the time we arrived back at home, the four others (Alex, Zach, Jing, and Will) had just left Munich. For my first international trip of my exchange, I was absolutely exhausted. However, it was a preview of what my next six months in Europe would be like and I couldn’t have been more excited.