Munich – A Fairy Tale Ending

The weather when I woke up was a bit less than optimal but at least didn’t appear to be raining yet.  The plan was to head to the train station to get our rental car and then drive through the Bavarian countryside to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, which was a couple of hours outside of Munich.  Unfortunately, the car was a stick and since Chris hadn’t driven one since a teenager, he was understandably reluctant to operate one in a foreign country.  Fortunately, there were several trains that we could take and soon had tickets sorted.

Unlike the Alex Czech experience, the train was thankfully a bit more modern, despite our lack of a first class ticket.  That turned out to be not an issue at all as the car we selected was pretty empty.  So empty in fact I was able to literally stretch out, something all too rare in the usual cramped transportation options.

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The ride was a bit over 2 hours, mostly due to the frequent stops, but was very pleasant.  Given that I hadn’t been expecting to be on a train, I didn’t have anything to listen or read so I just stared out the window as we got deeper into the countryside.

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It was all very bucolic and not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.  We eventually pulled into the medieval town of Fussen, where a bus would take us up to the location of the castle.  The bus turned out to be a very short 8 minute ride up the hill and off in the distance was the castle beckoning.

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There were several options to get up to the castle, including horse-drawn carriage.  We decided to take the bus up there but then walk down later.  The small streets were full of tourists but thankfully it wasn’t overly packed as I’m sure it gets.  The bus ride was interesting as our driver tore up the steep, steep mountain road at a fairly alarming rate.  I was standing, pressed up against the far window so I got to see how close we were to the edge – a bit too close but I trusted the driver wouldn’t send us plummeting to our deaths.

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We had read the best views of the castle were from the nearby bridge and made the short climb up to it, pictured here from the opposite perspective of the castle.

What we saw when we got to the middle was literally breathtaking.  In this case, a picture (or several) are worth a thousand words.

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Neuschwanstein Castle was the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle (and subsequently, Disney’s logo)  Although it looks medieval in origin, it was actually only build in the late 1800s by the then Bavarian King Ludwig II.  However, the castle was never completed as the king was declared insane and died under somewhat dubious circumstances.  Because of that, the tour of the actual grounds only contains 3 rooms, and we had read it wasn’t really worth it.  Besides, just the views from it was worth the trip alone.

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We were scheduled to take the 18:50 train Munich so we left the castle and made the very pleasant walk down to Fussen and since we had some time to kill, explored a bit of the charming old city.

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DSC04501 We boarded the train but this route would be a bit different as we had to change in a small town called Buchole to get back to Munich station.  This was fine as it broke up the trip into 2 chunks as there would be a 30 minute layover.  The original thought was to grab a quick bite in Buchole but we arrived to essentially a ghost town.  The only thing open was a gelato place but by this point hunger prevailed so ice cream for dinner it was!

As we arrived back in Munich, I realized I probably needed more food than that so I bought another half roasted chicken and one more Augustiner beer for good measure.  My trip was essentially over and as I sipped on my beer, I smiled thinking about this wonderful experience.

The next day I packed up and said my goodbyes to my travel buddy, Chris, who was on to the final leg of his European adventures.  Today would be filled with trains, planes and taxis to get me back home so hardly worth blogging about – knock on wood.  I’m not sure where the wind will take me next but I do know it’s time to be on local terra firma for awhile.

Until next time then…

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Munich – Beer, Brats and Beer

I woke up to more grey skies but the forecast indicated this would go away by the early afternoon.  Since our apartment was short walk to the fairgrounds where Oktoberfest would soon happen, we made that our first stop of the day.  While walking, we past several fairly spartan hotels, and I wondered what sort of insane premium they would be getting for rooms soon.

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As the main event was less than 3 weeks away, the main entrance was buzzing with energy.  I had somewhat foolishly thought we might be able to walk around inside the grounds but the security checkpoint made it clear that wasn’t going to happen.  Catherine had told us though there was a worker’s lunch spot that was open to the public so we went there for a quick bite to eat and of course, beers.

Affiliated with the Augustiner Brewery, the cantina had a limited menu but all I wanted was a hendl – roasted chicken, which was available for a mere 5 euros.  The downside though was there were none ready so we had to wait quite a bit to get ours.  By the time they finally arrived, we were so hungry both of us forgot to snap a picture.  It was nothing fancy but quite good, with crispy skin and juicy meat.  The beer though was the real star, a special Oktoberfest only version of the classic Augustiner light (Hell) beer that still had a lot of taste to it.

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We decided to circle the grounds via a very pleasant pathway, which was filled with people jogging, walking their dogs or just out for a stroll.  Occasionally, there would be enough of a clearing to get glimpses of just how massive Oktoberfest is.

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We eventually came to the other side of the grounds, where there was a massive statue and building to celebrate the Bavarian kings.  Chris climbed up to the top get some aerial snaps of the grounds.

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After a quick pit stop back at the apartment, we walked back down to the Marienplatz to see it during the day.  The weather had improved a little so we were able to appreciate the various Bavarian charms along the way.

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Chris was in search of an authentic Bavarian beer stein but my legs and back were begging for some more rest so I took off while he carried on with his quest.  I decided to take the tram back as I knew I’d be heading back that direction for dinner and took my usual late afternoon siesta.  Chris returned with his prize and some of gifts a bit later but clearly was spent so dinner would be a solo affair once again.

I wanted to take the SBahn because that’s how I’d eventually get to the Munich airport and made the short walk across the bridge to the closest station.  Google Maps gave me the direction of the train to take but to my consternation, that wasn’t an option on the scrolling train schedule.  Thankfully, there was a map nearby and I discovered that, for some reason, the direction of the train I wanted was labeled with the 2nd to last stop, not the final – very strange.

This metro car wasn’t nearly as nice as the one from last night but still very comfortable and I was soon back at the Marienplatz.  A light rain had begun to fall but fortunately my destination was close by.  Catherine had recommended it saying it had the best pours in all of Bavaria so that’s all I needed to know.  It was easy to spot as it was basically at the base of the famous double domed church.

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Bratwurst Gloeckl is a Munich institution, famous for pouring Augustiner beers directly from oak barrels, as the days of yore.  The main dining room was packed with loud and lively Germans sipping beers and having a grand old time.  Since I was solo, I was given a seat at a large communal table and said hello to my fellow diners.

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First on the agenda, why beer of course!  I was surprised there were only 3 options – Augustiner dark and light, plus a 3rd beer that was from the tap only.  I started off with the dark beer, which had a great, frothy head and a wonderful balance of flavors – delicious.

Catherine had told me really the only thing to eat there are the bratwursts, with sauerkraut, of course.  I opted for the 6 bratwurst platter and a side of roasted potatoes.

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Soon after I dug in, one of the women across from me, looking alarmed, asked if I liked mustard.  Oh, right, I had forgotten about the sweet mustard!  Thanking her for my oversight, I spooned a generous portion on the side of my plate, combining the brat, sauerkraut and the mustard into a delicious bite.  This was indeed the better way to eat them.

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With the meal, I selected the light Augustiner, which was available only inside the main dining room and once again drawn from oak barrels.  It was nice and refreshing, and as Catherine had noted, the perfect mix of foam and temperature.

I wanted a 3rd beer but thought it would be fun to try somewhere else.  Unfortunately, by this point, the rain had picked up and the prospect of wandering around to find a new spot didn’t sound too appealing.  I walked back down to the SBahn station, encountering this fellow who apparently had just gotten off work from, uh, somewhere.

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By the time I got back to street level, the rain had subsided a bit so I was able to walk across the bridge without being drenched.  Still, I wanted that 3rd beer so I decided to try out this Italian place that was next to the apartment building.  It was a charming old skool Italian restaurant, complete with a man busy with the brick oven making pizzas and grey haired waiters in ties buzzing around the main room.

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For my nightcap, I wanted to try one of the other local breweries, Hacker-Pschor, and had their dark ale.  It wasn’t quite as good as the Augustiner, with a slightly odd after-taste but still was a nice way to end things.  Tomorrow would be the trek to magic castles and Bavarian countrysides so it was time to get some sleep.

Prague to Munich – Czech Please!

After almost a week of fun and frivolity in Prague, it was time to say goodbye.  Chris and I made the relatively quick (and thankfully) downhill path to the train station.  The train to Munich would be just over 6 hours and presented my first time in a European train car in 22 years.  I was looking forward to seeing all of things that changed since then.

Unfortunately, as we boarded, it appeared that our train probably hadn’t been updated in least that many years, if not more.  WiFi?  Uh no, there wasn’t even an outlet, except, quaintly enough, in the bathroom, which had a picture of an ancient looking electric razor by the outlet.  First class, eh not so much.  Slightly more problematic for my shall we say less than ample posterior was the seat, which clearly had seen better days.

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The cushions had essentially lost all of their comfort and were hard as a rock.  There was some lumbar support, which was a saving grace but I knew it would be a long ride.  Since we were in first class though, the car was relatively empty, and Chris and I actually were able to have respective rooms to ourselves.  It was pretty grey out so the country side vistas were somewhat limited.  Overall, hardly the romantic riding the rails experience.

We arrived in the main Munich train station about 15 minutes late (so much for German precision) and made the short trip to our digs for the next few days.  I had arranged for us to meet up with Catherine, one of my first cousins twice removed, who had been living in Munich for the past five years.  She told us to take a tram, where she would meet us and then walk to the restaurant.

The tram was very similar to those in Prague and quickly got us to our destination.  Catherine welcomed and guided us to the metro for the next leg of the trip.  The metro car was one of the most impressive I had ever seen – brand new and extra wide for a ton of room.  We walked up to the street level and headed to the Spatenhaus Restaurant.

Officially affiliated with the great Spaten Brewery, the restaurant represented a slightly more upscale version of a typical Bavarian brew pub.  First up, of course, was a round of beers.  I chose the Spaten dark ale and was thrilled to finally have a beer with taste again.  Sorry Czech brewers but 4% ABV just doesn’t cut it for me.

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Catherine said the roasted duck was a specialty so I ordered that.  In the meantime, I was delighted to find a basket of soft pretzels at the ready and happily munched on one to stave off my increasing hunger.  While delicious, I was somewhat bummed the pretzels weren’t warm.  I had finished my first beer so for my next one, I selected the dark wheat beer, which packed a wallop at 12% ABV.

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Thankfully, right on cue, my duck arrived, accompanied by the ubiquitous potato dumplings.  Our server also gave us 2 massive gravy boats, insisting we use it because “everything needs gravy on it.”  Hard to argue with that, and she was correct as the gravy added a nice dept of flavor to the crispy duck.  Chris in the meantime was wrestling with the awesome fury that was the Bavarian sampler, at one point sighing “I have no idea what I’m eating now.”

Full beyond recognition, we politely declined Catherine’s offer of another beer and headed back to the main square.  Catherine walked with us and provided some great historical facts along the way.  It was interesting to see the difference between Prague, which come through World War II relatively unscathed, and Munich, which was essentially leveled.  The biggest difference being the number of modern buildings and shops lining the streets, and the decided lack of cobblestone.

We said our goodbyes and since it was a nice night, Chris and I decided to just walk back to the apartment, taking in the city in the dark.  Tomorrow would be a full day so rest was in order, and thanks to the duck and beer, sleep came quite easily for me.

Prague – La Degustation

Sunday had long been forecasted as pretty much steady rain all day, which meant catching up on blog entries and resting my tired bones for a bit. First up though was lunch and given the inclement weather, returning to Dish Bistro seemed the best course of action due to it being literally around the corner from the loft.

Knowing the large dinner that awaited, I opted to forgo a burger this time and instead, had a salad of mixed greens, bacon, potatoes with honey mustard dressing. My body was grateful for the roughage too. I ordered what I thought would be my last Czech beer but turned out to be my first German beer – ooops. Oh and given the pedestrian nature of my lunch, there will be no accompanying pics, plenty of those to come.

A few hours later, I hit the streets, this time solo however as Chris had other plans. My trusty Google Maps indicated the restaurant was within walking distance of the metro and since I hadn’t taken that yet , I thought that would be a nice change of pace. Getting to the station near the loft was easy enough and it turned out that my still not used tram pass was valid for the metro as well.

It was a quick 3 stop trip, which was very easy to navigate. However, finding the right route from there turned out to be tricky. Google Maps indicated an exit route that apparently didn’t exist and when I picked one at random, I wasn’t entirely sure which direction to head. Things were a bit exacerbated by the rain picking up although Chris had generously let me use his umbrella. I walked through what appeared to be a very tony part of Old Town, lined with luxury shops and cars. It seemed to indicate that if one is going to such a fancy restaurant, one would probably not take the metro to get there.

Finally, I saw the sign for La Degustation ahead and to my surprise, the sign for Lokal was just beyond it – almost full circle. La Degustation de Boheme Bourgeoise was the first restaurant in the Czech Republic to garner a coveted Michelin star. The chef Oldrich Sadahjdak was trained in some of the best kitchens in Europe and returned to his native Prague to open up La Degustation in 2006.  The concept was to take recipes from the bible of Czech cooking, written by their version of Julia Child long before there was a real Julia Child, with modern twists.

Upon being seated, right next to the kitchen so I could watch the brigade work, I was handed an envelope which revealed 2 different options – 6 or 12 courses. As tempting as it was to go all out for the 12 courses, financial considerations plus the all-day travel plans tomorrow squelched that idea. Shortly after, I was presented with the first of the amuse bouches – a pickled radish as a welcome. This was soon followed by a trio of amuses – a potato pancake, a piece of trout skin and the most interesting of all, a fried rabbit ear with rabbit pate. The final amuse was my old friend steak tartar, this time in bite-sized form. Needless to say, the amuses had me intrigued as to what was to come.

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The first course was pumpkin ravioli with onions, leeks and soy tapioca broth. As the server explained the components, one of the cooks spooned over the final ingredients, always a welcome touch. This would turn out to be my least favorite course but it was still very good. The soy tapioca balls added a necessary earthy component, which saved the dish from being too one-note.

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Next up was a local catfish filet with thinly sliced kohlrabi in a yeast-based broth. The presentation was quite striking and the flavor was even better. The filet was tender and the kohlrabi slices pratically melted in my mouth. Although I was somewhat skeptical about a yeast-based broth, it was superb. So good, I switched to a spoon at the end to eat all of it. Now, I was very excited to taste what was next.

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The third course had an even more intriguing name – Mustard ice cream infused with thyme in a tomato sauce. This was a real stunner. Although the picture makes it look like simply a dollop of mustard, it was anything but that. First, it really was mustard ice cream, both in the temperature and texture. The coldness of the ice cream was offset by the hot tomato sauce, which soon made everything melt together in wondrous fashion. I was so taken by it I had to ask one the managers how this would have been served traditionally. He explained that tomato sauce is a staple of Czech cooking and so is mustard so the chef thought the two would be interesting together.

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The winning streak continued with the fourth course – perch in a Moravian champagne capers sauce with sliced celery root and pickled shallots. The fish had been lightly poached in oil but not greasy at all. The Moravian sauce was incredibly flavorful and boosted the often neutral taste of the lowly perch. Again, the chef’s mix of simple peasant ingredients elevated to haute cuisine was evident. I ended up pairing this with a Moravian sauvignon blanc, which had a nice crisp mineral body to it that complemented the dish well.

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The last savory course was again a peasant staple – beef tongue with apples and yellow peas. However, in this version, it was beef tongue that had been sous vided to make it incredibly tender and the apple sauce had a demi glace base. Along the edge was a puree of yellow peas (new to me) and dried apples. Again, another fantastic dish.

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Another amuse was next – a dehydrated egg yolk with yogurt powder. It basically tasted like a fruit chew candy but with a bit more tang. It was a good palette cleanser after the richness of the last dish.

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As the cook who presented the next course stated, this was sadly the last one – bread ice cream with plum jam and a beer whipped cream. As a fan of bread ice cream, I was struck how unique this version was as it tasted very close to the local breads I had been having since arriving in Prague. That along with the plum jam made it taste like a liquified peanut butter and jelly sandwich, even though there wasn’t any actual peanut butter in it. The beer whipped cream added another yeast note but like almost everything else I had, worked in harmony in the dish.

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As a final thank you, the last server presented a set of petit fours – a salted caramel chew, half of a fresh plum, a beetroot candy and a mini carrot pistachio cake. All were very tasty and made for a very pleasant way to end this exceptional meal.

I said my goodbyes and headed out with the intention of going back to Black Angels for a nightcap. However, the rain had picked up considerably so I chose instead a small bar next to the restaurant that looked inviting. My goal was to finally try the famous (infamous?) Czech plum brandy and luckily the bar did indeed have it. Since it was a Sunday night, it was fairly empty except for a small group who appeared to be friends of the owner. A small shot glass arrived and I took my first sip, immediately realizing that the purported 40% alcohol label clearly was a pack of lies as this tasted at least 50%. A few more sips and I began to side with the infamous side of the equation with this rip fuel.

I stumbled out into the streets a few minutes later, suddenly not really caring about the rain that much. Still, I had enough wits left to make sure to have the restaurant call a cab for me versus getting one on the street. While I was waiting, one of the managers asked if I wanted another drink. At first I said I was good but after a couple of more attempts to get me to have at least something, I replied that I had just had some plum brandy. The manager knowingly smiled and knew I didn’t need anything else.